Drawing the Line
by Eildon Rhymer
"This isn't going to work." McKay's voice was broken up with breathlessness, and his pants were drenched with water right up to his waist. "It was a stupid idea."
"Got a better idea, McKay?"
Sheppard kept his hand pressed to his side. It felt as if it helped, though he doubted it made much difference, really; the wet blood on his hand was proof of that. So, too, was the light-headedness he was beginning to feel. When he turned his head too sharply, the world lurched, and was slow to catch up. Mild dizziness sometimes took him at the worst moments, and it was getting worse.
"You heard them. They–" McKay slipped again, his foot shooting sideways on the muddy rocks. He shot his hand out for balance, but the other one came too, dragged by the cuffs. This time he managed to stay on his feet, but only just. "A little help…?"
Sheppard was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, on keeping the rhythm of that. He had tried to catch McKay the first time he had stumbled, but the pain had almost torn him apart.
"It's all right for you." McKay stopped long enough to make a forceful gesture with both cuffed hands. "You're not the one with a price on your head."
"I don't think they're going to pay for you," Sheppard told him, "just kill you."
"And that's supposed to make me feel better?"
"You're not worth much, anyway," Sheppard managed. "Perhaps a gourd and a woven basket."
"I distinctly heard them say 'disembowel.'" The mask of outraged slipped, and the fear was evident beneath it. "Disemboweled while still alive. Because I ran from my punishment. Because I have no honour."
"Which is why we need to keep on running." Sheppard spat the words through gritted teeth. It hurt worse when he stopped moving. It ought to hurt worse when he was running, but it never did. When you stopped, part of your mind thought that the fight was over, and let itself give in to the pain.
"If you hadn't made me run in the first place…"
"Rescued you," Sheppard corrected.
McKay visibly swallowed. "I… I could have taken it." His chains rattled, speaking of hand movements he was unconsciously trying to make. "The punishment, I mean. It wasn't… wouldn't have been so bad. Wouldn't have killed me. But you… you had to break me out. I don't like being hunted, colonel. You should have left me there."
Something howled not far below them in the valley. McKay's head snapped up, his mouth dropping open. Sheppard steadied himself, his hand pressing hard beneath his stolen cloak. Beyond the rocky cleft of the river, there was only open moorland, with black rocky outcrops the only cover. It was the worst place imaginable to be hunted, but it had been the only choice. I couldn't leave you there, Rodney – just couldn't.
"It's your fault when I get bloodily killed." McKay had gone paler, the flush of his exertion stark on his cheeks.
"Neither of us is going to get killed."
Was that a trail over to the left? The moor was dark purple, almost brown. From a distance, it looked like bare earth, but now he could see that it was a carpet of some thick plant, two or three feet tall. Wading through it would be excruciating, but if the worst came to the worst, they could crawl. No, if the worst came to the worst, they could lie completely still, and hope the hunt passed over them. If the worst came to the worst, they could fight with hands and feet when men and animals came to drag them out, doing anything and everything to stop these people from slaughtering McKay.
"That's easy for you to say," McKay said. "You're not the one who–"
The howl was joined by a second one, and then a high and excited yelping. A sudden gust of wind brought them the faint sound of human voices, and then there was silence again.
"Get moving, McKay," Sheppard chided him. He preferred to go behind him, closer to the hunt. He preferred to go behind him, so McKay wouldn't see if he staggered sometimes, or couldn’t suppress a grimace of pain. "Keep following the river for now."
"Until I tell you to do something else, and you do it."
"Oh." McKay started to move, clearly hampered by his cuffed hands. "Oh!" he cried. "Ugh! Wet pants. They chafe."
"I really didn't want that image."
Above his uniform, Sheppard wore a dark brown cloak, grabbed on impulse as they had fled. That was all. Although he had officially been a guest, they had stripped him of his vest and all visible weapons, and there had been no chance to get them back. The only weapon he had, he thought wryly, was the broken-off tip of an arrow embedded in his side. No, it wasn't a weapon; it was a ticking bomb, a stop-watch counting down to zero. They were working against two different clocks: the clock that governed how long they could elude pursuit, and the clock that governed how long Sheppard could keep going.
Contrary to what certain people sometimes said, Sheppard was neither suicidal nor a martyr. Only a fool refused to seek medical treatment for an injury that reduced their effectiveness. Hiding an injury from someone who depended on you was more than foolish, it was selfish. You needed perfect trust in a team. You needed to know that your wingman could do the task you needed him to do. If you suddenly found that he couldn't, then you were dead, just as much as he was.
Whoever made those rules, he thought, pressing his lips together, had never worked with a panic-prone scientist called Rodney McKay.
He would do what he had to do, and one of the things he had to do was to keep McKay calm – relatively speaking, he added – and focused. Whether McKay knew about his injury, or not, running was the only option, because he would not hand McKay over to those barbarians. If he told McKay, then he would have to contend with a whole new level of emotion and panic, slowing them down, making it harder to think.
I won’t let them take you, he thought, but out loud, all he said was, "You have to go faster than that."
For now, McKay's outrage was sufficient goad for them both.
He was cold, he was wet, he was miserable… he was shackled, for God's sake, and certain lieutenant-colonels were yapping at his heels, with a "Hurry up, McKay", and a "We can't stop now, McKay", and "Dammit, Rodney, they're almost on to us."
"I'm trying, I'm trying," he gasped.
Then Sheppard told them to leave the river and head out onto the moor, though why on earth was he doing that, when there was no cover, and Rodney was the man with the giant price on his head – the arrow pointing at him saying "shoot here", as he ran totally exposed on the vast side of the mountain?
"Why?" he demanded.
"Just do it." Sheppard, too, sounded breathless.
"Rodney." Sheppard sounded weary, rather than furious. "You have your area of expertise. I don't question you on yours. What do you know about wilderness survival and being hunted?"
"Oh. Good point." He swallowed. And how do you know about that?
It appeared that Sheppard knew what he was talking about, after all. The undergrowth was thick, almost sheltering. The moor was far less smooth than it looked from a distance, with rocky rises that could hide them from view. As they ran – staggered, really – Rodney often found himself in the cold shadow of an outcrop. When he looked back, Sheppard, with his dark cloak, was almost invisible. Rodney's cloak was identical, so he had to assume that he, too, was camouflaged, even though he felt as visible as a flare.
