Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
It was far too dark. Impossibly dark. Impenetrably dark. Stygian…
"What sort of person says Stygian?" Rodney mumbled. "What does it mean, anyway?"
Sheppard didn't answer. Of course he didn't; he was gone. Rodney was all alone. He rubbed his eye with the back of the hand that held the gun. "A hallucination would be nice right now."
He lowered his hand. There was no hallucination. Water dripped from somewhere not too far away, like the clatter of feet, bristling with claws. The air he breathed was musty and damp. The floor was soft with dirt, prickly with grit and rubble. When he shifted, something crunched beneath him. He knew the sound. He had heard it in that stupid scary cartoon he had seen when he was ten. Jeannie had laughed at it, but he had been afraid to sleep for weeks. Oh yes, he knew the sound of bones crumbling to dust. That was how he'd be when they found him: just a skeleton, fading into dust.
If you came back now, Sheppard, that would be…
He cleared his throat. "Though why you had to go off by yourself, I do not know." He paused. Was the water falling faster? Was the sound doubled, as feet tried to hide themselves in the natural sounds of the ruins? "Okay, so it was my idea, but…"
Something fell onto the back of his hand. He squawked, his injured head jolting back against the wall behind him. He shook his hand frenziedly, desperate to get it off, and clawed at the air around him, terrified that his hand would impact with some thing.
Nothing. Nothing. "Probably a spider." His heart was beating audibly, and he imagined it double, triple, quadruple back on him in the darkness, like a pack of creatures, like the drums of the people who were hunting them. "Only a spider," he said. Only? Only?
He pressed his free hand to his chest, feeling the pounding there. "I'm probably going to die of a heart attack now, or some hideous Pegasus Galaxy spider poison. You don't always feel the bite. Sometimes the first you know about it is when you wake up dead. Again with the skeletal fate. Whatever way you look at it, I'm doomed."
The gun was warm and slippery in his other hand, clutched in aching fingers. "If you see anything, shoot," Sheppard had told him. "Though there's only three rounds left. Don't go getting trigger happy."
"Me? Trigger happy?" Rodney had echoed. "That's you, Colonel. Don't project your macho fantasies onto me. And how am I going to see anything, anyway? It's dark, in case you haven't noticed."
"Hear something, then," Sheppard had said, unconcerned. And then he had gone.
The water fell silent. Why was it silent? The air seemed to pulse with the sound of breathing: in, and out; in, and out.
"Besides," he said firmly, "I couldn't shoot the spider. It was on my hand. I need my hand for… for sciency stuff. Saving you all, and everything."
Sciency stuff? he heard Sheppard say. Rodney, I think that head injury is worse than we thought.
"You're telling me," Rodney murmured. He rubbed at his eyes again, the pistol grip solid behind his fingers. Still nothing. The darkness was absolute, like… like… No, he didn't do poetry. Leave the metaphors for other people, like… like… Ronon? He giggled.
Or was it a simile?
The darkness did not answer.
"Just typical," Rodney muttered, as his eyes drifted shut to thoughts of hallucinations and Samantha Carter.
The dripping started again. Wonder why it stopped, he thought. Maybe because the monster was drinking from it, hideous fanged jaws wide open, and dripping…
He raised the gun limply. "But I'm ready for you, monster." No, not "monster". He moistened his dry lips. Indigenous creature, that's what it was. Denizen of the ruins. So what if he had smelled the reek of its flesh-gorged mouth; felt the passage of its shaggy great body; heard the crunching of carcasses between its teeth. It could not be a monster. Monsters only existed in stories. Like vampire insects who suck the life out of you with their hand…
He swallowed. Apart from the water, all was silent. But maybe it was cunning like that, and was making its approach as silent as the… as something. The last time, it had been snarling and grunting. Only Rodney's lightning-fast reflexes had saved him.
You tripped on a stone, Rodney, while squeaking like a girl, Sheppard said. Busted your ankle, too.
There was no need to acknowledge imaginary comments from absent colonels. Only his lightning-fast reflexes had saved him, and here he was, the wounded hero holding the bridgehead. "I have a gun," he told the silence.
The silence seemed supremely uninterested.
"A gun," he murmured.
He felt it settle in his lap, felt the sweet comfort of the stone wall behind his head. His eyes closed. The dripping of the water reminded him suddenly of sheep. One by one, they had jumped over the fence: one, two, three; drip, drip, jump. "But why am I counting them?" he had asked his mother. "To help you sleep," she had told him, but it had not been enough. "But why? I don't care how many sheep there are."
They were white and woolly; succulent and tasty. Prime, he thought, as an elderly sheep jumped over the fence. Not prime. Not prime. Not prime. Prime. Then the eighteenth one caught its ankle on the fence and fell bleating to the ground. Its legs twitched desperately. A shadow passed over the meadow, blotting out the sun, and a grotesque face bent over the doomed animal, white mattered hair brushing its fleece. Teeth were bared in a smile, and a hand came out, and… and…
He jolted awake with a start. Not real. Not real. The gun was up, he realised, ready to blast the Wraith into pieces, or at least to irritate it mildly and cause it to go on a spree of homicidal vengeance. He lowered it again, blinking. It seemed utterly wrong that he could fall asleep while petrified. You were supposed to be relaxed to fall asleep, weren't you? "Oh," he said aloud. "Oh no. The head injury. That's it; I'm doomed. I'll die in my sleep, and… and now we're back with the skeleton mouldering into dust. Oh, this is not good."
His moved his legs, trying to inspire his brain to stay awake. Pain shot up from his ankle, and he decided that perhaps there were worse things than dying in your sleep, alone in the dark. Sheep fluttered on the fringes of his consciousness, bleating hopefully. "And you can go away," he told them. They refused. They were surprisingly stubborn for animals famed for their stupidity. Oh, and now they had a sheepdog with them, and he really didn't do dogs. He was a cat person through and though. It looked cross. "Nice doggy," he said. "I'm sorry I was rude to your sheep." He swallowed. "Not that you're a very good sheepdog. You let the eighteenth sheep get eaten by…"
He blinked. Why was he hallucinating sheep, anyway?
The sheepdog just looked at him with familiar eyes.
