As Far as it Takes
by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)
Spoilers: References to episodes up to and including Remnants.
Genre: H/C, angst, drama.
Characters: Sheppard and McKay. Both get whumped, but Sheppard gets the worst of it.
Summary: "How far would you go, Colonel Sheppard?" asked the tall man. "How far will you go to save him?"
Note: I came back from the Chevron 7.2 con with a bit of block when it came to writing fanfic. Rather than easing myself into it gently, I decided to take the plunge by writing something very self-indulgent. I jokingly called it "gratuitous whump story.doc" while writing it, though it isn't actually all that gratuitous, really; there's lots of character stuff here, too, and some serious issues are addressed. Self-indulgent it most definitely is, though, full of some of my favourite things. But sometimes, I think, self-indulgent is just what an author needs before grappling with the next complex epic.
"How far would you go?" asked the tall man, his face as cold and hard as bone.
John strained against the hands that held him. His head pounded, and blood flowed thickly down the side of his face. "I'll kill you!" he spat.
"I think not." The tall man's smile was like a thin crack in a skull.
John's hands were bound in front of him with iron bands, separated only by a few inches of dark-stained chain. Two men held him up, strong fingers grating against the bones of his upper arms. They'd stripped him of his vest and weapons, and from the fierce, deep pain that came with every breath, John knew that they had kicked him while he had been out. It must have been bad, he thought. McKay had been screaming his name when John had been wrenched back to consciousness, and had sagged against the post with a 'thank God!' when John had opened his eyes.
John blinked, focusing through the fog of pain. "I'll kill you," he swore, quietly this time, a promise.
The tall man shook his head. "Oh no." He said it mildly, almost regretfully, but then his expression darkened. "You killed one of my men, Colonel Sheppard. I don't like people who do that, not as a rule. But since you did it to save Doctor McKay…" He grasped John's chin, fingers digging in deeply. John refused to look at him, but stared past him, at McKay straining against his post. "How far would you go, Colonel Sheppard?" His breath was a warm whisper on John's cheek. "How far will you go to save him?" When the man stepped back, his fingertips were red with blood.
"As far as I have to," John vowed, still speaking to McKay, his eyes never leaving him.
"We'll see," said the tall man, wiping blood from his hands.
Rodney was tied to a post, like a martyr bound to a stake; all that was missing were the flames. He couldn't move, and they'd bruised him when they'd dragged him here, and the ropes were digging into him, hurting him, making his hands throb… and, oh God, you could suffer serious damage from things like that, couldn't you? Your hands went purple, then black, and doctors with their knives and voodoo had to cut them off… but it was better than being shot dead, wasn't it? He'd been so certain that he was about to die, but then Sheppard…
God, Sheppard! Sheppard had fought desperately, shouting to Rodney to run, to get out of there, but the bad guys had brought him down with a blow to the head, and had then simply whaled on him, until Rodney had been hoarse with screaming at them to stop, just stop, because they were killing him, for God's sake, brainless cavemen that they were. Then their leader had come striding up and called his goons off, and Rodney had been hustled towards this post – and he couldn't have escaped, could he, because that would have meant leaving Sheppard – and Sheppard had been thrown down beside him, with two goons ready to grab him when he woke, and the tall man standing over him with a smile on his lips but eyes like cold stones.
"How far will you go to save him?" the man was asking Sheppard now, his voice barely audible.
Save him? Rodney thought. Save who? Oh, God, the man was talking about him. He pulled at the ropes, his heart pounding in his chest.
"As far as I have to." Sheppard was looking at him steadily. Rodney kept forgetting just how scary Sheppard could be when he wanted to be, when he showed you what lay beneath the shrugs and the jokes, when you suddenly remembered that he had once killed over sixty Genii in the space of a few hours.
The tall man stepped back, and there was blood on his hands, thick smears of it, from touching Sheppard's face. "We'll see."
The man turned his back on Sheppard, and walked towards Rodney. Rodney clenched and unclenched his swollen hands, feeling his tendons press against the metal. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry; tried again; moistened his lips. He opened his mouth to speak, but only a faint sound came out.
The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a bottle of something dark. "No…" Rodney managed to shape breath into sound. "No, please, I… You don't want to kill me. You--" The man pressed his hand over Rodney's mouth. It smelled of blood and earth, and Rodney tried to get away, but there was a wooden post at the back of his head, and he could feel splinters of wood against his desperately grasping fingers. He could hear his own desperate breathing amplified against the man's hand.
Sheppard was shouting something, calling Rodney's name, his voice cracking into pieces when his captors struck him; going harsh, almost like a scream, then changing tone and going low and deadly. "If you hurt him, I swear--" But it was cut off, and the tall man moved, and Rodney couldn't see Sheppard any more, couldn't see what they were doing to him.
"A simple offer of a drink," the tall man said, "from a host to his guest." He removed his hand from Rodney's mouth, and Rodney sucked in a great gasp of air. When the man pulled out the stopper, the smell was foul, like decaying vegetation and dead things.
"No," Rodney begged. "No, please," and he couldn't see Sheppard, couldn't hear Sheppard, but could see a glimpse of him – an arm, a shoulder – and then… God! Sheppard was supposed to stop this – he always had done, and always would – and he was only pretending to be out of the picture, was only pretending to be defeated, was biding his time and waiting for the right moment to strike, sinking a knife into their captor's back, then quirking a crooked smile and suggesting that they get outta here, back to Atlantis, back home.
But then the tall man grabbed Rodney's face again, fingers digging painfully into his cheeks. "Open your mouth," he said quietly, as if it meant nothing at all. "I could do it another way. It would hurt so very much more."
Sheppard! Rodney thought. His brain was gibbering, I'm so screwed. I'm so screwed, and the man's fingers were digging deeper, and Rodney swallowed, or perhaps took a breath to speak, and the man was in, driving the bottle in between Rodney's teeth, flooding his mouth with foul liquid.
Rodney didn't mean to swallow, really he didn't, but the man squeezed his throat and pressed his mouth shut, and Rodney strained and strained at the ropes, but his mouth was burning, and he felt the burning seeping down his throat, and then he was choking, coughing into the man's hand, and the burning fire spread down to his stomach, and it hurt, it hurt.
"A powerful poison," the tall man said. He stepped away from Rodney, turning his back on him. The bottle fell to the ground, trailing a pool of dark red. "There is no cure, I'm afraid."
"I'll kill you!" Sheppard rasped, and even through the pain and the terror and the crashing despair, Rodney sagged a little with relief to hear him still able to talk.
"No cure, did I say?" Rodney saw the tall man spread his hands. "There is one – a simple herb, quite plentiful on the lower slopes of the mountain. Doctor McKay has… hmm…?" He looked up at the clouded sky. "Until twilight, perhaps, when the first stars come out? A fit man could be there and back in less time than that."
Rodney's lips were blazing. He twisted against the post, desperate to curl into the pain in his stomach. His heartbeat raced in his ears, and was that sweat dripping down onto his lips, or blood?
"Could you do that, Colonel Sheppard?" the tall man asked, his hand moving slowly down towards his belt.
Please, Rodney thought. Please. I don't want to die. Please…
The tall man pulled out his gun, raised it and fired. The noise filled the clearing, sending birds flapping up from the trees, dark wings against the sky. Sheppard made hardly any sound at all, just a low gasp, barely audible over the sound of screaming birds, the hammering of Rodney's heart.
"Will you?" the man said, lowering the smoking gun. "You have until twilight, Colonel Sheppard."
John had been shot before. Sometimes you barely noticed the pain at first, feeling it only like a solid blow with a fist. The tall man lowered his hand. McKay was thrashing against the post, but the man was in the way, and John couldn't see Rodney's face. Poison, he thought, as the pain spread slowly, and then seemed to erupt simultaneously throughout his whole body. McKay. Got to…
Hands pulled him back, and he realised that he'd been trying to curl inwards, clenching himself around the pain. He spread his hands, spasming them, desperate to clasp them against the wound.
McKay, he thought. Gotta… save…
"Until twilight," the tall man said again. John saw his smile only faintly through a shimmering that could have been unshed tears.
"Sheppard," McKay shouted, his voice cracked. "John. God, John, are you…?"
"Good," John managed. It wasn't just a lie; wasn't just old habit putting lies onto his lips. If he said it, it became true. McKay said they were screwed, and John said that they should stay positive. If he said it… if he refused to contemplate anything else… "I'm good," he said, because he couldn't be anything else. McKay needed…. McKay…
The tall man stepped aside. John's eyes met McKay's, drenched with pain. Dark liquid stained McKay's chin and chest, and his face was shiny with sweat.
The tall man tilted his head to one side, like someone observing an interesting experiment. "The sooner you start, Colonel Sheppard…"
Darkness swirled around him, threatening to swallow him whole. John focused on McKay, on his ropes, on his terrified face, on the way he was writhing against the post, consumed with the agony of poison.
It was a trick, he thought. It was a trap. There was no antidote. They wouldn't let him go. They'd make him watch McKay die. But hands were hauling him up, fingers digging like knives into his upper arms, and the pain of the movement almost caused the darkness to crash over him like a wave. His feet slipped, and it was like being torn in half.
But he pressed his lips together, and managed to stand. "I'll kill you," he vowed. That, too, was something to focus on. Pain was nothing. Pain was… no, not nothing, but something to push aside. You locked it away; let yourself do what you needed to do.
"I believe," said the tall man, "that all the cards are in my hands." He snapped his fingers, and three men appeared from a dark hide tent. All three had guns, and when the tall man gestured with his fingers, they all turned the guns on McKay. "You can stay here being stubborn and defiant, but every moment that passes brings Doctor McKay closer to death."
"I can feel it," McKay said. "I can feel it burning. It hurts." Then something flickered over his face, and he pressed his lips together, then raised his head. "But…"
"Give him the antidote!" John screamed. He could feel the pain fading, pushed away inside him.
