I was dreaming. It had to be a dream. Standing like a male Carrie, McKay was pointing a finger and accusing me of letting him die. "I didn't!" I protested. "I tried, McKay!" God, I'd tried.
"Lad, wake up," called a familiar brogue.
I wanted to wake up, because if I did, then maybe McKay's dead figure would only be a nightmare, but what if he was really gone? I wasn't ever what I considered a coward, but I felt my heart speed up from the fear of what I might see in Beckett's eyes.
"He's not dead," said the Scot softly. "It's only a dream."
What if he was wrong?
"Damn it, Sheppard, don't do this to me!" the kindly voice grew frustrated, and was that desperation?
I tried. I really did. There was something inside me that didn't want to disappoint Beckett, but my body was refusing to cooperate, and unwillingly, I was dragged down further into frantic nightmares of bloody McKays, and my worst fear realized.
" – inhaled toxic fumes –"
"- developed an infection – doing all we can –"
"Major Sheppard, can you hear me?"
"They tell me that talking helps, but John, I don't know who the help is for, you or me. Rodney almost died today, but Carson is a miracle worker. He thinks the both of you are only alive because you're seeing who can last the longest –"
When I was a kid, there was a show that I couldn't miss, Magnum PI. The man exuded machismo, and the Ferrari – that car kicked ass. Cherry red, and I'd imagine myself flying down the asphalt sky, nothing between me, and speed. I've always had a need to fly, whether on the ground, or in the air.
Anyway, there was this episode where Magnum was almost killed, and he was walking around, talking to his buddies, except they weren't talking back, because they couldn't see him. I kind of knew now what the producers tried to convey. When I finally woke up, I was confused.
Beckett was there within seconds. He told me with haunted eyes, that I'd been in a coma for six days. Six days! But I had memories – and I'd heard things. I wasn't really gone for those six days, though I had no recollection of time passing.
I was thirsty. I saw the IV line snaking into my arm, and noticed the three bags hanging on the pole by my bed. But I was still thirsty, desperately thirsty. "Water?" I whispered.
"Easy now," cautioned Beckett, holding the cup towards me, and sliding a supportive hand beneath my back. It wasn't water, but ice chips. I took a couple small ones, and sucked on them thankfully.
I was scared to ask, but I had to know. "McKay?"
I saw his lips tighten, and closed my eyes. Don't say it, don't say it, don't say –
"He's not dead," Beckett replied soberly.
I re-opened my eyes. "But?"
"He developed an infection, and combined with the toxic fumes –"
I had just woken up from a six-day coma, and my thought processing wasn't catching up to the chain of events that lead to both of us being in such dire straits. Noticing my attempt (note, I say attempt) at concentration, Beckett pulled up a chair.
"The sinkhole you two fell in was full of poisonous gases – like what happened to miners when they'd dig wells and shafts, sometimes the air was deadly, until it was vented." He crossed his arms, and looked very tired. "Because there was open atmosphere, it was diluted enough to not kill you both instantly, but as the toxins rose, you both were inhaling much more concentrated levels than we did up top."
"Will he be all right?" This was cut-to-the-chase time, and I needed to know. Beckett was considering his words carefully, I could tell, because he was staring at me, but not seeing me.
Finally, he answered. "I believe so."
That was it? That was my answer? I licked my lips, wanting another ice chip, and a better assurance. "I woke up, right?" I argued, "So McKay should also." My little world had narrowed considerably in Antarctica, but narrower wasn't necessarily easier. Here I'd met people I could truly care about, but times like these, I didn't want to care.
I'd tried to remember the lesson learned in Afghanistan. My constant battle of words with McKay had been a direct product of that effort not to care, and look where that got me. Caring more for him than I should, and wishing like hell he'd wake up and give me an excuse to lob some more verbal volleys – that is, once I recovered enough to think of something more pressing than ice chips.
Beckett's lips thinned again. I hadn't known anyone's lips could get that straight, but whenever Carson was stressed, there they went, so symmetrical you could balance a level off them. "I'm going to be honest with you, Son. When you were down in the pit, being awake counted against you. Your respiration rate was higher than Rodney's, which is why you've been in critical condition, in a coma. However, Rodney suffered considerable blood loss, and trauma, and if that wasn't enough, an infection has set in."
"You can stop being honest," I said, my words strangling in my throat. I didn't feel good enough to cope with this shit.
"Don't count him out yet," Beckett forced a smile, "Rodney might believe death is dogging his steps, but he's in good shape, he can pull through this."
I searched Beckett's face for any sign of duplicity, but there was none. It'd have to do for now, because the alternative wasn't something I could handle. I needed to shift the topic, and as my eyelids fought against gravity, there was a matter that was pressing on my mind. "Roberts?"