"No. Oh no." Rodney flapped the gun at them. It was so absolutely not true that the sheepdog was… No, his subconscious wouldn't do that to him. Rodney McKay, PhD, bona fide genius, could cope completely well on his own when trapped wounded in a dark ruin with a hungry monster stalking him and an angry mob of natives outside and mutant spiders sneaking onto his extremities and no shoes and no food and only three rounds in the gun he wasn't very good at firing, and it was absolutely not true that he was wishing with all his heart that Sheppard was here. It was so absolutely light years beyond true.
It is, you know, the dog barked, in a voice that was at once entirely canine, yet entirely Sheppard.
"Dying in my sleep is preferable," he muttered, in a voice that was supposed to be firm, but fell by the wayside somewhere along the way.
He closed his eyes, or maybe he didn't; it was too tiring to work out the truth in the dark. The sheep circled him loosely, then tighter, then tighter. They didn't seem happy. Perhaps they were offended because he'd told them to go away. "It's nothing personal", he murmured, and then he was on his feet, vitality and strength surging through his veins. His legs could go anywhere, run anywhere, without pain or exhaustion. His hands could fire a gun, and his eyes could aim. Girls flocked around him. He had an Ancient girlfriend who told him everything he had ever wanted to know, and he was dancing, skipping through a field of ZPMs, red as poppies, yellow as buttercups, orange as chrysanthemums, beautiful as the sunset. Music sounded… Music…
His head snapped up. Not music. Shuffling.
He fired. Once, twice, three times, then click, click, click on the empty. But before the clicks came other sounds. A bullet hitting flesh. That came with the one. A gasp of pain with the two. A cry, two syllables, strangely human... That came with the three, drowned by it. "Get away from me, monster! Go away!" His eyes hurt from the sheeting light of the gunshots. He was blind, more blind than he had been in the dark.
And then, slowly, an after-image formed on his retinas. A shape. A figure. An outline against the light, imprinted on his eyes now and forever. Not a monster shape at all, but…
"Sheppard?" His voice cracked. "Oh God… Sheppard!"
Oh, thank God. Thank God. "I thought…" He scrambled to his knees, dragging his wounded ankle over the rubble. "I thought I'd shot you."
"You did shoot me, Rodney."
Oh. Oh. "Three shots. I shot you three times. You're going to die, and then I…"
" Only once. It is you, Rodney. You did well to hit with one. You should be proud."
"Only once? Oh, so that's okay, then." Rodney's throat felt dry. The gun was still in his hand, he realised – empty now, but laughing coldly and quietly about what it had made him do. He dropped it with a cry of revulsion.
Sheppard said nothing. There was no sense of direction in the dark. Sounds bounced off the walls, echoed, and came back again from confusing places. Rodney shuffled forward on his knees, but he had no idea which way to go. Stones crunched under his kneecaps. "Ow," he grumbled. "Ow."
"Ow," Sheppard said softly, as if in agreement.
Rodney swallowed. He tasted dust. And was that iron? Was that the iron of someone else's spraying blood? I could have… I might have… "You could have called out, Colonel. Shoot if I hear something, you said. So it's your fault, really."
Nothing. One. Two. Three… His groping hand found a wall, a jutting corner. The water dripped, unchanged, oblivious.
"I did call out. You must have been asleep."
He let out a shaky breath. His right hand trembled, and he drew it back, curling it against his chest. He could still feel the shape of the gun in his empty hand. It ached, and he wanted to scrape the ache away.
Small sounds came from the darkness. He heard rustling. Breathing, but it was not regular. How badly did I…? He could not shape the words. "What are you doing?"
"Just…" Small stones scraped as Sheppard shifted. "Nothing. We should go. Can you walk?"
Rodney slumped back against the wall. "Can I walk? Firstly, Lieutenant-Colonel Missing-The-Obvious, I have a broken ankle. Secondly, I have a head injury. I'm probably concussed. I don't know much about the voodoo that Carson insists on calling a science, but I know that falling asleep on a head injury is not a good sign. Thirdly, I've had nothing to eat for hours, and not very long ago, some mumbo-jumbo hide-wearing native was trying to…"
"Rodney," Sheppard interrupted firmly. "You shot me."
"You shot me first!" Rodney retorted.
"No, I didn't," Sheppard protested.
Was the man an idiot? "Not today." He remembered something else, and hurled it forth triumphantly. "Twice. You've shot me twice."
"The first time doesn't count. You had a shield on. You asked me to do it." Sheppard sucked in a breath, then let it out slowly. "And it was only in the leg." He was clearly aiming for casual chuckle, doubtless accompanied by a shrug. It was not successful.
Rodney's hand was still pressed against his chest. He could feel his heart beating beneath it, faster than was healthy. Each beat made his head throb with dull pain. "Your tone of voice is not reassuring, Colonel," Rodney managed. How badly are you…? He brought his hand up to his head. "Are you…?"
"I'm fine, Rodney," Sheppard said firmly.
"Again with the not reassuring." Could he stand, he wondered. Could he carry Sheppard out of here, if he had to? "I know you stoic military types. Saw your leg off with a rusty pen-knife, and you'd still say it was just a scratch."
Sheppard said nothing. Only the echoing sounds of movement told Rodney that he was not alone again, that all of this had not been a dream. What was the man doing? Pulling the bullet out with his teeth? Oh. Oh God. The bullet… There was a bullet…
"I'm… not fine," Sheppard said at last, "but good enough. We need to get out of here."
"Why?" Rodney's head snapped up. "Did you find something? Is the mon… the indigenous… denizen coming back? Oh! With all its friends and relations this time. And I'm crippled and you're 'not fine.' I knew it! We're going to die. Killed horribly if we stay out there, and killed horribly if we stay inside. Burnt alive, or eaten. That's not a fair choice to expect a man to make."
"I didn't find your 'monster', no," Sheppard said. "I found… evidence of it, and… other things. I went back to the entrance. They're still there, waiting for us to come out. That's a no-go. Some of them were talking about coming in after all, despite the ghosts or the monsters or whatever other superstitious taboo they have about this place. Which is why we need to leave."
