Title: FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

Author: TIPPER

Disclaimer: Stargate: Atlantis and its characters are the property of Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story was created for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author(s). Thank you to the amazing writers, producers, actors, crew and directors who bring it to life.

Characters: Everyone—even Weir's off-world in this one! But Sheppard and McKay are the center.

A/N: There's been a lot of discussions that both Sheppard and McKay seemed changed at the beginning of Season 2, something I totally agree with. Sheppard is more distant; McKay more whiny and more apathetic about his friends. But, they seem to be growing again. Anyway, this story is meant to take place after Runner but before Condemned, and is my way of sorting through my disgruntlement with that.

A/N2: It's also a clear homage to one of my favorite movies, The Great Escape. If you haven't figured out that I like Steve McQueen and fast cars...well, you will...

Acknowledgements: NT, of course, for reading and critiquing; Biscuit for giving me the idea after I griped about the annoying lack of concern the characters seemed to have for each other in Runner; and all my best friends in general, who put up with me on a daily basis (Lord knows why). And Anna Stewart, because she bugs me routinely! Oh, and a young Robert Vaughn, for being my and NT's Doctor Travis.

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CHAPTER ONE: ACCEPTABLE LOSSES

Sheppard didn't know how long they'd been running, slogging through the forest on this god forsaken planet, trying to listen and watch for their pursuers while keeping in a straight line. All he knew is that they needed to get to some kind of shelter, however transient.

Of course, he had no real idea where they were—he just hoped they were moving in the general direction of the Gate. This planet's sun, now very low in the sky, was impossible to pinpoint because of the dense forest, the rich yellow slants of light deepening the shadows as night fell. It probably wouldn't have helped him much even if he could see it—the old adage of "rises in the east, sets in the west" was not exactly applicable on other planets.

He was relying more on sight than sound now to warn him of pursuers, as the thick blanket of dead leaves beneath their feet made the latter near impossible. To Sheppard's ears, he and McKay were making as much noise as a herd of buffalo. He just hoped the pursuers would sound even louder. Anyone who thought you could walk "silently" through a deciduous tree forest in Autumn had never actually tried to do it.

Grunting, he shifted McKay further up on his shoulder, hoping the wounded man would continue to keep his feet under him. Rodney had one arm around Sheppard's shoulders, while the other was pressed tightly against his stomach where a hastily tied bandage was covering a nasty gash. Sheppard tightened his arm around the scientist's back and waist, holding the scientist up as they moved side by side, stepping in time. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Left...

Just keep moving, Rodney.

Thing was, the wicked graze across Rodney's stomach was not Sheppard's real worry. The wound, while ugly and likely to get infected if untreated, was not bleeding anymore. No, it was not the problem. The problem was the seemingly unstoppable blood stain saturating the man's left pant leg from thigh to ankle.

McKay had been shot through the leg as they were escaping.

Despite the tight bandage Sheppard had applied as soon as they had a moment to catch their breath, the bleeding didn't seem to have stopped. He was fairly certain—by the fact that McKay was still alive and moving—that the bullet hadn't hit an artery, but the dark blood stain on the navy pants leg continued to grow with a stubbornness that was as frustrating as the man himself.

He could feel that Rodney was slowing, leaning more of his weight on Sheppard with each step.

And Sheppard knew, if McKay faltered, they'd be screwed. He couldn't carry McKay over his shoulder in a fireman's carry with the stomach wound, and he wasn't about to piggy back the man because that would take away his ability to keep an arm free to hold the P90. No, McKay had to keep running. Sheppard supported as much of the scientist's weight as he could...but he could feel the shorter man struggling to keep up.

Amazingly, Rodney hadn't said a word almost the entire flight. Which, while useful, was not encouraging for the man's state of health. It was unnatural.

"We..." Rodney's voice when he finally broke his silence was weak, tired, and Sheppard slowed a little in order to hear him better over the crackling of dead leaves.

Rodney sucked in a breath. "We have to stop," he said in one long exhale. "I can't...my leg..." And suddenly, Rodney stumbled, nearly bringing them both down in an ungainly heap. Only the colonel's quick reflexes kept him mostly upright, partially kneeling, while McKay sagged in his arms, the scientist not even trying to stop himself from puddling to the ground. "God, it hurts," McKay moaned softly.

Sheppard let him go, gently setting McKay down on his side, feeling his friend shaking from the cooling night air and blood loss. Quickly, the colonel checked the bandages, grimacing at the blood. McKay's right hand, which the man had been pressing against the bandage on his stomach, was stained red. Still, the graze, more like a deep scratch, appeared to be scabbing. It looked nasty, but wasn't life threatening...yet. As for his leg...

