This was not happening. There was no way in hell this was happening. Rodney gritted his teeth against the nausea he felt as he held his field jacket over the tear in Carson's chest. His friend had stopped talking, stopped relaying life-saving medical instructions, stopped being the goddamn doctor. And so there they were, in the middle of nowhere, injured, with night rapidly coming and the chilled wind lifting goosebumps on his exposed arms. His breathing sounded as harsh as Carson's, only his was from blind fear. No, not blind. He could see it, taste the metallic burn of it, feel his adrenaline on overload because of it. His jacket was soaked. There was no way Carson should still be alive, but he kept breathing, and Rodney laid into him every time he threatened to stop.
Nothing had prepared him for this. No training, no first aid course, nothing. Not watching the red essence of life rush away in a flood, leaving behind the pale husk of a brilliant man.
A helpless sob escaped Rodney as he shifted the jacket, then re-bundled it and pressed it to the wound, hoping sadistically that the pain would bring his friend around. He pressed hard, so hard he swore he cracked ribs, but the man didn't wake. The only thing that moved was the dark flow which reddened as the air struck it, then darkened once again as it dried.
His radio was gone. Carson's was gone. He had no recollection of dropping them, or losing them, or ever having them. The memory of the past day and a half was little more than a tormented nightmare, filled with shards of things he would just as soon forget, and was trying his damndest to. He eyed the darkening sky, knowing he needed to find better shelter than the tree they were lying under, but there was nothing. They had fled the forest and trekked into the barren landscape that the natives were so terrified of. That was where the Wearden lay, and the Wearden was a creature, he had been told, who stalked and preyed upon his victims, leaving nothing behind. Rodney wasn't keen on meeting this Wearden, but was even less keen on trying to move his friend. Instead he pulled the body close to him, keeping tight pressure on the wound, noticing the bleeding was starting to slow. Either that was a good thing, or he'd bled out. Seeing as how he was still breathing, Rodney dismissed the later and pulled him as close as possible, trying to keep warm in the increasingly bitter wind. It seemed Carson had escaped one death just to suffer another.
The wind sliced through them all night. Rodney held Carson close, feeling the lack of heat in his body, feeling the breaths fade. "You know," he said hoarsely, because he had been talking non-stop since Carson's last convulsion, "I never thought I was that smart when I was little. I thought everyone else was just immensely stupid. It never occurred to me that I was the one who wasn't normal." He smiled. "I can tell you exactly how many different ways the human body can contort to fit into a locker. You know that? It's an interesting little tidbit, you always wanted to know more about my school days, well, there it is." He sighed. "Of course I'm sitting here talking about myself, which is what I do best, right? D. Rodney McKay, purveyor of immense scientific knowledge, resorting to small talk. And I'm sure that's not what you want to hear." Carson didn't move; not a flicker of an eyelid nor muscle spasm, just someone threatening to go stiff. Rodney knew the last breath had passed during the night, but he refused to believe it, holding his friend limply, pressing the jacket to the wound. Even the short dark hair settled as the air stilled. The wind that had been breathing harshly with him, died with him.
"They'll find us, you know. Colonel Sheppard, Teyla, Ronon. . .they're resourceful. There's no way they just left us here. I know this wasn't their mission, but I mean," he barked a laugh, "we've been gone a pretty long time. Carson? They'll be here, you just hold on." He shifted so that the body lay across him as he propped against the bare tree. "Hold on just a little longer."
It made him feel better, to talk. It always did. There was nothing in the shadows that his babble couldn't frighten, nothing that his techo-speak couldn't befuddle. He started launching into a tirade of a verbal schematic layout of the city of Atlantis, walking through the hallways in his memory, coming to stop before Colonel Sheppard's door, begging for help. Telling him there was something wrong with Carson, that he was lying still and actually listening to him, and that wasn't right at all. He waited for an answer, and was surprised to hear it. It took a few moments to realize the voice wasn't in his mind, but behind him. . .and it wasn't Sheppard's.
His head whipped around, and he pushed Carson's body away, with more force than the concept of 'respect for the dead' generally allowed. He backed a step away, pulling his gun and aiming at the figure watching him. He eyed the figure in disbelief, and his fingers wrapped firmly around the grip of his pistol. Time froze. He was aware of the roughness, the weight of the weapon, the sky as it started to lighten to imperial blue, the stars as they gradually winked out. The gnarled tree sharpened as the light hit it, and the man could clearly be seen.
He was bent, and broken. His hands were as twisted as the vine-choked staff he held. His cloak was little more than rags, his grey hair tangled and falling over his shoulders like a web. His back curved like the spines of a dragon, and his eyes were as sharply flamed.
