The Other Side
by Eildon Rhymer
An explosion leaves Sheppard and McKay trapped and injured on opposite sides of a sealed door. Time is running out, and there is nothing to do but wait for rescue… and to talk.
Spoilers! This is set after Outcast, and has spoilers up to that point. I don't think it quite qualifies as an episode tag, but it's close to one.
When Rodney tried to speak, he found that his lips were wet. When he pressed his lips together and tried them with the tip of his tongue, he tasted blood. When he brought his hand up to the floor beneath his face, he felt a whole pool of it. When he tried to move, he knew that he was dying from a head injury, because everything was dark, and the blood was a pool, a lake, an ocean…
"Why am I…?" Those blood-stained lips moved. "Wh–wh–where…?"
He managed to sit, though the pain was dreadful, and where was a doctor when you needed one? That Keller, far too young, keeping you waiting when you were dying, when Carson would never–
He pressed his hand to his face; ghosted fingertips across his brow. Blood on his cheek, cooling and crusted. Hand down again, because the place at the back of his head, the place that was the fiery sun at the centre of a whole solar system of pain, couldn't be touched, couldn't be touched ever, because then it would explode, and you know all about blowing up solar systems, don't you, Rodney? and ha ha, very funny, Sheppard. That was two years ago, so what are you – an elephant that never forgets? and his shoulder hurt too, and the middle of his back, and what was that smell? and how long did it take to bleed to death, assuming a steady rate of flow, and–
"No. Stop. Focus. Calm. Blue skies. Blue skies. Wide open fields. Clear water."
His hands were trembling. And there, far away, there was a thin line of light, so he wasn't blind after all. Wasn't blind. The lights had gone off. That meant that he was going to have to fix them, because that's what he did, even when he was dying, and there was–
–no-one else… His thoughts trailed away. "Sheppard?" He quested towards the voice, turned his head, crawled a little. "Sheppard? John?"
And he remembered, of course – remembered working on his tablet in the lab he'd just found, while Sheppard lounged beside him making inane comments, but then Sheppard had broken off, there had been no laziness in his voice at all as he said, 'Something's wrong. Stop what you're doing and get out", but Rodney had snapped at him, saying that it was under control and he could handle it, and then the man had thrown himself at him, dragged him, shoved him, hauled him, thrown him, and then… and then…
"Sheppard." He reached out with blood-stained hand, but found nothing but jagged metal and inexplicable things. "John. Say something. Say something, because I can't…" I can't find you.
"Something. Anything." He groped his way towards the voice. He remembered being pushed from behind, so that meant that Sheppard had… That he was… "Recite Shakespeare," he said. "Recite your name, rank and serial number, or whatever you military types do."
Nothing for a while. Nothing. And the pain in his head was hardly there at all, really, and things dug into his knees and tore at his hands, but they were nothing, and then there was a solid wall in front of him, bumping into his outstretched hands and then into his shoulder.
"Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard." The voice was very faint. "United States Air Force, Pegasus Galaxy Division–"
Rodney pressed his hand against the wall, then curled the fingers back into a fist, and knocked on it. It sounded hollow.
"Knock knock. Who's there?" Sheppard said, his voice coming from the far side.
Rodney opened his hand again, pressing it against the surface, then leant forward, resting his head on it briefly. "It's a door. We seem to be on opposite sides." He struggled to his feet, his hand never leaving the door, and found the controls. Nothing. No, of course not.
"Crap." Perhaps Sheppard was doing exploring of his own on the other side. "The city must have sealed off the area," Sheppard said, "because it's unstable."
"Unstable." Rodney peered upwards, though of course there was no light to see anything. Was that creaking? They were on… God, there were twenty floors above them – millions of tonnes of metal and stone all wanting to come down on him, and there'd been an explosion, and…
"Ah. Yes." He could feel the drying blood on his fingers, sticky against the door. "Are you–?" A huge explosion, and Sheppard had pushed him out, and Rodney had forgotten about him, but was willing to bet that Sheppard had spoken that 'Rodney' before he was even fully conscious, the first thing on his mind. He swallowed. "Are you…?" He waved his hand. "Hurt."
