Survival of the Fittest
by Eildon Rhymer
Sheppard, McKay and Ronon are stranded in a cold wilderness without warm clothes or any supplies, and days away from help.
Spoilers for episodes up to and including Midway in season four
"I guess this is what they call a cliffhanger," Sheppard said, one arm held out stiffly, the other raised.
"Oh, ha ha." Rodney did not dare speak louder than a whisper. "Save the jokes for when we aren't facing certain doom."
The puddlejumper teetered ever so slightly, almost silently. Rodney had never been so aware of all the million little movements that his body made at every moment of apparent rest. There was breathing, and his heartbeat, and… Oh, God! What if he had to sneeze? His nose started tickling, and he dug his nails into his palm, but even that was movement; even that could be the last straw that caused them all to plummet to their doom.
"I thought --" He said it out of the side of his mouth like a ventriloquist would do. "-- you said it would be okay. 'We're good.' I distinctly heard you say that. Did you --?" He began to turn to Ronon, then froze in horror, so intensely aware of his neck muscles that he could feel on the verge of going into spasm.
"Anything you say, Doctor I Can Restore Power Before We Crash," Sheppard said.
"So says Colonel I Can Fly Anything," Rodney retorted. "You must have missed the day they taught landings at Colonel School."
"I landed." Sheppard sounded almost hurt. "Barely a scratch on any of us."
Rodney rolled his eyes; that, at least, was surely safe. "Oh, so that's okay, then."
"This isn't helping," Ronon said.
"Of course it is." Sheppard and Rodney said it together, almost as one voice. Any reaction Rodney might have given was consumed by another tiny, enormous movement of the puddlejumper. The windshield showed things that were just not right.
Sheppard had been moving the whole time they had been speaking, his arms outstretched in careful balance. An inch backwards, an inch, an inch… There was the sound of something crumbling. The jumper tilted ever so slightly further forward. Far far away, and far far below, Rodney saw a distant forest, trees fading into grey.
"Didn't you notice the cliff when you were landing?" Rodney blurted out. "It is kind of obvious."
"I was too busy… I don't know, trying to save our asses?" Sheppard hissed through gritted teeth. "I had very little control and I had to… avoid… trees."
"Half the jumper landed safely." Ronon said it with apparent perfect sincerity.
"Then I must be a glass half empty kind of guy," Rodney said, "because all I can see right now is the half that didn't, and the certain doom that awaits us when the rest of it decides to join it on a trip to oblivion."
"Not for you." Sheppard turned incredibly slowly, and for the first time Rodney was able to see his face. For all the lightness of his words until now, his face was entirely serious. It was his 'so long, Rodney' face. It was his 'I'm about to do something monumentally stupid and infuriatingly heroic' face.
"Don't even think it." Rodney brought his hand up sharply, then froze. He told himself that it was entirely coincidental that the jumper inched a tiny bit more towards painful oblivion as he did so.
"You might have to," Sheppard said, still with that unbearable look upon his face.
Both Ronon and Rodney were at the back of the jumper, pressed against the rear hatch. Rodney had hurled himself there the moment he had realised what had happened, his mind full of nothing but the desperate desire to get out. Ronon had stopped him with his hand on the door release, and for a moment they had frozen there, their hands together. The two of them, with their weight near the back, were stopping Sheppard from going over. If they stepped out, there was no knowing what would happen.
Beneath them, loud against the floor, was the sound of crumbling rock. The jumper slid even further towards the edge, tilting at a visible angle. Sheppard was moving like a novice tightrope walker, testing every step. Rodney bit his lip, bubbling over with frustrated panic. He couldn't shout, he couldn't rant, he couldn't wave his arms… All he could do was watch Sheppard inch forward, edging away from death in painful slow motion. He was only yards away, but it felt like an eternity. If the jumper started to fall, Rodney could reach out, but he would be unable to touch.
Sheppard stopped, arms outstretched. "You might need to get out. If I give the order…"
"Don't even think it," Rodney said fiercely, but part of him was whimpering, crying out, I don't want to die. He was inches from safety. Open the hatch, jump out, and let the others two go to hell. That's what Doctor Rodney McKay, PhD, personification of arrogance and bad social skills, butt of jokes and gossip, would do. Save himself. Run. I don't want to die. I don't want to die.
"Open the hatch." Sheppard was closer now, but only by inches. "If there's no other choice, I want you to go. Please." There was the faintest crack to his voice, and that was the worst thing of all. Sheppard never begged.
"It can't…" Rodney swallowed. "No, it probably won't do any harm. It might… uh… shift the… the centre of mass further away from the edge." Ronon reached for the door release. "But gently!" Perhaps it was only in his imagination that the jumper edged a tiny bit more towards the edge when he shouted. "Gently," he said quietly. "Gently."
The hatch lowered, but its usual gentleness felt like an assault. Rodney slammed his hand against the wall, then screwed up his eyes in horror at what he had done. Daylight and fresh air beckoned towards him. All he had to do was step. One step, one wild jump, and he would be safe, standing on the edge of a cliff, watching the circle of an open hatch as it plunged to the rocky floor so far below, with Sheppard inside it, reaching out.
Ronon edged backwards, spreading his weight. Was he going to jump to safety, and to Hell with the rest of them? Rodney looked at him, and told himself that of course Ronon wouldn't do a thing like that. Of course he wouldn't. Of course he wouldn't. But how well did he know the man? How well did he know anyone? When it was a matter of life and death, it was every man for himself, and Ronon was a survivor. Who had he betrayed to survive as long as he had? No-one, he told himself. No-one. But…
"I've an idea," Sheppard said quietly. Halfway there, now. He was halfway there, and if he survived this, Rodney would never again think of the jumper as small. It was miles long, one end opening to life, and the other to death. Then Sheppard turned away, heading back towards the end of the jumper that was hanging over nothing at all.
"No!" It came out as a low whimper, almost a sob.
Sheppard reached up above his head. More rock crumbled beneath them; the jumper was tilting visibly now. Rodney pressed his hand to his mouth, as the cool fresh air of safety teased him and tempted him, and he pressed down with his feet and tried to make himself as heavy as possible, as heavy as lead, heavy, heavy, heavy.
"Rope." Sheppard pulled out a coil from the overhead locker, and smiled. God, Rodney thought. This man could stare unruffled even into the mouth of Hell.
Despite everything, Rodney laughed – a cold, bitter bark of quiet despair. "I hate to break it to you, colonel, but we can't haul a jumper --"
"But you can haul me." Sheppard wrapped the end of the rope around his body, and tied it in a knot. "Not a proper harness," he said, "but it'll do." He threw the coiled end of the rope towards them, and Rodney's hands remained mute and still at his side, but Ronon at least was ready to catch it.
"I don't…" Rodney's mouth opened, then closed again. "I don't…"
"Get out." Sheppard's eyes were entirely serious, and behind him, through the windshield, there was hardly any sky left, just the tilted view of the faded floor, so far below. The sound of crumbling was louder, constant. "Both together, and get ready to pull, if it… if it goes."
"But you're…" Rodney's mouth was dry. He moistened his lips; clenched and unclenched his hands at his side. The air of freedom outside was cold, so cold. "My tablet's over there," he said miserably.
"Got more pressing needs," Sheppard said grimly. "Four days before Atlantis knows we're in trouble."
Four days. And the sun was well past its highest, and the air was bitter cold. In the shadows, the grass was white, and they weren't even wearing their vests and they weren't carrying packs. Sheppard had bare arms, for crying out loud. Not daring to move his feet, Rodney reached forward and snatched at one of the bags of supplies on the back bench. Sheppard, he could see, was edging towards another locker, his able fingers reaching for the catch.
This time when the rock crumbled, the effect was visible, the centre of the jumper trembling and the unnatural view through the windshield lurching. "Jump!" Sheppard shouted, and Rodney saw a snatched glimpse of his face, frozen in urgency, and, God, of fear, even of fear. "Both of you! On three. Two… three! Now, Rodney! Now!"
Rodney jumped; he had to trust, he had to. He had no idea if Ronon was jumping at the same time, no idea if he was killing both of them, no idea if, when he landed, the world and his own life would be changed forever. The hatch moved beneath him, jerking upwards, and he stumbled, fell, sprawled, ground beneath him, cold and hard, but that was only his hands, and there was nothing beneath his legs, nothing, and he scrambled, flailed, and something scraped against his palm, making him cry out. He flailed with his legs, brought his knee up, found some purchase with his feet, hauled himself up and found something to kneel on. Everything important was a blur, but in that moment he saw a tiny white flower, with five exquisite petals and a yellow middle, emerging from a crack in the rock.
I'm safe, he thought. Safe. Still alive. For now there was rock beneath his legs and stone beneath his hand, and he dragged himself up and around, and blinked up at Ronon, kneeling on the very edge of the cliff, his knees spread, holding a rope with both hands.
Sheppard. Rodney tried to say it, but his mouth was dry. He heard something crashing far below, then another crash even further away, then nothing except the gentle trickling of loose stones from the edge, from the crumbling scar that had been the jumper's resting place.
"Is he…?" He managed to stand; managed to teeter over towards Ronon. "Can I…?"
Ronon's teeth were bared in a grimace of exertion. Rodney almost said something else, but decided not to. He picked up the loose end of rope behind Ronon, and pulled on it, knowing that it wasn't helping at all, but knowing also that there was no way he could stand by and not do this thing.
It had been meant to be so easy – a mission, yes, but more like a vacation, really. Rodney had laughed at Sheppard's insistence on bringing P90s. "At least stow them in the lockers so you don't frighten the children and cause a diplomatic incident," he had said, and Sheppard had done so, though he had won the argument over sidearms. Flying without proper weapons and without his vest… God! Sheppard never did that. Reckless he might be in certain circumstances, but he never let his team go out unprepared. He'd tool himself up with weapons even for a walk in the park with squirrels bounding all around.
