A Deep Freeze
He had watched it start to accumulate two days before, beginning as a chill rain. He hated the rain in winter. There was nothing drearier, nothing more depressing, nothing more…wrong than rain during this season. The fact that they were on an alien planet didn't change the wrongness of it. This season was meant for cold, brutal cold as often as not, and cold meant, indeed required, snow. There was no way to survive that kind of cold if something didn't come with it to offset the harsh reality that people were never made to withstand that kind of weather. The snow made it bearable. It made the ugly into the beautiful.
For Rodney McKay it made the hard times easier, notwithstanding any complaints he might spout to the contrary.
He needed this comforting blanket of snow now more than he had realized. This mission, a straightforward meet and greet with a people known as the Fradalians, had evolved, or devolved, depending on your point of view, into now two days of waiting out a blizzard, and it had turned into Dr. Rodney McKay's…what? It was hard to identify, to quantify what this time had meant, how this time had saved him. Well, perhaps saved wasn't quite right. It might more have been postponing the spiral that was threatening to take him down. He wanted so much to keep it from happening, but it was hard for his substantial genius not to recognize the inevitable.
So why could that same genius not figure some way out?
"Jesus, Rodney! What are you doing out here?" John Sheppard asked as he walked up to his teammate. "It's freezing," he added, though the puffs of air floating from his mouth reflected how superfluous the comment was. Rodney would be sure to call him on it. At least he would have called him on it a few months ago. Sheppard watched the man next to him as he rubbed his gloved hands together in a vain attempt to warm up.
McKay's focus was on the beautiful winter vista before them. John couldn't tell if Rodney even knew he was there, so enamored of the scene before him was he. The lack of acknowledgement on Rodney's part was mildly disconcerting, but what was more disturbing was that McKay had been out in this stark weather for far longer than he himself had been. Sheppard worried about frostbite the entire time he'd been standing next to his friend; he couldn't imagine how Rodney had been able to bear the cold for as long as he'd been out in it.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" McKay said softly, not taking his attention from the remarkable view before him.
"What's that?" John asked quietly. He could sense something in his friend these days, a sadness maybe, which he hoped he could encourage the scientist to open up and talk about. It wasn't really his forte…the sitting and listening thing. And it wasn't something he really wanted to do now. But this wasn't about John Sheppard, at least not mostly, though John's hand in how things now stood could not be denied. He wouldn't be doing this for himself. And though it would benefit his team and Atlantis as a whole, neither were the reasons he wanted…he needed to have his friend open up about what had been bothering him.
Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard had noticed a change in Rodney McKay. It was slight, and had probably gone unnoticed by those who didn't know the prickly chief of science very well. Rodney's actions and reactions of late would have seemed to most to be just that: prickly, sarcastic, pompous Rodney McKay having another bad day.
Radek Zelenka's recent description of the 'rough ride' McKay had experienced of late was beginning to seem like the lamest of understatements. The physical and psychological aftereffects of his enzyme overdose, the lingering doubt and mistrust that hadn't receded as much as it should have from the Arcturus incident, almost losing him in the sunken jumper – all of these things and more, had combined to change McKay, little by little. And not for the better.
The scientist had become increasingly difficult to work with, and entirely too defensive. John had thought that he'd seen a change for the better in the interactions McKay had with other Atlantis personnel following his fateful mistake with Arcturus. But something had changed. John Sheppard was a smart man, and he knew that all of these circumstances, plus his and fellow expedition members' reactions to McKay in light of these difficult times, had all helped to mold McKay into the short-tempered, complaining, defensive, and worst of all, lacking in confidence bundle of nerves currently standing beside him. Things needed to change. Rodney needed to change back to more of the brash, cocky, irritating, over-confident know-it-all that they all knew and either loved or hated. Because even if you hated that package, you could always count on Rodney McKay in a pinch.
That was not to say that Rodney couldn't be counted on the way he was now; that brilliant, quick mind fairly guaranteed a solution when needed, a miraculous save at the moment it was most desperately needed. But there was no joy for the man, no satisfaction any longer in the triumph. It was as though each new expectation that he would save Atlantis was killing him, just a little, each time. And if it wasn't killing McKay in the physical sense, it was most assuredly doing a number on the man mentally.
Watching it every day was killing John just a little, too. He wanted the gloating back.
"The way the snow makes everything seem so clean. So pristine."