The light faded as the sun sank lower, touching the mountains on the far side of the valley. "What if we're still here when it's dark?"
"Then it'll be easer for us to hide."
"And easier for them to creep up on us. They've got dogs. Whatever passes for a dog round here, anyway."
He had nothing he could do with his shackled hands. He had no devices, no machines, not even any weapons. The only thing between himself and a hideous death was the ability of his own body to keep on running, and sheer blind luck… and Sheppard, he found himself adding. When Sheppard had broken him out of that cell… And, before that, when Sheppard had offered – no, demanded – to take Rodney's place…
"I'll need a rest soon," he said, and his chains rattled as he spoke.
Half a dozen steps later, he tripped, his ankle turning on a rock. He flailed for balance, the chain jerking at his wrist, wrenching at his shoulder. It was difficult to catch himself when he realised that falling was inevitable. The coarse vegetation scratched his face, and he ended up on the ground, his vision dark with stalks, and his mouth and nose full of earth and fragments.
He rolled over. "I'll live, thank you for asking." He clutched his ankle with both hands, the chain stretching across the top of his foot. It's broken! he thought. I'm crippled! Then he remembered the hunters, and the fate they had planned for him. He moved his foot experimentally. The pain was already fading. "Help me up." Sheppard, for a moment, looked as if his attention was a million miles away from Rodney. "It's hard to get up when your hands are tied."
Focus seemed to return to Sheppard's eyes. He hesitated for a moment, then offered Rodney a hand, hauling him to his feet.
"What about now?" Rodney hobbled towards an outcrop. "Just for a minute."
Sheppard didn't join him as he leant against the stone, but stood nearby, looking taut and ready. Rodney watched him for a while.
"You didn't have to," Rodney said, at last. "This, I mean. Break me out." There had been so much shouting, with spears jabbing, and arrows flying. They had ducked and run, Sheppard's arm sweeping around his shoulder, covering him with the cloak, and for a short and terrifying time there had been nothing but shouting, and his breathing, and the ground pounding beneath his feet.
"Yeah," Sheppard said. "Yes, I did."
"Oh." Rodney pulled disconsolately at his chains. Sheppard had known the way, too – weaving his way through the houses and walls and yards, although Rodney had spent just as long as Sheppard had spent in the village, and had no idea at all. They should have been back in Atlantis by now, but Rodney's captors were cleverer than they looked. Sheppard's face had gone entirely still when he had seen the twenty armed men guarding the jumper. "You can take them," Rodney had whispered, but Sheppard had let out a slow, shallow breath, and shaken his head. "The jumper was secure when I started," was all he had said, a little later. "They must have taken a short cut. Guess we're on the run, then, until back-up arrives." Some time after that, he had said, "I'm sorry."
"They're still following," Sheppard said now. "Five minutes behind. I'm sorry, Rodney, but we need to..."
No. Rodney curled his hand around the chain. I'm sorry. He pushed himself away from the rock, and found that his ankle was hardly hurting at all. The air was cold on his face, though inside his cloak, he felt as if he was roasting.
Sheppard had found them a narrow animal trail through the foliage, and that alone made it possible to walk. It was a bit like heather, he thought, remembering images on Carson's calendar, remembering Carson himself. The few trees were bent almost double by the prevailing wind, and the dark specks of birds overhead looked predatory, as if they were waiting for him to fail.
"I don't want to be disemboweled," he found himself saying.
"If it comes to that, I'll kill you myself."
Rodney faltered; turned round. "Do you mean that?"
Sheppard's face was impassive. "Do you want me to mean that?"
Rodney turned back, concentrated on walking, concentrated on the scratching branches of the almost-heather, on the circling birds, on the shivering undergrowth ahead of them that denoted… what? If he was on the scaffold, facing… facing that, then wouldn't he want a clean death? If a friend was prepared to take on the burden of his own death in order to save him that agony, wasn't it a…? Wasn't it…?
No, he thought. Oh no, no, no. He chewed at his lip. "I always said you were going to get me killed one day."
"That's a yes, then?"
Sometimes, even after three years, even after so many shared adventures, so many hours together, so many talks, something happened that made him realise that he would never truly understand John Sheppard. Could he really be asking…? Could he really mean…?
He stopped, turned, opened his mouth to ask…
That was when the creature leapt silently out of the undergrowth, and fell on them with a jubilant growl.
It was the size of a large dog. Sheppard dodged, but his wound slowed him, and the creature was faster. As it crashed into him, Sheppard brought his hand up, and found himself grasping a collar. He hauled at it, but the creature was strong, far too strong. He was thrown down onto his back, and came up kicking, not really thinking at all, just using everything he had to keep it off him, to keep its teeth from his throat, to keep its claws from his chest.
Everything came in short flashes, one after the other. Saliva in his face. Bared teeth, and rotten breath. A clump of coarse fur in his hand. Dry undergrowth cracking beneath his body, sharp twigs digging into his back. His hand slipping on its collar, wet and warm and red.
And McKay, shouting. McKay, hauling at the same collar with his chained hands. Glimpses of McKay's face, of his shoulder, of his leg, of his cloak. "Shoo!" and "Get off him, Rover!" and "Stop!" and "No, please no, please no, no, no, no…"
"Hold him," Sheppard managed to gasp.
"What? What? I can't!" But McKay moved even closer, hauling at the collar – a glimpse of his face, red with exertion – then cried out in pain as the creature twisted round towards him. He didn't relax his grip, though. It gave Sheppard the freedom to let go with one hand. As the teeth closed only inches from his throat, he reached down to his boot – and it hurt! Oh God, how it hurt! – and dragged out the knife that was hidden there.
He felt the hideously small resistance that living flesh always made to a sharp knife, and then he was through, in and twisting. Warmth flowed over his hand. He hauled the knife out, and stabbed again, and the creature screamed, almost human in its pain. Another stab, and it pulled itself away, curling in on itself, snarling, whimpering. "Get back!" Sheppard shouted, but he was too far gone to follow the threat up with violence. The knife was a line of scarlet in his hand as he gestured with it limply. "Rodney!"