And now… Rodney pulled uselessly. He felt bruises he hadn't noticed getting – pain on his shins and his ankles, perhaps as the hatch had tipped up and over as he had jumped to safety. His hands hurt, and now Ronon was standing up, muscles quivering as he slowly rose to his feet. He edged backwards, one step, two, and Rodney backed away. Sheppard should have been there. A hand should have been appearing at the edge of the cliff; another hand; a head, smiling at their near-miss, so Rodney could berate him for joking about such things, and could… well, do other things, say other things, because they were all alive, and once again Sheppard had cheated death.
"Why isn't he…?" he gasped.
"Let go," Ronon said.
"What? Let go? Let Sheppard go?"
"Not helping anyway." Ronon did not look round. "Go to… the cliff edge."
"But it's crumbling." He pressed his lips together. His hands did not want to uncurl from around the rope. Of course. He had to go to the cliff to see what was dangling at the end of Ronon's rope. Was it Sheppard alive, or…?
He walked forward; went down on his knees; edged to the brink. He saw the flower again, crushed between his fingers. He saw the rope chafing against crumbling stone, and dust and grit falling down below. Then he felt movement beneath his hand, and snatched it back. His heart was beating very fast. He glanced back at Ronon, then found another place to rest his hand. This time it was solid. Then slowly, fighting the urge to screw his eyes shut, he looked over the edge.
Sheppard was barely two feet from the top, dangling limply from the rope. "He's here." It came out as no more than a whisper, just a breath of air. He reached down, but could not touch, not without leaning far too far over the edge himself. "He's here." He said it more loudly, though his usual flow of words had quite dried up. Sheppard gave no response. There was blood on the side of his head. Rodney turned back to Ronon. "Can't you pull --"
"Will hurt him if I drag him over. You need to help."
"What?" Rodney brought his hand to his mouth; it tasted of dirt. Sheppard inched closer to him, his shoulder scraping against the rock face. It was bright and jagged, recently exposed from some enormous land slip where the whole edge of the cliff had just sheered off. These things happened, and with a jumper landing on the edge… Rodney reached out again, leaning forward in tiny increments, until his fingertips brushed Sheppard's hair. Sheppard swung around like something dead, and there was fresh blood on his forearm and the back of his hand, skin scraped away by the rock.
"Can't," he found himself saying; just that, over and over. "Can't," but he leant over the drop, seeing the shattered jumper so far below, seeing the boulders and the rubble of frequent landslides. Stones slewed away beneath his hand, rock dust falling on Sheppard's hair. "Sorry," he said, and "Can't," as Sheppard came closer and closer, and his hand was on his shoulder, his fingers digging into the cloth there. Just one hand, and… God! If he leant over with the other… His left hand found the other shoulder, and Sheppard was only inches away now, and Rodney had him, arms round his shoulders, hands on his shirt, grappling, cushioning…
"Back," he heard Ronon say. "Ease him," and he had no idea how he had done it, no idea at all, but Sheppard was on the ground, one foot still hanging over the edge, and Rodney was sprawled beside him, and he pulled weakly again, but then Ronon was there, raising Sheppard's shoulders and half carrying and half dragging him away from the edge. Rodney followed on hands and knees, then pushed himself to his feet, tottered a few more steps, and slumped down beside them.
"What happened?" His voice was hoarse as if he had been screaming.
Ronon touched Sheppard's neck; Sheppard did not stir. "Must have smashed against the side of the cliff, or maybe something in the jumper hit him when it fell."
"Is he going to be okay?" Stupid question. Stupid question, he berated himself. Of course he wasn't. None of them were. They were stuck for four days in the middle of nowhere, all their supplies had gone over a cliff, the ground they were sitting on was likely to fall away any moment, and there were probably wild animals in the woods, with sharp teeth and hungry bellies and a taste for scientists, and Sheppard was unconscious, probably dying, and Rodney's computer had gone, and with it all his preliminary notes on a revolutionary new power source that would win him international acclaim for sure, and there was no hope for them, none at all.
"We have to move further away," Rodney managed to say, looking from the cliff edge to the tree-line, and back again.
"Don't move." Ronon's voice was surprisingly quiet.
"Don't move? Why ever not? Oh." He saw that Sheppard was stirring, eyes fluttering open. Sheppard winced, and Rodney realised that there was full sunlight on his face. He moved round, blocking it as much as he could with his body, trying not to think – but how could he ever forget? – about the unstable cliff that was now a good five and a half inches closer to him than it had been before.
"How do you feel?" Ronon asked.
"Like a puddlejumper landed on my head." Rodney had once thought that Sheppard didn't show pain, at least not for the non life-threatening sort of injuries that, even so, would have all normal people screaming and demanding instant attention. Now he knew that Sheppard did show it, but you just had to know where to look. It was there in the small things: the muscles around his eyes; the tension of his jaw and his neck; the way he was breathing, quivering and fast. Though why he couldn't just say it out loud like normal people?
"Pupils seem okay," Ronon said.
"Someone stop the world spinning please?" Setting his jaw, Sheppard raised himself up onto his elbows. Rodney reached out abortively to help, but he had never quite learnt how to act around an injured Sheppard. Ronon, it seemed, had no such qualms. He helped Sheppard up, supported his weight, and turned him around away from the sun. Rodney's arm fell back to his side, and he felt the sun on the back of his neck, and shivered with the cold even of that.
"Gonna puke?" he heard Ronon say.
"Don't think so." He saw Sheppard begin to shake his head, then stop himself. "Or maybe it was the cliff," he said. "I don't… really… remember. Count this as an idea that was better on paper."
"But we're all alive," Rodney felt the need to say, then felt the need to say it again. "We're all alive." It felt important enough to say again, too. "We're all alive." Strange how his voice was getting higher with each repetition. Strange how his hands were trembling. But it was important to say. Sometimes you had to say something out loud before you knew it was true. That's why it was particularly harsh when speaking and gesticulating was likely to hasten certain death, by making the jumper you were in plunge over the edge of a cliff towards a painful doom.
"Yes, we are." He heard the smile in Sheppard's voice.
"Yes," Rodney said. "Yes, we are." But something in his mind went 'pop' with a sound that was almost audible, and the brief elation, that was perhaps closer to hysteria, disappeared, leaving only… No. No. He wouldn't think of that. Alive. They were alive.
"Is it just your head?" Ronon asked Sheppard, as Rodney moved round to a place where he could see Sheppard's pallor for himself.
Sheppard shrugged, then grimaced; Rodney remembered suddenly, vividly, the first time he had heard Sheppard scream. He had screamed twice with the iratus bug, but never since then; never at all, except silently into the gag that Kolya's men had put over his mouth. It had only been after that, after the incident with the bug, that Rodney had started to think that Sheppard never showed pain. Perhaps Sheppard had thought he had shown too much, too early, to a team he did not yet know well, and had gone too far the other way. "Bruises," he said now. He looked at his bleeding arm. "Scrapes. I… uh… hit the controls when we landed – bruised ribs, I think, but nothing broken."
Rodney let out a miserable laugh. "Which is Sheppard-speak for 'I'm dying but won't tell you.'"
"It isn't." Sheppard looked him full in the face. "I know when there's a need for full disclosure, Rodney. Things are going to be tough enough without anyone keeping secrets." Then he turned back to Ronon, and something passed between them. Rodney felt a sharp pang of exclusion. Two stoical warriors, exchanging status information in a dispassionate fashion. Two soldiers who knew what needed to be done. Ronon would never have contemplated jumping; he realised that now.
But, "tough?" was all he said, echoing it stupidly.
"We need a plan," Sheppard said, beginning to pull himself to his feet, then clearly thinking better of it. "It's late afternoon, and nights are cold round here."
"Cold?" Rodney was reduced once more to the role of an echo. He swallowed. They both looked at him, suddenly almost like strangers. "But it's always warm… uh… in the… the settlement. Hawaiian shirts and cocktails on the beach and… and hot women wearing…" He stopped, his voice trailing away, knowing right from the start the stupidity of what he was saying.
"Which is half a world away," Sheppard said patiently, "on another continent, near the equator."
"Yes, yes." Rodney waved his hand. "Didn't it always bother you in Star Trek? They went to a planet and it was like the whole planet was always one political entity, and they always happened to beam down right next to the leader, and it was always an icy planet or a desert planet, and… and… Well, it isn't like that in real life. Think of the climate on Earth and the horrible mess that is our politics --"
"We know, Rodney." Sheppard's voice was not ungentle. "But this part of this planet looks like being a cold one, and we were intending to be four days at the settlement, which, as you know, is a continent away from the Gate and contact with Atlantis --"
"Huh. Midsummer festival." Rodney could not keep himself from smiling at the memory – hot girls swaying in skirts made of rushes and leaves, and sweet fermented something or other, made out of sava, whatever that was; perhaps he would ask one day, or perhaps it was better not to know. Wasn't citrus, anyway, and that was all that mattered.
"And treaty renegotiation." Sheppard grimaced again, this time not with pain. "And Teyla busy being pregnant and not able to handle that side of things while I --" He cleared his throat. "Like I said, they won't know we're missing for four days, and it's going to get cold, and all our supplies have gone down with the jumper."
"Not all." Rodney snapped his fingers in suddenly-remembered triumph. "I managed to salvage a pack." He had managed to throw it a good five yards from the edge of the cliff. He grabbed it now, and opened it. "Oh." He closed it again, his face still frozen in a pathetic and useless expression of triumph. "There's nothing entirely useful there." Perhaps if he smiled confidently…
"Rodney." God, it wasn't fair! It wasn't fair of Sheppard to do his insistent colonel voice!
"Children's toys," he forced out, through gritted teeth, "and lollipops, and a --" He pressed his lips together. "-- a…"
"Useless stuff." Ronon saved him from having to say it. He was looking at Sheppard again, shutting Rodney out. "Gate's barely forty miles away. I can do it in a day."
Sheppard gave a minute shake of his head. "A lot can happen in forty miles."
"A lot can happen in four days."
Sheppard was very pale, and Rodney was suddenly sure that he wanted to stand up, but lacked the strength. "I don't like the thought of us splitting up," Sheppard said.
"Don't like the thought of you not being the one to go, you mean," Ronon retorted, and Rodney saw how Sheppard set his jaw, how the pulse was racing at his throat, how blood still trickled from the side of his head. He dug his fingers into his palm, and felt suddenly as if he was back on the jumper, unable to let the words escape him.