Hell. The entire bandage was soaked through. It was like trying to stop a car skidding on ice with a grain of sand. Damn it...he was losing too much blood...

Sheppard grabbed for another field dressing from his vest, trying not to think about the fact that he only had one more after this. Ripping McKay's pant leg further to expose the messy wound, he placed the new bandage over the old one. Rodney watched through half-lidded eyes, emitting a small cry of pain as John pressed down almost viciously hard. Sheppard ignored him, maintaining the pressure. McKay gritted his teeth and rolled his head back, closing his eyes. Sheppard could feel him trembling.

"Stay awake, McKay," the colonel ordered, his tone icy. "Don't you dare pass out on me, understand?"

McKay grunted. "No undue pressure, eh?" he quoted weakly, attempting a weak chuckle at the poor joke. He turned his eyes to Sheppard again, but if he hoped to get the other man to smile or even smirk, he was disappointed. The colonel was focused only on keeping pressure on the wound. McKay's smile faded.

They passed a couple of minutes in silence, until McKay cleared his throat again.

"Colonel?" he whispered. Sheppard glanced up from his work, grimacing a little when he saw the strangely guilty looking expression on McKay's face. "I'm...I'm sorry..."

"For what?" Sheppard snapped angrily. The scientist winced at the harsh tone.

"For...," McKay closed his eyes, "I don't know. For everything."

Sheppard snorted and turned his head away without answering, his mind wondering what the hell McKay thought he was apologizing for. For faltering just now? For what happened back in Garillion? For not being able to stop the life from leaking out of him?

For forcing Sheppard to make a decision soon that he didn't want to make?

"Just don't talk, McKay," he grumbled. He didn't want to hear it. He saw the scientist's lips press themselves into a thin line in response, but no more words came from the other man.

Eventually, Sheppard stopped pressing down and started to wrap the bandage's ties around the thigh, not even bothering to see if he had managed to stop the bleeding. McKay's breathing evened out a little as the pressure on his leg eased. Then, suddenly, Sheppard wrenched the bandage tight, and McKay's whole body flinched, the scientist gasping in pain, his blue eyes popping open to stare at Sheppard as if he'd been betrayed.

"It needs to be tight," the colonel explained, not quite meeting those eyes and tying the last tie with a harsh twist.

McKay didn't answer—he was obviously too busy trying to breathe through the pain. He just closed his eyes tightly again and sucked in deep lungfuls of air through gritted teeth, letting his sweating forehead rest on the cold, wet earth. Sheppard knew the man's leg had to be on fire right now.

But they couldn't stay still any longer.

"We have to get going. You ready?" he asked, almost casually.

"Are you kidding?" McKay snapped back furiously, head whipping up to glare at the other man. "Do I look ready? I can't even...I can't..." Then, as suddenly as it had come, the anger faded, as if he were too tired to maintain it. "No, no, I'm not," he said, his tone softer. He lowered his head again, and his voice fell to an almost whisper. "Can't we just stay here," McKay took another breath, "for a moment? Please?"

"McKay, we have no cover here. If they're still chasing—"

"I just need a moment. Please."

Sheppard stared at him, then sighed, and stood up to look around. He was pretty sure they'd lost the men chasing them, but he wasn't about to bet their lives on it.

As he scanned for movement among the trees, he noted for the first time that the ground at their feet was not level. Frowning, he tried to remember the terrain that he'd casually viewed from one of the high windows in the Governor's citadel in Garillion, because they were clearly no longer on flat terrain—they were on the side of a mountain.

The Gate was at the far end of a long green valley, with Garillion at the other end, the fortressed city protecting the only pass leading out of the valley. The valley was ringed on all sides by lush, tree covered mountains with granite tops, the monoliths blending together like the steeps sides of an oval shaped bowl. They were obviously walking on the edge of one of them.

It had taken a full day to get to the city from the Gate, and that was with Doctors McKay, Weir and Travis riding in a wagon and he, Ronon and Teyla on horseback (or, at least, on animals bearing a strong resemblance to horses, though the ram-like horns on their heads were a bit odd). The rutted road leading to the main city wound through several small settlements along the valley floor, following a meandering river—so presumably, going in a straight line would take less time, but Sheppard wasn't sure how much...nor if he was even going in a straight line. The foliage was just too thick for him to get any bearings.