The full moon acted as a spotlight upon the landscape, making the white of the snow appear almost fluorescent as it blanketed the hills, the boughs of the trees and the not-too-distant mountaintops. The assorted greens of the varied conifers, where not coated in fluffy clumps of snow, seemed black against the gray night sky. It was a strange, almost eerie glow that the moon cast. That John stood at about one in the morning in the freezing cold trying to find the right way to talk to his friend said a great deal about how messed up things were at that moment.
"Yep, man's got nothin' on Mother Nature," John offered in agreement.
Rodney pulled his bare hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms, his hands placed strategically under his armpits for warmth. He nodded his head a couple of times and said softly, "At times like this, I would agree."
John looked at Rodney's face and frowned. "You don't mean tonight," he said knowingly, waving an arm at the astonishing winter scene.
Rodney finally turned to face Sheppard. He jutted his chin out, in characteristic McKay fashion, and looked John in the eyes. He blinked several times, in an effort to silence tears, John wondered, and then admitted simply, and John thought very bravely, "No."
John Sheppard smiled sadly at his friend. "Maybe we could go inside, get warm, and talk?" he suggested, framing it as a question in hopes of assuring Rodney's agreement. He could make the talk mandatory, since the need for this talk was the textbook definition of the word mandatory, but Rodney seemed to be walking a tightrope these days. McKay needed to be the one making the choice to do this.
Rodney cocked his head, his eyebrows twisted in amused but sincere concern. "You have got to be freezing your skinny ass off out here. Are you nuts?" he asked as he took one last look out to the snow-covered mountains. "Let's go inside," McKay added as Sheppard walked next to him toward the building that housed their quarters during their unfortunate hiatus on the planet.
"Hey, can you put the coffee on while I, um, go shake hands with the mayor?" John asked with an appreciative smirk at his own humor, pointing to the building that housed the glorified out house and communal showers.
"Why do you persist in doing that?" Rodney asked disgustedly.
"Well, Rodney, I could say that I'm going to go fondle little junior here until a lovely fountain of urine comes shooting out."
"Ugh. You can be such a lowlife."
"Sometimes," John agreed as he jumped around like a five-year-old who, well, had to go to the bathroom. "But you still love me, right?"
Rodney watched Sheppard do his dance for several moments, and then said with a grimace, "Just go before, well, just go." McKay headed to the left as John ran right.
Fifteen minutes later, the coffee was almost done brewing and John had not yet returned from his meeting with the mayor. Rodney laughed lightly at how silly his friend could be. John Sheppard was a child at heart and that was never likely to change. It was a good counterbalance to his own innate skepticism and negativity, though lately it didn't seem like much of anything would be able to pull him out of the mire in which he was currently trapped.
Rodney looked at his watch again. Teyla and Ronan were probably fast asleep in the other sleeping quarters on the other side of the camp. Carson Beckett had chosen to bunk down with the Fradalian's medical staff in the quasi mobile army surgical hospital that lined the western perimeter. Rodney and John were with the military contingent, though they were the only ones sleeping there this particular evening.
Rodney tapped his radio. "Colonel, is everything all right?" He waited a moment, with no response. "Colonel Sheppard, this is McKay. Do you read?" He asked with more urgency. Again, there was no response from his team leader.
"You would wait until I'm finally thawed to not answer," McKay said to himself as he dressed again for the blistering cold outside. He continued talking, which had morphed into more of a nervous mumbling. "Your radio better just be dead and not…." Rodney stopped himself from finishing the thought. "Shit," he added loud and clear as he headed out the door, flashlight in hand, though the full moon could easily make it unnecessary. His 9mm was fully loaded and ready…he truly hoped its use would not be necessary.
McKay stepped out into the cold. "Shit," he said again, though voicing the expletive was a wholly involuntary reaction to the icy cold temperature outside. He realized that he had been talking to himself these last few minutes. He shook his head. 'Get it together, McKay', he told himself, a conscious decision made this time to not speak those words out loud.
"Sheppard," he said firmly into his radio. No response. He headed straight for the latrine and rapped on the door. "Sheppard, I hope you're decent, because I'm coming in." Rodney paused momentarily, looking around nervously, and then opened the door. He was surprised and relieved by what he found: Sheppard, tied up and gagged, and definitely alive.