"I don't like…" Sheppard pressed his lips together; breathed in sharply, and let the breath out. "We have a better chance together."
"You know that's not true." Ronon stood up, his shadow enormous in the sun. "Any head injury bad enough to cause unconsciousness is --"
"Don't quote the book at me."
Rodney had nothing to say, nothing to do. Far above, a large bird flew over, black wings spread against the fading blue. Something cried out in the forest. He was growing cold already, and he could see the gooseflesh on Sheppard's arms.
"McKay won't be able to make it," Ronon said, more quietly now, and Rodney snapped his head up in mute and useless protest, "and you're hurt. Full disclosure, you said. That means accurately assessing your limits. It's going to get cold here, and there could be complications." He jerked his chin at Sheppard's head. "This gives us all the best chance."
Rodney saw Sheppard tighten his fist, clenching it until the knuckles were white. He spoke up himself. "You'll get lost. Forty miles without a map…"
He trailed away. Sheppard and Ronon seemed to be having some silent conversation, whole worlds of mutinous meaning passing between them. Rodney was reminded suddenly of a time long forgotten, when he had won a prize at school and had been desperate to tell his parents, but Jeannie had started talking first, and his own words of proud achievement had fallen uselessly to the ground, unnoticed.
"Every minute we talk about it is a minute longer out in the cold." Ronon drew his gun and studied it critically, as if it could have magically stopped working since they had left Atlantis. "We can argue about it, or I can go."
Sheppard made a sharp movement, then froze, swaying slightly. "Keep in touch." His voice was strained. "Careful when crossing the river."
"I will be." Ronon flashed his teeth in a smile, then he touched them both on the shoulder, first one, then the other. "Take care of each other."
"What river?" Rodney asked. Neither of them seemed to hear him. This was a survival situation, and both Ronon and Sheppard understood the language. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He thought of times spent working hard to save everyone's lives, exchanging snappy words with Sheppard, who didn't understand anything like as much as Rodney did, but at least understood the basics. Ronon was just the big man pacing in the background, not understanding a word that was being said, just waiting for a time to use his gun again.
"I'll be back before dawn." Ronon trotted several steps, then turned back. "Make sure he doesn't do anything stupid."
"Who?" Rodney frowned, unable to tell who Ronon was looking at. "Who?"
"I think he means both of us, Rodney," Sheppard said quietly, after Ronon had vanished into the trees. He brought his clenched fist up to his chest, then slammed it down onto his thigh. "Damn it!"
"What river?" Rodney asked again, because it was easier than asking any of the other questions that needed asking. A pair of birds rose up shouting from the trees, heralding the path Ronon had taken, but that was the only sign of him.
Sheppard let out a breath. "The big river a few miles from the Gate."
"Oh." The birds flew away, their wings beating slowly, until they were just specks. He had no idea if they were going the same way as Ronon, or not.
"Ronon will have noticed it." Sheppard was on his hands and knees, carefully pushing himself upwards. "The river. The mountain pass. All the other landmarks. He --" He made it to his feet, biting his lip with concentration. "When he was a… a Runner, he had to know where he was, how to get out. We've flown this route four times. He knows."
"Oh." Rodney swallowed. His hands, he saw, were fluttering uselessly just short of Sheppard, ready to catch him if he fell.
"He won't get lost." Sheppard looked upwards. "It should be a clear night. He's good at navigating by strange stars."
"Because of his time as a Runner, yes." Rodney pressed his hands together. "You could do it, too." He did not say it as a question.
He saw Sheppard look beyond the trees, not in the way the birds had flown. "It becomes a habit," he said. "When you're flying into… anywhere, you might get shot down, or have to make it back without navigation equipment. You notice these things just in case."
"Oh," he said again. I didn't. And what was worse, he had never noticed that Sheppard and Ronon did; never thought to notice; never thought that there was something he should have been doing on a jumper flight that he was not. He had always known that he saw things differently from other people, but that was because he saw a complexity of truths that they were too stupid to notice. Everyone else was united by being not so clever as him. Everyone else…
His thoughts snapped off. Sheppard, he saw, was moving away, walking with the very deliberate steadiness of somebody who was not as sure on their feet as they wanted to be. "Where are you going?" Rodney demanded.
"Making sure I can walk." Sheppard's smile was a gauntlet thrown down to Rodney, daring him to say something. "Got to get food."
"Yeah." The smile had steel in it, or something colder. "You've heard of the stuff. A guy called McKay can't get enough of it."
It was something, at least. Rodney rolled his eyes. "Very droll."
Sheppard drew his sidearm. "I'm going to shoot myself some native fauna."
"Oh." He seemed to be saying that far too much. Rodney glanced once again at the place where Ronon had disappeared. Without Teyla on the team, there were only three of them, and that meant a two and a one. Now Ronon was gone, that meant… "I've never done much hunting," he said. "I can shoot a Wraith, but that's a… a big target. I haven't --"
"Then collect wood for a fire." Sheppard gestured towards the tree-line. "There's plenty there."
"We're… we're splitting up?" Rodney unwove his hands. "What was all that about keeping together? There could be… could be wild beasts, and… and you've had a head injury. You were unconscious. You should be lying down, being monitored by a doctor. You shouldn't be…" He waved his hand in a circle, trying to round up the word. "Hunting. Playing great manly hunter."
"There's only a few hours of daylight left," Sheppard said. "I want to get supplies in while we still can. I was a boy scout: I know about Be Prepared."
"You were a boy scout?"
"Actually, we… parted amicably after two weeks, but I could have been." The smile was brief. "Rodney, unless you have a pop-up tent in your pocket, and a supply of food, we're heading for trouble. It's going to be a long night, very cold. We need food, a fire, water… shelter, if possible. The quicker we get them, the better, and if that means doing something we'd rather not do… Being in this situation in the first place is something I'd rather not be doing."
Rodney wrapped his arms around his body against the cold, knowing even as he did so that he was unconsciously helping prove Sheppard's point. "You have a concussion," he said. "You aren't thinking straight. You… you should be lying down. You should let me…" He thought of trying to shoot an animal, trying to skin it, trying to roast it over a fire. "You should let me…"
"Just get the damn wood, McKay." Sheppard walked away, his steps steady, but his shoulders stiff. "Don't go too far into the wood. Stay safe. Tell me if you see anything threatening. Don't call me if you don't."
It wasn't fair. It really wasn't fair. Rodney paced, then remembered how close the edge of the cliff was, and moved his pacing further away. His eyes felt drawn to Sheppard like iron to a magnet, and he couldn't stop looking after him, at how he walked, so steady, so focused, getting further and further away.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. This was supposed to be the mission where nobody tried to kill them, and now he was stranded on a clifftop, and one by one the others were leaving him. You weren't a team when there were only three of you, because as soon as you had to split up, somebody was alone. Ronon, running as he had run for seven years, but this time to bring help to his friends. Sheppard, striding off with a head injury, trying to get food. He was the one who felt alone. He was out of his element. He didn't know what to do.
His radio crackled. "Firewood, Rodney?" But he couldn't see Sheppard any more, just dark shadows between the jagged trees, and deep blackness between their white-ripped needles.
"Yes. Yes. Sorry. Yes." Perhaps he would go the way Ronon had gone; Ronon wouldn't leave any ferocious animals marauding in his wake. He trailed after him, and when the route went into the shadow of boulders, he saw dark footsteps in the thin covering of frost. It wasn't far to the tree line, and Rodney remembered the feel of the jumper scraping against the tops of the trees. Fresh wood had fallen, with pale, naked torn-off ends. Old wood was better, though, wasn't it? Nearly four years on Atlantis, and he had never learnt how to make a fire, or how to survive if cast up in the wilderness alone. Because you don't have to, he thought almost angrily. That's why we have teams. He did the important things, while the others… While the others…
He snatched up wood; piled it up in his arms, feeling splinters driving into his hands. A bead of blood welled from his fingertip, but there was a larger smear on his sleeve, perhaps from when he had helped haul Sheppard up the cliff. He dropped the wood; pawed at the radio controls with anxious hands. "Sheppard? Sheppard?"
There was a short silence before Sheppard replied, time enough for Rodney to shout his name again – "John?" – but then Sheppard answered in a whisper, not sounding like himself at all. "Still here. Radio silence, please, unless it's an emergency."
"Why?" Now that he had noticed it, it was hard to look away from the blood. Sheppard, he remembered, didn't even have a long-sleeved jacket, and it really was very cold.
"So your dinner doesn't get scared away by hearing your voice."
"Oh." But he was speaking to nobody. The cold grew ever more intense, with tall evergreens blocking out the full strength of the sun, making it fall in dappled specks that were far too small to provide warmth. Snow was gathered between the roots that faced the edge of the cliff.
"Got to keep active," he told himself. "Can't just sit and wait." He picked up the wood and carried it out into the open, laying it down a few yards away from the last tree. "Reduced to fetching and carrying," he said out loud. "What a waste." He picked up a twig that was gnawed bare at one end, then a branch, still covered with bark. The smell of resin stirred unpleasant memories of failure, though he had no idea why.
He worked until he had a good-sized pile. By then his hands were bleeding in several places, and the barbed tendril of a thorny shrub had scraped a line along the side of his neck, which hurt terribly but failed to produce blood. The sun was moving backwards, away from the cliff, sinking between the jagged tops of the trees. Although he was sweating with exertion, the coldness grew with every second, tight against his burning cheeks.
"Sheppard?" His hand ghosted over the radio, but did not switch it on. A formation of birds flew away from the sun, their V shape universal, no matter what galaxy you were in and how far away from home you were.
God! he thought. He felt lost, bereft, and he really had little idea why. So his skills were not ones that lent themselves to this situation. So what? There had been countless other situations where he alone had been able to save them all. "Then there's the fear – and don't forget the crashing despair – of having to face a night out in Arctic temperatures. We're looking at hypothermia at the very least, and probably poison from whatever alien rabbit Sheppard manages to --"
His head jerked up. Was that a gun shot?