McKay had commented on their initial travel through the valley that the landscape reminded him of rural New England, where the scientist had picked up several of his more advanced degrees. Sheppard had shut McKay down when the man started to launch into a comparison of his time at Harvard versus his time at MIT and Northeastern, his obvious intention trying to goad Travis, who had gotten both his PhD and his JD from Yale. The quiet Dr. Travis had thanked Sheppard with a grateful look, but Sheppard didn't acknowledge it. Fact was, the colonel hadn't really intended it. Shutting up McKay had just become his habit lately. And McKay seemed to accept it—giving in more quickly these days than he had before...before the Siege.

The colonel breathed tightly through clenched teeth, shoving thoughts of that time from his mind. He didn't have time for it now.

Sheppard looked down, saw McKay had his eyes closed, a pained grimace on his face.

Sensing the scrutiny, Rodney sighed and opened his eyes again, turning them to look up at the colonel, squinting a little in the low light.

"We have to keep moving," Sheppard told him, unintentionally coldly. The tone was something else he'd found himself using with McKay lately, even when he didn't mean it. In fact, he'd started using the tone with most everyone, though McKay seemed to get the brunt. "You need to keep moving. Now."

"To where?" McKay asked, finally giving in and pushing himself up a little on shaking arms, allowing a hint of snappiness to emerge again. It seemed to give him extra energy. "Where exactly are you taking me? Because it doesn't feel like we're heading to the Gate. I mean, I know your sense of direction isn't exactly—"

"McKay," Sheppard almost sighed the name, letting his weariness show.

Rodney frowned at the interruption, but it fell away when he finally got a good look at Sheppard's flat expression.

"We're not heading to the Gate," the scientist whispered, the whites of his eyes showing, "are we?"

Sheppard squatted down next to the other man so McKay could see his face better. McKay sucked in a quick breath, and his eyes squinted, as if trying to decipher a puzzle. Sheppard pretended not to notice.

"I have to get you someplace safe," the colonel explained, "someplace where I can leave you for awhile."

McKay didn't react to that for a moment, then his eyes started to widen and he blinked rapidly, his mouth opening. Finally, he whispered, "Leave me? You can't...you can't take me back to Atlantis? But...my leg...I—"

"Teyla, Weir, Travis and Ronon are still back there. I have to get them out of there."

"Yes, but," McKay searched the ground for answers, his shaking increasing, "shouldn't we...We need to tell Atlantis...mount a proper rescue. And I'm...bleeding...a lot..."

"No time. Gate's too far away on foot, not to mention heavily guarded. Plus, I don't know how much time our people have...for all I know, this place is a firing squad at dawn sort of world. Not to mention I saw Ronon take a pretty hard hit in order to give me the time to get you out of there—he could be in worse shape than you."

"Worse shape...," McKay repeated, eyes lifting to find Sheppard's again, but this time without success. Instead, Sheppard had stood up, making a show of watching the woods again...and refusing to look down. Fact was, the colonel did not want to see the realization in McKay's eyes, the understanding of what Sheppard was telling him.

McKay was often blind, but he wasn't stupid. He knew the leg wound, aggravated by running on it these last few hours, was bad. More than bad. He had lost a lot of blood. Not taking him back to Atlantis as soon as possible was, in all likelihood, a death sentence.

But Sheppard had to weigh four lives against one. Four people were in the Citadel, probably alive, but in danger. If he rescued them now, the greater the probability of getting them out alive and getting them home. But if he stayed focused on just this one person with him...fact was, McKay would not survive getting all the way to the Gate on foot. Not like this. He either chose McKay, continued to drag a man through woods until he died from blood loss in a pointless attempt to get him home, or he went back for the rest of his team, Travis and Weir...

And hoped McKay hung on long enough for him to come back for him.

Mathematically, the decision was obvious. The odds stacked. His mission plain.

The choice clear.

He had to leave McKay.

Even if that meant the man died alone.

And this time, he wouldn't fight it. He was done fighting. Done trying to save everyone, only to have the reverse happen.

It was a lesson he had been trying to learn since Dex and Mitch went down in Afghanistan, but didn't really get until he saw Ford inside that jumper, leaving Atlantis behind. It was why he'd done his damnedest to spend less time with McKay over the last two months, to cut him off and keep his distance.

People died, that was the fact of it. You have to see them all equally, treat them with the same level of concern, and never too much, or else it gets in the way of making the decisions that needed to be made. Colonels knew the meaning of acceptable losses, and Sheppard was a lieutenant colonel now.

Oh, yes. He'd learned his lesson.

You can't care too much when you're in command.

He looked at Rodney, who was now leaning his head again on the ground and closing his eyes.

And you can't have best friends.

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TBC – I start slow, I know...trust me...