Forged in flame
by Eildon Rhymer
He was trapped, and he was going to die. This was it. He was going to a fiery grave with his Nobel physics prize unwon, his name in no history books, all his greatest achievements still classified as top-secret, and one game down in his ongoing chess tournament with Sheppard, if you could call it a tournament when there were just two of them, and it was just occasional games, anyway, and nothing formal, and…
"It's not really the time to think about such things," he said, into the hand that covered his face. "Think about trying to get out."
It was too late for that, though. No clever science could get him out of this one. He'd gotten himself turned around, managed to blunder deeper into the fire. One minute Sheppard had been next to him, a dark shape against the flames, and then Rodney had been all alone.
"I don't want to die alone." Stupid thing to say. "Don't want to die – that's the important part. The alone part…" He coughed into his palm. "Not so important, really. Shouldn't be." He coughed again, choking on smoke. When he had finished, he pressed his knuckles to his mouth, as if he could filter the air through his fist and make it pure. "I can't…" It was muffled, then nothing.
Words… God. He needed words. People had told him he'd go talking to his death. Sometimes they said it in a way that made it seem as if they wanted him to die right now. "You'd probably talk Death into handing you back to the land of the living," Sheppard had said once, "just to get himself a bit of piece and quiet." It hadn't felt like an insult, though, but it's still a stupid thing to think about right now. Focus. Think. Less of the Death talk; more on the getting out.
He was backed against a wall. Flames crackled floor to ceiling on the far side of the room. The doorway was a wall of fire, and it would be instant death to walk there… Or not instant. Agonising. Smelling your own flesh burning.
He wanted to cry. He wanted to be able to do something. Was there anything in his pockets that could be used to conjure up a…? No, stupid idea. Stupid. Rodney McKay had finally met something he couldn't contrive his way out of. His brain had failed him. Burnt in a fire – a stupid fire, a stupid one. They'd told him not to go in, told him it could go up any minute, but he'd flapped his hand, barely listening to them. "Energy readings, remember? Look!" He had thrust the scanner at Sheppard's face. "I'm going in." And Sheppard had come in with him…
God! Sheppard! Was he all right? Was he facing his own fiery hell in another room? At least Ronon and Teyla had stayed outside, wrangling natives. Teyla was good at that, while Ronon just looked so scary that they shut up and did what he asked. Rodney tried very hard to be polite – at least, he had tried a few times; once, anyway – but just got them riled, and what was wrong with them all, for crying out loud? Couldn't they see he was on a different plane from them, and couldn't they just tug their primitive little forelocks and…?
No. Back to Ronon and Teyla. At least there'd be two of them left on the team after he died. That meant something, didn't it? No, three, because Sheppard wouldn't be so stupid as to get lost in a fire. Sheppard was good with fire. Sheppard liked to strap himself to nuclear bombs and blow himself up; it was his hobby. The flames probably thought of him as a long-long brother, and…
"Oh God. Oh God." His eyes were hurting so much he could hardly open them, but even when they were closed, all he could see was orange. He slid down the wall, bringing his knees up. If I'm going to die, I might as well die comfortably. Then he thought of all those pathetic little bodies at Pompeii, curled up and cowering, frozen for all eternity.
He heard a window shattering. The whole building would fall next, and he would…
I don't want to die. It was a stupid thing to say. Ronon would be fighting the flames. Teyla wouldn't be so stupid as to get caught in the first place. Sheppard would face the flames stoically and heroically – "so long, Rodney" – like a captain going down with his ship. I could do it, he thought, if it would make a difference, but this was so pointless. He didn't even have an armful of little children to save. At least that would make it worthwhile, he thought. He'd protect them with his own body, and tell them stories to stop them feeling scared. Maybe they'll lie at my funeral, he thought, and say they found a rosy-cheeked three year old slumbering like an angel beneath my corpse.
But he stood up, though. Can't sit. Can't just sit. There had to be some way out, some miracle he hadn't thought of. He was good with miracles. It was all science, of course, but ignorant masses gasped and thought they were miracles. Rodney McKay could get out of anything. Rodney McKay could…
"Are you going to stand there all day?"
He struggled to open his eyes. "Sheppard?"
"Yes. Come on."
Sheppard's face was streaked with ash, and shiny with sweat and flame. He was hunched over, pulling at Rodney's arm. "You…" Rodney tried to speak, but his lungs were full of smoke, his throat raw with it. Covering his mouth, he tried to take a step.