McKay's face was slack with horror. Sheppard struggled dizzily to his feet, and lunged at McKay, only narrowly preventing it from being a fall. "Come on."
"But it –"
He dragged McKay along the track. "Dying animals are dangerous. It wasn't wild. It had a collar. They're close."
"It winged me," McKay said. "That… that's the right word?"
No time to smile. Rodney's arm was bleeding, but Sheppard thought it wasn't too bad. He knew he'd collected a few scrapes himself, but the arrow wound had exploded into an agony that flowed out into everything, filling the sky with pulsing red and white. Even deep lacerations would have been nothing against that.
"You killed it," McKay said. "Stabbed it. Where did you get the knife? I thought… You said… I thought you didn't have any…"
"Can't spend… so much time… around Ronon–" The pulsing eased a little when he spoke "–without picking up… a few tips on… how to hide… a knife."
McKay glanced down at his own sleeve. "You okay?" he said in a quieter voice.
Even real things seemed unreal, jerking around to the rhythm of their steps. Sheppard saw his own two bloody hands, one of them still on McKay's arm, dragging him forward. "It's his blood." It was not entirely a lie.
The ground started to slope downwards, and he could see that they were heading into a small depression, like a jagged bowl. If they went down there, they would be hidden from anyone further away, but to anyone standing on its lip, they would be sitting ducks. He changed direction, skirting the depression instead, heading for a few sparse trees.
"You killed it," McKay said again. "Left it writhing in agony. A pet dog."
"It was trying to kill us."
"I'm a cat person myself." McKay's voice was broken up with the rhythm of his breathing. "But you can't… You shouldn't… It's just…"
"Wouldn't hear you complaining if it was a Wraith. It was him or us. Simple as that."
"If you're going to be squeamish, McKay, then why are you here?"
He realised that he was effectively shouting – hissing the words out through gritted teeth. The pulsing was fading, but everything around him was beginning to sparkle with hectic colours. He could hear the sound of pursuit, but it faded in and out, like the tide.
"Yes." McKay tore his arm away. "Why am I here? Because you broke me out. Because you made the decision for me and dragged me out on this ridiculous adventure. You should have left me there."
"To get branded?" Sheppard spat. "Rodney, they were going to string you up in the middle of the square, strip you naked, and brand you three times – cheek and chest and back."
"It was only a small brand."
"Then they were going to leave you hanging by your wrists for an hour, fair game for anyone to do anything they wanted to–"
"As long as they didn't injure me," McKay said faintly.
"Yes. And if you don't know the possibilities that that entails, then I can give you some ideas."
"No." McKay swallowed. "I…"
"And, no, I couldn't go back to Atlantis to get help, because there was no time and I wasn't going to turn my back and leave you there in their hands."
"I…" McKay turned his head away. "I could take it."
"I couldn't!" Pain buffeted him, and he lurched sideways, and grabbed at the tree, at empty air, at McKay, but McKay had moved away. He held himself upright with excruciating effort, but couldn't suppress a small moan.
How he hated this! His sleeve was soaked with blood, and there were bloody handprints all over his cloak. He could still hear the dying screams of the creature, coldly slaughtered by Sheppard… and his eyes, as he had done it; his eyes.
"I could take it," he said again, as his arm throbbed, and turned fear into fury.
This time Sheppard said nothing. And Rodney almost hated him in that moment. What right did Sheppard have to decide this for him? It had been Rodney's punishment, but Sheppard had pushed forward, demanding the right as his team leader to take the punishment himself, and then, when that was denied, committing them to this stupid course of action.
"You just assumed I couldn't cope," he said. "Assumed I needed rescuing. Assumed I was weak. Well, colonel, I'm stronger than you think."
But his voice wavered, and his arm was hurting so much, the pain like claws at the back of his eyes, almost enough to make him cry. Because he had been terrified in that cell, facing something terrible, with absolutely nothing he could do about it. Sheppard will come up with something. Sheppard won't let this happen. It had been there, silent inside him, like a mantra. And Sheppard had. And in that first moment of escape, the joy had been like nothing else he had ever felt, as fierce and vibrant as the terror had been.
So Sheppard was right, and he had needed rescuing. Sheppard was right, and he had been too weak to take it. And he hated Sheppard for knowing that. And he hated himself, because it was the truth.
"It's not a matter of strength." Sheppard's voice sounded strange. "No-one does that to one of my people."
Rodney brought his blood-stained hand up to his face, the other hand trailing behind it. "So you'd have done the same for Ronon, then?"
Sheppard just nodded.
Rodney let his hands fall. The anger was still there, and the misery, but they were out on the open moor, hunted by people who wanted to kill him. How loud had they been talking? Not loud, he thought, but rather gasping things with the force of a shout, but no louder than a whisper. "Got to keep running," he said, "now you've committed us to this course of action."
They moved on, Rodney going in front, but Sheppard leading from behind. We're not done, he thought, but he wondered if he'd ever get the nerve to talk about these things again, without pain and urgency to show him the way. Normally it was Sheppard who said that they had to focus on the bigger picture, that they could talk about whatever issues had come up after the mission, after they'd finished running for their lives, after the hordes were defeated. Then, of course, the 'after' never came. The mission ended, but they talked about easy things, and life moved on.
Light was leeching from the sky. The air was growing colder, and everything looked as if it was fading ever so slowly into an uniform grey. Not far away, he heard the shouts of men, and the howling of animals. One went on longer – a slow, ululating cry that made him think of the Hound of the Baskervilles, and death stalking on a moor.
"They've found the body," Sheppard said.
"If it's dead yet." He remembered how it had writhed.
"It is now."
He thought of men with cold eyes, slitting the throat of an animal to save it from a worse death. If it comes to that, I'll kill you myself. He shivered. Not so different, after all, Sheppard and these hunters.
"It's not going to work." As the light faded, it became harder and harder to keep his footing.
"We're already overdue. They'll send someone after us soon."
"We're not going to last that long." He chewed his lip, then tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. "I had to shut my eyes during Braveheart when they cut him up."
"That's not going to happen."