"Sheppard, goddamnit!" he said as he walked in. He tapped the radio again, but before he could attempt to summon Teyla or Ronan, he felt a sharp pain explode at the back of his head and immediately lost consciousness, thinking of beautiful snowfalls and regretting his folly in not thinking to contact the rest of his team before venturing out to find his friend.
A Slow Burn
It was the chatter that woke McKay. The incessant, annoying, dizzying chatter. He tried to tell them to keep it to a low roar when he found that he couldn't open his mouth. Rodney was still fuzzy and didn't understand why that would be, but the panic was building and he knew that he needed to wake up. He forced himself to open his eyes, just a little, as the hammering on the back of his head seemed to be causing more pain than could possibly be good for a human head. He found himself lying on his side, his hands tied behind him, his feet also tied together, and his mouth taped shut. He blinked the blurriness from his vision and saw John Sheppard seated next to him, trussed up in the same manner, though he seemed to have the freedom to speak.
And didn't that just suck.
"Take it easy, McKay," John said as Rodney began to struggle to right himself. The dizziness won out and he stayed down, his eyes tightly shut as his head lay on the dirty floor. He tried to will the dizziness away; now was no time to get sick.
"Hey, hey!" John shouted, trying to get someone's attention. "Get in here. He's awake and he's gonna be sick!" Sheppard yelled desperately.
Rodney frowned as he looked at Sheppard. That's just what he needed. 'Just keep those positive thoughts coming', he thought as he glared at his team leader. He was getting pretty tired of everyone always expecting the worst from him. He felt it a chronic state these days. He was fighting the nausea, willing it away. Why didn't John see that instead when he looked his way?
They heard someone unlocking the door. They had been moved…the latrine had no lock, and this place had no toilet. The door was pushed open and in walked Cowen, the Genii leader, followed by a small brigade of Genii soldiers.
"Great," Rodney tried to say, but it came out anything but clearly.
"Dr. McKay, so glad you could grace us with your presence," Cowen slanted his head toward one of his men, who kneeled in front of McKay and violently pulled the tape from Rodney's face. The physicist hissed in pain, both from the sting removing the tape caused and from his head falling down hard onto the floor.
"The pleasure is all yours," Rodney seethed as he looked to John. His eyes asked whether the colonel was okay. John answered with a slight nod of his head.
"Now isn't that sweet. They communicate without speaking. How touching," Cowen said as he moved closer to both men. "I suppose you'd like to know what I have in store for you," he said as he stood in front of Sheppard and McKay.
"To be candid," Rodney said as he panted to control his continuing dizziness.
"McKay…" John started in warning.
"I would be better able to take in whatever crap you have to dish out if someone would kindly help me to sit up."
"Rodney, being pissy isn't going to endear you to Cowen's lackeys," John told him helpfully in a hushed tone that could be heard by all.
"Yes. And calling them lackeys is so much better. Besides which, I don't see the point in pointing out my 'pissy' state since it is a persistent one," Rodney stopped to take a deep breath. "Why am I still on the floor?" he asked contemptibly.
"Help him up," Cowen directed.
Two of the Genii soldiers pulled McKay into a sitting position, quickly and none too gently. The room twirled in front of him, the Genii leader appearing to float out the door. Rodney followed the movement with his eyes, only to have his body fall into John Sheppard's shoulder. The scientist rested his head where it landed.
"You okay?" John asked quietly.
"No," Rodney answered pitifully. "I don't feel so good." Rodney breathed in and out several times and then used his body to push off of Sheppard and right himself, leaning heavily on the wall behind him, careful to keep his aching head tipped forward a little in order to avoid more pain.
"You don't look so good, either," Sheppard said worriedly. "Cowen, do you have a doctor around here?" he asked accusingly.
"We did, but he died," the leader admitted with no apparent regret.
Rodney looked dismayed by the news, far less because of any needed medical treatment for his own injury than by the seemingly cavalier treatment of the deceased man of medicine. Though he still loved a good ribbing of Atlantis' chief medical officer about the medicine that he practiced, Rodney McKay had great respect for Carson Beckett as a caring and knowledgeable healer. And a good friend. That someone like Cowen would think so little of his men of science didn't bode well for his own chances of survival. That John Sheppard was a military man and would so easily be looked upon as just another casualty of war by the likes of Cowen made his already touchy stomach roil even more.
"Then untie me and let me check it out," Sheppard insisted.