"No. Keep low." Sheppard pulled him down. "Air's cleaner. You know that. It's physics."
Of course. He flapped his hand. But there's no way out. The door…
"Came through the window."
There's a window?
"Yes. Here." Sheppard unfastened the black cloth he was wearing around his face, and passed it to Rodney. "Put that on."
His lungs were burning too much to argue. The cloth was warm and damp with Sheppard's breath, and remind me to tell you afterwards how disgusting this is, and how we never speak of it again.
"Now go ahead of me. Head over there."
They kept to the floor, pressing themselves against the wall. Rodney's world narrowed to his hands, to his breathing, to the wall of heat behind him. Soon his hands met broken glass, and the pain was horrible, but at the same time, he barely felt it. "Stand up." He got the impression that Sheppard was shouting it, although it was barely louder than a whisper over the flames. "I'll help you up. Careful of the glass."
It was hazy after that. He was aware of Sheppard holding him up, of his feet stumbling, of a steady voice at his side. The sound of flames surged until it filled everything. Then he was falling, and he tried to cry out, tried to scream, because the fire would take him, and it would take Sheppard, too, if he dragged him down.
"Breathe," a voice said. "Breathe."
And he opened his eyes, and saw blue sky above him, covered with a veneer of smoke. Grass was moist beneath his hands. No, no, that was blood. He turned his hand upwards; saw how the palm was lacerated. "My hands are bleeding," he said, and they hurt, now, terribly, worse than his burning lungs.
"A medical team from Atlantis is on its way," Teyla told him.
Rodney blinked. He could still barely see through his gritty eyes, and he was light-headed from lack of oxygen. His skin felt tight, as if he had been badly sun-burnt all over. He was about to say something about that when he saw Sheppard. Sheppard was sitting on the grass as if his legs had given out and deposited him there. His hands were limp in his lap, palms upwards, and a worse mess than Rodney's. One sleeve was badly burnt, and he seemed to be having difficulty staying conscious.
"He came back for me," Rodney rasped.
"Of course," Teyla said. Ronon and Teyla were also smoke-stained and scorched, Rodney realised. They had all gone back for him, he realised; it was just that Sheppard had happened to find him first.
"You could have died," he said, but he couldn't muster any anger. He thought of the terror of the flames, and thought that perhaps he was on the point of tears.
Sheppard's eyes met his. I would walk through flames for any of you, those eyes said, and Rodney had to look away, but he understood.
So would I, he thought.
They had fed him to the fire. He remembered cold faces and jabbing steel. He remembered a flame that started in his side, but now had raced to consume his whole body. When he closed his eyes, he saw redness, and knew that he was burning away to ash. When he opened his eyes…
Faces. Faces, floating before him like a full moon in a dark sky, with eyes like glowing lumps of coal. They moved, never in the same place for more than a second. He tried to tell them to stay still, forcing words out of his flame-ravaged throat.
"He's delirious," one of the faces said.
"It is only to be expected."
Not the moon, but the sun – burning, hurting his eyes. He tried to roll away from them, but flames reached out and clawed at his shoulders, and something gripped his wrists with bands of steel. "Lie still," the sun and moon told him. "You have to lie still. You are very sick."
"Sick," he echoed.
"First coherent word we've gotten out of him, and it's that."
"Help is on the way."
"I killed the people who did this to you."
There were too many words. They crackled like flame, and he closed his eyes, but the fires were worse there. Something was touching his side, and it swelled to a peak, and the flames boiled over and erupted from his throat in a scream.
"I am sorry. This must be hurting you very much, but–"
"Oh God, it's disgusting."
"Killing was too good for them."
He remembered the shocking wrongness of the steel in his side. Cold. It had been cold at first – coldness hitting him before the pain. Fire came after. He remembered nights and days flickering like someone turning a light on and off. He saw bars and a tilted grey sky. He saw feet walking past him, and a hand – perhaps his own. He heard screaming, and his throat was raw with it. He saw hands twist a dirty rag and felt water fall onto his lips, but only a few drops, and you needed an ocean to douse this fire.
"John," said the sun and moon. John. John.
He remembered crawling, trying to escape the flames, not knowing then that he carried the fire with him. He tasted dirt in his mouth. He heard laughter. He fumbled at his side, pulling at makeshift bandages torn from his clothes in the days before the fire had spread. There was blood behind his nails.