The darkness could play cruel tricks on a poor, dying man. Rodney's eyes seemed to demand images, so his brain obligingly provided them. The sheep were balking at jumping the fence, although the field on the far side was sweet and lovely, and guarded by farmers as big as Ronon. Something dreadful was bearing down on the them. The sheepdog stood between the sheep and the danger, its legs planted firmly in the dying grass. But blood stained its flank, and… And you can go away, he told it firmly. He pressed his fingers into his eyes. Stay awake. Stay awake.
"And your ankle isn't broken, just twisted."
That dragged him awake. "It so is broken."
Sheppard made a sound that could have been a chuckle, could have been a whimper. "What are you, Rodney? Five?"
"It's your fault when I get gangrene," Rodney grumbled, but he struggled to stand. From his knees, he got one leg up, foot on the ground, knee bent. His head throbbed mercilessly. One hand was splayed on the ground beside him; the other was braced against the wall. The next bit would be agony, he knew. He would have to put weight on his broken ankle.
And then Sheppard was there, standing over him; even without eyes, Rodney knew that beyond doubt. "Want a hand?" Rodney grunted something unintelligible that was intended as a yes. Sheppard grabbed his shoulder, then felt down his arm until he gripped his wrist. "Give me your other hand." Fragile and shaky, Rodney did. "Pull yourself up," Sheppard said, "on three."
Rodney did. Sheppard hauled him up, but the weight still fell on his injured ankle. It was not as much as it would have been, but it was enough. He cried out, then cried out again. "Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!"
"You okay?" Sheppard stayed beside him, hand on shoulder. Rodney groped in the other direction, until he had found the wall and was leaning against it. His head throbbed, and he felt liquid trickling down his brow.
I am not fine, he remembered Sheppard saying, strain evident in his voice even though he was trying to hide it, but good enough. Rodney raised his head. "Yes. Well enough."
"I'll go first," Sheppard said. "Keep your left hand on the wall. I'll let you know if I'm going to stop, or if there's an open doorway."
Rodney's right hand opened and closed uselessly. He could still feel the after-touch of the treacherous gun… pistol… whatever it was. At least the sheep were gone; that was something. He was alone in the darkness with Sheppard's voice. No, not even that. Sheppard was silent again, although Rodney could hear soft scrapings and clatterings. "Colonel?" His voice was pathetically small, lost in the maze of dead chambers. "Sheppard?" He swallowed hard. "John?"
"Take this." Sheppard pressed the gun into his hand.
Rodney squawked. Blood surged in his head so fiercely that for a moment he was sure he was going to fai… to pass out. He curled his fingertips into the wall. "You should have it. You can shoot things."
"So can you, it seems." Sheppard sounded as if he was smiling wryly. "This one's yours, the one you emptied into me. I've still got mine. I've got two rounds left."
"A whole two rounds. Now I'm comforted." He closed his fingers as loosely as possible around the empty pistol. It was the smoking gun. He was the fugitive still clutching the murder weapon. He cleared his throat. "What's the point, if…?"
"I'm not letting any more weapons fall into their hands," Sheppard said grimly. "And the enemy won't know it's empty."
"The enemy's a mon… a mindless beast," Rodney reminded him. "I doubt it's going to recognise a gun, empty or not."
"Just do it, Rodney." Sheppard sounded weary.
Rodney subsided. They had yet to walk a single step, for all Sheppard's dire warnings about rampaging natives and the need to get out of here immediately if they didn't want to get slaughtered. Maybe Sheppard couldn't… Rodney breathed in, and out again. Maybe he should say something. Or perhaps they should just stay here, swaying gently against the wall. Walking would hurt his ankle terribly.
"Do you actually know where we're going, Colonel?" he asked, instead of anything else that he could have said.
"Of course I do," Sheppard retorted. Then Rodney heard the sound of his careful sigh. "I haven't found the back door, but I know where to start looking."
"Helpful. Really helpful." Something tickled his hair. Just dust, he told himself. It was absolutely not a spider. "How did you work that out? Were there sign-posts? A trail of breadcrumbs?"
Sheppard did not answer.
"Colonel?" Something was fluttering in his stomach. "Were there bones arranged to read 'in case of emergency, your exits are here, here, and here'?"
"Believe me, Rodney," Sheppard said, in little more than a whisper, "you don't want to know."
"Oh. Oh. This is just marvellous." Rodney threw his right hand up, almost dropping the gun. "'You don't want to know,' he says. Were you asleep at officer school the day they taught you how to inspire confidence in your men? Now I'm imagining a whole pack of monsters, and screaming corpses gasping out the truth with their last breath."
"It was the smell," Sheppard admitted. "That monster of yours stinks…"
"It's not mine," Rodney corrected him. "And it's not a monster. I know I called it a monster when it nearly ate me, but I was taken by surprise. Besides, I thought you didn't let anyone else name things."
"It stinks," Sheppard said firmly, with the air of one losing patience. "The passageways between here and the entrance don't stink; the passageways in the other direction do."
"Oh." Rodney frowned. The sheep were back, pale and ghost-like, faint white patches on the fringes of his pitch-black vision. "And this means…?"
"They don't use that entrance."
The sheep seemed to understand. The sheepdog barked once, then vanished into the night. He saw a stream of monsters, surging out of a gateway into a blood-stained sunset. "Or that they like the dark," Rodney said. "That they live underground and never go out. Which one is more likely? Do you know anything about natural history? No, I thought not. While I…"
"Don't know anything, either," Sheppard said. His voice was strangely flat. "I, on the other hand, have at least been hunted before, and had to survive. We try it my way. Don't tell me I'm wrong until we're dead."
Rodney rolled his eyes. It was the wrong thing to do. Pain stabbed through his head, and his stomach lurched sickeningly. "Yes," he muttered, when he could speak again. "You were definitely asleep that day."
"Let's go," Sheppard said, still in that dull voice, that not-Sheppard voice.
Into tunnels that smelled of monster. Straight into the monster's lair. But he could hear that Sheppard was moving, so Rodney followed. There was nothing else he could do.
Walking hurt every bit as much as he had known it would. For the first few steps, he braced himself against the wall, and put as little weight as possible on his injured ankle, but even that was too much. Then he tried a tentative hop. The landing made him cry out – once from the explosion of pain in his head; once from the merciless stabbing in his good foot. "My feet are cut to ribbons," he told Sheppard. "I've got surprisingly sensitive feet. It's a scientist thing."