The tall man smiled. "The way is open, Colonel Sheppard. I give you my promise that nobody will interfere with you along the way. It's a small herb, with leaves like a spear and flowers like drops of blood."
"Get it," John commanded, spitting out each sound. Fingers dug into his arms. Even with the hands holding him up, the pain threatened to down him, billowing out from the place where he had pushed it.
"How far will you go?" the man said quietly, with a curious smile.
The hands released him, and John lurched forward, bringing up his cuffed hands like a club. But a gun fired, and McKay yelped, and the sudden surge of ice in John's heart made the pain feel like nothing.
"Rodney," John rasped, his voice fragmenting, dust and ashes on the breeze.
"Still here," Rodney said. "It… The bullet didn't hit me. It--"
"But next time..." The tall man turned to John, and there were no smiles on his face now. "Next time it will. So are you going, John? Are you going?"
John took one step, and then another. His hands were cuffed, but one of them found the wound at his side, and he almost screamed at the pain of touching it, but kept the hand there, his lips pressed together in a line. He felt blood well against his fingers, warm at his waist.
"John," McKay said, "don't," but his eyes said something different. It hurts, his eyes said, and please, I don't want to die, and he was in John's team, and he was John's friend, and I'll do anything, John had said once, meaning it utterly, for any one of you, and this…? This was nothing much at all, just pushing past pain, and he'd done that before, had survived that before.
He tried to smile. "So long, McKay," he said, then remembered when he had said those words before; saw from McKay's widening eyes that he, too, remembered. He tried to fix it, tried to say something better, but the ground lurched beneath him, and it was all he could do just to stand.
"Twilight," the tall man said, flanked by more men than John could ever hope to take on.
And so John did the only thing that he could.
He started to run.
Rodney could feel the poison racing through his veins. He strained at the ropes, screaming at their captor, throwing every insult he knew at him, hating him, hating him for doing this to them, for torturing them like this.
"Why are you doing this?" he screamed, when the insults had run out, leaving him spent.
The tall man ignored him; he was gazing at the place where Sheppard had vanished into the trees. The wood seemed to have swallowed Sheppard utterly. There were no flashes of movement, and no rustling of the undergrowth. Then a bird flapped up from surprisingly far away, shouting in alarm.
He's going to save me, said that small, fragile, optimistic part of himself – the part that had watched Sheppard pluck success from the jaws of certain doom so many times before. But normally Rodney had his own part to play, too – racing against the clock to do the impossible, performing feats of intellect that nobody else in two galaxies was capable of. And Sheppard had never seemed so hurt before, not since the thing with the iratus bug, and then all he'd had to do was sprawl on the floor of the jumper, not run for hours, for miles, with an actual bullet inside him.
"Why are you doing this?" Rodney demanded. "Do you want me to work for you? That's the normal deal. You only had to ask. Though, of course, I'd have said no, on account of you being a… a… brutal, primitive bandit leader, hell-bent on domination, and…" He ran out of breath, his words disappearing into a rasping gasp. Oh, God, what if his airway was becoming constricted? What if…? His hands were claws, struggling to escape the ropes. He heaved in a breath, hearing it whistle in his throat.
"Why am I doing it?" the tall man said, turning slowly. "Why, because I can."
Rodney's breath was shuddering, his heart stuttering. "Then you need to get a new hobby, because I don't know if you've noticed, but twenty-first century? Big scary Wraith out there that we should be fighting instead?" It left him panting, dizzy with breathlessness.
The tall man walked towards him, and Rodney felt the post pressing against the back of his head. "Colonel Sheppard killed one of my men," the tall man said, his eyes grey and cold. "I could have shot him dead on the spot, but any fool can kill a man. I could have killed him by slow, excruciating inches, but you take the measure of a man when you meet him on the field of battle, Doctor McKay, and you know when mere pain will not suffice."
"You're sick," Rodney gasped. "Sick."
The tall man's smile was a crack in winter ice. "Any fool can cause pain, but to break a formidable man, to push him to his limits… That, Doctor McKay, requires a master." His finger brushed across Rodney's cheek, and Rodney was frozen, unable to move, completely devoid of words. "And I am your master," the man said, stepping back, "both yours and his."
He had to assume that he was going to be betrayed. He had to assume that armed men would be hunting him. He had to be prepared for the possibility that the herb wasn't where their captor had said it would be, or that it didn't exist at all. He had to be ready to defend himself, to turn the tables on their captors.
He had to do anything, had to take any chance to at all, to save McKay. If he made good time… His foot caught on a stone, and the pain was excruciating, ripping a sobbing sound from his throat. He managed to stand, though, flailing his cuffed hands. His left palm was thick with blood, and he wiped it on his clothes, then pressed his hand against his side again, feeling blood well up between his fingers.
"If I make good time…" he muttered. "Good one, John."
He had no choice but to do this, though. Their captor was a game-player, and he wanted John to obey. As long as John did what he was told, the man wouldn't hurt McKay and further, but if John refused… No, no, he had to play the game. When the man said 'jump', he had no choice but to ask 'how high?' Defiance had its place, but sometimes you just had to submit. Sometimes you had no options, and pride… pride was nothing when a team-mate's life was at stake.
The lower slopes of the mountain, the tall man had said, gesturing upwards. The trees were dense, though, and he couldn't see beyond them, couldn't see which direction were the mountains and which direction were the plains. He had to keep going in a straight line and hope… No, he had to aim for the light, to the place where the trees were thinner; get to a vantage point; survey the terrain…
Something moved behind him, a twig cracking sharply. John plunged into the waist-high undergrowth and crouched down, but it was hard to balance with his hands cuffed, and he ended up on his knees, listing over to one side, breathing shallowly and fast.
The sound wasn't repeated. John looked over his shoulder, in case the enemy was trying to outflank him, but the undergrowth was too dense, his vision full of nothing but green and brown. Then a quiet sound made him startle, but it was only a bead of his own blood dripping onto a bed of shrivelled leaves.
Got to fix that, he thought, although there was little he could do, not with his hands bound and his body stripped of supplies. He pulled up his shirt, though, biting his lip to keep himself from crying out at the pain even of that movement. The entry wound was large, made with a slow, blunt bullet. Perhaps it hadn't penetrated far. Perhaps it had missed anything vital…
And perhaps he had to ignore it and keep going. How long before twilight? When they had come through the Gate, the sky had been a mass of grey, impossible to tell whether it was morning or afternoon. How long did McKay have? How long…?
He lowered his shirt. Nothing you can do about it now, John. He had nothing to wrap the wound with, and even if he did have, he couldn't pass a bandage around his body with his hands tied. With every minute that passed, he would grow weaker and weaker, so he had to get up now, he had to…
He faded into darkness for a while; didn't know how long had passed. Only seconds, perhaps – not long enough for him to fall over. He was still kneeling squarely, his head sagging.
"Get up." His lips shaped the words. Pain was a great weight pressing down on him, pinning his knees to the ground. "Get up, John."
He pulled himself up in the end by grasping hold of thorny tendrils of some trailing plant. The woodland still seemed empty. Need a weapon, he thought, as he struggled through the thick undergrowth, knowing that he had no choice but to stick to the path, no choice at all. Moving was easier there, but of course the enemy would know where he was.
The ground began to rise steadily. A gap in the trees showed a patch of sky, marbled with grey and faint blue. He couldn't see how high the sun was. But he saw a thick branch trailing from a tree, held on only by a torn piece of bark. He caught hold of it with both hands, and hung his weight on it, twisting it and pulling it until it was free.
Carrying it was hard. The chain between his wrists was only a few inches long, so where one hand went, the other one went, too. His left hand returned to his gunshot wound, a burning coal pressed against the fire. His right hand grasped the branch, holding it carefully across his body.
He turned in time to see the creature watching him, staring at him with dark-slitted eyes. It was large, almost as high as his waist, with shaggy fur, and pointed ears pressed flat across its back.
"Nice, uh, doggy," John said, although it was standing neatly on its toes, more like a cat than a dog. He waved his stick weakly, letting it see that he was armed, but refraining from making any overt threat.
The creature recoiled, hissing. Then it lowered its muzzle and snuffled at a drop of John's blood. A tongue flickered out, but then the creature grunted, snatching its head back. It vanished back down the path, moving on silent feet, its dark hide melting into the shadows of the undergrowth.
"Don't like the taste of blood, huh?" John muttered. "Here's hoping you haven't gone to get Daddy Bear."
He carried on, focusing on the ground ahead of him, on keeping one foot in front of the other. Running hurt too much, jolting him so much with each step that soon he was almost sobbing. He blinked fiercely, pressed his left hand tighter into his side, and slowed to a walk, but he managed to run every now and then for a few dozen steps, when he thought he could bear it. He tried to avoid travelling in a straight line, tried to avoid giving his enemies a clear line of sight. There were too many trees, and he thought he was safe, but…
His legs gave way. He flailed instinctively for balance, but his bound hands betrayed him, and he landed with his full weight on his shoulder and chin. Pain exploded in his head. He clawed at the ground beneath him with desperate interlocking fingers, feeling shards of bark dig in behind his nails. He almost managed to push himself up, but…
Can't. I can't. Gotta sleep. Gotta…
He rolled onto his back; brought his cuffed bands up to scrape across his face, spreading earth and blood, wiping away sweat and tears. "Get up, John," he told himself. He imagined Ronon hurrying him along, and Teyla urging him to be strong. It was easier to keep going when there were others that you needed to get to safety. It was easier to keep the pain in when there were others who could see it.
He imagined McKay there beside him, dying of poison, needing John to save him. That gave him the strength to stand. Always easier, always easier when there was someone else.
He looked back; saw blood on the ground; remembered the creature that had sniffed at it. You're leaving a trail, he imagined McKay saying. Lead them right towards you, why don't you?