"He's not going to make it."
"Don't talk like that!"
"John. You have to let us care for you, John."
John. The others hadn't called him anything; they'd just laughed and spat. He opened his eyes. The silver moon, round and pale and anxious. The setting sun, blazing with fury and fire. The rising sun, constant and burning.
"No. No." He tried to bat them away. "Go away. They… they'll take you, too – feed you to the fire." He tried to tell them about them: men with spears; the overseer with the whip; the guards with nails in the soles of their boots, going click click click, chittering like bugs; the crowds – "even children. They paid for tickets" – and worse. There were monsters with white hair who sucked life from your chest, and creatures who lived in flames, and things with two heads, and, "go away," he begged them. "Don't let them take you. I… I couldn't bear it."
But they still surrounded him, hands on his shoulder, on his wrist, on his side. "Stop babbling, and listen! We killed them, and now we've run far, far away. We're not in any danger. At least, not from the plausible parts of your babbling. The two-headed monsters were just delirium talking, right?"
"And even if we were in danger, we would not be leaving you."
He tried to push them away. Sick. They'd told him he was sick. "Catching," he forced out. "Go away. Don't… You might not…" He remembered people shying away. "Jail fever," someone said. "He won't last long." Water pushed through bars with the toe of a boot. "Don't get too close, darling." He remembered opening cracked eyes and lurching forward, and people screaming. "Don't want you to get sick."
"We won't get sick, will we? I thought it was an infected wound – and what did they stab him with; a flag pole? We won't…"
"We will not."
"Wouldn't make any difference if we did."
A hand closed in his own, the cool fingers like heaven in the baking heat. It was an oasis in the desert. The flames still blazed, but they had withdrawn, just for a little bit.
He tried to smile. "Thanks, guys, but you've got to go. You can't…"
The smell had been sickening – the smell of his own rotting flesh. The flames had long since burnt that away, but he knew that others could still smell it. "He stinks, ma!" Days in a stinking cell, unable to stand. "This one smells like a corpse already."
"I smell," he said. "Look disgusting. Go away." Leave me to the flames. Flames burnt to ashes. Ashes were pure, and floated on the wind, forever free.
"Which is the stupidest thing I've ever heard, even from you. We haven't fought our way through fire and blood just to give up because of a little disgustingness. Though it really does look disgusting, you know."
"You are safe, John, and we are not leaving, no matter what you say."
"Course we aren't."
He gave up the fight, but it didn't feel like giving up at all. When he closed his eyes, the flames were barely there at all. When he opened them, he saw neither sun nor moon, but the faces of his team, gathered around him in a wall that no fires could break through.
"I love you guys," he told them, his voice cracking. "All of you."
Rodney cleared his throat. "We're telling ourselves that was the delirium talking."
And it was, perhaps, but only a little bit.
"Let me go," Ronon snarled.
Sheppard shook his head. He was standing too close to Ronon, with McKay just behind him, the two of them in league, and he hated that.
"You can't give me orders, Sheppard, not in this. I'm going."
"No, you're not."
Ronon already had his weapon drawn. He raised it, and brought the other hand up, too.
"Are you really going to shoot me?" Sheppard raised one eyebrow. "Stun me? That won't help her."
Ronon sheathed the gun with a cry of pain, of fury. "I'm still going. If you try to stop me…"
He moved forward, using his greater strength to push Sheppard aside bodily, his shoulder driving into his. Sheppard grabbed his arm, pulling him back. McKay raised his hand, his mouth opening.
"Let me go," Ronon spat. Sheppard held on, stronger than Ronon would ever have expected – but he knew this already, didn't he? He knew this man. This was his friend, and, "Let me go!" he screamed, and he wrenched his wrist out of Sheppard's grip, and whirled around, converting the movement into a punch that landed on Sheppard's jaw, driving him backwards, knocking him to the ground.
"Ronon, you shouldn't…! Sheppard!"
Ronon bellowed again. His fist was throbbing, and everything that he saw was tinged with red, throbbing with the violent rhythm of his heart.
"Not like this." Sheppard sat up, his hand to his jaw, his voice slightly muffled. "I know you need to go, but I'm not letting you go like this. You're not thinking straight. It's going to get you killed."
That doesn't matter! the redness screamed. "You'd do the same," he forced out, "if you were the one who'd lost her."