Sheppard said nothing, but Rodney could hear him breathing. His feet were entirely silent. Bare feet on gritty stone made no sound.
"Why did they take our shoes, anyway?" he wondered out loud.
"I don't know, Rodney. Do you want to go back and ask them?"
Not just their shoes. Their vests. Their supplies. Their P90s. They only had the pistols because Sheppard had…
"It's your fault, you know," Rodney blurted out. Then his injured foot met a lump of rubble, larger than the stabby, pointy bits of gravel that surely had to be sticking into his feet like pieces of… like something, anyway. At least, he hoped it was rubble. The sheep had distracted him from thoughts of skeletons, but the bones had not gone away.
"Watch out to your left," he heard Sheppard say.
"Bit late there, Colonel."
He experimented, testing out different ways to walk. Left foot useless, left arm on the wall, right foot bleeding… The floor was uneven, with painful hazards. If he tried to hop again, he would risk landing badly and breaking his neck. He really needed Sheppard to… No. No. Couldn't ask that. The man was shot. Rodney had shot him.
"How is it my fault?"
Rodney flapped the gun. "In a minute."
No, he thought, with a fatalistic sigh. There was no help for it. He would have to put weight on the broken ankle. Walk through the agony. And if that meant that he did terrible damage to his entire leg… Well, Carson could… No. It didn't matter. He'd probably be dead by then, anyway. A skeleton with one leg was still a skeleton.
He took the first step, carefully lowering his weight onto the ankle, though supporting as much as he could with his hand on the wall. It hurt. Oh, how it hurt! He heard grinding – his broken bones, grinding together, jagged edges thrusting through the flesh. He bit his lip against a scream, a cry, a whimper. His face twisted with pain, but that hurt his head, and he smoothed his face out again. Sweat ran into his eyes. The corner of his eyes pricked with another liquid, hidden by the darkness.
The grinding came again, a little ahead of him. Oh. Sheppard, making his way across a fall of rubble. Not bones. And Sheppard said it was only twisted, not broken. But this was Lieutenant-Colonel 'I'm fine', with the missing leg and the rusty pen-knife. But he took other people's injuries seriously enough, and he had been in enough wars and battles and other ridiculous macho things. He probably knew.
He tried enough step, and it less all-consumingly-agonising than the step that had gone before. The next step was almost tolerable. I did it! he thought triumphantly. It was strange to feel this triumph for something as mundane as walking, rather than for cracking an intransigent problem quicker than anyone else, and saving the world again. He had bitten his lip, and managed to be silent throughout his valiant struggle. Sheppard didn't know. Sheppard walked on oblivious, and Rodney all alone had faced… had conquered…
"Well done, Rodney," Sheppard said quietly. Even the murmur was enough to send the words back to him with the echo. Well done, Rodney. Well done.
His eyes pricked worse than before. Rodney swiped at them with the hand that held the gun. "As I was saying, Colonel, this is your fault."
"A doorway," Sheppard said. "About as wide as they are back on Earth. Keep your hand on the door frame this side, then go forward. You should be able to reach the wall on the other side." Rodney did what he was told. The air from the side passage was more fresh and inviting. "How is it my fault?"
"You and your super-powered Ancient gene." The words were punctuated with gasps as bare feet fell on grit and rubble. "A peaceful agrarian people, Teyla says. Oh, wait! They're only peaceful when they're dealing with normal people. As soon as they find out about your freaky mutant blood, they cry, 'Witch!' and turn into a cult of blood-crazed savages."
"They took you, too," Sheppard pointed out. "You're a freaky mutant, too."
"Yes. Well." Rodney concentrated on his feet for a moment. "You're the one who touched that… thing without checking they weren't watching."
"You touched it afterwards."
"Yes. Yes, I did, but…"
"Freaky mutant," Sheppard muttered, then he gasped. There was the sound of tumbling stones, and the thud and the slide of someone falling. Rodney carried on, one step, two. His outstretched hand met the back of Sheppard's head, and he could feel that it was hunched over. Lower, and he could feel the quick, shallow breaths heaving through Sheppard's shoulders. Apart from when Sheppard had pulled him to his feet, this was the only time he had been anything other than sounds in the darkness.
"You okay?" Rodney asked.
Just words. Useless words. What were words? Rodney hid behind them. He pushed people away with them. Now, in the darkness, they were all he had, and they were nothing. Words could not show you where a man was bleeding. Words could not show the expression on his face as he lied.
"Just get that gun off the back of my head," Sheppard said.
"Oh." Rodney twisted his hand, the fingers still clenched around the useless pistol. He took a step back. "Are you…?"
His hand twitched uselessly. "Do you…?"
He heard the sound of Sheppard rising to his feet again. Filled with a sudden awful thought, he passed the gun to his other hand, standing unaided for the first time. Was his right hand smeared with blood? He raised it to his nose, and sniffed, ready to gag. No blood. At least, he thought not. Only dirt and mustiness and dead things.
"I can't smell the mon… the creature," he realised, suddenly. "You said it stank."
"In contrast with the entrance," Sheppard said. "You've just gotten used to it. You probably stink, too."
"Ew." Rodney plucked at his t-shirt, wrinkling his nose. "I want a shower." Even the noise of dropping water was gone, left behind as they had walked. "And food. I can't go for too long without food, you know that. Did you find any…?"
"You don't have to snap."
"I'm not snapping." Sheppard was clearly struggling to speak. "I'm just…"
And then no more words. A gasp. A shaky sigh. Breathing, tight and shallow. The echoes brought it all to him. Without sight, hearing meant everything. Even in the darkness, there were some things that could not be lied about. You could lie with your words, but the truth came out in the sounds you did not mean to make.
Rodney licked his parched lips; curled his left hand into a fist, pressing it into the wall. "Plants do grow underground. Ferns, and things. Are ferns poisonous? And there could be animals. Bats, and…" He swallowed, fighting sickness in his throat. "Worms. The monst… the creature has to eat something. We can tell it likes flesh. It came after me, didn't it?"
"Rodney," Sheppard said warningly, but his voice was stronger. "We'll be out soon. This place is man-made; it can't be too big. We're walking slowly, that's all."