It was not repeated. His hand touched the radio again, but still did not depress the button. Sheppard?
The pile of wood stared at him, not looking anything like a well-crafted fire. Ronon would have done it properly, he thought. If Ronon and Sheppard had been stranded together, they'd probably have whittled together a four-room house by now, complete with kitchen and toilet facilities. They wouldn't need words. They saw things that Rodney didn't. They spoke the same language. They…
Another gunshot, definite this time. He stood up, a fine rain of splinters and needles raining down onto the ground. Sheppard? There was no voice on his radio. Although he counted to five hundred in primes, and back again in Fibonacci numbers – though that didn't take very long – the gunshot was not repeated.
He could hear his own heart beating fast in his ears. He switched the radio on, his hand moving more slowly and more gently than it had even moved when in a state of abject terror, but said nothing. Sheppard would hear it. Sheppard would hear it, and would answer: I hope you like venison stew, Rodney. Or rabbit. Maybe rabbit, or whatever filled the rabbit-shaped evolutionary niche round here.
There was no answer. There was no sound at all, except perhaps for a very faint… No, that was his own breathing.
"Sheppard?" He hazarded it as quietly he could. There was no answer. "Sheppard?" He tried it louder, as loud as normal speech, then even louder. "Sheppard? Sheppard? John! Answer me! If you can hear me, answer me!"
He got nothing back, only silence.
end of part one
Sheppard must have collapsed. His head injury had caught up with him, and he had collapsed, fluid leaking from his ears and his brain pressing against his skull. The cliff had fallen. A sink-hole had opened up, and… No, this was the wrong sort of rock for sink-holes. Ferocious natives had found him, and had dragged him back home to be a sacrifice. An enormous bear had torn him to pieces, and if Rodney went into the woods, he would find just bits of him in a mass of needles and blood, and then the bear would leap out and try to eat him, too.
But he was moving forward, anyway, abandoning his piles of wood, heedless of how close he ran to the top of the crumbling cliff. He slipped, hand scraping against the ground, and scrambled up again. "Sheppard!" he called into his radio, beaded with blood. "Answer me! Sheppard!"
Just silence. He went the way Sheppard had gone, following faint footsteps in the frosted grass, then stopped at the first tree, hand resting on the bark. He heaved in a breath, and called Sheppard's name again, this time not bothering with the radio. Needles fell around him as something responded far up in the tree, but when he looked upwards, he saw only shivering branches and a pale sky.
He drew his pistol, holding it outwards with both hands. "Sheppard!" It was quieter this time. The shadows were thick and full of movement that turned to stillness when he snapped his head round to stare at them. "Sheppard!" The bear was probably watching him. The natives had their arrows aimed at his chest. Every step he took…
A twig snapped beneath his feet. He gasped; almost pulled the trigger. The next step was quieter, and the next, and the next. It grew darker, and the trees ahead were so dense that it looked like walking into a wall of night, but by the time he actually reached them, it seemed almost light.
"Sheppard?" Something responded, and he whirled round, gun quivering, but there was nothing there. Another step; another. He had no idea which way Sheppard had gone, and no idea… God! He turned around, and saw the light that showed where he had come from, but it was fading. Perhaps he could cut marks on tree bark to show which way he had come. Sheppard was dying, and he could walk around in circles, passing only yards from where Sheppard lay mute and powerless, and you could die after four days in the wilderness. People could die barely a mile from a town, if they couldn't find their way home.
"Sheppard." He pressed his lips together, swallowed, and shouted as loudly as he could. "Sheppard!" He felt every predator and bad thing in the world turn its head sharply towards him, suddenly aware of him. Clutching the gun, he shouted again. "Sheppard!"
"No need to shout." The voice was faint.
Rodney jerked his head round in tiny stages, searching the woods. "Where are…? Oh. The radio." He uncurled one hand from the gun, and switched his radio on. "Where are you?"
"Next to a tree."
"Oh, ha. Which tree? No, don't say it. Can you move towards my voice?"
There was a short pause. "Can't do that, Rodney."
"Oh. Oh crap." Rodney swallowed; scraped his hand through his hair. "Then can you shout? I'll move towards you."
His radio clicked. "Meredith!" he heard, from somewhere to his left.
"Very funny," he muttered. "I know what game you're playing: distract me with idiot jokes about my name so I forget that we're completely screwed and you're probably dying even as we speak. Well, I'll tell you something, colonel: it won't work. It won't work at all."
"Your sister's smarter than you."
He thought it was nearer, but it seemed fainter, the voice cracking a little at the end. He drew his lower lip in with his teeth, and carried on, altering his course slightly. "I won't dignify that with a response. See how I've grown? I don't respond to provocation any more. I --" He stopped. His fingers curled into the rough tree bark, and his foot slithered on the raised root. Then he was running, jamming his pistol at his holster; missing; trying again. "God, Sheppard, what have you done?"
"Wasn't me." Sheppard was lying half on his side; he looked uncomfortable, with roots at his hip. But of course he's uncomfortable. That would be the blood…Thick and almost black on his arm. Skin and flesh and oozing redness through the torn rents of his shirt. Blood on his pale face, thick and tangled in his hair.
Rodney crouched, fingers ghosting over Sheppard's body. "Then who?"
"Animal." Sheppard moistened his lips, smearing blood. "Dinner's Mommy. Guess she… didn't like --" He sucked in a breath; let it out with a moan. "-- us trying to eat… Junior."
"But you've got a gun!" Rodney saw how Sheppard was still clutching it, his knuckles white.
"She had… teeth. Teeth beat guns."
"Like paper beats scissors?" Rodney brought his hand to his face. God! Where to begin? He needed water, bandages, and he didn't have any, he didn't have anything at all.
Sheppard tried to raise himself up onto one elbow – "Don't!" Rodney cried, but still did not quite dare to touch – and looked at Rodney with unnerving dark-rimmed eyes. "Truth is, I… suffered a dizzy spell. Blacked out for a moment. I didn't…"
Rodney saw how the needles were scraped away, showing bare earth. He saw great smears of blood and the gouges made by struggling heels, and slashes made by blood-stained claws. That was twenty paces away. Sheppard, he thought, had managed to walk a dozen steps before falling, and after that he had crawled, dragging himself through the thick carpet of needless and leaves, before he had fallen here.
"Shouldn't have come." Sheppard grabbed Rodney's sleeve. "Wasn't… well enough. Sorry. My fault. Sorry."
Rodney dug his nails into his palms. "Don't say that." This wasn't Sheppard. Sheppard didn't apologise. Oh, he accepted responsibility – "it was my call, Rodney" – but he didn't beg. His eyes changed, and sometimes he was silent and grim for several days, but he never talked about it, not like this.
"Too quick to leave," Sheppard said. "Let myself get rattled because --"
"Don't!" Rodney burst out. "Don't," he said, more quietly, then tried for a laugh. "Gratifying as it is to hear you say you're wrong, this is the concussion talking, and the fact that most of the blood that's supposed to be inside you is currently seeping into the earth. And speaking of that, I need to examine your injuries."
Sheppard bit his lip. "I know."
"But I haven't got water, and there's no first aid kit. No disinfectant. You're going to die from infection."
"Good bedside manner you have there, Rodney." But at least Sheppard's voice was more… well, more like Sheppard. "Ronon'll be back in time for that not to be your problem. Sorry --" He blanched, pain from some tiny movement freezing his expression in place. "-- to prove you wrong," he said on the exhale.
"But I need bandages." Blood was snaking down to Sheppard's wrist.
"Tear up clothes." Sheppard's voice was growing fainter, and his eyes were sliding shut. "It'll stop the bleeding. Infection… We'll be home by then. Not your problem."
"You want me to --?" Rodney bit back the protest. He had a jacket, at least, and cold was going to be a serious problem for Sheppard soon. "I guess I could spare a strip from the bottom." But as he pulled the jacket off, trying not to exclaim at the biting cold against his forearms, he knew he would tear the whole thing up if he had to.
Sheppard slipped into unconsciousness before Rodney had finished binding the first one, perhaps from the head injury or perhaps from blood loss; Rodney did not know; did not even know which one was more serious. There was a deep gouge down the front of Sheppard's arm, from shoulder almost to elbow, but that at least was easy to bind tightly. "I've got to undo your shirt," Rodney told Sheppard. "Please don't wake up now." His blood-slicked fingers fumbled on the buttons, but of course there was a t-shirt underneath. "How can I…?" He suddenly flashed to a memory of Jeannie undressing a doll, manhandling it so its arms were twisted upwards and pressed to its face in a way that looked quite agonising. "Oh. Knife. Of course." He pulled it from Sheppard's belt, and biting his lip, began to slice downwards from the collar.
The injuries were worse on Sheppard's torso, and Rodney almost gagged at the sight of the one at the juncture of his neck and his shoulder. "Oh God. I think it took an actual lump out of you." He didn't want to touch that, but of course he had to, fingers protected only by a layer of fabric. He didn't like to think of fibres caught in the wound – of his own necessary attempts to help actually making things worse. Fibres in injuries… Carson had told him about that.
There were claw marks across Sheppard's chest, too, or perhaps teeth – why did it seem so much worse to think that they were teeth; that something was actually trying to rip you to pieces and eat you, not just claw you a bit? The only way Rodney could cover those was to bunch up handfuls of fabric – God! What about the bacteria on my hand? – and hold it in place with thin ropes of cotton wrapped all the way round Sheppard's body. He had to lift Sheppard right up for that, and he needed four hands, two to tie the knots, one to hold him up, one to stop his head lolling forward like that, as if he was dead. He thought of Jeannie's dolls again. By the time he had finished, he wasn't cold, not at all, and his jacket was just arms held on by a collar.
Sheppard had not stirred throughout. Rodney looked upwards, his hand massaging aches that were suddenly showing themselves. There was noticeably less light filtering through the trees now. "Waking up would be… well, really good." He checked the bandages, and found that blood had seeped through them, though they were not yet sodden. "That's a good thing, right?"
