TWO DAYS AGO
"Colonel," Dr. Rodney McKay said as he stood in the doorway of Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard's small office. "Can we talk?"
Sheppard looked up from his paperwork at the pained image of his teammate. He knew that they needed to talk, but at that particular moment he didn't know which he hated more, the stack of reports and other administrative crap he needed to sift through, or finally having this conversation with McKay. He put his head back down into the file.
The world of McKay and Sheppard had changed drastically after the Doranda affair. It was two weeks to the day since Rodney had blown up most of a solar system, and the interactions between the two men had been limited and strained during that time. They had managed to remain cordial with one another, active avoidance making that path easier, and John had rebuffed all of Rodney's attempts to work through their problem. The roadblocks that John had purposefully erected to avoid dealing with the painful aftermath had seriously stymied Rodney's best efforts to gain back any trust from Atlantis' head military man. And worse than that, without the trust and the respect at a professional level…until that was repaired, there would be no progress in repairing their broken friendship.
Sheppard could see 'that' pain in Rodney's face more than any other.
"As you can see," Sheppard started, not lifting his head from the report he was reading, "I'm a little busy."
Rodney stood his ground, accepting the slight. He stayed in the doorway, not willing to leave yet, though knowing he had not been welcomed to enter further into John's domain.
"I can see that. We have a mission coming up tomorrow. We should talk before the final briefing."
"Why?" John asked, closing the file and reaching for the next one in the pile.
"Why?" Rodney repeated irritably. "Oh, I don't know, how about because we've barely spoken a civil word to each other in two weeks. Or because I don't know what you expect…." McKay stopped and then said in a firm, angry voice, "You could at least show me enough respect to look at me when I'm talking to you."
John raised his head. "I am busy, McKay." Sheppard noted the looks being sent his way from people in the corridor who had overheard Rodney's angry admonishment. He sighed and then said, "Come in and shut the door." Rodney did as he was told, but remained standing as far away from the colonel's desk as the small room would allow.
"I need to get through this shit before we head out tomorrow. We've got the briefing at 1400 hours and I've got to do final checks on the jumper and supplies. You've got five minutes, and that's being generous."
"You're not the only one with things to do, Colonel. And yes, your generosity is overwhelming," Rodney sarcastically commented.
"Clock's ticking, McKay."
Rodney stepped up to Sheppard's desk and slammed the file shut.
"I would appreciate your attention, Colonel," the emphasis placed on Sheppard's rank, the inference easily made that said rank implied that someone at that level in the Air Force would know better than to act in this current manner. John looked up, resentment in his eyes and anger in the grim set of his mouth. He leaned back in his chair and gave McKay his full attention. The intense stare that Sheppard threw back at Rodney only made the already difficult conversation that much harder.
"I have been trying to talk to you, to work 'with' you. You are the master of avoidance, by the way." Rodney kept eye contact with the colonel, though Sheppard's steely stare told him little about how he would react. "How do you expect me to earn back your trust if you won't talk to me?"
"Trust is not about talk, Rodney. And it won't happen overnight. It's more about actions and instincts. Expectations."
Rodney nodded his head slightly. "I see. So, do you have any specific 'expectations' from me for this mission?" McKay asked.
"I don't. Nothing has changed…" he paused, letting it sink in with McKay that things had changed drastically in a different solar system two weeks prior. "Nothing has changed about how we go about performing our jobs." Rodney nodded, his jaw thrust forward. He kept his tongue, refraining from saying what he was thinking: 'like you have these last two weeks'. Sheppard added, "It's just another mission."
"Shit," John Sheppard said as his team hid up in the rocky alcove. "These people have a lot of firepower." He inhaled heavily to catch his breath after their quick sprint up the mountain. "A lot. How did we not know that?" He looked accusingly to McKay.
"What? I believe I was the one who noted the unusual energy readings," Rodney defended. "And I'm not the one who said these people were friendly and wanted to trade with us. You may recall that I was the lone dissenter about this trip."
"That's because you are keenly adept at wallowing in the negative, McKay. You never said that the readings were weapons," Sheppard challenged angrily.
"There was no indication that they were. You were the one who decided to go into the village before I could gather conclusive evidence on what those readings meant."
"Between the intel we already had, and the slow progress you were making, I figured we could risk it," John snapped.
"Hindsight, Colonel?" Rodney returned acidly.
"Shut up," John seethed. Rapid gunfire from an automatic weapon sent rock shards spraying around them. "Crap. We can't stay here. Let's move up," Sheppard ordered.
"Up?" Rodney asked incredulously. "We can't move up. That's away from the jumper."