They walked on. Rodney wondered if his feet were an entire mass of red – if there was anywhere that was still whole. His ankle hurt less than it had expected, though, or maybe that was just the numbness of permanent maiming. His head throbbed atrociously. Even though he was on his feet, sleep was dancing on the edges of his consciousness. "At least it beats sheep."
"Nothing." Rodney pressed his lips together. He wouldn't say another word for… for… "Who built this place, anyway? This whole creepy underground dungeon thing they've got going here…? It was probably a palace once, or something, and I doubt it used to be underground."
The bones crunched. No, not bones. Stones. Not the bones of the former inhabitants. They had seen other ruins across the planet. They were not Ancient, although the Ancients, too, had left their mark, but they spoke of a flourishing civilisation long departed. It was probably the Wraith; it always was. The Wraith had come, the civilisation had fallen, and the survivors had scraped out a bare living in the soil. Towers had crumbled; palaces had been claimed by earth and grass. Nothing remained but this, lost in darkness forever more.
"So why build only one entrance?" he continued, trying to close a door on those thoughts. "It doesn't make sense. There should be lots of ways out. And all these maze-like corridors. What sort of architectural design is this? You'd think they were designing a spooky ruin for us to get lost in, not somewhere to live in."
"Like all those dungeons in Dungeons and Dragons." Sheppard was barely a step ahead, by the sound of it. "I always wondered that, too."
"Dungeons and Dragons?" Rodney stopped walking. "You play…?"
"Played," Sheppard said. "What? It's not sufficiently soldierly for your image of me? Hidden depths, remember." Another step, another near-fall on the stones. "You?"
Rodney drew himself up. "Just because I was the sort of person that jocks like you would call a nerd… No. No, I didn’t. I could have, of course. I had lots of friends who asked me to join their games – lots and lots. I was too busy doing proper work. I didn't want to waste my time with trivia. That's all."
Sheppard said nothing. Then, very gently, he said, "We'll be out soon."
Rodney wanted to make some sort of retort, but to his amazement, he lacked the spirit for one. His head was hurting worse than ever. A sheep popped its head over the fringes of his perception, and he saw the flash of colour that was the fertile meadow of ripe ZPMs. He groped forward, brushing Sheppard's arm with the knuckles of the hand holding the gun. "Can we stop for a moment? Just sit down for ten minutes?" Sleep, bleated the sheep.
Sheppard said nothing. Rodney could hear the sound of his careful breathing, as he weighed up how badly to lie.
"Colonel?" He tried to keep the whine from his voice.
"If I stop, Rodney…" Sheppard's voice faded, as if he was turning away, hiding things in the dark. "I'm not sure I'll be getting up again."
Oh. Oh. This is bad. He brought his cramped hand to his face; lowered it again. Swallowed. Sternly told the sheep to go away. "Then you can pace manfully up and down while I sit down and rest." He raked his left hand through his hair, dirt smearing over his face. "Just a few minutes. Please?"
Because then he would regain his strength. Just a few minutes at rest in the meadow of ZPMs. Everything would go away. It would come back again when he awoke, but not so bad. He would have the strength to help Sheppard walk. He would have the strength to carry him, if he had to, or leave him here, and pass alone through the monster's lair in an attempt to get help. This was his fault. This was all his fault.
"Go ahead and rest," Sheppard said wearily, "if you want to lie down in the middle of a flesh-eating monster's lair."
Rodney had been halfway to the ground. "Thank you very much for that, Colonel." He clambered up again, head swimming. "Now I'll never sleep."
Sheppard moved on. Bare feet made little sound, but Rodney was sure that his steps were faltering. He needed… And Rodney's head was pounding, and his hands were shaking, and he hadn't eaten for hours. They both needed… "We should go back to the entrance," he suggested. "They might have gone by now."
"Or they might still be there."
How many of them had there been? It had seemed like hundreds, thousands, as they had poured after the two of them, crashing through undergrowth, sending arrows into tree trunks, hard enough to go through a man's flesh and come out the other side. He peered at the terror of the memory. Maybe twenty? "Twenty to one," he said. "I thought you'd try that sort of odds."
"I see you're not including yourself in this doomed last stand of mine."
Rodney swallowed, very conscious of the empty pistol in his hand. He didn't think he ever wanted to fire a gun again. "Oh, I'll be cowering behind a rock cheering you on."
"Why, thank you for the support." He heard the smile. He also heard the strain. It came through in everything, now, impossible to hide.
He trailed behind Sheppard in the opposite direction from the entrance, with its fresh air and its sunshine and ripe berries on bushes and… and doomed last stands and barbed arrows and death. "It's your fault," he said again.
"We've covered this. I thought… we'd decided… that it wasn't."
Rodney quietly moved closer – close enough to catch a man if he fell. "I mean the escaping part. I mean escaping in front of a whole village of enraged primitives who think we're sorcerers and want us dead."
"I'm sorry," Sheppard said. "Next time, I won't save you in the nick of time from certain death."
Rodney thought of the flames, roaring on the end of the torch. A mob with flaming torches… How clichéd was that? And he was tied to a stake, with wood piled all around him, and a crowd of primitives were shouting, "Witch!" It was like a scene from a Monty Python film. Death by cliché. It would have been funny had it not been… well, terrifying.
"You could at least have rescued my shoes," he grumbled.
"I'm sorry." Sheppard sounded as if he was speaking through gritted teeth. "Next time I have a choice between saving you and your shoes, I…" He gasped. "I'll…"
Rodney's heart was hammering in his ears. His palms were sweaty, and lurid colours were sheeting across his vision. "It's not the rescuing," he managed. How could his voice sound so normal? "That was welcome. And you escaping, too. Who'd have thought a primitive people would have been so bad at knots? I thought they were good at all these outdoors things." He flapped his hand past his eyes, but saw nothing. "You even managed to get our pistols back from those thugs who were waving them around. I wonder where our big guns went."
Sheppard said nothing. A knife went into Rodney's stomach and twisted.
"So that part of the escape went okay," Rodney said, his voice rising. "It's what came after. Taking refuge in a haunted ruin full of bloodthirsty monsters and no way out..."