"I'm just peachy." It sounded strained; Rodney told himself it was the muffling effect of the door. He wished his hand could sink through the metal, that it could see. "To be honest," Sheppard admitted, "I've been better."
"Oh." He swallowed again. Focus. Focus. He needed light. He needed to get that door open. He needed to get to where Sheppard was, so he could see for himself the truth behind his stubborn macho heroic lies. He needed…
"A rescue party would be good," Sheppard said. "Puddlejumpers. Marines. Ronon."
Oh. That, too. He tried… No, the radio was dead, of course. They'd know in the control room about the explosion, though; they had to. A rescue would be here soon. All he needed to do was sit and wait, to give in to the pain in his head… No. He dug his fingertips into the door. "Sheppard? Can you get my computer? I dropped it when you–"
"No, really, Sheppard, it's important. Can you–?"
He said it like absolute incontrovertible fact. And that meant… That meant… You're dying. Once he might have said it aloud. You're keeping things from me. But he couldn't quite bring himself to demand the truth.
"Then what am I supposed to do?" he said. "There's nothing… No computer. No radio. Trapped. And you're–" Dying. "You're–" Not here. He slammed his fist into the door, then howled, because it hurt, and the door wouldn’t open. "I can't prize it open. Have you seen me? I work out sometimes – well, occasionally, and there's that whole running for our life thing that you keep putting us through – but I'm not like Ronon, all brawn. It's brain with me and I– I can't…"
He smashed the door again, because he was useless, he couldn't get out, and Sheppard was… was… And it was like in the botany lab, trapped, the walls closing in, the air getting thicker and thicker, and everything that he needed was on the other side of a locked door, and–
The single word stopped him. He let out a breath; opened his hand, and closed it again, clenching it tight. Then he pressed it again to the door. Was that movement – the slight vibrations that heralded a total collapse? Was Sheppard…?
"Are you hurt, Rodney?"
"Yes," he said, because sometimes you needed to be on solid ground. "Yes, I am. I've hurt my head and my back and my shoulder. It's all your fault, I'll have you know. Be more careful next time."
"I'll remember that next time I push you out of the way of certain death."
"You do that."
And that was the thing. Being aware of it was, in its way, more sharp than the pain in his head. Thank you for saving my life, and You're welcome, Rodney. It was I'm worried about you, and it was I know. Rodney had so many words, but sometimes there weren't the words for the things that most needed to be said. He said them in other ways, sometimes in grumbling, sometimes in silences and pauses. And Sheppard understood. Sheppard talked back in the same language, and no-one else… No-one else had ever… He thought of Jeannie, forcing him to say out loud something he had already said in so many other ways. He thought of Katie, who couldn't be made happy by someone like him, but needed the sort of person he could never be.
"Maybe," Sheppard said – was that a groan before that? – "I'll just let you get blown up. Then I won't have to put up with your moaning afterwards."
Yes, you should. Sheppard was dying on the other side of the door, and it had been Rodney's fault, anyway, refusing to stop when Sheppard had seen that something was going wrong.
"I don't know about you," Sheppard said, "but I'm sick of these Ancient fail-safes that keep trying to get us killed."
"What's with that?" Rodney's fingers found the tiny gap at the bottom of the door. Was it warmer on the other side? "Were those guys paranoid, or what?"
"Says the guy whose idea of upgrading the quarantine system involved trapping us all and then almost blowing up the city," Sheppard said. "You–"
His voice cut off suddenly. Then there was nothing for a while – "Sheppard?" Rodney called – but was that the sound of something shifting? "Sheppard? Sheppard! John! Answer me!" Nothing. Nothing, and the silence… and he couldn't… he couldn't…
The relief was physical. "Don't do that to me, Sheppard."
"Then talk to me. Keep me talking."
The voice said nothing at all. Rodney put everything into his voice, but Sheppard… He could be dying with a bug at his neck, or being tortured to death, but none of it showed in his voice. At first Rodney had thought there was nothing more, and that the man really was a fearless automaton. Now he knew how to read things in the way Sheppard's mouth and his hands and his eyes, but you needed sight for those, and you had to know him.
"About what?" he said.