Oh God, he thought. It was so tempting to believe. It was so easy to believe. His own eyes told him otherwise. There was so little cover, and the enemy was so close.
"Can we… go to ground?" he stammered. "Do a last stand? Fight off all comers?"
"You watch too many movies, McKay. Geek."
"I'm the head of the science department," Rodney protested. "Geek is in my job description. Unlike yours. I bet your men don't know what you watch in your spare time. Geek yourself."
It didn't make anything better. He couldn't clutch the injury on his arm, because the chain wouldn't let his arm go that far. There would be all manner of infections…
"Up there," Sheppard said, from behind him. "Towards the rocks."
Rodney looked at the dark rocks rising from the moor, as foothills gave way to mountains. "You want us to go up?"
"Animals won't follow. Then we can shake them off. No scent."
The ground was damp at the foot of the crags, and there were tiny star-like white flowers between the cracks. A long-legged bug clambered out of a crevice, onto the back of his hand. Rodney snatched his hand away. "I can't climb, not without my hands."
"It's not proper climbing. I'll get you started."
I'm going to die. I'm going to die, he thought. Why on earth was he going along with this? Why on earth was he stepping on Sheppard's locked hands, was he letting himself be heaved up, was he scrabbling with tethered hands to find something to hold on to? The next few minutes were awful. He was exposed on the rock surface, an easy target for anyone to shoot. Several times, he almost slipped, and rock dust fell down onto his face. He inhaled the sharp scent of stone, and soon he began to hate that little white flower, that filled up cracks, and made them slippery.
Then he was there, his lungs screaming, his chest scraped, his arms tearing with agony. He lay on his stomach, hands stretched above his head, then rolled onto his back. Sheppard dragged himself across the ground beside him. "Low," he whispered hoarsely. "Got to stay low."
They weren't even high above the moor. Far higher crags rose behind them, and the mountain top was out of sight, far beyond even them. They were on a thin expanse of grassy ground, like a ribbon between the first tier of crags and the second. Here, at least, fallen boulders gave them cover.
"They'll have seen where we came up," he said.
Sheppard said nothing.
"You're going to tell me we need to keep going. I know that look." He swallowed, tasting stone. "Sheppard…"
Sheppard pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, but it seemed to take him several attempts. He crawled to the lea of a boulder, then tumbled sideways, his shoulders and head resting awkwardly against the stone.
"Guess there's no good time to tell you this…" Sheppard began.
Rodney looked at Sheppard's blood-stained hands, then at the smears of blood on the edge of the crag. He saw the strain around Sheppard's eyes, and the pallor of his lips.
"Took some fire," Sheppard said, "during the escape. Thought I could…, but I can't, not any more." His eyes closed, then opened again. "I'm sorry, Rodney." This time they did not reopen.
"Oh no. Oh no no no no no." Rodney scrambled towards him, but his cuffed hands betrayed him and pulled him over, and he landed on his shoulder, and cried out at the pain in his mauled arm. "Sheppard. Oh God, Sheppard…"
"Not dead yet." Sheppard's lips moved barely perceptibly into a smile.
Rodney touched his throat with both hands, feeling both the pulse and the rapid breathing. Then with both hands he pulled the cloak aside, and saw the blood-soaked clothes beneath it. "Arrow head's still in," Sheppard whispered.
But Rodney knelt there with his head turned away. He brought up his hand, palm outwards, urging Sheppard to be quiet.
Someone was climbing the crags below them.
Sheppard could hear the sound of McKay's breathing, and could hear his torrent of low whispering, as he was pouring out words, talking to himself.
"Knife," he heard McKay breathe, as he felt a tugging at his boot. "Where do you people keep these things?"
Why did McKay need his knife? Sheppard forced his eyes to open, forced his body to move. The pain had left no room for anything else, but McKay's fear was like a window opening, letting in a chink of thought that was different.
McKay had the knife in both hands. The blade was still red with blood. Didn't clean it, Sheppard thought. Ronon'll be mad.
"What?" he managed, his lips moving with barely a sound coming out.
"Someone's coming." McKay jerked his chin at the edge of the crag. "I've got it covered."
Sheppard saw a hand appear over the top of the crag, saw it grope around, seeking a handhold. McKay sat frozen, yards from the edge, the knife unsteady in his hands.
Sheppard pushed himself forward, striding through the wall of pain, and emerging on the other side. He snatched the knife from McKay's hand, and McKay didn't resist, only reached out for it after it had gone. When another hand appeared, and then the top of someone's head, Sheppard reached out and grabbed the man by his collar, holding the blade ready and visible as a threat. "McKay!" McKay was at his side almost instantly. "Help me. We need to drag him up."
"So he can't tell the others."
"But that means…"
Darkness danced at the edge of his vision, and he saw through a tunnel, as if he was seeing things in a flashlight beam in the dark. He saw the young man's face, that much was clear. He saw him struggling, torn between wanting to free himself from their grip, and wanting to avoid falling to his death. But he saw him, too, just an hour before, a young man in his early twenties, laughing with his friends as the sentence was passed, planning what they would do to McKay as he hung naked after the branding. He saw McKay's chained hands beside his own blood-stained ones. Then the world tipped over, and the man was across his body for a moment, and then McKay shouted something, and next the man was on his back, and Sheppard was kneeling over him, and the blood-stained blade was dark against the young man's throat.
"Don't!" McKay gasped.
"He wants to disembowel you, McKay." His voice came from a cold place outside himself. "Perhaps he was the only one who saw us climb – wants the glory of capturing us himself. If he can't tell the others…"
The man was fighting. He brought his knee up, driving it into Sheppard's middle, tearing him apart with pain. His hand grabbed Sheppard's wrist, and Sheppard fought, the knife juddering between them, but strength was flowing away from him like water. "Rodney!" he hissed, and McKay was there opposite him, one hand holding the young man's arm down against the ground. As the youth bucked and squirmed beneath them, their eyes met for one brief moment. "Don't," McKay said again, and Sheppard had to look away.
Then another kick almost robbed him of consciousness. He saw the knife in his hand. Beneath him, the terrified, young, desperate face faded into the sneering face of the cocky youth who had planned to torture McKay, and had laughed while doing so.
"Never shoot," Sheppard said, "unless you're prepared to kill."