"You took refuge," Sheppard said. "I was covering our escape. You saw the hole and went to ground like a frightened rabbit."
The colours faded; all was black again. Rodney smiled, wiping clumsily at his dirt-stained face. "Excuse me?" he said. "Head injury? They hit me. With a rock."
"They hit me, too, Rodney. That's how they caught us in the first place, remember? How they took our weapons?"
Rodney sighed. "And our shoes," he said sadly. "And all my power bars."
Sheppard did not reply, but Rodney could hear him walking. His steps seemed steady enough now. It had all been a panic over nothing. Sheppard wasn't badly hurt; of course he wasn't. He was always okay in the end. He was not like Ronon. You could detonate a nuclear bomb in Ronon's face, and he's shrug and complain that a fly had bitten him. But Sheppard was tough. He had survived bugs and Wraith and Kolya. There was no way he could be taken down by Rodney shooting blindly in the dark.
"Besides," he said, for he did not like the silence, "it was a good thing that I did come in here. It stopped them following us, didn't it?"
"Because they think it's haunted. Primitive superstitions… Sometimes they get you burnt alive; sometimes they save you."
"Haunted," Rodney echoed. He didn't believe in ghosts. At least, he didn't believe in ghosts at home. Here in the Pegasus Galaxy, all things were possible. Maybe this was not so wise. "If you'd waited, Ronon and Teyla might have come and rescued us."
"Rodney," Sheppard said through his teeth, "they were two seconds away from barbecuing us. How much longer should I have waited?"
Were Ronon and Teyla even alive? They had split up, taking their readings in two groups of two. Rodney and Sheppard had been captured. They had woken up to find themselves tied to stakes in the middle of the village. There had been no sign of the other two.
They entered a chamber, and the wall on his left was no longer there. "We need to go across to the right," Sheppard said.
But Rodney had heard something. Behind him. In front of him. Around him. The sound in his sleep, that had sent him jolting from his dreams. The sound he had heard, hot on his throat, as he had lain sprawled in the rubble. The sound of fangs, of matted fur, of claws. Shambling flanks, and invisible eyes, as high as his shoulders.
"It's here," he squeaked. "The monster."
"Then we'd better go faster."
Rodney took a step away from the wall, then another, sliding on the uneven ground. Terror hit him suddenly. He was lost! He reached out with both hands and found nothing. The walls had vanished. He was alone, exposed in the middle of the killing room, and all he could hear was the snuffling and grunting of the monster and the clattering of its claws. The echo took it, and there were ten of them, twenty of them, a whole world full of them, coming for his blood, and then…
"Come on." And then Sheppard's hand on his sleeve, tugging him sharply, urgently. The fallen sheep got up. The fence was high, but on the far side of it lay safety. He wondered what had happened to the nineteenth sheep, and why it had never appeared.
"It's uneven there," Sheppard said, then he gasped, sucking in a breath, letting it out audibly. "A slight dip. And then, in a moment… Wait… Yes. The door frame. This is as far as I got last time."
He had crossed the open room alone, not knowing what lay on the other side? Sheppard was different from him; Rodney felt it with an ache. But, then, Rodney was a genius, and Sheppard couldn't match him on brains, Mensa or no. Rodney was better at all the things that mattered.
Claws were approaching them. Rancid breathing made the darkness heave. "I hate to hurry you, Colonel, but run!"
They set off in a lurching stagger, not remotely approaching a run. Rodney's feet hurt so repulsively that he could hardly tell when they were on the ground and when they were not. Sheppard kept his hold on Rodney's sleeve, guiding him, dragging him. The monster was behind them; Rodney knew that. He could feel the breath on the back of his neck. He could feel the claws reaching out at him, and missing; reaching, and missing. Then he stumbled, and fell to one knee, and knew that he was dead. Leave me, he meant to say. Save yourself. It came out as, "Save me."
No teeth closed on his leg. Nothing spat reeking drool on his face. Sheppard was hauling him up by the back of his jacket. Rodney let out a breath, and didn't breathe in again. He kept his body entirely still. The worst sounds of pursuit ceased. Okay, he thought, hearing again his own panicked breathing, echoing in the passage like a creature close behind him. It's just me.
But then, between one breath and the next, he heard the unmistakeable sound of movement. They were still being followed. It was not as close as he had feared, but they were still being hunted.
"Come on," Sheppard hissed.
Rodney lumbered forward, dragged by Sheppard, relentless ahead of him. There was nothing around him that was not darkness or the sounds of fear and panic. He needed words. God help him, he needed words. When trapped in the dark, his mind conjured up someone else to talk to. He couldn't help it; that was the way he was. "How do you know where we're going?" he gasped out, through breaths.
Sheppard said nothing.
"You don't know," Rodney realised. "Oh no. We're dead. Never trust the military to find their way anywhere."
The wall fell away again. Sheppard dragged him past another doorway. He was quick, but not so quick that Rodney couldn't hear the snuffling there, as well. They were surrounded. There was a whole pack of them, and they were being herded to their doom.
Something squelched underfoot, solid and slippery. The last person they slaughtered. Rodney almost retched. His head was throbbing, his feet were screaming, but that was nothing against the terror of being eaten alive by a pack of giant monsters.
Then he lost Sheppard. One second there; the next second, gone. Sounds swelled all around him. He turned around, hands reaching, wall bumping into the back of his hand here, the side of his fist there. Something brushed his hair: dust; cobwebs… He still had the gun. Empty. It was useless and empty. Click, it went, when he pulled the trigger. Click. Click. Click.
Something touched his shoulder, and he cried out, but it said his name. Monsters didn’t know his name. "Why did you stop?" Sheppard's voice asked.
I lost you. "Why did I stop?" he croaked indignantly. "Why did you go on without me?"
"This is stupid!" He almost smashed his fist against the wall, but stopped just in time, remembering how valuable his hands were. "Just shoot it!"
"I've only got two rounds left."
He frowned. "That's enough."
"I've got to know where to aim."
He was cursed to spend his life surrounded by idiots. "Then light a fire. No, don't say it. They've taken our supplies. Then rub two sticks together, or something. Use a flint. Come on. They must teach you that sort of thing in the army."
"Air force," Sheppard corrected him. "It wasn't Caveman School. And that's why we carry supplies. So we don't have to."