Rodney's breathing quickened as he readjusted his grip. "Who are you?" He wanted to sound threatening. He sounded weak.
The man took a step closer, then two, and halted as the gun waved at him. Rodney was pissed, beyond pissed. He was crazed. "I said, who the fuck are you? Don't come any closer, you need to back off!" The aim of the weapon lowered, following the man as he crouched beside Carson. Rodney advanced on him. "I said, back off! Didn't you hear me? Back. . .the fuck. . .OFF!"
The new arrival looked up calmly. "This man is dead."
"SHUT UP!" Rodney's finger played along the trigger.
"Yet you talked to him for some time." He lifted Carson's hand by the wrist, and let it drop.
Why it always took a third party stating the obvious to get a solid fact through Rodney's head was beyond him. Rodney's wild eyes settled on his friend; on the complete and absolute stillness of his chest, the grey whiteness of his skin, his slightly parted lips, and the truth of what was said stabbed at him. The gun lowered, aimed at the ground. His breath jerked back into his lungs. "Oh. . .oh god." His head shook in denial. "No. He's. . .no. He's not. Oh god, he's not. He's a doctor." The gun slid from his fingers. "He's a damn doctor. He heals people. That's why we're out here. . .fuck. FUCK!" He dropped to his knees, ignoring the man who carefully watched him, and grabbed the front of his vest. "Dammit! You're a fucking doctor! Heal yourself, DAMN YOU!" He shook the man, slapped him, squeaked in horror as the head rolled loosely. "Fuck! Wake up! Wake the fuck up, you bastard!" He pulled Carson to him, rocked, angry at the tears that rolled, angrier at the screams that tore from him. "Damn you, Colonel! Where the fuck were you?"
The man watched impassively for some time, then stood as the ranting eased. "Come," he said gently. "And bring him with you."
Rodney sniffed, saying nothing. He stared blankly over the landscape, which looked as empty as he felt.
The man gently touched Rodney's shoulder. "The sun approaches. I have a place to go, and you need a place to stay. Gather your friend."
"Why, so you can bury him?" The voice wasn't his. It was gravely, full of hate.
"Do you wish for him to be buried here?"
He was inhaling deeply, ferociously, his insides burning like never before. "No," he growled deep in his throat.
The man nodded. "Then bring him, or he will not be in one piece to take back with you. The creatures here will make sure they feast upon his flesh, and they rarely leave bones." There was a pause. "I have soup."
Rodney's focus returned. He met the eyes of the man who now stooped before him, across Carson's body. Rodney, without any good reason and relying solely on instinct, scooped the body into his arms and stood with the man's help. Carson almost melted back to the ground. The utter lack of life stilled Rodney in his tracks, and he fought back a wave of despair. The man braced him, merely saying, "Come," and hobbling toward a destination that, to Rodney's tortured eyes, was hidden and anything but a haven.
It was near nightfall when they approached the small series of caverns. Rodney hesitated outside, but, being so fatigued from the day's events and weary of carrying his friend's still body, he found the promise of shelter greatly outweighed his fear of small spaces. He stumbled in, and found himself navigating a series of smooth twists and turns that led to a chamber of sorts. A fire was lit, banishing the darkness, and a rough piece of material was flapped to the ground for the body to be placed upon. Rodney bent and set Carson down, more gently than he'd ever handled anything in his life. He even smoothed the hair back, wondering at the fact that, while he was dripping with sweat, his friend wasn't. And he should be. Dammit. . .he should be.
Rodney could do nothing but sit back after he had released his burden. No, not a burden. Carson was never a burden, just. . .heavy. That was all. Limp, very limp, very. . .dead. Oh god. . .he really was. . .Rodney leaned in and patted the face, which lolled towards him. The eyes had opened into half slits, unseeing, glazed.
Rodney ran to the darkest corner and vomited. He retched and coughed and shook uncontrollably, headed back to the warmth of the fire, glanced at the body, which hadn't budged, and rushed back to vomit again. There was no longer any way of denying the reality of the situation. He sat in the dark, and the man let him without interfering, allowing Rodney the space he needed.
He knew some substantial time had passed when the tunnel before him carried a faint hint of sun. 'Must be shining directly into the mouth of the cave,' he thought, and watched as the light crept across the smoothed walls. The cavern itself was odd, there were no jutting rocks, no stalactites nor stalagmites, no crags nor crevasses. Just smoothed walls, rounded around what should have been sharp rocks, like the interior of an artificial geological display. The light curved around it, diffused rather than sliced by shadows.