He'd gotten help, and saved us. I wanted to talk to him, tell him good job, and make sure he was coping with the events on the planet.
It took a minute for me to notice the dead silence that had fallen. I pulled back to get a better look at Beckett. "What?" Had he gotten sick? I tried to see around, but I only found one other bed occupied, and that was McKay, surrounded by soft whirring machinery and beeping monitors. "Doc?"
He shook his head.
I wanted to scream that this was bullshit. The kid had been fine! He'd leaned over that hole, and he'd talked to me, and he'd been fine –
"How?" I asked, my voice steady despite the pulling fatigue. I just wanted to know how.
"The quake that sent you and McKay into the sinkhole, also sprayed us with debris – rock, and hard packed clay." Beckett pulled up his shirt, and I paled at the massive bruising across his chest. "He'd taken a hit in the head, and it caused a bleed in his brain." I could see Beckett's hands trembling slightly. "He dialed Atlantis, and called in the accident, but while waiting for the rescue team, he died."
"If he had stayed –"
Beckett's eyes turned hard, flinty – "Don't play the 'if' game, Major. It never ends any differently."
But it did, at least in my mind, because we both knew that if Roberts hadn't exerted himself on a hike back to the gate, if he'd stayed flat on his back, and not exacerbated the bleed in his brain, he could've had a chance. He probably would've lived.
"If help had not arrived when they did, you'd both be dead," said Beckett, as close to reading my mind as a person could be. He didn't stay around for me to protest about how that wasn't good enough. Two-for-one deals don't count in human lives.
Cumulative damage caught up with me, and though I didn't want to, I fell asleep. I didn't dream.
I was there when McKay woke up. I'd gained strength, and managed to sneak away from my bed, to find a chair beside his bed. It wasn't only for his benefit, it was more for mine. It wasn't so lonely here.
It'd been two days since I'd woken, and Beckett had assured me this morning that he'd be waking soon. His infection was turning tail, and running for the hills. The forty-seven stitches looked healthy, and his lungs were clear. Everything pointed to a mending McKay.
He didn't pop up like I did. I'd gone from coma to discourse with little transition, but he took it slow and steady, which was ironic, as I'd never known McKay to do anything slow. I noticed his legs moved about restlessly first, and then he grabbed my hand when I took his in my own.
The eyes moved. A little, then more, and then they were blinking up at the ceiling, reflecting the confusion he was feeling. I stood abruptly, and had to grab the bed rail to avoid falling from the dizziness, but managed to shout for Beckett.
Beckett arrived with reinforcements, and I had to get out of the way or be run over. They did their thing, and I skulked off to my bed. I listened to the low murmurs as McKay was put through the basic assessments to make sure he was still of sound mind and body.
I wanted to stay awake, but my body was still recovering also, and I didn't manage to wait for the mass of personnel to depart. When I next was up, McKay was down, and so it went for another two days. I was growing tense, and irritable. The memorial service for Roberts was the day after tomorrow, and I was feeling restless. It was time to get out of here, but Beckett wasn't letting go, and I didn't know why.
He said something about toxicity levels, but wouldn't look me in the eyes. The more time passed, the angrier I became at myself. I shouldn't have let the kid sacrifice himself like that – it didn't do a lot of good when a small voice inside said I couldn't have done anything different. A louder voice insisted I could, and you know what they say about the squeaking wheel – louder voice was having more of an impact in my gut.
I heard McKay's bed shifting, and I stared, waiting to see if he'd wake up. The movement increased, and a bleary McKay sat up, looking around for somebody. His gaze locked on to mine, and he winced. "What are you doing up?"
"Same thing you are," I answered reasonably. Time had a way of losing meaning in the infirmary.
I got up, and tiptoed over. Beckett sometimes slept in his office when he had patients, and I wasn't lost to the fact that the patients he tended to stay over with, were usually McKay and myself. What I hadn't figured out yet was if he did it out of fear that we'd try to take off during the night, or out of a sense of protectiveness. Maybe it was a little of both.
"You've been doing a nice impression of Sleeping Beauty," commented McKay.
"You should talk! I thought you existed on less sleep than a -" What the hell slept little and constantly ate?
"I had an infection," he drawled self-importantly, brandishing his bandaged arm.
"Yeah, well," I was fishing here, "I had higher levels of toxins in my system."
"This isn't rock, paper, scissors. Or, 'you show me your scar, and I'll show you mine'."
Wasn't it? It's just some scars don't show on the outside, and sometimes the showing was the telling, and the healing was mixed in there somewhere. "I've easily got more scars than you," I promised. Yeah, that was a lame retort. My witty comebacks were still suppressed from the trauma of watching McKay bleed out in front of me. I wasn't going to admit that, or anything.