Nothing, of course. Sheppard was… "Oh! The creature might come back!" He pulled his gun out and readied it, but there was no movement beyond the trees. "Which won't last," he said. "They're drawn by blood. It'll come back, and there's just me, and…" He snapped his fingers in sudden realisation. Ronon! He hadn't even thought… He fumbled for his radio, changing the channel. "Ronon. Come in, Ronon."
"Thank God." Rodney sagged. Until he did it, he had not realised quite how taut he really was. "Sheppard's been mauled. He's unconscious. I can't wake him."
"How bad?" He could tell from Ronon's breathing that he was running throughout.
"Bad. Or… No. I don't know. It might be the head injury. Bad enough, though. I'm keeping the bleeding under control, I think, but he's… He won't wake. Why won't he wake?"
"Keep trying. Keep him as warm as you can."
It felt like a glimmer of light suddenly extinguished. "You're not coming back?"
"All the more reason to get help fast."
Rodney heard Ronon gasp, and wondered suddenly if he had caught him mid-fight, or if he, too, was having his life ripped out of him by a monster but was too stoical and infuriating to say anything. But, "You aren't coming back?" was all he said.
He had never been alone with someone in such need of medical attention before. Even with Gall, it had just been a waiting game, really. Ronon knew what to do. Just a savage with a big gun… A savage who knew how to find his way back to the Gate when Rodney had no idea. A savage who knew how to keep a friend alive. A savage who…
"Cold," he heard Sheppard mumble.
Rodney's head snapped up. Yes, yes, it was cold. Now that the sweat from his exertion was drying, he realised it was quite horribly cold, and with his jacket ripped to threads. And Sheppard was… "Oh, God! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" He'd cut Sheppard's t-shirt down the middle. Should have taken the extra time to pull it off him, leaving it intact. Should have…
"Fire." Not babbling at all. Sheppard's eyes seemed lucid enough. "Have to make a fire, Rodney."
"I don't know how to," he said. "Unlike you, I wasn't a boy scout. I could have been, of course, but I was too busy doing important things with my time. I could make a nuclear bomb while they were still learning how to tie knots and how to rub two sticks together to make a spark."
"Nuclear bomb's no use here. Need wood," Sheppard said. He raised his hand a few inches, then let it fall again. His skin, Rodney saw, was prickling with gooseflesh, and there were fine tremors at his throat. "Dead wood from trees is best. Shoelace --"
"What? Oh no! You're delirious."
"Shoelace," Sheppard repeated. "Some dry leaves or moss. Something to catch the ember."
Rodney did not move. "I need to check… check the bandages, and… You passed out, Sheppard. How are you…?"
"Not likely to last long without a source of warmth." There was no delirium in Sheppard's eyes at all. "I'm cold. It's going to get worse. Ronon." The quality of his voice changed slightly. "Something like that, yeah. More scars… Be careful, buddy. An hour won't make a difference."
"What are you talking…? Oh. Ronon. You're talking to Ronon." He waited until Sheppard was looking at him again. "Ronon would know how to start a fire." Rodney had not meant to say it out loud, but since when did he know how to keep quiet? "He should have stayed here. You're wishing he had."
"With you out there, running forty miles in the dark?" Sheppard shifted, and even that tiny movement clearly hurt him horribly. Listen. I can't --"
"Should I be testing your reactions? Concussion --"
"Fire." It sounded both weary and insistent, and so Rodney had to rush around following the terse instructions of a badly injured man – and sometimes there were whole minutes of silence, and sometimes the words were unintelligible, caught up in pain. He collected wood. He made a bow, wrapping it round a tall thin stick. He twisted it round and round, round and round, until his arms ached and his shoulders ached and his hands felt raw, until he was saying with every twist, "It's never going to work. It's never going to work. It's never going to work."
When the ember came, he gasped aloud, then clapped his hand to his mouth, terrified that he'd blown it out. When the flame caught in the nest of leaves, his smile felt like a cracking open of joy. A spark! A single, joyous, glorious flame! He'd made nuclear bombs, he'd saved whole worlds, he'd found strange new power sources, but in that moment nothing seemed quite so miraculous as creating fire.
"Huh. I guess this is how cavemen felt." He turned to Sheppard, feeling the joy still open on his face; feeling it fade as he saw just how pale and awful Sheppard looked.
"Put more wood on," Sheppard said. He was really shivering now, almost quaking with it. "Careful. Don't stifle it."
Rodney worked, but it was almost dark by the time he was able to feel real warmth from the fire. He warmed his hands against it, exclaiming when a spark shot out and almost struck him. When he turned round, Sheppard was much closer, flopping onto his back, seemingly spent from even so short a crawl.
The warmth was wonderful. The trouble with fire, though, was that it only made the evening seem far darker. It dazzled your eyes, so all you could see was the after-image of flames, and anything could be creeping up on you, and you wouldn't know. It also stirred memories of tasting marshmallows, of eating charred steaks and blackened sausages, of bickering with Jeannie as their parents ignored them.
"Did you kill Junior?" he asked.
Sheppard was slow to answer. The fire turned his face into an unnatural thing of flame and shadow, as if his eyes were spilling pain and darkness over his face. He was shaking less, though. "Junior." The small furrow between his eyes was a great line of darkness. "Oh. No. Missed. Mom stopped me."
"It's just that…" Rodney wrapped his arms around his body. A powerbar had fallen out of his pocket when he had been tearing up his jacket, but he tried not to look at it. "Hypoglycaemia, you know?"
Rodney swallowed; he could almost feel the willpower behind Sheppard's continued talking. "No," he admitted. "Not that the idiot doctors will admit to, anyway, but we all know how wrong they can be. But when I'm hungry, I get cold and dizzy and my stomach feels --"
"Eat it, Rodney." Sheppard bit his lip, obviously fighting pain, but when he spoke again, his voice was almost light. "I'll only throw it up again."
Rodney ate the powerbar, but it tasted like ashes, too dry without water. Water! This time he bit his lip, and said nothing. How long before Ronon came back? He almost asked, but then Sheppard gave a small sigh, almost a whimper, and his eyes slid shut. Rodney touched his throat – "Sorry, sorry," he said, as he brushed against the injury there – and found his pulse, weak and fast. Sheppard did not stir.
"Ronon?" He tried the radio again. There was no response. "Ronon?"
Out of range, he told himself. Out of range. Shielded by some indigenous rock. Concentrating on stalking some animal. Not dead. Definitely not dead. Not lying shattered at the bottom of a cliff or torn to pieces by a lion. Not swept away by water or snatched up by the Wraith. Not gone. Not dying. Not dead.
Something called far away in the woods. Rodney snatched up his gun, levelled it, but saw nothing. Only a bird, he told himself. An owl.
He touched Sheppard's throat again. You were supposed to wake people every few hours when they had a head injury, weren't you? Something to do with checking their responsiveness. Because if they weren't responsive, then you could… He laughed; it was either that or cry. Because then you could take them to the hospital and call in the doctors and let them do their medical voodoo. Then you could hand over to someone else.
He tried Ronon again. Nothing.
Then Sheppard started shaking. "We don't talk about this ever," Rodney said, as he lay down beside Sheppard and wrapped one arm around him, careful to avoid the worst of the injuries. Sheppard felt warm, and there were memories in this, too – long ago memories that were almost forgotten, and which could not be pinned down. Then all memories flew away in the horrible knowledge that every tiny movement could cause Sheppard pain, or even make his injuries worse.
He lay stiffly, then – cold, miserable and tenacious – and did not dare to move. He never expected to sleep, but after a while his thoughts grew strange, and then he was dreaming, caught between ice and fire.
He woke with a start, torn from dreams of fire and feedings and grasping hands and Sheppard falling away from him over the cliff. He pushed himself to his knees, wishing for a nice period of happy drowsiness when he didn't know where he was, didn't know how much depended on him, didn't know how screwed they really were. Sheppard was still asleep – unconscious, really – and the fire was burning low. When he moved just two paces away from it, reaching for more wood, it was like stepping into another world – one of icy cold, where unknown things paced in the total darkness.
"I don't know what to do." He dragged a branch to the fire and heaved it on; a flame, temporarily stifled by the new wood, took another route around it, nearly scorching his hand. "It's not fair. I have my place. Give me a computer and a… a… piece of technology to understand and to fix. Give me… anything, really, because we're not talking your common type of intelligence here. Indispensable, to be honest. But not this. I'm not being given a chance to use my skills. I'm… I'm a professor being employed to flip burgers."
He sagged down next to Sheppard. "If flipping burgers was something that could make the difference between life and death," he said quietly. "I don't know how to flip burgers. I don't know what to do."
Sheppard's pulse was visible, fluttering at his throat. The growing flames showed the blood that had seeped through the bandages, and when Rodney dared to touch him with fluttering hand, he was sure that he was hotter than he should be, but perhaps that was just from proximity to the flames.
He tried Ronon again. There was no answer. A twig snapped not far away, but there was nothing visible beyond the flames, nothing at all.
"I'm suppose to wake you every few hours," he told Sheppard, "so I can --" Have someone to talk to. "—check… stuff." He shook his gently, then more firmly, and snapped his fingers in front of Sheppard's face. When Sheppard's eyes drifted open, Rodney found himself frozen there, fingers half way through a snap. He withdrew his hand. "Huh. It worked." He pressed dry lips together. "How are you feeling?"
"Like crap," Sheppard murmured, and Rodney remembered how annoying he had once found it when certain stoical warrior types had waved away all concerns with a 'I'm good.' He shouldn't have complained then. It was better that way, far better.
"Oh." He ran his tongue over his lips, desperate for the sweet comfort of a computer, of databases, of answers. "What can I do?"
"Water." Sheppard's lips were cracked, and he'd lost a lot of blood. Did that count as dehydration? Rodney couldn't remember. He'd gone on courses on field medicine, and he'd sat through a session on survival techniques before he'd been allowed to set foot through a Stargate. He couldn't remember a word of it. Part of his brain had been gibbering in terror at the thought that he would ever be in that situation at all, and the other half had known that there would be nice, stupid, muscled grunts to do that stuff while he got on with the really important things. Life on Sheppard's team had changed that, of course, but there were three of them who knew how to survive, and only one of him who could do what he had to do. They didn't feel the need to learn advanced astrophysics, and he didn't need to learn how to harvest drinking water from tree sap or make a beaker out of a bear's clavicle, or whatever people like that did.