"No kidding. We're blocked off from heading that way. You're the genius. I'm sure I don't have to draw you a picture. Move."
"Fine." Rodney started back through the crevasse and followed Teyla up the now crumbling outcropping. "The climb will probably kill us." Bullets and pieces of rock ricocheted around him as he took another step up.
"Not if I kill you first, now move!" Sheppard growled, pushing up against the physicist's back. McKay lost his footing and tripped back a little into Sheppard.
Rodney turned around angrily. "That is not helping." He turned and scrambled back up, working hard to move faster on the uneven terrain. He could sense Sheppard on his heels and he heard Ronon firing persistently covering their six.
Teyla Emmagen turned as the rest of the team made it to the top of the rise. She reached down and gave McKay an assist up. McKay turned and put his hand out to help his team leader; Sheppard took Teyla's hand instead. Rodney backed away from the edge as he gave Sheppard and Ronon room to maneuver.
"It appears that they are retreating," Teyla noted. The gunfire had ceased completely and the quiet at their current juncture in the rocky foothills was only interrupted by the howl of the wind in their faces as they looked down toward their now blocked way home.
"Let's keep moving, get some distance between us and them. Then we'll stop and regroup," John Sheppard ordered as he took the lead, plowing past McKay as though he hadn't even seen him…as though McKay's worth was inconsequential to their mission.
Teyla looked at Rodney with compassion. She had been watching the interactions between these two men for two weeks, trusting that Colonel Sheppard knew what he was doing. She worried now that her trust might not have been well placed.
"Dr. McKay?" she asked, directing him to move ahead of her. Rodney put one foot in front of the other and made haste to catch up with his team leader.
A steady pace for about fifteen minutes took them over the rise and then down a ways, south of where their cloaked jumper was parked. They scouted in pairs, keeping close distance, Ronon with Teyla and McKay reluctantly paired with Sheppard in an effort to find an enclosed place to stop and plan their next move. The thick vegetation on the rocky, terraced hillside, though making the going treacherous, was providing good cover, but they needed a safe place to rest, even for just a few precious minutes.
They found a small cave near a waterfall that fed the mountain stream below. The cool mist from the crashing water felt good after their hard hike. They settled in to plan their escape, Ronon keeping watch near the cave's entrance.
"Okay. First, why aren't they following?" John started.
"Maybe they fear the mountains. Many cultures have sacred places or places that they have made taboo for their people to visit. It could be against their beliefs to tread up this way," Teyla suggested.
"Yes, that could be so," Rodney agreed. "Or they may just be waiting us out. They might already know that there is no other way out, or that the weather might be getting ready to change for the worse, or…"
"All right, McKay. We get it. We can always count on you to find the negative," John said.
"We should try another way down," Ronon offered as he continued to watch the area outside their lair.
"I…" Rodney started, but John cut him off.
"McKay, we're going to try another way down," Sheppard said crisply.
"I agree that we should try another way down," Rodney said as he looked at John, his disappointment in the colonel's reaction unable to miss. "I was just going to say that I could get the Life Signs Detector out to help now that we're not running for our lives."
"Oh. Well, that's a good idea." John could see the sadness in Rodney's eyes, in his entire demeanor. McKay grabbed for the back of his pack and unclipped it. He busied himself with pulling out and checking the LSD and grabbed a power bar as well.
"Why does this always happen to us?" Sheppard asked rhetorically.
Rodney purposefully kept his mouth shut. He had an answer, but it seemed he'd do himself less emotional damage if he only answered when directly spoken to on this mission. Every piece of advice or suggestion that he had provided so far on this misadventure had either been shot down or derided openly by Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. It seemed that they were a long way from rebuilding any trust, let alone a friendship. McKay opened the power bar, though his recent thoughts had turned away his appetite. He took a bite anyway, not wanting to give the colonel another reason to be at odds with him. Hypoglycemic shock would likely turn his friend murderous, considering their relationship of late.
"Teyla, could you help me fasten this?" Rodney asked, looking for some assistance with re-attaching the backpack. He was carrying his normal assortment of technical gadgets and the pack was hard to manage alone. John didn't miss the fact that this was a job that he usually assisted McKay with on missions.
"Let's head out," Sheppard ordered. He took point, followed by McKay, Teyla and Ronon bringing up the rear. The cave had begun to warm them due to their combined body heat in the acutely small space, but the chill of the outside air surprised each member of the team. The waterfall's spray, which just minutes before had seemed so refreshing, now simply chilled them further. McKay looked up to the sky and saw thick, billowing clouds ahead and dark, threatening sky above the jagged mountains behind them.