But it was so much more visceral with a knife. You felt the faint popping as the frail skin broke. You felt the warm blood, fading to cold. You saw the eyes turning opaque. With a gun, all that was far away. A gun protected you from the nightmares. Perhaps a knife was better, then, because at least then you couldn't hide. At least then, when you looked in the mirror, the darkness stared back at you. The darkness…
Rodney's hand reached out behind him, and his closed on a large stone. As Sheppard's eyes lost their focus, Rodney lashed out, smashing the stone into the side of the young man's, then again, then again, then again. "Rodney," he heard Sheppard whisper. "Don't…"
Rodney's hand dropped to his side. He was too late to stop Sheppard as he slumped sideways; too late to catch him as he hit the ground, and lay still. The young man was still, too, half-buried by Sheppard's body. Even in the fading light, the blood showed clearly. Blood on the stone, blood on the young man's face – looking so young now, almost like a boy – and blood on Sheppard's hands. Blood on his own hands, too. He dropped the stone, letting it fall from his stiff fingers.
Minutes later, perhaps, he thawed enough to move. The young man had a gouge across his shoulder, starting at the curve of his neck. He was still breathing. Then Rodney wondered why he would check this man first, before checking on Sheppard. Sheppard… He touched his neck, too – He would have killed him – and found his pulse rapid, but still there.
He took a deep breath, swallowing the taste of cold stone. The young man had a sash. Yes, quick, tie him up with that. It wasn't easy with his hands cuffed – oh, did the man have a key? No, no time to look – but he managed to tie the youth's hands together, and then fashion a crude gag. The boy didn't stir at all, and a terrifying amount of blood was pooling beneath his head.
Sheppard would have killed him, he thought, if he hadn't fainted first. He would have killed him, if I hadn't…
He saw a body-bag being wheeled out of a room. Then he was still for a few minutes more, clasping and unclasping his hands in his lap. Sheppard's chest was still rising and falling. Although he was unconscious, his hand still gripped the knife.
It was almost twilight now. When Rodney edged towards the rim of the crag, he could see lights out in the valley. Each one was somebody's home, and here he was, out in the cold. Then he tore his gaze back to nearer places. He couldn't see anyone else stalking the ground beneath the rocks. He couldn't hear anyone. Perhaps the others had given up. Perhaps they knew that night on these mountains would kill anyone.
"Sheppard," he said at last, managing to voice sounds at last.
Sheppard stirred, as if summoned by his name. "Got to go. I know."
"Is there anything…?" Rodney's hands fluttered. "Binding the… the wounds, I mean?"
"No bandages." Sheppard raised himself painfully up onto his hands and knees. "Just clothes… torn bits from clothes, and they're…" The moan was barely audible, but Rodney heard it. "Dirty," Sheppard said. "Counter-productive."
He tried to stand. A moment later, Rodney hurried over to help him, and remembered how Sheppard had helped him to his feet not long before, before Rodney had known about his injury. When they started to move again, he had no idea how Sheppard managed to keep walking. Rodney let him lean on him, though, although his chained arms could not support him properly. Before they moved a single step, though, he saw how Sheppard sought out the body of the young man he had almost killed. He saw the muscles of Sheppard's face tighten when he saw him, but he had no idea what that meant.
Walking grew harder and harder and harder. There was so little light, and the ground was treacherous, and Sheppard was leaning more heavily by the minute, and when they were this close, Rodney could hear the small sounds of pain that Sheppard could not suppress. He had never heard him make sounds like that before, he thought. He had never been so close, his body able to feel all the tremors and faltering breaths of a badly injured man.
"I have to stop." It was not entirely for his own sake that he said it.
Sheppard sat down heavily. He sat with his back to the high crags, his head leaning back, the last dregs of light falling on his face. Rodney crouched not far away, the chain stretched tight across his knees.
"You were going to kill him," Rodney said. "You would have, if you hadn't… If I hadn't…" His words ran out, swallowed up by the image of a body bag.
Sheppard nodded minutely. "Perhaps you did kill him. Head injury's a serious thing, and here, in the dark..." He moistened his lips.
"People get better from head injuries. I did." Unconscious for a while, then on your feet again; that's what it was like in the movies. "And his friends will be there in a minute." I was trying to save him. I was... I was trying to save you - to save you from killing him.
"Mercy isn't always merciful. Sometimes it's just a way to make ourselves feel better."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Not 'supposed to' anything. Just is."
Now Sheppard's blood was on his hands, too. He wiped them on his cloak. "Why didn't you tell me you were hurt?"
"It wouldn't have helped."
"You lied to me."
"Just… withheld the truth."
"Damn it, Sheppard." One hand dragged the other out, and he cried out, almost snarling in his fury, because he hated this. He was chained, and Sheppard was… was maybe dying because of him, and Sheppard hadn't told him, and had come all this way with him with an arrow in his side, for God's sake, and had tried to take his punishment for him, and had been prepared to murder for him, and… and he hated it. He hated it.
"Wouldn't have helped." Sheppard's gaze was steady. "Would have slowed us down, while you wanted to check. Our options were the same, with or without you knowing."
"Options you decided for us."
Sheppard still did not lower his eyes. "Yes."
"I can't believe this." He looked at his hands, stained red. "I never asked you to protect me. I never asked you to get hurt for me." He swallowed, remembering things that could never be forgotten. "To kill for me. You scare me sometimes. I hate it."
Sheppard closed his eyes, and Rodney let out a breath. "I told Teyla once," Sheppard whispered. "I'd do anything, for any one of you."
Sheppard had the luxury of darkness, but Rodney's eyes were wide open. "But I don't want you to." Don't want to be the weak one who gets rescued. Don't want you to have to kill for me. Don't want to be the person that you sell your soul to darkness in order to save.
"It isn't about you."
"Then that's selfish."
Something screamed up on the mountain – a small animal dying in the claws of something larger. Rodney peered upwards. "Can't help that," Sheppard said.
And the worst thing was that everything he had said was a lie. It felt wonderful to be rescued. If felt warm and safe to know that your team would come for you no matter what. He had been terrified of facing the Wraith, but Sheppard had spared him that, and had taken the burden of guilt onto his own shoulders. Rodney had the happy ending, but what did Sheppard see when he fell asleep at night?