"Haven't got a choice, Rodney," he said. Speed was of the essence now, and he didn't have time to cover his tracks. He had to snatch at hope and keep hold of it, gripping it tight. Had to hope no-one was following him, had to hope nothing in the forest liked to eat humans, had to hope that the herb was there at the end of all this, had to…
Had to run.
The ground rose, and the trees thinned slightly, revealing a sky that was a dark mottled grey, perhaps heralding rain, or perhaps heralding night. He had to climb over rocky outcrops, steadying himself with his hands, or jabbing his branch into the ground. Because his hands were cuffed, every time he flailed for balance, his left hand was ripped away from his wound. And because he was alone, every time this happened, he moaned. The last time, steadying himself as he went under a fallen tree propped slant-wise across the path, he screamed hoarsely.
"It isn't doing any good, anyway," he told himself; too much blood had already seeped out through his fingers. It was psychological, really, having the hand there. But the air was cold against the wound after that. Every jolt and every movement hurt him more, without the hand to cushion it.
It grew darker still, and was that sound a falling twig or was it the first splash of rain? He had no idea what time it was; even his watch had been removed to make room for the handcuffs. His watch was set to the time of Atlantis, though – to a sunlit morning far away. How long could he keep going, he wondered. How long really?
"As long as I have to," he said, forcing it through gritted teeth.
Rain struck his cheek, and his body responded to it as if it was a word of permission, starting to shiver. Blood loss, he thought, not to mention whatever injuries he had sustained while unconscious. But there was nothing he could do about that now, just hope, and just keep going, just… keep… going.
Was McKay even still alive? "Stay positive," he reminded himself. Of course he was. McKay was alive, and the herb would be there, just where the tall man had said it would be, and John would bring it back and it would do its job, and…
Not yet, he thought, because of course it wasn't going to be as simple as that. A man like that wouldn't just let them go. But he'd think about that later. For now, all he could do was take things one step at a time. Get the herb back to McKay. No, just get the herb. No, reach that point up there, where a patch of bark was torn off a tree and the branches grew in a V shape. No, just make the next step. Just make this step. Just keep on your feet. Just stand.
And breathe. Breathe. The rain fell more heavily, and everything shimmered slightly. The trees thinned even further. He saw the mountain ahead of him, although he was too close to see its peak. Its lower slopes were bleak and brown. Red flowers, he thought; he was looking for red flowers. Too far away to see, though.
Something moved behind him. He whirled round, his heart pounding, but there was no-one there, just a small mammal disappearing into a hole in the ground. The space around the trees was still, but the undergrowth shivered with rain, and perhaps with other things. John had his stick. No good against a bullet, though. No good at all. John could hole up somewhere and prepare to defend himself against his enemies, or he could keep going and hope to find the herb. He couldn't do both.
There was no contest, of course. But with every step, the rain grew heavier, and shivering felt like being torn apart. His vision swam, and he didn't need to touch his throat to know how fast and shallowly his heart was beating. Faintly at first, he heard a rushing sound. He stopped with both hands against a tree trunk, his head sagging. Rain fell upon the back of his neck like fingers of ice.
You can't take a rest now, he imagined McKay protesting, his face twisted with the agony of poison. Get a move on, Colonel. And then a glimpse of McKay dead, surrounded by red flowers that had been brought too late. But he didn't normally do that, did he – didn't think about the worst case scenario; didn't even let himself imagine it.
He carried on, but the rushing sound grew louder. "Oh," he said out loud, quite stupidly, when he realised that it was a river. It came racing down from the higher slopes of the mountain, and he must have been moving diagonally across the slope to come to it. It didn't look deep, but it was fast. It was littered with fallen boulders, but they were shining with wetness. Healthy and without handcuffs, he could probably cross it. In his current condition… Not a chance, he imagined McKay saying. Ronon just looked at him, fondly disapproving of his lack of skills. Teyla pointed out that he needed to drink, that he needed to clean his wound.
As he struggled down to the water's edge, his foot slipped. He kept his balance, but only just. A blaze of red sheeted in his vision, and he found himself sprawled on his back across boulders, his right leg in water up to the knee. It was like being plunged into ice, and the current pulled at him, trying to take his leg. He pulled it in, and clawed at the rocks, moaning, sobbing as he managed to sit up again. He crouched, but that hurt too much, and his balance was non-existent and the water too close. With his hands cuffed, the only way he could scoop up water was to use both hands, and that left nothing to hold himself up with. The bank was too steep, too rocky to anchor himself on.
He stuck out the tip of his tongue, catching water from the sky. There was no point in washing his wound, anyway, he told himself. The priority was to get the blood clotting. Infection was a risk, of course, but infection wouldn't kick in until after twilight. It wouldn't stop him from doing what he had to do. It… doesn't matter, he thought, although it did, of course; it just didn't matter now.
Should he try to cross the river? No, he thought, it was best not to try, because he knew his limits, and knew that this, at least, was something that he couldn't reliably do. There was the same amount of mountain on this side of the river as on the far side. The herb probably grew…
Something moved. His head snapped up, and he saw a man appear on the far bank, standing on a rocky outcrop, a gun in his hand. John froze. Nothing he could do. Nothing he could do. His only weapon was a branch, and he was fully exposed, and with his hands bound, merely climbing up the bank again would take minutes. He could throw himself down, perhaps, or throw himself into the water. Yes, yes… He braced himself. Let the water take him, clamber out somewhere downstream, and try again. Get up and try again; always try again.
The man raised his gun, then lowered it; turned his back, and dropped down out of sight.
They're playing with you, Ronon said. Ronon knew what it was to be hunted. They've probably been watching you all along.
"I know that, buddy," John said, because he wasn't stupid, but he couldn't give up, he couldn't give up. How far would you go? the tall man had asked, and it was a stupid question, really – a stupid question. He'd go as far as he had to – always had done, and always would. He'd gone after Holland. He'd volunteered to take the nuke into the hive ship. Giving up was not an option. Abandoning a team mate was not an option.
John clambered up the rocks again, and managed to reach the solid ground without falling. The riverbank was too exposed, he thought. Exposed was good when it meant that you could see your enemies, but when your enemies had guns and you didn't, you needed cover. He left the river behind, though the trees were thinner here, and he knew that if they wanted to shoot him, there was nothing he could do but hope that their aim was bad. Which really isn't very comforting, McKay said, but Ronon smiled grimly, and reminded John that he'd survived for seven years with the odds stacked against him.
He imagined Ronon going ahead of him, showing him the path. Teyla was concerned about him. He tried to tell her that he was good; tried to tell her that he had to do it, because McKay… Then he stumbled, and the fire and the darkness stole his team-mates away from him. Not here; he knew that they weren't here. "Crazy, huh, for imagining you guys." He seemed to have fallen. Stones dug into his knee. Things swirled in his vision, but when he blinked, they weren't there.
He clambered to his feet, took several drunken steps, then set his jaw and managed to walk more steadily. The ground continued to climb, and soon he was panting, his heart racing as it struggled to supply him with enough blood. He could feel the sweat clammy on his face, but he was still cold, cold all the way through, shivering with it. The trees thinned away to nothing, and then he was out on the open mountainside, climbing through grass and stone.
And now there was nothing between him and the rain. When was twilight? It was so hard to tell, so hard to see. Everything was fading away into shadow. His vision was turning one uniform grey. It might have been hours since he had left the clearing. Everything was fading, fading…; no colour in the world, nothing at all. Everything was leeched away, but he focused on his feet, on his breathing. One more step. One more step…
The next time he fell, the darkness almost took him. He bit his lip, teeth digging in until they drew blood, using the pain as an anchor to keep him from drowning in the dark. He rolled himself onto his back, his clasped hands pressed against his stomach. Then onto his side, fingers clawing at the ground…
A sweet smell filled his nostrils, and he choked on it, coughing until his vision was streaked with red. The smell grew stronger, and there, caught between his fingers, was a small red flower.
His mind was slow to realise what it was. Got to carry on, he thought. "Get up, John," he urged himself, his voice sounding fragile and not like his own. He coughed on the scent, as spear-like leaves were crushed in his grip.
Keep going. His mind came to a halt, stopped on the edge of a cliff, not sure where to go. Everything had been about keeping going. Leaves like a spear and flowers like drops of blood. He blinked down at it, and had no idea what to think. A small sound escaped his lips; it sounded like "oh." He'd aimed only for this goal, and his brain didn't seem to know how to process the next step.
McKay was screaming in desperation, telling him to come back, to come back now. Ronon clasped him on the shoulder, but told him that he was being slow and stupid. Teyla was telling him that he had to get back, but was worried that he wouldn't make it. He had to retrace every step, and he was weaker, far weaker, than when he had started. He had to do it all over again, and he didn't know if he could.
"No choice about it, John," he told himself, as he gathered up handfuls of the herb, ripping it up by the roots, choking on the rich scent. How much was enough? He picked even more, until he had a double handful, almost more than he could grip. Hold on, he thought. Don't let it go. This is what McKay needed to save his life.
When he had as much as he could carry, he pushed himself to his feet again, and started off down the hillside. He had to leave the branch behind, and walking was harder with such precious things held in his hands. It should have been easier to go downhill, but his feet kept on sliding on the stones and the rain made it hard to see.
Bring the antidote to Rodney, he thought. Bring the antidote to Rodney. It became the only thing. He was dimly aware that he was as cold as ice. His whole body was a mass of pain now, but that was easier to ignore than when the pain was focused in one spot. He floated on ice, on fire, on darkness. He watched the herbs in his hands, and far beyond them, his feet.
It grew darker, and he blinked upwards and saw that he was back below the tree-line again. How far away was McKay? He blinked again. The water on his face felt warm, warmer than his skin.