They jogged another half a click south, far enough from their point of origin into the rocky terrain to be able to avoid the villagers once they made their way back down to level ground. Their plan was to continue west of the village from their current southern position and swing well around where they'd hidden the jumper. The wide path would hopefully be their salvation from attack and give them the advantage should they be forced to confront the natives again.
The population of Lladerro was small, but they all seemed well armed and well versed in the use of their weaponry. And their weapons were powerful. They had a hodgepodge of weapons, from actual Wraith stunners to automatic weapons similar to P-90s, though definitely still alien in origin, as well as some sophisticated weapons similar to the zat guns that SG-1 had originally confiscated from the Goa'uld, only this weapon's power crushed rocks to dust and definitely did not have a stun setting.
They needed to steer clear of that mass of weapons and be the ones on the offensive in order to survive this.
Sheppard put his hand up, first displaying the sign to freeze, and then the sign to crouch and go prone. His team followed the silent orders immediately and without question. They had agreed on hand signals for the short term, resorting to whispered conversation only as needed. They took refuge within the dense foliage on the steep hillside on the far side of the creek that they had traversed during their downward climb.
Two children played in a clearing, crooked branches from the forest around them making do for swords. Even the thrust and parry of the child's play showed skill and training. These people 'lived' a warrior's life. The intel they had received on this alien culture had been woefully incomplete.
They stayed down and silent as the children played. It was another ten minutes before the two boys headed north along the slope and back toward the village.
"Let's head out," Sheppard whispered. They kept moving due west and would soon be ready to head back north in the direction of their ride home.
Rodney walked just behind Sheppard, staying quiet. The jogging and the crouching and the rough terrain were beginning to wreak havoc on his back, but that was something that only Rodney McKay would know about during this mission, though Carson Beckett would no doubt give him hell during his post-mission physical.
McKay saw movement to the right, behind a tree. Sheppard was just ahead of him and had not caught sight of whatever was behind the wide trunk. Someone stepped out from behind the tree, just barely. A very short someone; it looked like a young teenager to McKay, but distance and the swirling branches made it hard to tell for sure.
Rodney said, "Colonel," in a hushed voice.
Sheppard spun and said, "McKay, did I say you could…" Sheppard was surprised when Rodney quickly stepped right up against him, but surprise turned to shock when an arrow shot through McKay's shoulder. The trajectory had been heading straight for John's chest as the tip of the arrow now embedded in his bulky vest proved. They were chest to chest now, and John Sheppard knew the next seconds would be critical.
"Ronon," Sheppard said. The Satedan went after the shooter. John held onto Rodney tightly and said, "I've got ya." He grabbed the shaft firmly and pulled away, dislodging himself from the arrow's point. Rodney breathed heavily through the jostling, despite John's efforts to avoid hurting him further. McKay was a step higher up the hill than Sheppard. If they had been on level ground, that arrow easily could have been through Rodney's lung, or worse.
"Arrow," Rodney said stiffly, his left hand grasping firmly to the sleeve of John's jacket, his face withering with the realization of what was happening. "Kid," he added, trying to communicate the need to be careful, that danger was near. John held Rodney up now, all of the weight of the physicist completely Sheppard's responsibility. He eased the injured man to a sitting position on the wooded hill, and carefully unfolded the fist that still held on tight.
"Not a kid," Ronon said softly. "Just a small man. A small, dead man."
"We are in danger here, Colonel. We must move out of sight," Teyla warned.
"I know. Damn it, Rodney," John said as he steadied a very unsteady McKay.
"Sorry," Rodney said as he rested his head on John's shoulder. McKay lifted his eyes and looked at John. "I saw…" he trailed off as a sharp pain in his shoulder made him shudder. John took McKay's neck and pulled Rodney's head back to the de facto pillow.
"I know what you saw, Rodney. Don't be sorry, and thanks for trying to warn me. I should've listened." McKay's neck was tense with pain and fear and John was sure other things that Rodney should not have to think about. John soothed his friend as best he could, rubbing Rodney's neck, his fingers now coated in the scientist's sweat.
This was his fault, Sheppard thought. He'd been a bastard to Rodney for weeks now. And he hadn't bothered to do the one thing he needed to do on this mission, the one thing that he had told McKay he had expected of him: act like nothing had happened. He knew how much Rodney wanted things to be the way they were; for them to be able to go back in time, back to how it was before the Arcturus debacle.
John had wanted that, too. But he had felt betrayed by Rodney, and he'd let his anger take over and let reason and understanding take a hike. And how stupid was that? He missed his friend, and he'd hurt himself and Rodney by how he'd been acting.
"Rodney, we've got to haul ass, at least to get out of the open. You're gonna have to walk a bit," John said gently.
