It wasn't until the puddlejumper started ascending that he collapsed.
He heard the urgency in the voices, and knew it didn't pertain to him. Why would it? Another voice sounded in the back of his mind, the one that had been talking to him all along, shut up. They got you out, didn't they? Instead the voices above him prattled on about pressure and time, with one sounded desperately urgent, and the other keeping a measure of calm.
It was the calmness that he clung to.
His body was starting to ache, and his entire head hurt, not just a portion of it, and not just a throb. It was a sudden, blinding pain that thudded and burned and raged until it was all there was. He no longer had a skull, just a blistering ball of agony atop him.
His breaths came in gasps, sucked in briefly, ripping his skull apart. It was forced back out, the naturalness of breathing becoming a hindrance, reminding him that he was still there, still alive, yet . . . not. His fingers curled. Everything around him was dark and blurred, shaded in black lines bordered by odd lights. The smell of salt was pervasive, and he trembled in his soaked clothed. The sting cramped every cell, cleaving into the tiniest parts of him, making him one with the pain, yet torn to bits. He heard the voices again, and it pulled him back.
He slowly lost any concept of time, of his surroundings, of anything but the pain, and when a figure finally did hover over him, even his shadow hurt. He heard the voice, felt the hands, and whimpered, too pained to make the violent noises he so desperately wanted to. All he knew was that the voice was trying to calm him while his body threatened to explode.
He was flat on his back. Something was pressed to his nose, something sweet-smelling. Figures rushed about and around him, pulling at his sodden jacket, squeezing his arms, rubbing his legs. The ceiling pitched and rolled like a reverse street above him as he was rolled away, and he closed his eyes. His head felt detached. Everything else was numb, only his head held any sensation. He cried out as the cart came to a sudden halt, and desperately wanted to vomit.
He whimpered as his head was examined, as his body pounded, as his blood tried to run in a reverse direction, or just course out of his eye sockets. It was all the same to him. He never noticed the shot.
The water surrounded him, freezing him. His head pounded, his body had lost feeling. His mind floated as free as the jumper debris bobbing before him, torn between acceptance and blinding, raging fear. One thought pressed in on him, to swim for the surface. No matter what. Break free.
The water was at his chin. He was utterly alone, always alone. Even with her . . . it was just he. A man faced with the certainty of his own demise. Hell, he even prayed for the hell of it, just in case. The urge to laugh bubbled out, and rang hollow. Then the tears came.
The water sounded so peaceful.
The water was rising, pulling at him.
The Water . . .
His eyes opened heavily, and he realized he was choking. A horrible scrape burned his throat, and he took a deep, agonizing breath and coughed.
He wished his body belonged to someone else.
His name was said and repeated. He blinked, turning his attention ever so slightly to the touch on his shoulder. "I . . . didn't think . . . you'd come," he rasped, his eyes opening fully as clarity reached out for him.
"Don't talk," the calm voice said, and John leaned over him.
But Rodney shook his head. "Radek, you . . . I'm so sorry." His face twisted in pain and relief.
"Alone. I didn't . . . think you'd . . ." he hesitated, "didn't think you'd come. Didn't think you could."
His meaning was taken. "Pleasant surprise then, I guess." John's expression was a bit hurt, and confused.
Rodney swallowed and winced. "Sorry," he whispered, shaking his head in disbelief at his own lack of faith.
Dr. Beckett joined them then, and the blatant relief on his face made Rodney uncomfortable. He fussed over him, more as a friend would than a doctor, his touch lingering longer than was professionally required. But Rodney found he was leaning into it, needing it, needing the reassurance, needing another body near him that wasn't a figment of his own mind. When Carson smiled and walked away, he gave Rodney a long squeeze on his arm.
Rodney had little time to contemplate this. John pulled his chair closer, folded his arms, leaned on Rodney's mattress. "You thought you weren't going to be rescued." His voice was soft.
"I – I thought you couldn't do it." He cleared his throat, and regretted it. "Thought I'd have to get myself out," he continued in a harsh whisper.
John gave a small nod, his lips thinning together. "So . . . you have that much faith in us, huh."
"No! I mean, yes . . ." he winced again and pressed his head back against the pillow. A sudden throb made him take pause and collect himself before speaking once again. "I didn't think you could find me. And . . . I didn't have the faith in Zelenka that I should have." His expression looked lost.
John sat back for a moment, letting the words sink in. He leaned forward once more, his elbows resting on his knees. "I have trouble too," he said.
"Trouble?" Rodney's expression was like a confused child.
"Relying on others. You don't like to rely on others any more than I do, but guess what?" He left the question hanging, and didn't have to finish. His eyes did it for him.
Rodney held his gaze. He nodded minutely. Then he laid his head back, turning his face slightly toward his friend.
"He is okay?" Zelenka didn't look up from his work.
"Are you?" John stood at his shoulder, his hands in his pockets.
"I am . . . distracting myself."
"It was close," John conceded, and sat on a bench. "I hate to think . . . I won't let myself think."
"I have been. I have not liked it. I do not like that I wasn't ready to go down in the puddlejumper."
"But you did." But, It was true. And John thought about Rodney's comment.
"I was ready to stand aside."
"Rodney thanks you for saving his life."
Zelenka turned. "I do not deserve his thanks! I do not want it!"
It was obvious that the day's event had taken its toll. "Would you accept a peace offering?" He held out a small packet. "He gave this to me, wants the two of us to share it."
Zelenka eyed the packet of chocolate mix. His face worked, and settled on an expression of reluctance. "I can not. I have this to do." He gestured to a mass of wires.
"You're a scientist. What happens to an object when it is under extreme pressure?"
Radek looked up, grumpily. "It gives way. Sometimes, it cracks."
John nodded. "Come on. Chocolate isn't just for women."
True enough. Radek shook his finger. "All right. But this doesn't make things better."
"No," John agreed, "but the conversation around it might."
"And what of Rodney?"
A faint smile found John's face. "He's working on his own brand of therapy."
Rodney stared at the puddlejumpers in the bay. Too many times he's been on the receiving end of its rage. He ran his hand along the edge, into the grooves. So harmless, like dimpled soda cans.
People weren't meant to fly.
But then, they weren't meant to travel the stars, either.