"But you…" Sheppard tugged him, and he carried on, lurching on his painful, staggering way. "You…" Rodney almost fell, and that stole his words. The sound of pursuit was all around him now. For a moment, he had almost forgotten how to hear it. It was terrifying how something awful could become familiar, could fade into the background as if it wasn't there. He had almost forgotten the pain in his ankle. When death came, perhaps he would feel nothing at all.
"I could, yes," Sheppard said, some moments later. "We don't… have time… to make… a camp fire."
Sheppard was breathless, too. A creeping feeling stole through Rodney's chest, quite distinct from the terror. "I was thinking something along the line of torches. Flaming brands. 'Back, foul beast!' That sort of thing."
"And give away our position?" Sheppard rasped. "And destroy our night vision? I told you before."
"Night vision? I can't see a thing." Rodney held his hand up in front of his face, and thought perhaps he saw the faintest glimmer of movement, but nothing more. "The monster will be able to see in the dark."
The monster came ever closer, the echoing sounds of its pursuit sounding in the passageways like a pack of zombies. "Here," Sheppard hissed, tugging Rodney into a side room, a place where the wall suddenly wasn't there any more. Rodney fell, and Sheppard was with him, and they were falling together, but even as they were falling, Sheppard shoved him to one side, and there was the sound of a gun firing, inches from his ear, tearing the world apart. The world sheeted white, but it was too quick, too fierce, for him to see anything. Blinking, gasping, he rolled on the ground, barely feeling the stones that drove into his back. "Did you get it? Did you get it?"
"I don't think so." Sheppard's voice was a tiny, broken thread of a thing.
"Oh." Rodney clambered to his knees. His vision was seared with the after-image of the shot, but before that, there had been something, hadn't there? "I saw my hand," he breathed, realising. "Very faintly, but more than I could before."
"That's good." It was little more than whisper. Rodney could hear no sound of Sheppard moving at all, just the words whispering past barely-moving lips.
Rodney found his arm. "That means we're almost out."
He heard Sheppard swallow. "Rodney. I didn't tell you the entire truth."
He didn't want to hear it. He didn't want to hear it. Words would make it go away. "You were hurt all along, before I even… Before I… It was an arrow when we were being chased. The monster attacked you when you went off by yourself." His hands were shaking. He had no idea where the empty gun had gone. "It wasn't me. Tell me it wasn't me."
Sheppard said nothing. Rodney's hand had found his wrist, wet and sticky with something that could only be blood. A pulse was beating, but only faintly.
"Oh God, I've killed you," Rodney moaned.
"Not yet." There was the wisp of a smile in the faint voice. "But I don't… think… I can go on. If you're right…"
"Of course I'm right," Rodney retorted. Some habits could not be broken. If some things went, then you had nothing left at all.
"… then the way out isn't far. Take the gun. You can…"
"No." Rodney stood up. His ankle barely hurt at all now; he was so far past feeling it. In that moment, all he felt was resolve. Nothing else mattered at all. Nothing else existed. "We get out together, or not at all."
"Don't try to argue with me, Colonel. And don't even think of commanding me. I don't respond well to authority. Now, are you going to stand up with my help, or do I have to carry you?"
"No, I can’t, no," Rodney admitted. "Drag you, then."
He closed his hands round Sheppard's wrists, but he didn't dare make the first heave. How did he…? What if he…? And the monster was still near; he could hear it.
He moistened his lips. "Sheppard?"
"No," Sheppard said wearily. "I can get up by myself." He flicked his arm, batting Rodney away, and there was still strength in it. "Can't… let it be known… I was dragged out… by a scientist."
But Rodney heard the sounds he made as he stood, and he knew he would never forget them.
They started to walk. Rodney hovered near Sheppard, unsure whether to step in and help him. Sheppard was armed, after all, and there were some things that you just did not do, at least when you were in the military. And here Rodney was, almost well. Yes, he had a head injury and cuts on his feet and an injured ankle, but Sheppard had two of those, as well, and the ankle was only twisted, not broken, and it was only pain, and nothing like as important as…
He bit his lip, then contented himself with a question. "Are you…?"
But he did not know what the question had been, and he did not know what the answer had meant, and all he could do was walk along beside Sheppard, useless. He could see the man now – a faint shape, walking hunched over, listing to the side. "Wait! Wait!" he cried. "I can see you! It really is getting lighter."
"And here comes our friend," Sheppard said, his voice without expression.
"No. Oh no." To be killed when so close! He could hear the noise now; how had he managed to tune it out? Turning, wildly, desperately, he couldn't see its lumbering form, but he could hear its grunting, hear the clattering of its great claws. "We have to run now, Colonel, please."
They ran, stumbling, half crawling. The light grew stronger – never bright, but enough to see shapes, enough not to get lost. Rodney focused on the shape of Sheppard's gun. One shot. Would it be enough? And then stairs, stairs beneath them, and they were almost falling, and Rodney grabbed Sheppard's arm and hauled, hauled him up the stairs, even as Sheppard gasped and made a broken, grating sound of pain.
"It's following!" Rodney gasped, and then they were out, breaking into the daylight, except that it was not daylight at all, but twilight, halfway heading into night. "Shoot it! Shoot it!"
They managed three steps across the slippery grass, half-managed a fourth, and then they fell. "It's coming!" Rodney screamed. There were claws scraping on the stairs, a great body heaving itself up. "Shoot it when it comes out!"
Sheppard rolled onto his back, brought the pistol up in both hands. Rodney saw his finger tighten on the trigger. Then he froze. "Rodney?"
He did not want to look. He could not bring himself to look. But there was command in Sheppard's eyes, and so he turned, his head moving so slowly that he was aware of every inch.
Neither of them said anything. Rodney swallowed.
A very long time passed.
"We never tell anybody about this," Sheppard said, at last, his voice firmer than it had been for ages.
"A badger." Rodney's arms were limp at his side. "Well, it sounded like a monster in the dark. And all those echoes…" He swallowed. "You thought it was a monster, too." It was glaring at him maliciously, but made no attempt to come closer. "An alien badger," he added. "Could be fiercer than ones at home."
Sheppard was silent, still.