"Would you really kill me?" he asked at last, when the silence had stretched for too long. "To save me from the disembowelment, I mean."
He still had no idea if Sheppard had meant that as a joke, but he seemed to be considering it seriously. "If it came to that," he said, his eyes still closed, "I’d know it was necessary, but…" He opened his eyes. "I don't think I could do it, Rodney. It would mean giving up."
"Well…" Rodney shifted awkwardly. "Let's hope you never have to face that dilemma." He was aiming for a light tone, but it came out stilted.
But Sheppard smiled, though. "Yeah."
Rodney pressed his hand to his brow, where a headache was developing. "I'm sorry–" He flapped the hand in circles. "–about… this."
Cloud was beginning to obscure the far mountain. He saw a flock of birds swooping towards their roost, moving like smoke.
"Do you really think I killed him?" he asked.
Sheppard offered no comfort there, no reassurance. Is that what you bear, Rodney thought, daily, for all of us? You, Ronon, Teyla, everyone whose job is to kill? He fixed things with his brain and his hands; Sheppard and the others were prepared to kill so that he would be free to do such things. He had known it for always, of course, but perhaps he had never truly felt it before, not until he had seen a body bag wheeled out of the room, and had watched Sheppard lie to him, never quite meeting his eye.
He hated it, and he welcomed it, both at the same time. What Sheppard had done for him on Earth should have felt like the worst thing imaginable, but instead it had felt like the most terrifying and humbling act of friendship that anyone had ever committed for him. And he hated feeling like that. He, too, bore that guilt.
He opened his mouth to say something – but not that, though, never that – but a sound from above him made him snap his head up. A dozen men were climbing easily down the higher crags towards them. Two had already reached the bottom, and were standing there with bows ready. As he watched, another reached the ground, and then another.
It was all over. The enemy had found them. "Sheppard," he hissed, but Sheppard's eyes were closed, and his head had slumped sideways onto his shoulder, and even his chest seemed still.
Sheppard was not entirely faking. Staying awake was hard. Staying focused was even harder. If McKay hadn't been there, perhaps he would have given in and let himself drift. Because that's how it goes, Rodney, he had thought, but would never say. It's not just me protecting you. It's the other way round, as much as anything. He fought more fiercely when he had others in his care. When others depended on him, whether team-mates, subordinates or strangers, there was nothing that he would not do. It was as simple as that. It was his choice, not their burden.
"Both your lives are forfeit now," he heard someone say. "You, Doctor McKay, for the original crime; Colonel Sheppard for perverting our justice by snatching you away."
"Disemboweling, I presume?" He could hear the panic fluttering beneath McKay's voice.
"Our laws seem harsh to you," the man said, drawing closer, "but it is our way. Had you accepted your punishment, we would have held no enmity towards you after the sentence was complete. Our harshest punishment is reserved to those who deny their crimes or attempt to escape justice."
"Crimes?" McKay echoed. "Well, then, I admit it. Mea culpa, and all that. I'm an arrogant man, too fond of my own voice. I wasn't listening, all right? You did that greeting speech and I just heard 'blah blah blah.' I didn't hear you talk about your sacred whatever it was… red flower… thing. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to sit on the grass. My bad, as they say. Can't we put this thing behind us. What do you say?"
"Ignorance is no excuse."
"Oh, please!" McKay made an audible effort to restrain himself. "No, no. You're right. It's isn't. I didn't listen to your laws, so accidentally broke one–"
"'Ridiculous superstition' I believe you called it." The man's voice was cold, and the tone was enough for Sheppard to recognise it as the voice of the village priest and headman. "'As if a god would care about stupid flowers,' you said, 'if he existed, which of course he doesn't.'"
"Ah. Well." McKay gave a nervous bark of laughter. "It sounds bad. I'll accept the punishment. But not disemboweling, please. I was going to face my fate. Sheppard's the one who dragged me away. I was kicking and screaming, but you've seen how he can get. It was his fault."
"And he will be punished."
"No!" McKay cried. "Listen. Wait. What I mean is this. There's the crime and then there's the running away. I did the crime but not the running away. He did the jail break, but not the crime. That's one strike each. It's not the disemboweling. It's not… Oh! No! No! Please, no!"
Sheppard opened his eye just a crack, and saw McKay ringed, but no-one had yet laid hands on him. Very minutely, Sheppard tightened his grip on the knife.
Then he missed a bit, carried away by pain. He drifted back through the red waves to hear only the strangers' voices, speaking only meaningless sounds, not words. Rodney! he thought. Where's McKay? The air seemed colder. How much time had passed? His heart started to beat very fast, each pulse of it stabbing his side with liquid fire.
"–so you can't." The pulsing stole the words again for a moment. "Because," he heard. An animal howled below him, in the valley. "Please."
His mouth was dry. His hands were cold with air-dried blood. He grasped the knife and readied himself to act. A dozen of them; he had seen that in the last sliver of vision before his eyes had slid shut. A dozen of them, armed. He wouldn't stand a chance. Unless, perhaps, he could take the priest. Unless the priest was so important to them that he could be used as a bargaining chip. Unless… Unless…
"But you shot him," he heard McKay say, clear and distinct, "so that counts as pretty much a branding, anyway. And I was mauled. Call it quits?"
"Your fate is sealed."
"No!" McKay's voice moved very close. "It was my mistake, my crime. He just did what he did because… well, he's like that. Likes to play the hero. Always risking himself because of the stupid things we do. We've been through… things lately. I nearly lost my sister, and… But, no, you don't want to know about that. He did… Well, it amazed me and terrified me, what he was prepared to do for me. I didn't know what to say, but I said thank you. Because it helped me. Like this. He's made it worse, but he wasn't to know. He couldn't watch one of his team suffer like that, for something so stupid. He just couldn't. I hadn't realised that before, not until… Well, not until now. It's not fair to kill him because he wanted to help me. It's not… I didn't even know he was hurt – did you know that? He didn't tell me. He–"
"So you will give yourself up," the cold voice said, "and accept full punishment of the law, as long as we let Colonel Sheppard go free?"