"Yes, I would," Sheppard admitted, "and you would stop me."
"I wouldn't." Ronon believed that, felt that, knew that. "I'd come with you."
"No." Sheppard shook his head. Ronon could hear McKay breathing anxiously behind him. It made his fist itch to hurt him. "You wouldn't. You'd stop me. You wouldn't let me go on a suicide run."
"It's not a suicide–"
"Listen to yourself." Sheppard was on his feet again. "Look at yourself."
He wouldn't. He needed to go. He had to go now, and Sheppard was stopping him. He could barely see for the red. He had to… He had to…
"There's fifty of them," Sheppard said, "and you're proposing to go alone. You aren't thinking straight." Every word was forced out individually.
"They've taken Teyla!" Ronon screamed. "It's my fault!"
Fighting. Shooting. Ambushed on the way back to the Gate. Teyla was at his side, and there were behind a rock, firing together, shoulder to shoulder, and one enemy fell, and then another, and then another, and he grinned at her, feeling cool air on his teeth, and they rose together, but then an arrow struck her arm, drawing blood, and the enemy had laughed. The sharp-faced, cold-eyed, snivelling coward had laughed…
…and then, running through dirt, ducking, rolling. Dirt on his lips. Blood on his hands. A knife in the gut, a quick one, two, three, and three men falling, never to rise again. Sheppard's voice over the radio, but that was just words, and he had wanted to hurt them, because they had laughed. They had implanted him with a tracker and wiped out his world, and they it had all been for sport, and they had laughed, and although these weren't the Wraith, it was the same, and he would wade through them, cut through them, clear a path through them to freedom and the Gate…
It was minutes before they discovered that Teyla had gone. Sheppard discovered it first. "I thought she was with you." That was McKay, his words barbed. It was minutes more before they discovered the blood, and Ronon himself was the one who crouched and touched the tracks and read the signs that told that she had been taken. She had fought. She had fought fiercely, but she had fallen to six of them. And only paces from their rock. Only paces…
"I lost her," he bellowed, "and you aren't doing anything…"
"I want to get her back as much as you do." Sheppard's voice was changed by the blood at his mouth. "A jumper's on its way. It'll be here in a few minutes, and we can go in cloaked, use the element of surprise. The jumper's scanners have a bigger range, so we'll know exactly where we have to strike. It's a delay of minutes, Ronon."
"Teyla might not have minutes."
"The decision was mine." Sheppard refused to look away.
"And if she dies…"
Sheppard said nothing. Ronon saw the trembling of the other man's clenched fists. He recognised it in his own. Look at yourself, Sheppard had said. He looked down; saw the quivering of his stance, saw the blind fury that had seeped into every inch of his body. "I'll never forgive you," his body forced out.
Myself, the redness moaned. Myself.
The jumper emerged a moment later. Moving stiffly, Ronon entered it, and stood by the rear hatch, his hand pressed to the wall. People said things. Orders were shouted. McKay said something about the desirability of a precision culling beam, and laughed nervously. He heard the sound of guns being readied, but everything else felt strange, as if he was under water, drowning in blood.
"I'm with you," Sheppard said.
And then the hatch was open, and they were through, out into the air, wading through grass and flowers, and Teyla was ahead of him, twisting to look back at them.
He killed. He killed one and two, and Sheppard was at his side. He killed three and four, and McKay was there, running beside him. He smashed down the one who held Teyla, and then Teyla was beside him, lashing out at the other, even though she was tied.
The rest of the enemy ran, and Ronon took one step after them, and Sheppard was there. He took two steps, and McKay was there, but saying, "No." He took three steps, and Teyla was no longer at his side.
With his fourth step, he slowed. The fifth one, and he stopped. The enemy ran, and trees and plants and undergrowth took them, hid them from sight.
"Did they hurt you?" He turned back to Teyla.
She shook her head. "Nothing serious."
There was nothing of the enemy now but the flickering of green leaves slowly returning to stillness, and the redness of their blood staining the grass. He looked at the blood; let out a slow breath, and then another.
Look at yourself, Sheppard had said.
He remembered redness rising up like flames, sending him after his enemies, making him forget all about Teyla. It had made him strike Sheppard, and it had almost led him to his death. Now it was just a fading fire, just glowing embers.
"I'm sorry," he said, not just to Teyla, but to them all.