He had no memory of falling. He had no memory of anything at all, except for opening his eyes to look up at a darkening sky, and finding himself stiff with pain and cold. He raised his head, but the pain made him lower it again, but he knew, he already knew: his hands were empty, and the herb had gone. When he rolled over onto his side, he saw a few sprigs of it, red flowers scattered on the damp ground like blood, but then the breeze took even those few stalks, and there was nothing left at all.
Rodney knew that he was dying. The sky grew darker and darker, and when exactly did twilight start, anyway? Didn't poison spread faster when you were terrified, propelled through your veins by the beating of your heart? And he was terrified. Of course he was terrified. It wasn't a character failing, or anything, because who wouldn't be afraid? Even Sheppard or Ronon would be afraid in a situation like this.
It had started to rain several hours ago, and Rodney was shivering with cold. He could feel death creeping through his body, inch by agonising inch. He could barely feel his feet any more, or maybe that was just the tightness of the ropes around his ankles. His stomach clenched as though a knife were twisting in it. He kept on collapsing, his legs losing the ability to hold him up, but the ropes kept him upright. He was tied to a post, for crying out loud. He was tied to a goddamn post.
And where was Sheppard? Hours had passed, and where was Sheppard? He must have really gone. It had only been when long minutes had passed without anything happening that Rodney had realised quite how much he had expected Sheppard to come back with a cunning trick up his sleeve. Sheppard had taken out sixty Genii single-handed. It was a simple thing for Sheppard to run away into the woods and then double back and bring the fight to the enemy, killing them all with… with… with branches and twigs and… and an army of woodland creatures.
But nothing, nothing. And every second took Rodney closer to death, and every second made it more likely that… Admit it, Rodney. Sheppard's probably dead by now. There were few goons left in the clearing. The tall man had given them orders and sent them away somewhere. Rodney hadn't heard the sound of gunfire, but what if…? Oh, God, what if hearing was the first thing to go? Everything was muffled, and he had thought it was only because rain had been drowning out the other sounds, but what if this was the beginning of the end? Hearing went first, and then sight; then the lungs and then the heart, and then…
"Why are you doing this?" he shouted, but even his voice sounded weaker now. "Yes, yes, I know you've said – sick game, and all that – but I'm a very intelligent man. I can be useful to you."
The tall man was standing in the doorway of the largest tent, sheltered from the worst of the rain. "You want to save yourself?" He didn't look at Rodney, though, but gazed in the direction that Sheppard had gone so many hours ago.
"Yes," Rodney said, because, hello? unlike certain people, he wasn't an idiot. "Of course I do." He frowned. "Oh! Oh! I know where you're going with this. You're trying to trick me into saying that I'll let you kill Sheppard to save myself. I won't, you know. I would do it."
But it hurt, it hurt. And the worst of it was having to stay standing up. The worst of it was being tied to a post. The worst of it was being on display. The worst of it was not being able to do anything at all but wait for the poison to kill him or for Sheppard to come back, but Rodney always did expect the worst, didn't he, and there was no Sheppard here to tell him to look on the bright side, and it had been hours and still Sheppard hadn't come back, and Rodney couldn't feel his feet, and the rest would go soon, so very, very soon.
Sheppard had it easier, he thought. At least Sheppard was still on his feet, and able to actually do things.
"Listen," Rodney said, "you've proved your point. Sheppard's off being his usual ridiculously heroic self, and I'm here. Can't you…?" His voice cracked on a stab of pain. He clenched his stomach muscles, digging his fingers into the wood at his back. "Can't you untie me? I'm not going anywhere. Seriously, I… I'm not like Sheppard – haven't got his stupid, blind refusal to accept defeat. I haven't got his tolerance of pain, either – though, really, it's nothing to be proud of, because, hello? Pain? Nature's way of telling you that something's wrong? So I'll lie there inside a tent like a good boy, and won't try to go anywhere. What do you say?"
The tall man said nothing.
A wave of pain set Rodney writhing. He was breathless and spent by the time it had passed, sweat mingling with rain on his face.
It was hard to gather the strength to speak, and when he did manage to produce words, they were as faint as hope in the twilight. "How long have I got?" he asked.
The man looked at him at last. "As long as he gives you."
It was almost dark now, or maybe that was just his fading vision. John had always been one to cling desperately onto hope long after others had given up, but he knew his limits. He had very little time left before his body failed him utterly, and when that happened, no amount of willpower would keep him going.
But he would get back to McKay first. As long as McKay needed him, he would wring every last drop out strength out of his body. He would keep going, and only when McKay was safe – or dead, his mind whispered, or dead – would he let the inevitable happen.
He had gone back for more of the herb, retracing his steps. The way behind him now was strewn with scattered petals and blood, but tight handfuls of the plant were clenched in each fist, and he had stuffed his pockets full of it.
But it was almost dark. Until twilight, the tall man had said. The ground was levelling out, and the trees were thick. He was almost there, he thought. Almost there, and he thought of homecomings in the past, of going last through the Gate, and sinking down stiffly onto the steps only when he knew that everyone else was safely back. He thought of the lights and the warmth of home; of familiar faces greeting him by name. He thought of surrendering himself to the care of the doctors; of closing the door to his room and sitting on the bed, knowing that at long last, his face could hold any expression that he liked, because he was unobserved.
Home, he thought. The final steps. A goal. But this was no ending, just the start of a fresh battle. What happens after had felt like something impossibly far ahead, but it was soon going to become now. He needed to… needed to…
"Need a plan," he murmured, but his lips were cracked, and for a stupid moment he thought that somebody else was talking, and not him. He swung his head from side to side, stiffly, sluggishly, and blinked into the darkness. His vision swam. He was nothing but a small bubble of thought floating in a sea of pain.
But his fists gripped the herb, and the enemy was ahead. Got to think. Got to plan.
What if McKay was de--? No, couldn't think that. He had to base the plan around McKay still being alive. How many enemies were there? He'd seen at least half a dozen, and most of them had guns. They were on home territory. They had probably been watching him the whole way, and knew exactly where he was. They knew he wouldn't dare risk losing the herb. And that meant…
"It means that your cards suck, John," he murmured to himself. His voice still sounded strange, not like something that belonged to him. His thoughts were flying away from him, and he had to focus hard to keep hold of them. He had no memory at all of passing the river. He had a deep gash on his elbow, but he had no memory of getting it; probably from falling, but he couldn't remember which fall. And time lurched, the sky jumping from pale grey to dark grey to darker yet… and a gunshot wound shouldn't cause confusion like this, should it? But of course he had the head injury, too, almost forgotten on the far side of pain, and...
"Plan," he said. "M--McKay," and even alone as he was, whispering the words, he faltered over the sound.
No, it was because he was alone. It was harder to be strong when you were on your own. For hours, all he'd had to do was keep on his feet, and nothing else had really mattered. There was more at stake now.
Faint, beyond the trees, he thought he saw a smear of flickering light. Almost there, he thought. Almost home.
Two more steps, the light growing closer. No, of course not home. "Stupid, John, you know that." Couldn't rest, not yet. Had to… what? Yes, fight. Hope the tall man kept his promise to save McKay's life, but be ready if he didn't. Ready for what? He'd cross that bridge when he came to it; play it by ear; make it up as he went along. It was about seeing openings, and going for them…
You know he's going to kill you, right? His thoughts spoke in his head in a voice that sounded like McKay's.
"Yes, Rodney," he said, but maybe there were guards – guards in the wood. Maybe he could creep up and ambush a solitary one and then take his gun. Then he could take the others out one by one, and could rescue McKay, or else force the tall man at gunpoint to give the antidote and then let McKay go free…
He went to take another step, and his legs betrayed him, his foot refusing to leave the ground. He fell to his knees, head sagging.
Yeah, good one, John, he thought. No way you'll be doing that, not in your current condition. Sometimes, maybe, it was best to trust. Sometimes, perhaps, you had no choice but to trust. You had to surrender yourself and walk up to the enemy, and just hope that things turned out right, because the alternative…?
No, because there was no alternative.
"At last," said the tall man, rising to his feet.
The rain had eased off. A fire had been lit, and its flames were enough to show Rodney the sight of Sheppard emerging from the trees. "Sheppard!" He couldn't keep himself from calling his name, and he saw Sheppard look at him hungrily; saw the subtle alteration that swept across Sheppard's body, reflecting his relief at seeing Rodney still alive.
But beyond that, though… Rodney's heart was pounding. Sheppard had come back for him, and that felt good, really it felt good. But Sheppard had come back, walking alone and unarmed into a nest of blood-thirsty villains. Sheppard was supposed to be out there, taking the enemy down.
"You have it?" the tall man said.
Sheppard stopped just outside the brightest circle of light. He was standing upright, though, so the gunshot wound must have been a glancing one. He was okay – Sheppard was, like, indestructible, after all – and he had the herb, leaves visible in his cuffed hands.
"Then why are you stopping?" Rodney found himself shouting. "Let me have it. Dying here."
"It has to be boiled," the tall man said, "for its potency to come out."
Other shapes moved beyond the fire. Sheppard was turned so that Rodney saw half his face in intense brightness, and the other half not at all. "I did what you wanted," Sheppard said, and there was something not quite right about his voice. "The game's over."
"It is?" Their captor was closer to the fire, and Rodney could see how he arched one eyebrow as he smiled.
Sheppard stood completely still. The other shapes beyond the fire became men who were holding Sheppard pinned at the centre of a broad circle of guns, the gun-barrels like spokes. When the tall man stepped forward, Sheppard stiffened slightly. When the man reached for Sheppard's hands, Rodney saw how Sheppard's fists tightened, gripping the herb as if he didn't want to give it up – no, as if he didn't know how to give it up.
"Give it to me," the man said quietly, but there was an edge to his voice that was cold, like a command. "We will do what needs to be done."