The soft yellow glow caught him, and he watched as it slowly crept up his arm and his hands. By the time it reached his elbows, he decided it was time to go back and face the consequences of his actions.
The man had covered Carson, but not as one who lay dead, rather as one who lay sleeping. There was a bowl beside the fire, nearly in it, sitting on a large stone. There was another blanket set opposite Carson's. Rodney walked in, his feet not wanting to move, but his stubbornness carried them anyway. He tried not to look at Carson, but for his effort, there may as well have been absolutely nothing else in the room.
"Eat. You need to eat, and I must redress your wound." He pointed to Rodney's bloodied hand, which hurt like hell, though he was just starting to notice.
"I'm not hungry."
The man grunted. "You will lose your strength if you do not eat, and I for one have enough to tend to without being encumbered by your own stupidity. Eat or not, as it suits you."
Rodney blinked, and came to himself for the first time since being discovered by the strange man. With renewed eyes he took in his surroundings, and walked towards the bowl.
The man nodded at the change. "That's it. You must eat, you must talk, before the shock worms its way back in. And it will, make no mistake about that. It will." He stirred the soup in his own bowl by waving it around to evenly distribute the contents, lifted it to his lips, and slurped noisily.
Rodney raised the bowl to his nose and sniffed, then mimicked the man, swirling the broth and taking a sip. It was wonderfully salty, and warm. His eyes closed gratefully, and for a moment he almost felt himself.
The man nodded. "Now. You talk, and I'll listen."
Rodney wasn't certain he was ready to do that. "There isn't anything to say."
"You're wrong. There is much to say." He nodded to Carson's body. "I suppose you figure his life isn't worth mentioning then. That's fine, like I said, I have plenty to do. . ."
"That's not what I said, I just happen to think that what occurred is absolutely none of your business!" Rodney snapped.
The man raised his eyebrows. "Is that so? And you think this is the proper way to show your thanks to someone who has taken you in? Shared his meal with you? Provided you with a shelter against the things of the night?"
"The things of the night didn't disturb me, only you did that."
"You dishonor your friend."
"No!" Rodney slammed his bowl down, and tried his hardest not to reach for his pistol. "Look, stop playing these games, who the hell are you?"
"Tell me this, Dr. Rodney McKay. . .do you enjoy being wrong?" The man leaned in, relishing the speechless expression on Rodney's face. He laughed, unable to help himself. "There is no magic here. I merely listened to you talk for quite a while. You enjoy discussing yourself with dead people. It gives the notion of a captured audience a whole new meaning." He laughed again.
Emotions raged through Rodney, from wanting to admire this man to wanting to fling him into the wall. At the same time something struck him hard; the man's speech sounded familiar, like he was from Atlantis, from Earth. "You are a bastard."
"And you have some things to get off your chest." For someone so bent, he didn't strike Rodney as an old man. Even the grey hair looked. . .youthful. . .like platinum blond. "But first. Your hand." He reached out, and his twisted hand snatched Rodney's before he could back away.
The grip was strong, and Rodney cried out as his bones crushed together, much worse than the pain he felt from his wounds. The man continued to squeeze, sending Rodney crashing to his knees. "What the hell are you doing to me? I thought you were fixing it! What kind of mystic voodoo is this?" His speech was gapped with gasps of pain, and it wasn't until he screeched that the man let him go. Rodney caught his breath and cradled his hand, examining the abused skin. He flexed his fingers, carefully, then more aggressively. His face shot up. "What the hell did you just do?"
"It is more what you did, not me. It still must be wrapped."
His gaze drifted back to Carson. "Like kicking someone in the shin to relieve them of their stomach pain?"
"I believe that would be a form of misdirection, and very astute. But I can guarantee, this wasn't quite the case." He smiled and produced a clean cloth, which was carefully wrapped around Rodney's hand. "I would refrain from using this for a while. It will remain sore, but will heal quickly."
Rodney merely nodded, uncertain as to what he should say. "Thank you." Well, that seemed good enough.
The man nodded and sat back as Rodney examined his handiwork. "Now," he said, "I believe my efforts in bringing you here, in feeding you, and in tending to your wound warrants a story. My people were vivid storytellers, and I miss that."
"Who are your people?"
"You were fleeing them." He nodded at Carson. "Now tell me, what did he do to deserve such punishment?"
Rodney's lips parted in astonishment, and he looked at the body of his friend. He realized his did owe him this, and that this man was providing a way for Rodney to cope with what was happening. Without that, he would probably go mad. He could feel it, the apathy that threatened to close in and ruin him.
"He killed a man," he replied softly.