Maybe he said some of that out loud. What he definitely said was, "It's the middle of the night! I'll get lost. I'll get eaten. I don't want to leave you." And come back, triumphantly holding water, only to find that you've died while I was away.
Sheppard said nothing. Ronon had said he'd be back by dawn. Ronon… Rodney bit his lip. "I'll look for water as soon as it's light."
Sheppard's eyes glittered. You were supposed to flash a little light into them and see how the pupils reacted, weren't you? He was probably supposed to be changing the bandages, but he had nothing to replace them with. He thought of bacteria racing gleefully through Sheppard's blood – Oh, and what about his own? He was covered with Sheppard's blood, and his own hands had been torn up – well, damaged slightly – from the wood. What if he had alien rabies --?
"I wish Teyla was here," he found himself saying.
"I don't." That, at least, was lucid.
"Baby. Not good. Risk."
"Oh." In Rodney's mind, Teyla was slim and strong and very definitely not pregnant. "I meant proper Teyla. She'd know what to do. She'd use her native warrior princess skills and we'd be in a nice shelter right now, eating roast bear."
"She's still proper Teyla. She'll be back on the team."
Sheppard always said that, stubbornly hiding from reality, but it wouldn't be the same. Nothing was going to be the same. Carson, Elizabeth, and now Teyla…
"She's not dead, Rodney."
And Jeannie, who got herself pregnant and gave up everything that had ever mattered to her before. People changed, and they moved away from what was important. This last year or two, with his team… Well, you didn't say stuff out loud, did you, because then certain people would get cocky, but it felt good to lounge around a table in the mess hall or hang out playing games or watching movies. It made you feel as if you belonged, as if you were part of something special. But all that was changing. No, all that had changed.
There'd been that thing with the princess, just the two of them, Rodney and Sheppard. Sheppard's father had died, and Ronon had been the only one to go back with him. Rodney had almost died underground, trapped with Sam and Keller. Sheppard had locked himself away on the puddlejumper, leaving Rodney with the geeks. It was months since the whole team had been on a mission together, and Rodney hadn't realised how much he valued the team until it was gone.
"It'll be like it used to be, Rodney." Sheppard's hand was pressed against the ground, fingers curling in with pain.
Stupid. Self-deluding. Only idiots were optimistic. Burying his head in the sand and refusing to see how messed up everything was. It was easy for Sheppard to say. He was the lynchpin – and Rodney had always thought that it was him. No, he had always known that he was the most important person – the one who saved all their asses on a regular basis – but Sheppard was the one who kept them together. Though Rodney would never say so out loud, he worked well with Sheppard as a pair, but Sheppard had his little buddy thing going with Ronon, too, and was close to Teyla, too. It didn't matter so much when there were four of you, but when there were only three…
God! Was he jealous? And how pathetic, how childish, how stupid was he, because it seemed that he was. Jealous of Ronon for working so well with Sheppard. Jealous that Sheppard had a brother, and hadn't told anyone; jealous that he had an ex-wife, and had only told Ronon. Jealous even of this Kanaan for being someone Teyla cared about more than she cared for her team.
"Doesn't work like that," Sheppard said, and Rodney wondered if all his emotions had been bare on his face, but he also heard the echo of his own voice, and knew that he had said at least some of it out loud.
"Then how does it work?" Rodney asked miserably. "I'm not used to…" Having friends. He waved his hand. "This," he contended himself with saying.
Sheppard had no answers for him.
"If there'd been all four of us on that jumper," Rodney said, "then none of this would have happened. Teyla would have --"
"If… four…" Sheppard's voice was strained. "Might have… fallen over. Extra weight, even more than… your second… dessert."
"But we're a team," Rodney protested. "Four. That's why you military people do it in the first place, right? The best number. No-one left alone; always someone watching your back. Four people with different skills --"
"Can get lazy." Sheppard's eyes were glazing over, but his hand was still curling into the ground, as if clinging to life with his fingertips. "Always rely…" He coughed weakly. "This time you get to be the hero."
"But look where I got us."
"Not your fault."
Rodney opened his mouth to reply, but something moved beyond the trees. He grabbed the gun and fired twice, three times, stopping himself with a cry from firing more, remembering how limited ammunition was. He had been shooting blind, anyway. The movement came again, a twig snapping a little further away. He heard his heartbeat and rasping breathing, and ever so slowly lowered the gun. "I think I scared it off."
"We'd be better out of the trees," Sheppard said. "More visibility. Less cover."
"I thought cover was good."
"Not like this."
Rodney realised suddenly what Sheppard was trying to do. Was the man an idiot? "Don't!"
Sheppard was sitting now. As Rodney watched, protesting, he pushed himself up onto his knees, swaying visibly. "Not far," he said. "I can…"
"What you can do is kill yourself." Sheppard ignored him. "Oh no. Oh no, oh no. Save me from stubborn colonels. There's a time for superhuman endurance and this --"
"Crap." Sheppard lunged out with his hand, perhaps even grasping for Rodney, begging for help. Rodney saw his knees buckle; saw the blood draining from his face. He did what he did, tried to catch him, but have you ever tried lowering a full-grown man, suddenly boneless? Sheppard fell too heavily, and by the time Rodney was able to extricate himself, there was fresh wetness on his hands.
"I told you," Rodney said. "I told you so."
Sheppard said nothing for a very long time. He was conscious, though, or perhaps only slightly so, his face set, and clearly fighting pain. "Yeah," he said at last, and the stupid stubborn idiot was even smiling. "Rodney McKay, right again."
"Why do you keep on doing it?" Rodney burst out, staring at the fresh blood on his hands. "You said it wasn't my fault. Damn right: it's yours. If you hadn't decided to play the mighty hunter and go off into the woods when you could hardly walk, then we'd be… Okay, so we wouldn't be safe and warm, but we'd be better off than we are here, because at least you wouldn't be half eaten."
Sheppard shifted. "I know."
Rodney spread his hands. "So why did you do it?"
He had not really expected an answer. For at least a minute, Sheppard did not give him one. Rodney had just decided that he was unconscious again, and was about to panic about that, when Sheppard said, in a voice quite low and level, "Do you know how many men died on Midway?"
Rodney frowned. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"I do," Sheppard said, in that same voice.
"Again, what's that got to do --?" Rodney snapped his mouth shut. Of course it was relevant. Four years ago, he wouldn't have had a clue, but he was beginning to understand how that twisted mystery that was John Sheppard's brain worked. "You… you can't bring them back by throwing yourself into the jaws of an enraged lion."
"And Ronon…" Sheppard's hand was back in its position on the ground. "Didn't want to… Couldn't…"
Better not to have asked, Rodney thought. "You can't always be the one to save people," he said. Oh, but he was so not good at this – saying comforting things, and stuff. Perhaps that was why he got on with Sheppard, because Sheppard never needed or wanted such things. "I mean, Sheppard – climbing that tower. What was wrong with sitting and quietly waiting for someone else to --?"
"Like you would have done?"
Rodney let out a breath, caught. He wondered how he would feel if he was forced to lie still and do nothing while Zelenka worked on something highly dangerous that could save everyone's lives. No, he knew how he would feel. He would ignore the warning signs from his body, push himself from his sickbed, and do something even more important, just to show that he could. Huh, he thought. Look at me. Insight!
"Yes," he said. "Fair point. Well… In future… Just please try to refrain from these foolish but heroic brushes with death. I can't --"
"You've lost contact with Ronon, haven't you?"
Rodney froze; looked at his hands. "Yes," he admitted, "but there are many reasons… Interference. Out of range – I've always said we need better radios, but SGC went for the budget option – or… or something. I'm sure everything will be fine."
"You need to work on… your… optimism," Sheppard murmured, and then his eyes slid shut, and Rodney could not rouse him for a very long time.
end of part two
The rest of the night was miserable. He talked to himself – no, he talked to Sheppard, mostly, though Sheppard never responded. It was hours before he realised that he could see the faint outlines of trees, as the sky outside the woods turned into not quite darkness.
Morning. Ronon had said he would be back by dawn. Rodney tried the radio again, but there was no answer. He stood up and walked several paces away, staring into the mass of trees as if help could be willed to arrive just by looking for it, but there was nothing.
Light crept in slowly and steadily. The fire faded, no longer the only source of light in the darkness, and Rodney shivered as it did so. Sheppard, when he dared look at him, looked worse in the grey light of dawn than he had looked in the rosy light of flames, but Rodney told himself firmly that it was just an optical illusion.
"Sheppard," he told him. "Now would be a good time to wake up." Sheppard moaned a little, but gave no further sign of obeying him. "Figures." Rodney looked down at his own anxious hands. "You never did like following orders. Why should you start now?"
Soon there was enough light to see the pawprints around the edge of their camp. "Wolves," he said, "or bears. Prowling in the night. Watching us. Licking their lips." They had come this close to being eaten, and he hadn't known. But there was nothing he could do about it now, not with Sheppard lying so still. You couldn't panic properly when you had someone you had to look after.
Water, he thought, running his tongue over his dry lips. He was desperately thirsty, but Sheppard had to be worse off. He had to get water. He'd told Sheppard he'd get water when it was light; as good as promised him so. He had to…
Ronon would be back at dawn. Ronon. A puddlejumper. Lovely vats of water and food on demand. Warmth. Fresh clothes. Other people to take care of Sheppard, while Rodney paced around and told them to do their job better.
He sat down. Sheppard looked quite uncomfortable on the ground, and was that…? Rodney touched the edge of the nearest bandage, then snatched his fingers away, fighting disgust at what he had been about to do. He couldn't take them off, anyway, because he had nothing to replace them with. At least when he had water, he could wash them, and if the skin really was swollen and reddened and heading towards a full-blown infection, then at least he might be able to do something about it.