Sheppard yielded it, but he stood for a while afterwards with his hands still raised, fists grasping nothing. Then, slowly, he lowered his hands, then brought them up against, pressing them against his side.
"Please," Rodney found himself begging, though he didn't know who he was begging for – himself, or Sheppard. The pain was less now, but that only meant that death was nearer.
The man moved away, going towards one of the tents. Sheppard met Rodney's eyes for the first time, looking at him across a distance of twenty paces, part of him still lost in the deep shadow. "You okay?" Sheppard asked.
"Of course I'm not okay," Rodney told him. "I'm tied up, poisoned, and you… What took you so long?"
Sheppard didn't answer, not even to make a sharp, sarcastic remark, and that, more than anything else, made the cold knife twist even deeper in Rodney's heart. "Are you…?" he began, but Sheppard looked at him in a sudden desperate way that commanded him – no, that begged him – not to say anything else.
"You could have tried to kill them," Rodney said instead, "or - I don't know – gone to get help, instead of strolling back into the lion's den."
Sheppard shook his head minutely. "That wasn't an option." He blinked; seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment. "Anything," he said, at last, his right hand twitching, the chain pulling against the left.
"Anything?" Rodney frowned. "You're talking nonsense, Sheppard – even more nonsense than normal."
The tall man paused in the door of his tent. "But we have a problem, of course," he said. A sprig of herb fell from his hand and blew sluggishly towards the fire. Rodney watched it desperately. Sheppard, he saw, was watching it in just the same way. "You killed one of my men," the tall man said. "I am an old-fashioned sort of man, I'm afraid, and in my eyes, that means that someone has to die."
"That's barbaric," Rodney spat. "That 'an eye for an eye' crap? They attacked us first. It wasn't anything personal. We--"
The tall man held his hand up. Several more sprigs of the herb escaped. Sheppard's lips parted, then pressed together again. He's badly hurt, Rodney realised, though he had no idea why that simple movement should finally tell him something that he should have realised all along. Of course Sheppard was hurt; Rodney had seen him beaten and had seen him shot. Sheppard was probably standing there with his last scrap of energy, still on his feet despite injuries that would have sent any sensible man running to the infirmary hours ago. He was stupid like that – quite infuriating, because then it made you feel bad for being normal and human, with a sensible idea of limits, and…
"Someone has to die," the man said slowly. He looked at Sheppard, and Rodney knew suddenly that he was forgotten, that it had always been Sheppard for this man, with Rodney being nothing more than the tool. And Sheppard was going to volunteer to die in his place. Sheppard did things like that, with his I can't, and his so long, Rodney, and it was horrible, and it was selfish, really, because of the way it made you feel, and it wasn't fair of him to do that, it really wasn't fair.
Rodney found that he was screaming: "No!" and "Sheppard!" and "Don't, John!" over and over
Sheppard said nothing, though, and Rodney couldn't see his face; couldn't see anything through the pain and the darkness and the screaming.
"Someone… has… to… die," the tall man said, spitting out each word. Rodney was slow to notice what was happening, and was it unforgivable of him, that his first reaction was relief? One of the tall man's goons was dragging a stranger out of one of the tents towards the fire, and he threw him down at the tall man's feet. The tall man gestured at him with a casual hand. "I could tug on the heartstrings," he said, "by telling you that he has a newborn baby daughter or a sweetheart back home, but to be honest, I have no idea. He was in the wrong place when we needed someone, and here he is. Will you let us kill him, Colonel Sheppard, to save Doctor McKay?"
Sheppard said nothing.
The tall men spread his hand just a little, letting half a dozen sprigs of herb blow into the fire. "Or will you let him live, and let Doctor McKay die?" the tall man said. He stepped forward and touched Sheppard on the cheek. Sheppard recoiled, but it was as if even a touch that light could bring him down, because he tumbled onto his knees, looking upwards, breathing fast.
"You know the game by now, Colonel Sheppard," the tall man said. "How far will you go to save him?"
John remembered too much of the past. The closer he came to slipping away completely into the darkness, the harder he had to concentrate on keeping his grip on the present reality.
He remembered telling Teyla he would do anything to save any one of his team. He remembered refusing to let McKay sacrifice himself to save his sister. He still dreamt about that, sometimes, waking up to find himself staring at his hands, thinking himself a murderer. But Henry Wallace hadn't been entirely blameless. Wallace, like John, had vowed to do anything that he could to save someone close to him. And Wallace had known, just as John would have known, when he had gone too far. John hadn't killed him; had just made things clear to him, and let Wallace decide. Wallace had made the only choice than an essentially good man could have made under the circumstances. Wallace had made the choice that John himself would have made, had the positions been reversed.
It was so wrapped up in so many things: right, wrong, pain… And people that he cared for, when he had never thought that would care for anyone again. And he was a commander, and that meant making choices that sometimes resulted in people dying and others living, when a different choice would have had a different outcome.
"How far will you go to save him?" the tall man asked.
John was on his knees, perhaps unable ever to stand again. The prisoner's eyes were wide with terror, but he was gagged and couldn't speak. John tried not to look at his eyes, but he couldn't look at McKay, either. The past was more real…
But it couldn't be. This moment was now. And, really, he didn't have to think about it too hard. "I can't," he said, as he had said once before, but this time barely any sound came out. He doubted that McKay had heard him.
He dared to look up, and McKay's face was frozen in a mask of horror, too far gone even for his usual flood of words. His lips were moving incessantly, a litany of noes. What was he asking for? That John should save him, or that John should not?
John shook his head. "I can't." It was still silent. I would do anything, he had said, but it wasn't true. He hadn't saved Elizabeth. He hadn't let McKay use the nanites to heal her because he'd known that she wouldn't have wanted them to risk such a dangerous treatment. He'd left her behind when she'd ordered him to. When the only price was himself, then he would do anything for his team. When the price was others…
"I can't," he said, finally finding the voice for it.
"This is too far?" The tall man opened his hands, and John could only watch as the herbs blew into the fire, burning away to nothing. The air filled with the sweet scent of hope turned to ashes. "Then you've killed Doctor McKay."
"No!" McKay screamed. "No!"
John closed his eyes, but, no, he couldn't hide, not from this. He looked at McKay, but what words could convey the apology necessary for condemning a friend?
"I can't," Rodney heard Sheppard say, and he didn't know what it meant, not at first, not until their captor let the last of the antidote blow away into the fire.
"No!" Rodney screamed. "No!" He watched it burn away, turning into thick, sweet smoke, and the pain redoubled, as if he was dying right now.
Sheppard had betrayed him. No, no, of course Sheppard hadn't betrayed him. Rodney was an arrogant man, and sometimes he didn't consider the feelings of others, but he couldn't expect Sheppard to say yes to such a stark choice. He didn't want Sheppard to say yes. He didn't want to live the rest of his life knowing that someone had been murdered in cold blood to keep him alive. But that's what had happened with Henry Wallace, wasn't it? And countless people had died over the years in situations that meant that if they hadn't died, Rodney might have died instead. He'd lived with that. He didn't even know this person's name. Their captor would probably kill him anyway, so it didn't really make any difference if Sheppard had…
God, he was going to die! He was going to die, and Sheppard always saved him - except for all those times when he was the one saving Sheppard, of course. Sheppard had saved someone else instead of him. Sheppard had…
It's right, he thought. It's right. Rodney would have done the same, wouldn't he? Would Rodney have been able to say the word that would lead to an innocent person being slaughtered, even if it did save Sheppard?
They hadn't, had they? When Sheppard was in the hands of Kolya, they hadn't said that word. They'd just stood by and watched as a Wraith had drained the life from him, and it wasn't because of anything that they had done, that Sheppard was still alive at the end of it.
But it hurt. Oh, God, it hurt, and he was going to die, his last chance burning away to ashes, and Sheppard… Sheppard was nearer the fire now, illuminated by the flames, and it was suddenly impossible to hide from the fact that Sheppard probably had even less time than Rodney had. So at least he wouldn't have to live with the knowledge that he'd killed a man, Rodney thought, then hated the fact that he had thought it. It was still wrong. It wouldn't become magically right just because Sheppard was dead and not able to feel guilty about it.
Sheppard looked at him, raising his head with a visible effort. I'm sorry, his eyes said.
The pain was less and less, but feeling was growing dimmer. Rodney wanted to die at peace with the world, but how could you do that when you were dying for such a pointless reason? He tried to tell Sheppard that he understood, but he didn't know if he did, not really, because it was impossible not to be selfish, it was impossible not to want to live.
Sheppard's eyes slid shut, and then he fell slowly sideways. He hit the ground and lay still, and in the merciless light of the fire, he looked already dead.
"Sheppard!" Rodney screamed, and he knew that they were doomed – had known it for hours, really – but that didn't stop the stab of pure grief and terror that lanced through his heart when Sheppard went down. "You've killed him!" he shouted. "You… you… sadistic freak!"
"I hope not," the tall man said. "The game isn't yet over." He waved his hand in dismissal, and two of his men dragged the other prisoner away, but Rodney didn't bother watching. He strained at the ropes, but the pain was nothing, nothing compared to this.
The tall man took a step towards Sheppard. "Unconscious, are we?" He nodded a signal to one of his goons, but Rodney couldn't see what happened in response. Then the tall man suddenly and sharply kicked Sheppard in the stomach, once, then twice, then a third time.
Sheppard didn't react at all. Rodney, though, was screaming, shouting words that he had no memory of saying, screaming until he was hoarse. Then a stab of pure agony stole his words from him, and all he could do was watch in silent horror as the tall man crouched down to touch Sheppard's throat, to confirm what Rodney already knew: that John Sheppard was dead.
He closed his eyes, unable to watch. And so it was that he missed the moment when Sheppard lashed out and grabbed the tall man's gun. By the time Rodney had snapped his eyes open, Sheppard had the tall man on the ground beneath him, and was holding the gun in both hands, the muzzle pressed at the man's head.