"I'm okay, Colonel," Rodney answered softly.
"I still see blood, Rodney. Fresh blood."
"You do?" Rodney asked, unable to mask his worry and fear.
"Yes," John said calmly. "We need to at least stop the bleeding," he added. Sheppard turned to Cowen. "I assume you're looking for Dr. McKay's expertise? It might be better if we prevent his brains from leaking out any more."
"Oh, thank you for the visual," Rodney said with a scowl.
"Sorry," Sheppard said to McKay with a slight grimace. He looked back to Cowen. "So?"
"I'll have one of my people…" Cowen started.
"No. I'll do it. I've been trained and, no offense, but Rodney means a little more to me than that. I don't trust your people." Rodney looked at Sheppard in surprise. John frowned back at the reaction.
"Fine. You two," Cowen pointed to two of the men in his contingent, "you will keep your weapons, safeties off, pointed at these gentlemen while the colonel tends to McKay. When they're done, tie Sheppard up again."
John looked at Rodney's head. "Shit, this is deep. What the hell did you hit him with?" Sheppard demanded.
"And did you have to hit so hard?" Rodney asked as Sheppard poked and prodded and caused more pain.
"Just finish up," Cowen ordered.
"You sure you're feeling okay, Rodney? This looks…" John paused. He didn't want to scare his friend, but he wasn't too sure that he would be able to stop the bleeding with the thin cloths that the Genii had provided.
"Bad?" Rodney finished for him. "Trust me, it feels bad, too. But there's no time to dwell on it, is there?" John grabbed Rodney's shoulder and squeezed hard. He needed McKay to know that they were in this together, whatever this turned out to be.
Rodney nodded his head in understanding. Cowen was right…their non-verbal communication was something special that they shared, in spite of the awful things that had happened to them, and between them, since coming to Atlantis. It was good to feel that connection was still there, despite how terrible things had seemed these last months.
Automatic weapons fire interrupted Sheppard's ministrations. Another of Cowen's men rushed into the room.
"Sir, the Atlanteans and the Fradalians are here, with significant force. We need to fall back."
"I don't think so, Radim" Cowen said to the Genii officer as he stared at his two captives. "I've got them," he said, indicating Sheppard and McKay. "We will hold them off."
"We can't. We need to get off the planet. We need to stick to the plan or we will not get away." Radim looked to his commander for recognition. "Sir, we still have the gate. We have our escape plan and it is still within range of execution. But we must leave now." He saw that Cowen was ready to give in. "We will try again."
Cowen looked at the officer before him and said, "Yes, we will. Fall back!" he ordered. He turned back to Sheppard and McKay. "This is merely a reprieve, I assure you. We will meet again." The Genii leader turned and stormed out of the room, preceded by most of his men, followed by the two guards who had held the guns on the two Atlanteans. Radim looked back briefly before following his leader to safety.
Sheppard quickly untied McKay's bindings. Rodney pulled his legs around to his front, stretching the tight, sore muscles. Then he folded his head into his hands. John put his hand on the small of McKay's back and massaged it gently.
"I guess we should expect Teyla and Ronan any minute now," John stated comfortingly.
"And Carson?" Rodney asked hopefully, the question slightly smothered by his hands.
John continued the easy massage. "I'm sure he won't be too far behind. It sounded like we should be expecting everyone in the camp." Sheppard kept one hand on Rodney's back as he reached for more of the rags he'd been left to help tend to the scientist's head wound. When he returned his attention to his friend, he felt shaking under his hand. John leaned down to look more closely. He found that Rodney was crying.
"Hey, McKay. It's all right. We're okay," John soothed.
Rodney shook his head in his hands and then looked up, tears on his cheeks and more welled in his eyes, his expression full of despair.
"We are not okay. I am definitely not okay. Something is very, very wrong." Rodney looked at John as though the colonel would have all of the answers. "It's been bad for a while now. I kept thinking it's going to get better, but it doesn't." Rodney's sadness, his grief, was palpable, and near unbearable for John to witness.
What could John do? What could he say? Rodney was right. The things the scientist had endured over the last few months had been terribly painful: whether emotionally, as with his error over Arcturus, including the loss of another of his men, a death that could be attributed directly to Rodney McKay's arrogance; physically, as with his difficult recovery from his near-death experience in the 'metal casket' of a sunken puddle jumper; or both, as in the unfortunate aftermath of the enzyme overdose and withdrawal. Rodney McKay was a genius, but it didn't take a genius to recognize that all of these events were an awful lot for one man to bear.