"Well, not full punishment. I'd rather not have that." Sheppard could clearly imagine the expression on McKay's face. "But if… Yes. Yes, I will."
"Rodney." Sheppard opened his eyes. "No."
"Sheppard," Rodney hissed, but relief was unmistakable in his eyes. "I had a plan. Well, I would have come up with a plan soon. That is, I hoped…"
Sheppard forced himself upright, easing himself up with hands against the surface of the crag. One hand still held the knife. "Don't listen to him. I'm his team leader, and his actions are my responsibility. I made him run away."
"And you were the one who killed the hound? Who left my son for dead?"
Oh, crap, he thought. But he kept his head high. "Yeah, that was me."
"Left him for dead?" McKay echoed. "Oh no. Oh no. I didn't mean… Is he going to…?"
The priest ignored him, his gaze still on Sheppard, still cold. "And you say, as Doctor McKay does on his behalf, that you should bear the whole punishment, and he should go free?"
He nodded. "No!" he heard McKay shout, almost scream. He looked sick and furious and horrified… and betrayed; perhaps even that. But one day, whether now or in the distant future, it had always been going to come to this. One day… But he still had his knife. He had to mean it, and he did mean it, but that didn't mean that he was giving up the fight just yet.
"What are you hoping to gain here?" The priest seemed genuinely interested. "Do you hope that I will be so impressed by your self-sacrifice that I let you both go?"
"Are you?" McKay asked, hopeful, despite the horror.
"No." The priest raised his hand, signalling orders to his men. "Take them, but keep them alive for their deaths on the scaffold."
Sheppard threw himself forward then, knife in hand. McKay, he saw, was dropping to the ground. And there was noise and shouting… and then light, nothing but light.
Rodney sat in the back of the jumper and watched them work on Sheppard. Ronon and Teyla were on either side of him. "Did you find…?" he managed
"No," Teyla said. "It was a false report. My people are still missing."
"Oh." He looked at his hands, the broken chains dangling. Something else was required, but he couldn't find a way to say it.
Barring complications, Sheppard would be fine; they had told him that much. The cloaked jumper had shown itself just in time to put an end to any deciding confrontation. They were rescued. End of story.
"But it doesn't feel right." He looked at Sheppard's face, lost in unconsciousness. "It isn't like this in the movies."
"Like what?" Ronon asked.
Perhaps the time for saying things was already over. They were heading back to the light, back to Atlantis, back to business as usual. Just as he always did, he could lose himself in work. Thoughts would be the preserve of late nights alone in his room. Soon, perhaps, even they would fade.
But the jumper was still out in the darkness, and he could still taste the dust of the mountain on his lips. "The cavalry turning up," he said, "just in the nick of time. It's supposed to be the happy ending."
But a rescue curtailed things before they were properly ended. It plucked you free before you had to face the consequences of your actions. It cheated. He still had no idea how far down the path of heroism he was prepared to walk. Sheppard knew. During the Wraith siege, Sheppard had been on the point of sacrificing his life for the city, until he had been saved by a rescue that he had never expected to arrive. Countless others – Carson, Grodin, Griffin, Gaul – had made that final choice. Rodney's choices kept on getting plucked away. And he was still alive, while so many others had died.
Perhaps he was just a coward. It was easy to volunteer to be disemboweled when you knew that a rescue party would almost certainly arrive before you could be dragged back to the scaffold. It was easy to decide to sacrifice yourself to the Wraith, and then tell the one person who you knew would move heaven and earth in order to keep you from doing it.
"It leaves things unfinished," he said, "and then you don't know…" He stopped, chewing his lip, tasting stone. "Someone else does it, when it should be you."
"Would you have preferred us not to have rescued you?" Teyla asked him.
It had ended with lights, and the enemy running; Ronon with his blaster, and Marines with their guns; medics pushing him away, saying, "Leave him to us now, Doctor McKay." And sinking down in the jumper, safe and relieved. Rescued and saved; everything finished.
"No," he said, and gave a mirthless laugh. "Of course not." And perhaps that was the worst thing of all.
"Know how you feel." Ronon clapped him on the shoulder unexpectedly, and Rodney suddenly remembered how Ronon had wanted to kill that big Wraith by himself, but how he had hugged Carson when he had stepped in and done it for him. "But it's how things are. We look out for each other."
And Rodney had meant those things when he had said them, hadn't he? The thought of Sheppard dying for his own infraction had been unbearable, and he would have faced anything rather than that. The thought of Sheppard murdering someone for his sake had been unbearable, and he had stepped in, almost killing the boy himself, not really thinking about the consequences, but almost doing it, anyway. Was it any different from what Sheppard had done, he wondered. Sheppard had broken him out of prison because he couldn't bear the thought of watching him get hurt. Sheppard had done… that, on Earth. There were many forms of sacrifice. Maybe what mattered was not that you walked the path to the end, but that you walked it as far as you needed to.
"I'm not used to it," he said, flanked by two of his team, with the blood of the third on his hands. Not being alone, he added. Having people you're ready to sacrifice yourself for. Having people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for you.
When you cared for nobody and nothing, life followed simple rules. Sometimes he missed that certainty, but would he trade what he had now for what he had lost…?
"Beats being alone," Ronon said.
Sheppard woke up, slept for a while, then woke up again. The third time, McKay was there, but he made his excuses and slipped away as soon as he could.
It was two days before he came back.
"I thought things would go back to normal," McKay said, after he had settled himself on the chair, "and we wouldn't have to talk about it. That's how it works."
"There's nothing to talk about."
"No." It sounded vehement. "It's just…" McKay's hand rose to his face, then fell again. Sheppard could see the faint marks of shackles around his wrist. "You could have died because of me, and you… you would have killed that boy, if you hadn't... if I hadn't…" He let out a breath. "I… I understand wanting to save people's lives, but where do you draw the line?"
Sheppard did not pretend not to understand, but he had no idea how to answer.
"You said you'd do anything, you said, for one of us… But what if we don't want you to? And it's not true, anyway. You didn't want me to… to do… to do what I did… with Elizabeth. The cost was too high, you said. But I did it, and we can see the results of that, and I know you wouldn’t… wouldn't put one of us first if you knew it would mean dozens of innocent people dying. So how do you decide? How do you draw the line? One person? Ten? A hundred? An injury? Death?"