Rodney's mouth dropped open. "I will kill you," Sheppard said, and it was the voice that had threatened Kolya, not the voice of a dying man. "Yes, I know that your men probably have guns trained on me right now, but I don't think they could kill me in time, do you? After all, it only takes a tiny movement…" His finger tightened on the trigger.
The tall man looked different, younger, scared. "You won't get away with this."
"Really?" The gun didn't waver. "I'm an optimistic guy, and I'll take my chances." Sheppard jerked his chin towards Rodney, though the gun remained completely still. "Get someone to untie him." When no-one moved, Sheppard jabbed the gun harder against the man's head. "Do it!" he commanded.
Nothing happened for a very long time. Rodney counted the rhythms of his own rapid breathing: in and out; in and out. How could Sheppard do this? How? Any moment now… It was foolish to hope. It was ridiculous to feel this stupid burst of happiness at the thought that once again they had been plucked to safety from almost certain doom. Everything was still teetering on the brink.
"Do it," Sheppard said quietly.
"Do what he says," the tall man said at last.
Rodney stiffened as someone walked towards him, taking shape out of the shadows beyond the fire. He heard the sound of a knife being drawn out of a sheath. "Uh…" He cleared his throat. "He said cut me free. I know it must be tempting to… No, don't mind me – putting ideas into your head. Cut me free, yes, yes." He couldn't see what was happening. He felt the movement of a knife sawing through ropes, and he screamed when the blade nicked his hand, then had to apologise to Sheppard, saying, "Sorry, sorry, I'm good, I'm okay," when Sheppard looked at him desperately, briefly losing his focus on the man he was holding prisoner.
At length he was free, and Rodney sank to the ground in screaming relief, easing agonised muscles, and curling at last, at long last, around the pain in his stomach.
"McKay needs a gun," Sheppard said quietly, still in that deadly tone, and, "Yes, yes," Rodney said, forcing himself to his feet, struggling to push past his pain and be a useful participant in Sheppard's latest insane escape attempt.
The tall man croaked an order, and Rodney felt a gun being pressed into his hand. He almost dropped it, his fingers stiff from lack of circulation, but he forced his hand to grip it. He swallowed hard. Who shall I aim it at? Ah yes, the tall man, the leader. Then Sheppard would be able to climb off him. Then they might actually be able to get the hell out of here.
The gun was faltering in his hands, but he managed to keep it steady. "I'll, uh, shoot you," he said. "I'm ready and willing to do so. If anyone makes any sudden moves, I'll shoot."
"You heard the man," Sheppard said. In a sudden swift movement, he brought the gun up and then down again, smashing it hard over the man's temple. The man's eyes closed, and his head lolled to one side. Rodney moistened his lips, and shifted his aim to the man nearest to him.
Focused on that, he only dimly saw Sheppard push himself to his feet. "We'll be going now," Sheppard said. "Now, you can come after us and risk being shot down, or you can just let us go. Which one is it going to be?"
Sheppard began to edge backwards away from the fire, the gun still trained on the circle of watching men. Swallowing hard, trying not to sob at the pain of returning circulation, Rodney followed him. No-one shot them dead. After the day Rodney had endured, that seemed like a very good ending indeed.
"Well," said Sheppard, "thanks for the hospitality, guys," and then they were out of the circle of light, edging backwards into the dark wood, and it was quite ridiculous, really, that Rodney wanted to smile, because he was still dying of poison, and Atlantis was still far away.
But he was smiling, and it was stupid, but he was.
They were still many hours from the Gate. Many hours even at a normal walking pace, and far more when struggling along like this. Far more? No, John wasn't making it, of course. He couldn't do it. It was only possible to keep going so far, and he was already way beyond that point now.
But no-one seemed to be following them, and that was good. There was still some light left in the sky, visible now that they were away from the brightness of the fire. It was no longer raining, and the clouds were clearing from the left. He hoped for moonlight, but, no, that was Earth he was thinking of. Lots of planets didn't have moons. He was dying on a planet in another galaxy, and it felt crazy, ridiculous, as if the last five years hadn't really happened; as if he was the same person he had been years ago, trying to save a friend in Afghanistan, or trying to make his way home after he'd crashed his first motorbike in the woods.
"Sheppard," McKay hissed, and John shook his head and dragged himself back from the drifting place of scattered thoughts. "How did you…? I thought you were dead."
It had been the hardest thing he had ever had to do, not to react when the tall man had kicked him so near to the site of his wound. Even now, he wanted to sob at the memory of it. Hardest? No, hardest was leaving Elizabeth behind, was losing Ford, was coming back with Holland's body and the knowledge that he had failed. Hardest was making the choice just minutes before, choosing a stranger over McKay.
He blinked; forced himself to come back again. "That's what I wanted him to think, of course."
They were moving slowly, painfully slowly. John's feet caught on stones in the darkness. McKay grabbed his shoulder, muttered "Oh God, John," and kept his arm there. His other hand held the gun. John still gripped his gun in both hands pressed to his stomach.
"You could have made him take your handcuffs off." McKay said it reproachfully, as if John's failure to do so was an enormous affront to him.
"Couldn't." John shook his head. "Too much time getting the key. Didn't want them that close to me, unlocking them."
"I could have done it," McKay said.
"Couldn't do that and--" His foot caught a rise in the ground. He gasped, the sound closer to a groan. "--and cover them," he managed to finish.
They struggled on in silence for a while. Birds moved in the trees above them, hooting in a way that reminded him suddenly, intensely of his childhood. It would be morning before they reached the Gate. No, who was he kidding? It would be morning before…
"I'm still dying of poison," McKay said. "It hurts like hell. Well, actually, it doesn't hurt quite as much as it used to, but that… that's a bad sign, right? He said I had until twilight, and this? This is way beyond twilight, by any definition of the word. So while I appreciate the heroic rescue attempt, it isn't much good if I'm, well, dead."
Oh. Yes. His thoughts were things picked out by a searchlight in the darkness, with only one thing visible at once. He gripped the gun tighter, focusing on muscles, on tendons, of anything that would anchor him in the here and now. "In my pocket," he said. "More herb."
"But it has to be boiled," McKay protested.
"Might still work." Another step; two, then three. "You need to--"
"Reach into your pocket? I hate to break it to you, colonel, but--"
"McKay." He had no idea what his tone was, no idea what his expression was, but McKay stopped as if stricken.
"Oh. Yes. Of course. I…" His hand left John's shoulder; John concentrated on staying on his feet. "What happens on a godforsaken hellhole of an alien planet stays on a godforsaken hellhole…" John felt McKay reach into his pocket. Even that small amount of contact hurt enough for him to press his lips together and concentrate on not making a sound.
The smell was sweet and rich and familiar, bringing memories of lying on a mountainside, of blinking down at the small red flowers, unable to comprehend that the first part of his battle was won.
"It's probably riddled with germs," McKay grumbled. "Bugs. It isn't clean. And sometimes… sometimes part of a plant is medicinal but the rest of it is deadly poison. Like rhubarb. The leaves are poisonous, you know, and…" He looked at John, his eyes wide and desperate. "What if it isn't the antidote? What if the whole thing was part of his sick game? What if this is poisonous as well? What if… God! What if the other thing wasn't fatal, but this is?"
John let out a breath. He remembered the red flowers scattering in the wind, and empty hands smeared with green.
"I can't." McKay's hands were shaking. "I can't. You're not supposed to eat strange plants, and… and better the devil you know, you know? And it doesn't hurt as badly as it used to, and… and if I find that I can't go on, I'll try it then, okay? But not yet. Not yet."
Flowers like drops of blood in the wind. John closed his eyes for a moment, as the world whirled around him. "Then we'd better carry on," he said.
Rodney's hand found his shoulder again, then snaked across John's back until he was almost clinging to him. "But it does hurt," McKay said. "Poisoned man here." John made a sound; he had no idea what it was. "But you…" McKay rasped. "God, John…"
"Good," he said. "I'm good."
"Which is the lie of the century," McKay said, "but what else can we expect from you?"
They walked on. John had no idea how he was still on his feet, or why he was still trying. He let himself drift, although he told his brain to react to any sudden movement, to any sign of pursuit. The gun twitched at every unexpected sound. Once he found himself torn free of McKay's grip, aiming the gun two-handed at the path behind them, but he had no memory of hearing the sound that had provoked it. "Sorry," he mumbled, when he saw McKay looking at him. "Jumpy as hell."
"For good reason," McKay said, "given that we're probably being hunted down even as we speak. Do you think they really let us go?"
He had no idea. The ability to think was fast being engulfed in the fierce blazing sun of pain. But this was important. Had to… Had to… "I don't know." He managed to shape words. It could still be part of the game. Let your prisoner think they'd escaped, watch them struggle along, and then snatch them back just as they thought they were free. "But we don't have a choice, do we?"
"No." McKay shook his head. "Not really."
The next part of it was very slow coming. It pulsed in John's mind through a long eternity of trying to stay on his feet. But you did. He heard it in the rustle of the trees. Sometimes reality receded like a wave, and he imagined Kolya smashing him in the face, hurling that truth at him. He'd been given a choice, and he'd chosen not to save McKay.
And then McKay was hauling at his arms, saying, "Oh no, oh no, not now, please, oh God, please don't do this to me, please get up, please don't die on me."
John blinked. McKay's face was just a smear in the darkness above him. "I fell?" John whispered, as his mind saw red petals swept away by the wind.
"Yes, very observant, you fell and I couldn't wake you for, oh, minutes, and can you get up again, please, because we're a very long way away from Atlantis and the nice soft beds in the infirmary, and I have no intention of carrying you, and I don't know if you've forgotten, but ticking time bomb in my veins?"