"I know," Rodney said as he huffed through the pain. "Let's move," he said, without moving. "Um, I need help," he said with a slight hitch in his voice.
John recognized what that was: Rodney was forced into relying on someone to help him who for two solid weeks had been treating him like dirt. That Rodney felt that he needed to ask made John feel pretty damned filthy.
"I know. We've got ya," Sheppard said. "Ronon?" he asked. Between the two of them they managed to get McKay to his feet with little difficulty, though John was sure that Rodney had a different opinion on that.
"How far…" John started to ask how much farther they had.
"Forty, forty-five minutes, if we don't stop," Rodney answered. "You have no idea where you are, do you?" he asked, still leaning heavily on the colonel, but in very McKay-like fashion, gamely ready to move on.
"That's why I have you guys on my team," Sheppard grinned weakly. "And we need to stop," he added.
"No, no we don't," Rodney said as he handed the Life Signs Detector to John. Sheppard passed it on to Teyla.
"We need to check that wound, Rodney."
"No. It's okay. Hurts like hell, but nothing important got hit. You can't do much about it anyway. I wanna get home," Rodney admitted tiredly. "This mission has sucked since before…aah-ow…" Rodney grimaced in pain. "It's sucked since the briefing."
"Sorry about that," John said. "That is definitely my fault."
"I…um," Rodney didn't really know what to say to that. John hadn't said many nice things to him lately; it looked like he might have to re-learn how to react to such treatment. Luckily, Rodney McKay was all about learning…and knowing. Hopefully he would start to know the old John Sheppard again soon, because this new one was confusing and exhausting. He wasn't sure he had the will or the stamina to keep going as they'd been. Nothing was working the way they'd been lately.
"Don't worry about it," John said, gripping McKay's waist tightly.
"The LSD?" Rodney asked anxiously.
"I have it, Dr. McKay," Teyla answered reassuringly. "It is clear."
"Okay. Let's quiet down and head home," Sheppard directed. Rodney seemed to settle into auto pilot, leaning heavily on John but not requiring support from both sides. Teyla took point, Ronon covered their backs, and they made it to the jumper with no further incident.
Sheppard settled McKay into the co-pilot's seat. "You're going to have to sit sideways here," he said. "I'm going to cut off as much of this thing as I can."
"Are you sure y…you should do that?" McKay asked warily. "We'll be back home soon, right?"
"You're less likely to hurt yourself more if we take care of this now. If we crash and…"
"Are you planning to crash?" Rodney asked.
"No, I'm not. But if we get shot at…"
"We're gonna be cloaked, right?"
"Jesus, McKay, you're a pain in the ass," Sheppard complained. That comment shut Rodney up fast.
"Hey," John said apologetically. "I want to make sure that you don't get hurt any more. This is better. I swear it."
"It'll hurt though, right?" Rodney asked with grave concern.
"I'm going to hold on tight to the shaft and Ronon's going to cut it. It'll be done in a flash." Rodney did not look appeased. "It'll only hurt for a second." McKay's expression begged for that to be true. "I promise," John added.
Rodney could feel the sincerity of the pledge, and the look on Sheppard's face gave equal assurance. McKay wasn't feeling all that much at the moment, the beginnings of shock and the intense trauma to his shoulder working together to mask the pain. He knew this would hurt, but he also believed that John would do everything possible to lessen that pain.
"Okay," he said.
"Ronon?" John looked at the former runner.
"All set," he answered, the cutting tool from the repair equipment in the back of the Ancient craft at the ready.
"Okay," John started. "Rodney, I'm grabbing the arrow on a count of three." Sheppard had one hand resting on McKay's good shoulder, rubbing gently in an attempt to calm his friend. The other hand was positioned near the protruding arrow.
The touch was shocking, at first. The inside of the jumper spun before the injured man, but righted itself fairly quickly. Rodney breathed through the pain, sharp jabs that he knew were aided in intensity by the rapid beating of his own heart. The colors of the lights on the jumper's instrument panels swirled in the stream of his tears.
"Stay calm, Rodney." John waited until McKay settled some. "You're doin' good." Rodney raised his eyes to look into John's. Sheppard saw trust, a deep, abiding trust that he wasn't so sure that he had earned, but was very glad to see. "I'm going to grab hold with both hands, and then Ronon's going to cut it right away. Ready?" Sheppard asked in preparation.
"Um-hmm," was the best Rodney could offer.
"On three again. One-two-three-CUT!" John quickly let go of the remainder of the arrow and caught McKay as he fell forward.
"Breathe easy, Rodney." McKay was taking big, gulping breaths, moving dangerously close to hyperventilating. All of that shaking was going to aggravate the injury more.