Sheppard ran his thumb up and down the edge of the blanket. "I don't know. I don't know if anyone can know."
He saw the true question in McKay's eyes – the true issue that neither of them would ever talk about out loud ever again. You made a man kill himself, for me. But the man in question had not been innocent. He had made a mistake for the best of reasons – hell, reasons Sheppard could understand and empathise with - but ultimately the fault had been his. His fault to make, and his to rectify. You faced up to your responsibilities. It was as simple as that.
Simple? Oh, God, no, of course not simple. Never simple. But…
"He was barely twenty," McKay said, "not even a soldier."
"He wanted to kill you. I thought it was him or us."
"And that makes it okay?"
He said nothing for a long time. Sometimes, at night, he still heard the sound of sixty Genii impacting against a shield. "It's my job," he said at last. His job was to keep the civilians of Atlantis safe. Sometimes that meant he had to kill people whose only crime was to want those same people dead – people who were exactly the same as him, but served on different sides. A soldier had to bear that burden, so that civilians didn't have to. There was nothing heroic about it; it was just was. The day it became easy was the day he would quit. But the day that he could no longer bring himself to do it when it was necessary… That, too, was the day that he would quit.
"Your job?" McKay's laugh sounded miserable. "That's it?"
He nodded, but perhaps he was more than half lying, after all. Sometimes you did things not just because it was your job, but because the thought of a friend dying was more than you could bear. Sometimes you would pay any cost – any cost at all – to save a friend, and you never stopped to think about the implications of that cost. So far, he had only had to kill those who had, in a way, laid themselves open to that fate, but perhaps even that justification was specious. What if, one day, the only way to save a team-mate was to murder an innocent? Would he go that far? A few years ago, he would have said a categorical no, but sometimes he felt the answer getting less clear-cut with every passing day. It scared him, sometimes, to look into the mirror and see himself, product of the Pegasus Galaxy, and a war.
"There are no rules," he said. "You just have to do what feels right at the time."
And sometimes you were proved right, and sometimes you were proved catastrophically wrong. It was wrong to abandon your people to the Wraith, but when rescuing them resulted in the Wraith waking up… When rescuing them lead to millions dead across the galaxy…? But still, knowing what he had known at the time, the choice had been the right one.
"And the fate of the galaxy rests on that?"
He shifted, feeling the stab of numbed pain from his side. "What else is there?"
McKay looked stricken. "I never used to think about things like this," he said quietly. "I never used to think much about the consequences of what I do, but now..." His gaze was sudden, unusually direct. "I guess you've never had that luxury."
He had to look away. "Like I say, I do what feels right at the time."
"Yeah. Well…" McKay moved on the chair. "Even breaking me out of prison and nearly getting me disemboweled as a result."
"Even that." He smiled. "Sorry about that."
McKay's smile was equally fragile. "I guess it's the thought that counts."
He could finish this, he thought. He could say light words, or close his eyes and pretend to sleep, and neither of them would ever talk about this again. That was the sort of thing he did. That was the sort of thing they both did.
"We do what we have to do," he said. "Sometimes we meet a situation, and we know that we just can't let it happen. Sometimes we don't want it to happen, but the cost is too high. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we think we're something for the right reasons, but later find that we weren't. Sometimes we're about to do something, but someone else stops us. It's just how things are."
"Then it shouldn't be."
"Life isn't like physics, Rodney," he said quietly. "It doesn't follow rules."
McKay let out a breath. "I wish it did."
"You can't beat yourself up over every mistake," Sheppard told him. "There's millions of people out there depending on us. We play the best we can with the hand we've been given. We do what feels right, and sometimes we're wrong, and sometimes..." He looked at McKay, who was still alive, and whose sister was still alive, while a guilty man was dead. "Sometimes we're right," he said firmly. And sometimes the right thing felt terrible, but it wasn't any less right for that; and sometimes the wrong thing felt wonderful, but was still wrong.
"It never used to be this complicated," McKay said.
"No." Sheppard remembered when he had enlisted in the Air Force, merely because he wanted above all else to fly. He remembered before that, a child watching planes in the blue. He remembered having no-one he cared about, and when his decisions affected nobody but himself. "But that's how things are, and we're stuck with it."
Rodney sighed. Raising his head, he opened his mouth, as if he was going to continue the discussion, but then he subsided.
The silence stretched. "Want to play chess?" Sheppard gestured at his tray. "Think the board'll fit?"
"I'll get the chess set." McKay stood up. "I won't go easy with you just because you're an invalid. Prepare for humiliating defeat."
"Like last time?" Sheppard reminded him. "When I beat you?"
It was no solution at all, Sheppard thought, but perhaps, in a way, it was an ending. Out here in the Pegasus Galaxy, they didn't have the luxury for anything else. But perhaps, he thought, as McKay turned to give a troubled smile from the door, it was enough.
Note: With this story, I initially set out to write some self-indulgent whump, full of those all my "guilty pleasure" elements. Before I got very far, it morphed into an exploration of ways of writing flashbacks, prompted by a discussion on LJ a few weeks ago. I wanted to start a story well over half way through, and use various techniques – dialogue, memory, allusion etc. – to show what went before.
However, before very long, it morphed again, and became what you see here – a story exploring some of the outstanding issues raised by Miller's Crossing. I actually wrote most of the story in a single sitting last week, the words flowing out in that way that always feels magical to me. The final two scenes, however, took a lot of careful thought and a huge amount of editing. In my long stories, emotional and character issues are thrown up by the events of the story itself. By the end of the story, therefore, I like to have resolved these issues (as much as you can ever truly resolve anything in life.) However, in this case, the emotional issues were ones raised by the show, not by the story. It just didn't feel right to me to end with total resolution. Plus, they're big issues which shouldn't really have total resolution. I don't one hundred percent rule out the idea of a semi-sequel – i.e. a self-contained short story that takes place after this one, and further explores the character issues – but I don't have current plans for one.
By the way, I never write deus ex machina endings, but in this case I did it entirely deliberately, because it seemed to tie in better with the emotional themes.
Thanks for reading!