There were too many words there. He was still in the clearing, forced to make a choice. "I couldn't," he told McKay, and tried to grasp his arm, but his cuffed hands together were too heavy for him to lift.
"What's with the past tense," McKay snapped. "Get up. That's a good, uh, colonel."
"I couldn't do it," John said. He saw stars above him – strange ones that he didn't recognise. "I'm sorry, Rodney. I couldn't let them kill him."
"Oh. That." The pale smear that was McKay turned away for a moment. "Of course you couldn't," McKay's voice said briskly, "because you had a plan, and you're one of those annoyingly optimistic and stubborn people who never will accept an outcome that leaves one person dead if you can come up with a crazy, impossible plan that might get everyone out alive."
John tried to shake his head, tried to say something else, but McKay stopped him, trampling all over him with words. "You knew you had some of the herb left. You knew you could get him to lower his guard. You had tricks up your sleeve. It was a bluff, so let's talk no more about it. Get on your feet."
"But…" He moistened dry lips, unable to say anything more.
McKay grabbed him by both shoulders. "We not talking about it any more, do you hear? It was part of your plan – cunning plan, crazy suicidal plan, etcetera etcetera – and here we are with vengeful bad guys on our tail, so get up."
John struggled to his feet, but there was nothing to keep him going. McKay had the antidote. McKay could go faster if John wasn't here, slowing him down. McKay was still poisoned, but there was nothing more than John could do about that. McKay's best chance came from getting as fast as possible back to Atlantis.
The next time he fell, he knew that there was no way on earth that he was getting up again. His eyes closed, and the wave crashed over him.
When Sheppard fell, Rodney almost forgot that he was dying of poison. He almost forgot the pain that still twisted periodically in his guts like a fiery knife. He tried to drag Sheppard to his feet, but Sheppard was a dead weight, slipping from his grip.
"Please," Rodney begged, "please get up." Words poured from him in a torrent, sometimes pleading, sometimes berating. In the end he was silent, rocking back on his heels in the unfriendly night of an enemy planet.
Sheppard's lips moved. "Go on," he said, little more than a breath.
"And leave you?" Rodney cried. "Oh no. Oh no, no, no. Don't go playing the martyr on me."
Sheppard blinked slowly, his eyes staying closed long enough for Rodney to start panicking, before opening again. "I can't make it, Rodney," he said. "I know my limits and I reached them a long time ago."
"Then if you reached them a long time ago but carried on, you can carry on now, right?" Rodney tugged at Sheppard's arm.
Sheppard just shook his head.
And Rodney understood – of course he did. Sheppard had been badly injured from the start. He'd kept on his feet in order to bring the antidote to Rodney, and then had kept going for as long as it took to get Rodney safely out of the camp. When Sheppard had someone else to save, he could perform impossible feats, but when it was just himself…
"And how's that supposed to make me feel?" Rodney's voice cracked on something that was close to a sob. "Get up. Please, get up. I… Oh! I know! I… I… I'm still poisoned. I might keel over any moment. I need you to stay on your feet. I… I need you, okay?"
Sheppard shook his head again, the movement barely perceptible. "You'll be faster without me."
"But I don't know the way!" Rodney protested. "And poisoned, here? And… God, Sheppard, what if they're following us? They'll find you…"
"Better than finding two of us." Sheppard's eyes fluttered open, and his voice was faint. "Rodney, please, go get help. Bring the others back. Ronon can kick the bad guys' ass."
Pain twisted in his stomach. "But I won't make it."
Sheppard was just a voice in the darkness now. "You have to try."
Rodney scraped at his face. "Like you're trying?"
"I'm not giving up," Sheppard whispered.
"Really?" Rodney laughed harshly. "Because from where I'm standing…"
"Not giving up." Sheppard's voice was a thread of straw in the wind. "Just… changing tactics."
"Which is a ridiculous thing to say." Rodney scraped at his face again. Were those tears? No, of course not, because he never cried. But he thought of sitting here in the darkness, watching Sheppard die, and then dying himself from the poison. He thought of the bad guys catching up with them, and Sheppard wasn't going to be any use now, and Rodney couldn't hold off half a dozen of them with just one antiquated gun. But the Gate was how many hours away, and he'd probably die of poison long before he reached it. If he was going to die anyway, then it was better to die here.
Sheppard's lips tightened in something that could almost, in some sick, heartbreaking way, be seen as a smile. "Stay positive, Rodney."
"Oh. Oh. Like you are?" But he scraped the heel of his hand over his eyes, because in the crazy place that was Sheppard World, he guessed that Sheppard was. If Sheppard believed that Rodney was doomed to die of the poison, then there was no point in sending him on. Sheppard was sending him away because he still thought that Rodney could be saved. "But I don't do optimism, Colonel," Rodney said, "and it does hurt, and I… I think my legs are going numb, and I haven't eaten or drunk anything for hours, and, you know, hypoglycaemia." But he found himself standing up. "I'm probably going to die long before I reach the Gate."
Sheppard said nothing, and his eyes were closed. Rodney crouched down and touched his throat. Still alive for now, but barely, the pulse fast and shallow, and the skin like ice. "So long, John," he murmured, and he thought that perhaps there was a slight twitching of the muscles around Sheppard's eyes, to show that he had heard, but perhaps it was just his imagination.
He stopped after a dozen steps, looking back, but Sheppard was already invisible in the darkness. I won't be able to find him again! he thought. He carried on, though, because Sheppard was going to die if Rodney stayed with him, but perhaps might have a chance if Rodney was able to get help in time.
Help? he thought, giving a desperate, hysterical laugh. It was fully dark now, and how the hell was he supposed to find the Gate? The stars were out, but you needed to know the constellations to be able to navigate by stars. He knew that they'd walked due south from the Gate before being captured, though, and that was a start. He could see the vague shape of the horizon, enough to know that he was going in roughly the right direction. As time passed and the stars moved, he might be able to work out where north was. The Gate was near a river, surrounded by tall silver trees. And it would be morning by then, maybe, with more light to see by. Oh, God, morning. Hours to go. Hours to go.
What time was it on Atlantis? How long before they were overdue? He didn't believe in premonitions, but he found himself hoping desperately that Ronon or Teyla had been hit with sudden worry about them, enough to send a party through. Or maybe something terrible had happened on Atlantis, and they needed Rodney's expertise instantly, enough to come through and look for him.
Yes, he thought, yes, imagining how he would fall into the arms of the rescue party – nice, welcome grunts, every one of them – and how he would order them to take him to the infirmary right now, and how he would tell them that Sheppard was back there along the trail and how they had to get to him now, please go now, don't waste any more time, because I think… I don't think he's got much time left.
And, "Look what you've done to me, Colonel," he said, because here he was, clinging to hope, being an optimist. They were doomed, of course. Rodney was poisoned, and Sheppard was almost dead from a gunshot wound and God alone knew what internal injuries from the beating he had received. Best to sit down and wait. Best to stay together… because it was a horrible thing to die alone – even though people had never been that important to him, and the worst thing about dying alone should have been the 'dying' part, not the 'alone' bit, but somehow… wasn't.
He thought of Sheppard dying in the darkness. Had the bad guys found him yet? I shouldn't have left him, he thought, but at the same time, he thought, Yes, yes I should, and both of them were true, and both of them were wrong, and he didn't know what to think, but he knew only that he hurt, that his eyes were stinging – and, yes, they are tears, and what're you going to do about it, eh? – and that he had to carry on, because if there was even the faintest chance, like one chance in a million, that he could save Sheppard that way, then…
He tripped over something and fell to his knees. "Who am I kidding?" he said. "I'm screwed. Poisoned, remember?"
But he pushed himself up and carried on walking, one hand pressed against the pain in his stomach, the other one holding the gun. The stars moved above him, turning in an arc. One hour had passed, he thought, and almost two, though only if the stars moved at the same speed as stars on Earth, and how likely was that? In terms of his own, subjective time, it felt like an eternity. Sheppard had to be dead by now, and why was Rodney still here, still defying the inevitable?
He didn't know. God help him, he didn't know, but he carried on, and soon… No, not soon, but an eternity later, a lifetime later, he stood stupefied in the darkness, looking up at the silver puddlejumper that circled him in the darkness.
He had no words; couldn't even berate them for taking so long. He fell to his knees, and Teyla knelt beside him, prizing the gun from his hand with strong fingers. "Poison," he told her, his voice catching in his throat. "I've been poisoned." The pain surged sharp and gleeful, stealing his strength away. He curled inwards, but still gripped the gun, refusing to yield it. "I need…"
"You are safe, Rodney," Teyla told him, wrapped her arm around his shaking shoulders.
Was he crying? Oh no, please no. Rodney dropped the gun at last, and lashed out with his arm, his hand finding Ronon's sleeve. "Sheppard," he said. "I had to leave him. You understand that? I had to leave him. He's back there. It's bad. It's really bad."
"We'll find him," Ronon said, and, really, that was all Rodney needed to hear. He closed his eyes, and wasn't aware of anything much, not for a very long time.
John was floating on the ocean, in a warm place beneath the sun. Slowly, ever so slowly, he woke, emerging from the water, his eyes fluttering open to see a green ceiling mottled with light. The infirmary, he thought. Yes, of course. He couldn't remember what had happened, but he did remember lying in the darkness, convinced that he was going to die.
Guess I'm not dead, he thought, but he didn't try to say it aloud. He tried to swallow, but his throat was raw. He twitched his hand, fingers curling into the sheet, and suddenly remembered everything.
McKay! A rhythmical beeping grew suddenly faster. He heard urgent movement from the side of his bed, and turned his head to see McKay snatching his tablet back almost slipping onto the floor. "Wasn't asleep," McKay said. He looked rumpled, his eyes rimmed with shadow. "Unlike certain people. Four days, Colonel."
Four days? The beeping remained fast. He tried to speak, but his raw throat wouldn't let him produce a sound. Poison? He shaped it with his lips and with a hoarse breath.