Rodney shifted position, sitting with the door at his side, so his cheek and his ear were pressed against its surface. He still tried to see with his fingers. He wondered suddenly if Sheppard was sitting in the same way on the other side, dying with the thickness of a single inch between them. "So you've got a brother," he found himself saying.
There was a short pause. "Yeah."
"I didn't know…"
"No reason why you should."
No. Of course not. But friends shared things… No, that was normal friends, friends who interacted in the normal way. When you saved each others' lives…; when you stood together against horrors from nightmare…; when things were just known and never said… Perhaps a new word needed to be coined for it. You could know everything that mattered about a person, and yet know nothing at all about the things that had made them that way.
"So why…?" Something groaned above him. Outside his conscious control, his body flinched, wanting to run. "Don't you get on?"
"It's complicated." If Sheppard sighed, Rodney couldn't hear it. If he closed his eyes, or reacted in pain, Rodney had no way of knowing. All he could hear were the words themselves. It made it seem unreal, as if this wasn't really happening. It allowed him to ask things that could never be said face to face.
"Why?" he asked, and then, when he had counted up to ten and there was still no answer, he said, "You told me to keep you talking. It's only fair to talk back." Still nothing. "Sheppard?"
"My father had my whole life mapped out for me when I was still a child." Muffled by the door, it didn't sound like Sheppard's voice at all. "I was the clever one, and I liked solving problems and finding a better way to do things. Dave was okay, but more of a plodder, so Dad decided I'd be the one to inherit his business. I was the one he invested all his hopes in."
"But you didn't want that."
Sheppard made a sound that could have been a wry laugh. "You know me, Rodney. Tell me I've got to do something…" His voice trailed off.
"So your way of rebelling against people telling you what to do was to join the Air Force? Seriously, Sheppard, what were you thinking?"
"That I could fly." It was quiet. It was as if the door melted away. Rodney could see Sheppard's face just then.
"Oh." He swallowed.
"Besides, you know how that turned out. Me and orders don't go together. I–" He was quiet again for a while. Rodney listened; tried not to panic. "I disobeyed orders because it was the right thing to do," Sheppard said, in that not-Sheppard voice, "but sometimes I wonder if I just heard the voice of my Dad, if I was just the world's oldest teenage rebel."
"No." Rodney could say that with certainty. He had seen the fire in Sheppard's eyes when his men were in danger. He'd been on the receiving end of it, too, his life saved because Sheppard was prepared to do anything for someone he felt responsible for.
This time he heard Sheppard sigh; heard something shift; heard him moan. "That doesn't explain about your brother…" He said it urgently, leaning into the door, hand splayed and pressed.
"No." This time there was the faintest change to Sheppard's voice, after all. "Dave sided with Dad."
"Oh." There was movement above him now, he was sure of it. Even muffled by the door, the movement on the far side was just as loud. He had to… They had to…
"He took the life that Dad had planned for me," Sheppard said.
His head was pulsing. Part of his mind was flying off in a panic, busy calculating the weight of metal and stone above him. The rescue would be here soon. Surely the rescue would be here soon.
"Because it would be understandable if you were," Rodney said. "I turned down a research grant once because it wasn't what I wanted to do, and then Carl Saunders took it and I hated him. I was capable of pettiness back then."
"Not jealous." He didn't hear Sheppard at first. He had to play it back in his mind to discover what he had said. "Guilty."
Rodney pressed closer to the door. It worked in earthquakes, after all. But Sheppard was fainter. No matter how close Rodney moved, Sheppard's voice was fading away, still steady, but fading away like light fading away at evening, so you never noticed it going, until suddenly you realised that it was gone.
"I got out," Sheppard said. "I told myself it was what Dave wanted, because when we were young, it was all about me. Dad… He never gave Dave attention and I know he was hurt by that and I thought…" He coughed. "But then… I was flying. I got all this – you guys; the city. I started to wonder if perhaps all along Dave had wanted a choice, too, but couldn't take it, because I'd already gone. Maybe there was something like flying for him, too, but I never stopped to find out."
Oh. Oh God. He could feel trembling beneath him, and was that smoke? This isn't the right time to talk about this! part of him cried, but the rest was staying put. If not now, then never. Keep me talking, Sheppard had said.