Rodney turned back, even more painfully than before. The monster was not the only thing he could not bear the thought of seeing. The light had almost gone from the sky, but there was enough. No, not enough. Too much. Too much. "Sheppard?" he whispered. "Are you…?" But of course he was not okay. People weren't normally okay if half the blood that was supposed to be in their body was instead soaked into their clothes from ribs to knee. Even his arm was drenched, from being pressed against the wound in a vain attempt to staunch the bleeding. He had knotted his jacket around his body, but that was nothing. That did nothing. "I've killed you."
And then there were feet, but he didn't look up, would never turn round again. So they had come to capture him again. Better the flames than this.
"They are here," Teyla said.
He looked up dazedly, blinking into the twilight. Teyla. Ronon. Assorted Marines. Carson. Oh, thank God. Carson.
Ronon dropped to one knee, then was up again, moving like coiled death. "Who did this?"
Carson pushed Rodney gently to one side. "Let me look at him, lad. You don't look too hot yourself."
"Who did it?" Ronon hissed.
Rodney swallowed. "A… a monster. An animal. Huge. It was huge. Nasty, big, pointy teeth."
Carson had eased Sheppard's shirt up and was deftly unknotting the useless makeshift bandage. "This wasn't done by an animal."
"A… a native," Rodney stammered. "One of those ones that Teyla said were friendly, so it's her fault, really. He had a bow and arrow. A gun, I mean. A gun. He took my gun." Ronon's eyes narrowed. Rodney could see them in the twilight – little gleaming lines of liquid death. "He was bigger than Ronon, but he's dead now. I killed him."
"McKay," Ronon growled. Rodney cowered a little. How many people had heard a tone like that just before they died?
"I…" He swallowed. "Okay, I…"
"'s alright, Ronon," Sheppard murmured, his eyes fluttering open. "He's telling the truth. Was a fierce warrior… Brave. The best."
Rodney let out a breath. "And there was a monster, too."
"I'm sure there was, son," Carson said distractedly. "Now, let's get the two of you home." He called over Rodney's head. "Get the jumper, then. These men can't wait all night."
They were out. They were safe. The cavalry had come – Carson on his horse. Rodney settled down in the grass, lay back against a convenient grassy mound. Probably an ants' nest, thought a distant part of his mind. The badger eyed him balefully from the entrance, but at least the sheep had gone. He was grateful for that. And Carson was here, and – oh joy! Teyla was giving him a power bar, and Ronon was standing over them protectively, all bristling muscles and knives.
"It wasn't my fault," he told the power bar, as he devoured it. Mmm. Blueberry. "It really wasn't my fault."
The jumper landed, all smooth seats and dryness and warmth and bandages. Someone helped him on board, and he sat down in the back, next to Sheppard, while Carson clucked over the state of their feet.
The sheep wanted to go home. Guided by their sheepdog, they set off two by two towards a place of shining silver and safety. The field of ZPMs waved a fond goodbye. Some things, he thought, were even more important than alien power sources of incredible potency, each one enough to save Atlantis and end all their problems. "Go, sheep, go," he muttered sleepily.
"Teyla," he heard Carson say. Carson was on his pony - a good-natured but handsome chestnut. Teyla's horse was grey. Ronon rode a terrifying stallion. Or a dragon. Yes, it certainly had dragon qualities to it. It was the fire from the nostrils that gave him the clue. And the wings.
Teyla sat down beside him. Her hand closed around his, and that bothered him. He tried to pull it away. "You'll get blood…"
Blood. Blood. Blood on his hands. The after-taste of the power bar was like death in his mouth. The sky turned red. The ZPMs were blazing. The sheep trotted after the sheepdog, faster and faster and faster. They were fleeing in terror from a monster… No, they were the monster. Woolly masks fell off to show the bloody fangs beneath. The sheepdog was down beneath them, and they ripped at its flesh, feasted on ragged chunks of flesh.
"I… I…" He turned to Teyla, seeing her clearly. "You don't know what I did."
Her hand refused to leave him. "We know, Rodney," she said gently. "We are not fools."
"Then how can you…?" He saw Sheppard lying pale and empty; saw Carson's grim face as he worked on him. He saw the blood thick on his hands, smeared on the seat, trampled on the flood. They were safe, and they were in the light, and there was no hiding now. I did that, he thought. Not his fault, not their fault, not anyone's fault, just mine. There wasn't even a monster, just me.
"Rodney," Teyla was saying, still holding his murderous hand. "The Colonel is not one to blame someone for an innocent mistake. If he does not blame you, how can we?"
He swallowed. Blood sheeted his thoughts, but through it all there were memories, too. Sheppard helping him up. Sheppard goading him when he needed to be goaded. Sheppard sensing his silent battles, and being there with the right word. Sheppard willing to stay inside alone, so Rodney had a chance of getting out alive.
Something shifted inside him, easing the pain just a little. It was not gone, though. It would not be gone until Sheppard was on his feet again. "He will be all right?" he asked Teyla. He could not bear to see the grim truth on Carson's face. No, no, he couldn't hide, not any more. He turned towards Carson. "He'll be all right?"
Carson did not look up from his work. "I think so."
Which was doctor-speak for, 'Yes, but if a giant meteorite lands on his head and kills him after all, don't sue me.' The something in his chest shifted a little more.
And then Sheppard was stirring, eyes fluttering open, lips moving, mumbling words Rodney couldn't catch. "What was that?" Rodney asked. "What did he say?"
"He said, 'Quit being stupid, Rodney,'" Carson said. "'We're good'."
Oh. Oh. Rodney leant his head back against the bulkhead. The something shifted even more, almost went away completely. The sheep were placid, too, their demonic other nature entirely gone. They were munching contentedly on freshly sprouting power bars, as the sheepdog settled down for a peaceful rest.
"Home," he told them. "We're going home."
And Teyla was holding his hand, and even Ronon wasn't glowering at him too badly, and Carson heaved a sigh, as if of relief, and Sheppard was going to be okay. He was going to be okay.
He sought the sheep, but they were gone completely. All he had was reality, and these people who had become his second family, and… Oh, was that another power bar sticking out of Teyla's pocket? She saw him looking, and gave it to him.
Yes, he thought, as he ripped it open. We're good.