And whereas in the past you could make book on Rodney taking all of the credit, this time McKay was not giving himself enough. Only Rodney McKay could have managed to suffer all of this and still find clever solutions, repair equipment with amazing alacrity and skill, and save lives with that unique combination of creativity, quick thinking, immense passion, and compassion.
John pulled Rodney into his arms. McKay fell into the embrace willingly, desperately in need of the touch, the comfort. Desperately deserving of some compassion of his own.
"Rodney," John said as he held his devastated friend, "you don't give yourself enough credit." John would have laughed at how ridiculous that might have sounded to some, except that lately it really had been so true. So awfully true.
"And neither do we," John added, his voice breaking. Everything had gotten away from him, John Sheppard now realized. What had seemed small slights or indifference to Rodney's plight came slamming back before his eyes. What a stupid, stupid fool he had been. This was no game. Rodney's well-being was no game, and Rodney's value in assuring the well-being of everyone on Atlantis needed to start being appreciated once again.
John held McKay as his friend's tears eventually abated and the sobbing eased to sad, hesitant breaths. Rodney's head was now cradled against John's chest, which is what brought Sheppard the realization that he needed to make some progress on the gash on Rodney's head…the blood was puddling worryingly on John's jacket.
Noise from outside the room told the colonel that the cavalry had finally arrived.
"Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla questioned, her voice trickling as an echo down the hallway.
"In here," John called as he squeezed his friend tightly. Rodney lifted his head and looked at Sheppard, his eyes puffy, old and new blood marring the back of his head and oozing along the creases of his sweaty neck. The scientist did look bad, but the sight was as beautiful to John as the wintry vistas his cherished friend loved so much.
Teyla Emmagan and Ronan Dex entered the room with guns drawn, followed by a significant number of Fradalian troops, and finally, Dr. Carson Beckett.
"Colonel, Dr. McKay, we are so relieved to have found you," Teyla offered as she scanned the room cautiously.
"We're alone. Cowen left." Sheppard started to explain.
"Cowen?" Teyla asked. "He was the one who took you?" She watched as Beckett kneeled alongside the bloodied physicist.
"Yeah, um, about that? How did you find us?"
"We heard static from a radio," Ronan said simply. "That's not right at that time of the morning."
John looked at Rodney, knowing that his quick reaction was the signal that his other teammates had received.
"Rodney, you're a mess," Carson Beckett complained as he examined the injured man. "It looks like they hit you with a bloody hammer." McKay was leaning heavily into the physician's chest as Carson cleaned the caked and still oozing blood at the back of Rodney's head. "Colonel, could you please come over here and hold him up while I get this pressure bandage on? He seems to be fading a bit," he added as McKay's boneless body seemed to slip farther down his chest.
"'m here," Rodney stated tiredly. "C'n't sleep y't," he mumbled, his body denying him what his heart really wanted.
Carson looked with a frown at John for an explanation.
"We were gonna have a talk," John whispered quietly so that only Carson and Rodney would hear, his eyes raising in the hope that Beckett would understand his meaning.
Beckett nodded briefly, a slight grin gracing his otherwise worried disposition.
"Made coffee," Rodney interjected with a slight huff.
Both Beckett and Sheppard smiled at their friend.
"Yes, well," Beckett started quietly, "Rodney, I do need you to stay awake until we get you to the Fradalian infirmary. Can you do that for me, without caffeine?"
"Been 'wake all night," he slurred, and then added with a weak snicker, "morn'ng."
John shook his head and smiled again at his friend. Rodney was a fighter and it was that side of his character, the feisty, determined, persistently persnickety McKay that he saw now through the pain and exhaustion. That was the McKay he would work toward retrieving. He was there. John knew that he was still hanging around. There were glimpses, sparks. Sheppard likened finding that McKay to starting a fire with a cold log and just a couple of rocks for flint. It would take time to manage just the right spark, and then for that spark to ignite, followed by tender care to nurture the wood to a slow burn. Continued gentle stoking would be rewarded ultimately as the slow burn suddenly burst into a brightly burning flame.
John Sheppard considered it his solemn duty as Rodney McKay's friend to assure that the fire still burned bright in the physicist's eyes, and in his soul.