"I didn't go back," Sheppard's voice was barely audible now. "There were angry words, but I knew I'd broken Dad's heart. I was afraid I'd ruined Dave's life. I didn't think they wanted…" He coughed. It sounded wet and restricted. "It wasn't even as if I could tell them the truth about anything, so it wouldn't have meant anything. It would have been broken from the start, like with…" He coughed again, and said nothing for several seconds. "Guilt's a bitch," he said at last. "You hurt someone and you feel bad about it, and because you can't deal, you hurt them worse, because you stay away."
"Oh God!" Rodney gasped, struck by a sudden thought. "I'm your father."
"Is this some Star Wars moment, because I can't see you in that black cloak."
"Jeannie." He turned his back to the door, stretching out his legs. "I thought I knew what she should do with her life, and when she chose something else, I…" His hand rose to his face. That rift had been healed, but not entirely.
Oh God… He had been ready to hate Sheppard's father from the few hints that Ronon had let slip, but when he, Rodney, had acted the same way, it had felt right. People were so complicated. Human relationships were full of so many shades of grey. It was easier when you had a planet to save, or ravening monsters were trying to eat you. That's why I don't do people. That's why this thing with Sheppard had crept up on him, why it had taken him so long to realise that they even had a friendship. There were none of the minefields that had beset all his past interpersonal relationships. It didn't require thought. It just required them to be.
"Well," Sheppard said bitterly, "luckily Jeannie's got more sense that me. She came back."
And Sheppard hadn't, and now his father was dead, and he had nothing for the rest of his life but regret, guilt piling upon guilt.
"I always wanted a brother," he found himself admitting, because some things could not be said, even through the shield of a door. "A big brother, who'd beat up all the snotty-nosed kids who laughed at me because they were jealous of me. Someone who could teach me how to fight. We'd bicker all the time, of course, and he'd break my science kit and I'd break his skateboard, but, you know, I think we'd end up being friends as adults, and he'd always be there when I needed him, which wouldn't be often, of course, but…" He sighed. Another sound came from above, and what was that falling onto his cheek? "A sister's not the same."
There was no answer.
"Sheppard?" He pushed himself to his knees, hands against the door. "Sheppard?"
"You should go." The voice was more urgent now, and unmistakeably Sheppard's.
"If it comes down…" Sheppard's voice cracked, then audibly firmed up again. "Rodney, it's bad. I've done what I can, but it's not enough. I'm trapped, and… and something's wrong inside. I can feel it when I breathe. Even if they come now, I might not make it. If you go now–"
"No!" He all but screamed it. Something moved above him, and he looked up, frozen, torn between two intolerable situations: dying, and living while a friend died.
And Sheppard so seldom begged, not even when Kolya had been torturing him. But Sheppard's father had died and that could never be healed. Carson had died, after Rodney had spent the day trying to evade him. Elizabeth had gone – just said a few words, then left the jumper and never came back.
He thought of how he had felt after Carson. He thought of a life spent alive, knowing that he had walked away and left Sheppard to die alone.
And he thought of a time when he, too, had begged, and Sheppard had refused. He thought of a time when he had wanted something so badly that he had known he could never live with himself without it, but Sheppard had still refused.
"I can't," he said now, but there were no eyes to say it with, and all he could do was touch the door, feeling as if his whole self was in those fingertips.
There was no answer. He could leave it there. Perhaps he should leave it there. But Rodney McKay was not one for silence, and never had been. "Don't map my life out for me, Sheppard. You're not the only one who chose to fly."
He barely looked up when the door far behind him opened, letting in a faint stream of light, showing him blood and shrapnel and cuts on his pale hand that he had been unaware of. He didn't turn round when a voice – whose? – said, "It's very unstable." But he heard Ronon's derisive snort, and when he looked up, there was Keller and another doctor, and Ronon, who squeezed him on the shoulder, and Radek, and Lorne and several men, kitted out with guns.
"Sheppard," Rodney gasped. His back hurt, and his head was suddenly pulsing enough to make his stomach lurch, and now that he could see, he could see that his vision was wavering. "He's trapped. He said…" Said he was dying. "He told me…" Told me to leave him, but I won't.