"And so we're back to the water again." He stood up. It was fully light now, and still no Ronon. He could sit and wait and wait for someone else to come, or he could do something about it. "No choice," he said. "Sheppard." He pitched his voice louder, as if talking to an elderly great-aunt. "I'm getting water. Don't do anything stupid while I've gone, like… well, like dying."
Sheppard did not stir. Crouching, Rodney scratched an arrow in the dirt, showing Sheppard where he had gone. A few steps away from the camp, he stopped and went to rub it out again, in case Sheppard took it as an indication that he should follow. "Which is just the sort of thing you would do."
Rodney headed away from the camp; glanced back after a dozen yards to see Sheppard still lying there; walked a bit further; glanced back to see only trees. His gun was slippery in his hand, and the air was biting cold away from the fire. He had no idea which way to go, but headed towards the place where the light was strongest, and soon found himself back at the edge of the cliff, at the small strip of clear land between the woodland and certain doom.
"What now?" He went as near to the edge of the cliff as he dared, and looked in both directions. To the left, the cliff grew steadily higher, but the land fell slowly away to the right. "Go downhill to get water," he said, as he started to walk that way.
The cliff edge undulated, with great bites taken out of it, as if by many rock falls. "You awake yet, Sheppard?" Rodney wondered into the radio. "Ronon? Can you hear me?" There was no answer from either of them. About a mile ahead of him, the cliff swept inland – "not that it's ocean down there, but it feels like one. Probably some ancient sea, dried up in…" He stopped himself, and carried on walking, his view of what was ahead of him obscured by nearby trees.
He must have walked for over half an hour when he saw the river. It was down below, far below, but it was wide, shining silver in the early morning sun. "And if there's a river down there," he said, snapping his fingers, "there must be a river up here."
Ten minutes later, his path started to go seriously downhill. "Or else I can go down there," he added. "That works, too." Except that then he would have to walk up the hill again afterwards. Every step down meant a step up later. "An unnecessary step," he berated the hill. "It's most unfair."
The ground at the base of the cliff had seemed to be miles below, but he reached it within an hour. The ground became dry and rocky, and the trees surged forward to engulf the cliff in its last hundred yards of dwindling life. There was mud, too, but there, ahead of him, water! He could hear it! Water! He stumbled forward, clambering over rocks, exclaiming out loud at the patches of wet mud that kept trying to grab his feet. The bank was steep – "and it would be just my luck to fall in now, and be swept to my death" – but there were roots and branches to hold onto – "Ow! That was a thorn!" He touched the water with his fingers at first, and gasped at the shocking cold of it. Then he dared lean further forward, and cupped his hand, filling it with water.
It was entirely delicious. He could feel its coldness racing through his body, and it was as if every parched fibre of his body was crying out eagerly, grasping at it. He drank some more, then some more, letting it drip down his chin, letting it splash down his chest.
It was only when he was sated that he realised that he had nothing to carry it back to Sheppard in.
"No," he groaned. "Oh no no no no no. Stupid, McKay. You're stupid." He looked around, but there was nothing. He found a plant with tiny, spear-like leaves, and there were plenty of rocks and pebbles. The muddy earth showed no inclination to be made into a clay vessel, and there were no gourds to hollow out. He almost slipped into the river while searching. Then he sat on a rock and stared miserably at the water, flowing so close to him, and yet so impossibly, unavoidably useless.
"Sheppard." He tried him again on the radio. "You awake?" He swallowed; his stomach felt bloated with water. "Sheppard?"
Weren't you supposed to feel icy certainty when the end was nigh? Wasn't a strange sort of calm supposed to descend over you? He felt none of that. He was cold, though, bitterly cold, right through to the heart. What could he do? What could he do? He could create a bridge between galaxies and he could destroy planets, but he couldn't bring a cup of water back to Sheppard without something to hold it in.
"So I'll have to bring him here," he said. "It's the only way." He couldn't carry him, of course, but perhaps he could support him, if Sheppard recovered consciousness enough to stagger. He could build a travois, binding branches together with torn-up bits of clothing. Or rope! They still had the rope, uncoiled and forgotten at the top of the cliff.
Clothed in resolution, he stood up and began to move away from the river, then stopped and pulled off his ragged jacket. "It isn't really keeping me warm, anyway," he said, as he soaked it in the water. He pulled it out dripping, and heaped it up in his cupped hands.
His hands were quickly numb with cold. Water dripped between the webbing of his fingers, dribbling down his wrists and bare forearms. He was horribly cold at first, but as his path started to climb, he was covered with a veneer of almost-too-hotness. He was breathing heavily, his leg muscles burning. His shoulders hurt worse, struggling to keep his cupped hands steady in front of him.
Food, he thought. It's not just water. I need food. Roots and berries and things. He wasn't going to try to kill something, not after seeing what had happened to Sheppard. "At least, not something big, with teeth. Maybe a very small rabbit."
He tried Sheppard again on the radio, his voice cracking with exertion; tried Ronon, too, and got nothing.
He wanted to flop down to his knees when he reached the top, but he carried on, hurrying through the trees. Sheppard was not where he remembered him being. There was no camp, either – no footprints, no blood. Left or right? He called Sheppard's name, as a tiny, sluggish drop of water ran down the back of his hand. He went left, but knew that every step could result in him going further and further from where Sheppard was lying; that water was drying away to nothing; that now he was no longer climbing, the sweat was drying on his body, and he was very cold indeed, hands shaking around his burden.
"Sheppard." He tried his name again. "Sheppard." Then, "Smoke!" he gasped. "Follow the smoke." He sniffed the air, turning in a full circle, smelling dirt and resin and blood and smoke and unimaginable things. The smoke had thinned, seeping into everything around him, but it seemed a little stronger in one direction, so he followed it.
But the fire had burnt down to almost nothing when he found it, and Sheppard was shaking and trembling beside its embers. It was all Rodney could do to keep hold of the damp cloth; he could feel his hand desperate to twitch and flail in panic and misery. He knelt with deliberate, quivering steadiness. "Sheppard. I've got water – well, sort of. You need to drink. Sheppard."
Sheppard's eyelids opened a slit, then closed again. Perhaps if he just did it… But he needed more than two hands again – one to support Sheppard's head, and two to twist the damp fabric and release the precious drops of water. "Wake up, Sheppard," he found himself saying. "Please. Seriously, this isn't like you. Sleeping on the job." Sheppard was like Ronon: he just went on and on. Sometimes you found out about injuries once he was back on Atlantis, but he never ducked out and abandoned you like this.
Sheppard opened his eyes again. "Rodney?"
Rodney's shoulders sagged with relief. "Yes. Yes. Thank God. Listen. You need to drink."
"Yes." He held the crumpled jacket above Sheppard's face, and twisted it. Although it was quite obviously still very wet, only a few drops came out. At least half of the water ran down Sheppard's chin, but Sheppard's tongue came out belatedly and caught the last smear. Rodney tried again, this time producing a very small spoonful. Sheppard moved towards it yearningly, his hand curling into the ground.
When he had wrung every last drop of water out of the jacket, Rodney slumped back onto his heels. "More." Sheppard ran the tip of his tongue over his lips. "Thirsty."
"I know." He scraped his damp hand over his brow. "I've got to take you to the river. If you can't bring the mountain to… Drag you there – do I look like a husky? Though at least --" He gave a brittle laugh. "-- I won't die of cold while I'm making like a dog or a… a… horse. And it'll be safer down there, unless there are… sea monsters, and… and horrible water-borne diseases. Flash floods. Maybe fish to eat?" But that made him think piercingly of Carson. "At least there'll be water to drink, and I can clean your injuries."
"Water." Sheppard's voice was a fragile little thread of a thing.
"Yes, yes, I know. Aren't you listening?" He scraped his hand over his brow again. "A travois. I need wood. Huh. Where can I find that round here, I wonder? Rope. A knife. I've never made one before, but how difficult can it be? Perhaps this survival business isn't so bad after all."
It was as if Sheppard quite deliberately wanted to make a lie of his words. Sheppard's eyes snapped open, and he grabbed at Rodney's wrist, though he failed to catch hold of it. "Thought you were dead," he said.
Rodney frowned. "I'm not dead."
"Dead. Everyone dead. Wraith."
Rodney looked over his shoulder, as if by some miracle someone had appeared to help him with this. There was no-one there, of course. "There aren't any Wraith," he said, turning back. "No Wraith. Wraith all gone."
"Dead," Sheppard said. His voice was chillingly matter-of-fact. "Twenty-three. Not supposed to leave people behind."
"You didn't," Rodney assured him. God, he felt so useless! He could stop a flying city from falling apart, but he had no idea what to say to one delirious man. Sheppard never needed comfort. He never made Rodney feel as if he was failing somehow by not saying the right thing or doing the right thing. They had just slotted in together, because Sheppard had needed nothing from Rodney that Rodney was not able to give.
Sheppard's eyes were wide open, seeing nothing. "Littered across two galaxies, dead and dust."
"You're sick," Rodney said desperately. "You're… I don't know what you are. Concussed. Feverish. Both. I don't know… It's not real."
But of course it was real. Fever made Sheppard speak of such things, but the feelings must have been there all along, even if he never said anything. Sheppard needed nothing from Rodney that Rodney was not able to give? Maybe he did. Maybe it was just that Rodney wasn't willing to give it, so told himself it wasn't needed.
Sheppard had shored Rodney up after the thing with Elizabeth – "It was my call, Rodney" – and Rodney had accepted that comfort, and never thought to give any back.
"I didn't…" Sheppard moaned. "I tried…"
Then he started to shake, and, God! was he crying? No, not crying, not that, but shaking all over, his eyes wide and staring. Rodney grabbed him, all reluctance vanished in the urgency of the situation, and tried to pull him up, tried to pull him close, tried to hold him still. Even in the cold of a dying fire, his skin felt warm. "Sheppard," he called. "Sheppard. John. Stop it. Please stop it. Please stop."
He had no idea how long it lasted – it felt like an eternity. When Sheppard finally stopped shaking, Rodney let out a breath, then gasped it in again, in sudden panic. What if he'd stopped because he'd…? He fumbled at Sheppard's throat, and found a pulse, but it was fast and weak and erratic.