"I'm sure you do," he said. "And so does the battle scarred rooster."
"Are you comparing me to a chicken?" Roosters had pointy things on their head, and were loud, and went around trying to keep out all the bad guys from his chicks – why am I even comparing myself to a rooster?
"If the three-pronged claws fit -"
"Well, maybe you need to get a better rooster," I said hotly. For a guy supposedly protecting his flock of hens, I'd sure screwed up a lot lately, and the tally of lives wasn't getting any smaller.
Maybe screwed up was harsh, but bad things kept happening, and how many ways can you foresee a sudden downturn of events that end in the worst of ways? I was trying, God knows, I was trying. I laid awake at night trying to plan out what could happen, and how to avert disaster, but try as I might, situations kept cropping up that never made it into John Sheppard's book of potential fatality inducers.
"The rooster is just fine," snapped McKay. "Maybe the rooster should accept that tornadoes happen, and floods, and other disasters that can't be prevented, and hens die."
I raised an eyebrow, because that sneaky son-of-a-bitch was not going to let it drop. I worked my jaw, and gritted out, "Every good rooster should carry hen-insurance, for emergencies."
"I am not doing this," said McKay abruptly. "This is stupid. Roosters, and hens, and tornadoes - crap, my life was never this complicated before you." He paused for a breath, and continued sharply, "You are not to blame for Roberts. Roberts is not to blame for Roberts. You are not God, Major. You can't see all ends, and all you did was try to work with what you did know, and that was me."
I didn't even get time to argue, before he pressed on, "I was dying. If you had done anything other than what you did, I wouldn't be here, and there's a damn good chance neither would you. Now, I don't know Roberts, but I know the majority of the people in this expedition would give their lives for others. You don't get to have a monopoly on heroic sacrifice, so quit sulking."
I wanted to get mad, and yell, and tell Rodney he didn't know what the hell he was talking about, but the thing that made me even angrier was that he did. He was right. Chances are, even if Roberts had known it was probably going to kill him, he would've gone anyway. I'd seen it in the kid.
I fought for control, seemed I was doing a lot of that lately. "Why do all the good heroes have to die?" I asked roughly.
McKay was watching me carefully, and answered quietly, "I don't know," he sighed, and repeated, "I don't know."
I didn't know what else to say. I wasn't used to any of this, but I was getting used to it, and that almost bothered me more than anything. This conversation had tired me out, and judging from the stillness of McKay, had done the same to him. I stood up, and tapped him on the leg, silent thanks for his help.
It might have been a verbal slap in the face, but it did the job. The small voice saying it wasn't my fault had grown louder, thanks to McKay, and I could hopefully find a measure of peace, until the next time –
As I walked away, I thought I heard McKay whisper something, but I couldn't be sure – it sounded like, "Don't be a hero -"
We got tank 5 working again, and McKay and I continued to recover. The day all forty-seven stitches were removed, I bugged him to meet me on the balcony. He blustered about a back up of projects, and how important he was, and something about clandestine meetings (and here I had to really restrain that twelve year old boy inside me). In the end, he showed up, and I handed him a bag of rocks.
"I'm touched," he said sarcastically. "Rocks."
I reached over and pulled one out. "For skipping, McKay."
I saw his mind shift from irritated to pleased. Normally, he'd have talked continually, but this time he didn't say anything. He didn't argue that we shouldn't, or that he had things to do, or anything – instead, he hefted a rock, grinned, and sent it flying. "Ha!" he exclaimed. "Five skips."
I juggled mine a bit, shifting it in my hand, and searching for just that right position, before slinging it across the water. "Six!" I said satisfied.
"That was not six," argued McKay. "It wasn't a whole skip the last time."
"It was to. Just because I got one more than you -"
"To be counted as an entire skip, it has to leave contact with the surface, and touch back before sinking. It skimmed after number five," he said confidently. "Doesn't count."
So, things were back to normal, and we spent an afternoon debating the finer art of rock skipping, and I even dedicated a few of my better ones to Roberts. McKay shot a few for Abrams, and Gall. And in the end, all I had left from losing another man, was the knowledge that if things had fallen slightly different, he wouldn't have had to die. A split-second of me ordering him to stay instead of go –
Maybe regret wasn't the right word. Maybe haunt wasn't either. What I did know, was that I wouldn't forget. I wouldn't forget Sumner, Gall, or Abrams, and I wouldn't forget Roberts. For a kid barely out of diapers, he was my kind of hero.
AN: I want to thank my wonderful beta Gaffer, and all of you for taking the time to read! As for the 'red shirt' comments, that made me smile. Yes, he was the fated red shirt, and I almost (judging from one review) tricked you into thinking he got off lucky, but alas, he was a casualty before I typed the first paragraph.