"All gone," McKay said, "although it's left a residual weakness and I'm still in pain, of course, and I intend to stay in the infirmary for several more days, because you can never be too careful, and, you know, delayed reaction and relapse. I…" He chewed his lip, looking down at his hands. "The herb wasn't the antidote, you know, although I understand that it tastes excellent in soup, or so Teyla says. It…" He looked up again. "The poison wasn't fatal. Oh, it hurt like hell – and that part was real – Jennifer says so – and not psychosomatic, no matter what some people might say – and it would have led to some serious health complications if I'd stayed out there much longer, but it wasn't… it wouldn't have actually, uh, killed me."
John closed his eyes. He thought of red petals blowing away in the wind. He remembered every hard-fought step…
"So it was all for nothing." John opened his eyes to see McKay gripping his tablet with white-knuckled hands. "You didn't have to…"
"Yes," John managed, his a whisper. "Yes, I did."
It was always easy to judge things in hindsight, but at the time, knowing what he'd known, he'd been right to try. Hell, he'd been right to try, period. He'd always known that he was embroiled in a game of bluff. If he hadn't done what the tall man had demanded, the man would have found another way, a worse way, of hurting McKay, and would have kept on hurting him until John had obeyed.
"I wasn't very aware of things when they found you," McKay said, "because, well, it was a real poison, even if…" He swallowed, biting his lip again. "The bad guys were watching you, but Ronon and the others took care of them and freed all their prisoners – there were more of them, you know, and not just that one guy. You were still alive, but your heart stopped when they moved you. They kept you alive all the way, and then Jennifer… Like I said, I was busy being poisoned, but I… It… It was two days before they could be sure that you were going to be okay. You'd lost a ridiculous amount of blood, and there was the mild concussion thing going, and the internal bruising, and… well… I really thought you were going to die this time."
There were too many things there that he didn't want to think about. "But I didn't die."
"But you nearly…"
"But I didn't," he said firmly, mustering sound at last. End of story. Push it away. Forget it. "Neither of us did."
So Sheppard was going to make a full recovery, and Rodney was going to get better, too – although he still had twinges of pain sometimes, and he thought his fingertips had changed colour, just like they did with… was it cyanide? Arsenic? Something, anyway, and you couldn't be too careful… and so Rodney stayed in the infirmary, working there and sleeping there, and spent altogether too much time glancing over at Sheppard, who slept for the most part, only slowly getting his strength back.
"I left him," Rodney confessed once, unexpectedly, to Ronon.
Ronon clapped him on the shoulder. "You did what you had to do."
"But you didn't leave him," Rodney said, "when you were trapped in Michael's compound." Neither of them had spoken much about it, but Rodney knew that Sheppard had told Ronon to leave, and that Ronon had refused.
"Different circumstances," Ronon said.
But the guilt was easier to bear, really. Because then were the times when Rodney lay awake at night remembering how Sheppard had refused to sacrifice a stranger to save his life. It was because Sheppard had a plan, of course, and now everyone was safe because of it, and that was it, the happy ending, no need to worry about it again.
No need at all, he thought, eyes wide open in the darkness. No need at all.
"I left you," McKay blurted out one morning. John was strong enough to be allowed to sit in a wheelchair and be wheeled out into the fresh air.
"Because I told you to," John said. "Rodney, you had to do it, and we're both still alive because you did it."
"We're only alive because Atlantis tried to make contact with us earlier than we'd arranged, and couldn't get an answer." McKay leant on the railing, his body hunched inwards. "They'd have found us anyway, because of our subcutaneous transmitters."
"But if they hadn't decided to come after us…" John looked at the blue sky of home. "Ronon says you were only four miles from the Gate when they found you. If they hadn't come, you would still have made it. It was the right thing to do."
McKay's shoulders relaxed just a little. The breeze stirred John's hair, the fresh air driving away with stuffiness of too long confined to a bed.
Other things stood between them, though. John had chosen not to save McKay. Yes, the whole offer had probably been a trick, with their captor likely to kill both of them no matter what John said. Yes, he'd managed to take control afterwards and save McKay's life. But the choice had been made. The choice had been made, and McKay knew it.
"We're both still alive," McKay said, turning to face John, and John wondered suddenly if he'd spoken aloud, or if more things were showing on his face than he would have liked. "It ended well. You did what you had to do at the time."
I can't, he remembered saying, once to save McKay, once to condemn him.
"It wasn't right of him to make you choose," McKay said angrily.
John managed half a smile. "That was kind of the point, Rodney. Manipulative criminal mastermind?"
"He said he was going to break you. He went after you personally because you killed one of his men – although apparently he has links on many other worlds, and we're investigating the possibility that he already knew you, and already had a grudge." McKay leant back against the railing, his hands clasped miserably in front of him. "It was a game for him, and… listen to me, we can't let it bother us. He stacked the deck. He set it up so there was no good choice for you, but you wouldn't let it end like that. You tricked him, and here we are."
"Here we are," he echoed. It felt like a cold place. McKay was offering him a way out. McKay was telling him that the choice hadn't meant anything, but it had. John had meant it when he had said it, and McKay knew that. John had claimed that he would do anything to protect his people, but he wouldn't. There were lines that he wouldn't cross, and he'd always known it – of course he'd known it – but he had seldom had to face it quite so starkly before.
McKay raised one hand to his face, pressing it over his mouth as he sighed. "I was terrified, you know?" he said. "I didn't want to die. And part of me… Yes, part of me wanted you to let them kill that man so I could live. Happy now?" His sudden harshness faded. "But I wouldn't have wanted it, not really. Remember Gall? Peter Grodin? People die for us, and usually it happens in ways that… that allow us tell ourselves that it wasn't quite so clear-cut as that: them for us. But when the choice was as stark as that…? I don't think I could have lived with myself afterwards. I don't think I could have… liked you again, if you had…"
McKay's voice faded away into memories of Henry Wallace, whose shadow had stood between them for weeks.
John hadn't meant to speak about it, really he hadn't. "I once told Teyla that I'd do anything for any one of you," he said. "I thought it was true." Had thought it was true, had known it was true, had based a whole hallucination around it, as he'd refused to betray Atlantis in the face of Kolya's torture. It was behind so many things.
It was a lie.
"Well, of course it's true." McKay frowned at him as if he was stupid. "Seriously, Sheppard, the things that you do… It… it's scary. You nearly killed yourself to get an antidote that didn't exist. The number of times you've almost died for everyone here…Don't you dare start this 'I'm not worthy, I don't do enough' crap, because you do – far more than we want you to do, actually."
John started to protest, but knew suddenly that if he opened his mouth to speak, more would come out than he was willing to say.
McKay, less cowardly, was speaking freely. "You're the military commander of Atlantis, Sheppard. You've got other responsibilities. That's why…" He stopped, pressed his lips together, and continued in a different tone. "You were right about Elizabeth, when I wanted to save her with the nanites. You hated seeing her like that, too, but you knew that she wouldn't have wanted us to go that far, and that it was too big a risk, and…" He blinked rapidly, almost as if he was fighting tears. "So it's the same thing, really, and you lived with that, and… No, sorry, not helping. I know. I'm not good at these things."
John closed his eyes, feeling the air cold on his face. When it came to things that he could do himself, then nothing was too much, and that remained true. But there were things that he wouldn't do, and he knew that, really, didn't he? He'd always known that. Some things were just wrong, even if they did save lives. Sometimes you just had to shake your head, and sadly, regretfully, say I can't. You didn't have to like it, but you had to do it.
How far will you go? the tall man had asked, and John had answered As far as I have to, but his answer had been wrong. Not as far as he had to, but as far as he could. He would pay any price himself, but when the cost involved other people, he would make the choice that allowed him still to look at himself in the mirror at the end of the day.
I'd do anything, he had said, but a man who would do literally anything for his friends was a dangerous man. There had to be limits; there had to be. I'd do anything for you couldn't be allowed to mean I'll do anything for you, and to Hell with the rest. That was the mistake that Wallace had made. That was the mistake that Wallace had sacrificed himself to atone for.
"And, well…" McKay said, "I know it's an uncharacteristically optimistic thing for me to say, but we're both still alive and that peasant didn't get horribly slaughtered, and isn't that the most important thing?"
Perhaps he was right. John was an expert at pushing aside the might-have-beens and focusing only on the happy ending. McKay was alive, he was alive, and he had made the right choice but been spared the consequences of it. Look to the future, and carry on. Make the right choice when it happened, and don't dwell on all the hundreds of things that had so nearly gone wrong. That's what his life was all about.
That's what Atlantis was all about.
"Yes," he said, and he managed a smile; it really didn't take much effort at all. "I guess it is."
They were both silent for a while, looking out at the city, but the air was cold, and whether he liked it or not, John was still far from healed. "Want to go inside and play chess?" he asked.
"I've had quite enough of games for one week, thank you very much," McKay said.
John raised his eyebrow. "Scared I'll beat you, huh?"
"What?" McKay frowned. "Of course not. Just you wait. I'll get the board." He grabbed John's wheelchair, and began to push him back inside, but then he faltered. "This means we're good, right?"
John almost gave the expected answer, then stopped. He pressed his lips together for a moment. McKay had far more cause than he did to consider their friendship tainted by what had happened. "Do you think we're good?"
"Oh. Yes. Of course. I…" McKay bit his lip.
John smiled, and this time it took no effort at all. "Then we're good," he said, as McKay pushed him back into the warmth and the light of Atlantis. We're good.
Note: Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed my "gratuitous whump story.doc." Of course, I knew right from the start that there would be lots of character issues in it, too, so it's not entirely gratuitous, but the heroic staggering and the lack of actual, well… plot, apart from the whump, makes me put it firmly in the category of "ridiculously self-indulgent stories", rather than "real stories."
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