"But we got you back, didn't we?" Ronon wasn't sure if Sheppard was talking to him, or to Teyla.
He was the one who said, "thank you," though.
"As places we've been trapped and forced to depend on the hospitality of the natives go, this is one of the nicer ones."
"Yeah. Usually the hospitality consists of pointy sticks."
"Or angry mobs. Remember when you nearly got burnt as a witch, because your super-gene 'awakened a glowing demon' inside the sacred relics? It was all very Monty Python."
"Strangely, that wasn't the first thought on my mind at the time. Thanks for the rescue, by the way."
"Oh, now he says it, a year late!"
"You still owe us a thank you for rescuing you last month from that fire swamp–"
"It was not a fire swamp, and before you say it, it did not have–"
"– Rodents of Unusual Size."
"Do all the strapping young Marines and Airmen under your command know that their commanding officer's a geek?"
"They'll put it down to bad company."
"Oh, thank you very much."
"See? It's not so hard to say thank you. Ow! That hurt!"
"The next lump will be bigger."
"You'll miss. That was a lucky fluke. No, don't try it! You'll miss and hit Ronon. Let sleeping giants lie."
"I'm not asleep."
"No, no, and not a giant, either, and it was Sheppard who said so, not me."
"Rodney's just the one who's throwing lumps of coal around, when his sensible, peace-loving team-mates are trying to doze by the fire."
Teyla watched the flames crackling in the hearth. The warmth was pleasant, making her cheeks glow. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, and her feet were on the seat of the chair, her knees pulled up almost to her chin. The words of her team-mates wreathed around her like gentle smoke, and the fire flickered as if there were people in there, re-enacting memories.
"How long before those idiots on Atlantis realise that we can't get back?"
"You sound as if you don't really care."
"Of course! Well, yes. Perhaps… No. Huh! There's the thing… I don't, not really."
"Nice here, isn't it?"
"Yes, yes. Very Little House on the Prairie. Home on the range. A vacation from all the crazy things you make us do. A glowing fire, and the simple old-fashioned comforts of home."
And family, she thought.
"Still, there are galaxies to save, etcetera etcetera, and who knows what Radek's getting up to while I'm away."
"And Lorne – don't forget him."
"Perhaps I should try harder to fix that DHD."
"Perhaps you should."
No-one moved. Teyla felt warm and well-fed, full of broth and sweet vegetables. She turned her head ever so slightly, and saw her whole team encompassed by the semi-circle of light that issued from the fire. Ronon was curled loosely on his side, his head and shoulders propped up with cushions. John and Rodney were both sitting sprawled on the floor.
"By the way, there's cake."
"Yeah. I made it."
"Erik the Red's mother in law showed me how to. She… uh… she made me, actually. Said I was sitting around while my wise man did all the work –"
"– and said it was a disgrace and that I should do something to… uh… welcome you home. I told her that, contrary to appearances, I'm not a fifties housewife, but she… well, have you seen her? She's scary. Ronon's got nothing on her."
"So she made you cook."
"I helped him. I hunted berries."
"Hunted for berries, Ronon. Yes, Ronon helped, but I did all the work. Burnt my fingers, too."
"So where is it? Bring it out. Where's the cake? Give us the cake."
She heard John stand up, heard him walk over the rush-strewn floor. Her eyes suddenly filled with tears, and she turned back to the fire, where the flames spoke of friendships gone before, and friendships that would live forever more.
"You burnt it! It's burnt to a crisp."
"Though I see you're not letting that keep you from taking nearly half of it. Leave some for the others."
"They won't want it."
"Do, actually. Leave some for Teyla. Think she's asleep."
She turned towards them. "No. No, I am awake."
John passed her a piece of cake, burnt, blackened and lumpy. She took a bite, crunching on a hard piece of caramelised fruit. "It is… different," she said, "but not unpleasant."
John beamed. She watched that smile, expecting it to be covered up with an embarrassed shrug, to be hidden away behind a joke, but it remained.
"It's better burnt," Ronon said, still chewing. "More taste to it. Got any more?"
Teyla turned back to the fire. For a moment, she saw everything in there; the ever-changing flames could shape themselves into anything she wanted them to be. The dead could live in the smoke and her memories. Then she turned away, moving her chair until she was facing her friends, the fire warm on her cheek and the side of her neck.
They were ringed in light, and they were here, and they were hers.
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