"He isn't going to survive," he said, but he got up wearily and ran his hands through his hair. Branches, he thought. Wood. "Three and a half more days of this. I've got to drag him to the water, but what if he dies on the way? What if I'm dragging just bones?"
It was not a nice thought. He collected branches to get the fire going again, checked on Sheppard – still unresponsive – and started to collect wood for a travois. He worked until his hands were bleeding and his face was stinging from scratches and scrapes. He worked until he was dripping with sweat, although the heart of him was still icy cold. He worked until he was dizzy with hunger, and thirsty again, despite everything he had drunk.
He almost did not hear the voice at first, or if he did, he didn't register it. His hand came up, as if swatting away an imaginary fly. The voice came again – dreams, he thought; dreams of rescue.
The third time he answered it, in time to see the dark shape of a jumper passing over him, beyond the treetops. "Yes," he said. "Yes, it's McKay. Come quickly. Please come quickly."
And then, or so he was told later, he fainted.
"What happened to you?" he demanded.
Ronon was sitting opposite him on the bench. Rodney had been banished there after waking up - "we know our job, Doctor McKay. Please let us do it." They were only minutes away from Atlantis. Rodney couldn't see Sheppard's face.
"You said dawn," he said furiously. "You were late, and now Sheppard…"
"Fell," Ronon said. His arm was wrapped in a sling.
"And nearly drowned on top of that," said a young doctor Rodney didn't know. "He shouldn't be here." He had the weary look of someone who had fought that battle and lost.
But, "You were late," he said again, knowing that he was being unreasonable, but still too close to the awfulness to be anything else. If Sheppard died… If Sheppard died…
"But still in time," the doctor said, falsely cheerful. Rodney decided that he did not like him.
Normally things seemed better with a bit of food in you. Things seemed better when you had some proper sleep in a proper bed, and when you were showered, and when you had visited the labs to make sure no-one had blown up anything they shouldn't in your absence.
Rodney could not get warm. He sat in his quarters and shivered. Things felt a bit better when he was pacing up and down the infirmary, telling the doctors to take better care of Sheppard. They felt even better when people tried to order him out; you couldn't be cold when you were blazing with anger.
Sheppard alternated between periods of deadly stillness and freaky shaking, all without regaining consciousness. "He's picked up a nice little infection," a doctor said, a stupid doctor. "Nice?" Rodney echoed. They told him that he himself was clear of it before he even thought to ask. "Nice?" he echoed again. They also said that Sheppard had a bad concussion, but he'd already known that, hadn't he? A double whammy, two in one. Sheppard was never one to do things by halves.
They said the outlook was good.
In the night, they said, Sheppard had started talking, caught somewhere between sleep and waking, between delirium and reason. Rodney had not been there for that. Ronon had, but he wasn't telling. Ronon glowered over Sheppard's bed like an over-protective guard dog, and was slow to lower his hackles even when Rodney arrived. Rodney had a sudden, irrational, pathetic urge to snarl back.
But when Sheppard woke up properly, two days later, it was Rodney who was at his side, not Ronon. He had to stand back while the doctors did their thing, but after that there was just the two of them, and silence.
"I nearly killed you," Rodney blurted out.
Sheppard seemed slow to process this. He ran his tongue over his lips, and frowned, the gears visibly creaking in his mind.
"I didn't know how to take care of you," Rodney said. "If they hadn't showed up… Four days, Sheppard. I couldn't have taken care of you for four days. I barely managed one night."
Sheppard made an incoherent sound.
"I was making a travois to take you down to the river," Rodney explained, "but I don't know if you would have lasted. There was no food. There were no clean bandages." The bite on Sheppard's shoulder was covered with a thick dressing, and Rodney never wanted to see what was beneath it; never even wanted to imagine it.
"Huh," Sheppard said, and fell asleep.
"I'm a highly skilled individual," Rodney was saying. "My intelligence is genius level, as you know. I have many skills in engineering and physics. I can play the piano. I can act. I can touch my nose with my tongue. So I can't keep my head under pressure, but I get results. Atlantis is crumbling around me, and I stay at my station and manage to save everyone's asses. So, really, there are lots of things I can do."
Sheppard did not reply.
"Everyone's allowed to have gaps in their skill set. When you're a team, you all have different, complementary strengths. That's the whole point. It doesn't bother me that Ronon can fight better than I can, just like it shouldn't bother him – but it probably does, really – that I'm so much cleverer than him." He let out a breath; looked at his folded hands. "I didn't know how to take care of you. I should have known by now. We've been through enough."
Rodney raised his head. Sheppard was looking at him through bleary slits of eyes. "But I didn't. If that jumper hadn't come, you'd be dead by now."
"Made fire," Sheppard said. "Got water. Kept me warm. Made bandages." His eyes opened further, and he smiled, looking almost like a ghost of the real Sheppard. "You did okay, Rodney."
"Just okay?" Rodney never did just okay. Everything he did was exceptional… Well, except for those things that didn't matter. But this was life. This was Sheppard's life. This mattered. This wasn't nothing.
"If they hadn't come," Sheppard said quietly, "you'd have managed."
"But I didn't get the chance to prove that, did I?" Rodney burst out. "I'll never know."
"You're wishing we weren't rescued?"
"No!" Rodney cried. "Of course not. No." When that voice had come over the radio, it had felt marvellous – like a lost child hearing his mother's voice. But at the same time… He had been plucked from the brink. He had not been forced to prove how far he would go to keep Sheppard alive. He had not been forced to forage for food, and to take that terrible leap of faith that was testing a strange new fungus before offering it to Sheppard. He had not had to look beneath those bandages. He hadn't had to breathe life into Sheppard's body, and face the choice of carrying on or giving up.
"You did well, Rodney."
They felt like hollow words at first, but Sheppard grew slowly better. Ronon looked at him without rancour, and the two of them and Teyla shared a table in the mess hall, just as they had done when they were all a team. Rodney found out what had caused the jumper to fail, and had corrected the latent fault in the other jumpers, and in that, at least, he was in his element.
In the middle of the night, he woke up to the memory of racing into the woods after Sheppard had failed to respond on the radio. He had raced knowingly into danger, and it had never occurred to him not to. Yes, part of him had been tempted to leap for safety out of the jumper, but a larger part of him had known that this was inconceivable.
"The way I see it," he told the darkness, "there were certain things that I didn't know, but I passed the moral test."
It felt stupid in the morning, when he was fully awake, but perhaps not so stupid as all that.
But then there was Sheppard.
Sheppard was sitting up in bed now, a little pale and still weak, but more or less his normal self. Watching him, Rodney remembered how Sheppard had moaned his apologies, the things he had said about the dead on Midway, and how, delirious, he had been haunted by those who had died.
All of that was still there. This Sheppard – the Sheppard who sat in the bed and deflected all questions about his wellbeing – would never talk about it, but that didn't mean that it had gone away. There in the woods, Rodney had had no idea what to say to make things better. He had just wanted Sheppard to stop talking about such things, such uncomfortable things.
Perhaps that was his true failure. It wasn't that he had failed to take anything to carry the water back in. It wasn't that he had been unable to make a fire until Sheppard had shown him. It wasn't the fact that his bandages had almost killed Sheppard. They were one-off mistakes, but the inability to act properly around friends who were hurting… That just went on and on. Jeannie called him on it. Carson had too, at times. But Sheppard didn't care. Sheppard didn't want that sort of behaviour. Sheppard expected nothing. Anything Rodney was able to say was probably far more than Sheppard wanted to hear, anyway.
Maybe he had been wrong all along. Maybe he had been right at first, but when you had known somebody for four years, their expectations changed. Maybe Sheppard wanted…
He started badly. "About… you know… the things you said." His hand was moving in circles, struggling to catch the right words.
"I was delirious." Sheppard's voice brooked no argument.
"I'm good, Rodney." There was no fever in Sheppard's eyes now, but there was the same intensity as he had shown when sick.
Rodney knew the lie. He opened his mouth to say something, but, "Don't," Sheppard said, just that.
They had said things; they had both said things. None of that would ever entirely be forgotten, but it would never be spoken about. Rodney shifted position in his chair, and could almost feel the cloak of normality settle on his shoulders. Perhaps he was a coward for not pushing it, but it seemed to be what Sheppard wanted. Perhaps, in a way, they were both cowards, and that's why they worked together so well, because they both knew when not to push. "So what sort of animal bit you, anyway?"
Sheppard played with the edge of his blanket, and did not answer.
"A bear?" Rodney asked. "A lion?" He remembered the pawprints in the mud, certainly not lion-sized. "A badger? A rabbit with nasty sharp pointy teeth?"
"It certainly had teeth."
"A rabbit!" Rodney crowed. "Colonel John Sheppard was mauled by a rabbit!"
"It wasn't a rabbit," Sheppard protested. "It was much bigger and it --"
"A rabbit," Rodney said, somewhat shrilly, because sometimes normality had to be given a helping hand. Sometimes you had to grasp it with both hands and hold onto it.
Sheppard settled down on his pillow. "If you say so, Meredith."
"Very funny." Rodney heard people approaching, and turned round to see Ronon and Teyla. Without asking, they took up places at the bedside as if they belonged there. Rodney bristled a little – no chance now to talk about things, even if he wanted to – then relaxed. They were still a team in the ways that mattered. Teyla wasn't going off-world with them for now, but here she was, when it mattered. Everything was going to be normal again. It already was.
"Sheppard was just telling me how he was nearly killed by a rabbit," Rodney told the others.
"And Rodney was about to tell everyone how he heroically salvaged a bag of lollipops and teddy bears," Sheppard said quite calmly.
Rodney tried for various retorts, before settling on "Ronon fell in a river!"
Ronon just looked at him in response. Teyla, he saw, rolled her eyes.
Normal, he thought, and there was nothing wrong with that. But it was a normal in which Teyla was about to become a mother; in which Ronon and Sheppard and Teyla shared things that Rodney could never share; in which Sheppard just occasionally showed that he was less laidback that he appeared, but Rodney knew not to question him about it. It was a different normal every day, as this galaxy changed them.
And tomorrow, he thought, might change them even more, but they still had this.
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