"Stand back, Doctor McKay."
That was Lorne. And Keller was fussing over him, but Rodney pulled away with a cry. "You can't blow it up–"
"Doctor Zelenka," Lorne said, as Radek stepped forward with a hand-held tablet, and Rodney wanted to snatch it out of his hand, because this was his job, and all he'd been able to do was sit here with his hand pressed to the door and talk, and what was the use of that, except to tell him the name of Sheppard's brother if he had to go back and tell his next of kin that he was dead?
The door opened. Rodney moved forward, almost subsiding into the gap, but hands were there to pull him back, and Ronon and then Lorne and then the other soldiers went next, and he couldn't see anything, he couldn't see anything, just legs, and then people's backs as they crouched down, and no-one said anything, especially not Sheppard, and then the new doctor was telling him to stay still, Doctor McKay, and Ronon was saying that Sheppard's still alive, McKay, and Lorne was asking if they could take that off him, doc, and Keller sounded anxious, and said not really, but there was no choice.
And above them, the ceiling shifted, and the doctor was trying to move Rodney away. "You're fit to walk, and as a doctor, I can't let a patient needlessly stay somewhere dangerous," and Rodney tried to scream at her that he wasn't going anywhere, but it just came out a little plaintive, and then he didn't remember much more at all, until he was somewhere else, far away, surrounded by white.
"Sheppard." There was no bleariness this time. He remembered it all in an instant.
"Alive," Teyla said.
He slept again. There were dreams, but afterwards he didn't remember them.
Then he woke up hungry. They told him that Sheppard was still alive – "though it was touch and go for a while" – and they weren't going to let him see him, but he told them exactly what he thought about that idea, and while this infirmary might be Keller's little kingdom, he was the head of the whole science department, and he was quite happy to claim medicine for the ranks of proper sciences if that meant that he outranked her, and he could go wherever he damn well wanted.
And it was strange in that moment of defiance to see in his imagination a teenage boy confronting his father. I just want to be free, the boy said, but that was foolish, because you were only truly free when you were alone. When you let people get close, then there were things that you could not do, and things that you could not bear to do. It was 'I can't' and 'I won't leave you' and 'Please go' and 'no.' But you chose not to be free when you let people close. You chose it, because it felt better than the alternative, which was lonely and safe and cold.
Sheppard was awake, but barely. Seeing him, Rodney felt suddenly almost shy. Things had been said through a door. Now they were face to face, and perhaps Sheppard wouldn't want to remember what he had said.
"Hey," Rodney said. That was safe. There were appearances to keep up, after all.
Sheppard looked deeply weary. "Hey." He shifted in the bed, clearly struggling to find a position that didn't hurt. I told you to go.
"Do you want some water?" I couldn't.
"I'm good." I know, but I had to try..
Rodney sat down, his hands twisting together in his lap.
"You kept me alive back there." Sheppard's voice was faint, like a voice that was filtered through a door.
"I didn't do anything."
He thought of words that were said through the medium of other words altogether. He thought of things that could be rectified without a word, just by carrying on and pretending that all was well. He thought of the things that Sheppard had said, and knew that he would never forget them, and that Sheppard would know that he would never forget them, but they would never speak of them again. But the weight of that silence would be easy between them, not hard.
"So when are you they releasing you, anyway?" he said. "There's this unexplored Ancient lab–"
Rodney looked at him, and for the tiniest moment, their eyes met. I don't know why I wanted a brother.
And Sheppard gave the faintest nod, as if he had heard and understood, but nothing would be said, of course, because that was not their way. He gestured towards Rodney's hands, but then his eyes were closing, but he was smiling. Soon he was asleep.
Rodney was slow to move. He breathed in, and out again. "I thought…" He scraped his hand over his face. "At least he didn't say anything embarrassing about family."
Ronon and Teyla were there, as he knew they were. He wasn't sure why he had said it, but perhaps it had been to provoke them to say what they did. "Why embarrassing?" Ronon clapped him on the shoulder. Teyla took Sheppard's sleeping hand. "Not embarrassing when it's true."
And it was, of course.