"Easy," John said, placing his hand on Rodney's neck and stroking it gently. "Easy," he repeated, showing McKay the way with his own breaths, exaggerated in their volume and rate in order to help his teammate follow suit. Rodney's breathing was soon better, still faster than it should be, but who would be able to breath normally with an arrow through their body?
"Good, that's good." He looked up at the other two members of his team. "Teyla, can you find something to help prop him up?" She rose quickly and headed to the backpacks and returned immediately with two blankets rolled up together.
"I will sit here beside you, Dr. McKay." She placed a pillow in his lap. "Rest. I will be here so that you will not fall." She smiled as Rodney gave her an attempt at a grateful smile of his own.
"Let's fly," Sheppard said as he took the jumper aloft. The sun was peeking through the thick cloud cover, beginning its descent beyond the mountains, the orange sun making the gray granite-like rock shimmer unexpectedly. It was beautiful, John thought, a brilliantly bright ending to a horribly dark and dismal experience. Rodney would have liked seeing the bright.
He looked to his friend. God, he hoped he hadn't ruined that friendship. Rodney's eyes were closed and his hair lay wet and sticking to his forehead. The walk to the jumper had been hard on the scientist, and the recent activity with the arrow hadn't helped. McKay leaned his left side into the pillow, his useless right arm tucked into his partially zippered jacket from when they had stopped briefly on the trek to the jumper to do what they could to immobilize and protect it. Teyla sat on the floor in front of him, between the pilot and co-pilot's chairs. She watched the man carefully for any sign of distress.
Sheppard gritted his teeth and pushed the jumper to her limits in order to get back to Atlantis and to get their injured teammate to Dr. Carson Beckett as fast as possible.
Twenty minutes later Carson had Rodney lying on his side on a gurney, an IV sending medication into McKay's system to ease the pain. Beckett would take him straight to surgery, giving John a good long while to think about what his first words would be to Rodney McKay when he awoke.
"Debrief in thirty minutes," Elizabeth Weir said, her voice stern and her face saying that she expected a damned good explanation for why her chief of science, the one person on this mission who she had counted on to be the most careful on this most important of missions - the first post-Arcturus mission - why was the person least likely to be injured now on his way to surgery.
A too short shower and a tasteless sandwich later, John Sheppard was sitting with Elizabeth, Teyla and Ronon in the briefing room.
"What happened?" Elizabeth asked.
"The natives weren't very friendly," John started, the attempt at humor falling horribly flat. Teyla and Ronon wouldn't have gotten the Earth-based joke anyway, and Elizabeth was clearly in no mood for it.
"I don't know, exactly. One thing for sure is that we need to do a better job with who we listen to. The intel sucked on this one, Elizabeth."
"We'll perform a thorough post-mission examination, John. If that is true, then we need to understand who would have benefited from providing less than complete information."
"Yeah. I think they wanted our weapons, but I'm still not sure that's the real reason why they attacked. We were on the run before we knew what hit us," John explained.
"Their weapons were powerful," Teyla offered.
"Rodney has a wooden arrow through his shoulder," Weir said. "Not exactly powerful compared to a P-90."
"No, it's not," John agreed. "But they had Wraith stunners, automatic, powerful automatic weapons, lots of weapons. And they knew how to use them."
"I have to tell you, Colonel, that I am surprised to see Dr. McKay hurt on this mission. Your recent 'treatment' of him," her emphasis on the word a clear indicator that she was not especially supportive of his tactics of late, "says that he would have followed every command that you gave him."
"He did," Sheppard answered. He decided to refrain from telling her that his ill-treatment of the scientist had continued while off world.
"Then what happened?" she asked pointedly.
"We were running, escaping, we thought. We were on a wooded hill. Rodney caught sight of someone. He called me. He was under orders to stay quiet. We didn't want to call any attention to ourselves as we took a wide path back to the jumper." John wiped the sweat from his forehead. This explanation was not going to go over well with Weir.
"I thought you said he followed all of your orders, Colonel. If Rodney cannot manage that, maybe he needs to be pulled from the team."
"No," John and Teyla both said. Ronon sat up straighter at the mere suggestion. Sheppard was pleased to see his team ready to stand up for McKay.
"He called to me. And I turned and got mad. And he stepped right in front of the path of the arrow," John explained forcefully, angry at the conclusion that Elizabeth had made regarding Rodney, but angrier with himself for forcing her to such a presumption, and especially mad at himself because this could all have gone so differently had he just listened to McKay.
"I do not believe that Dr. McKay thought that he would be hit," Teyla said quietly.
"He knew something," Ronon stated emphatically.
The room went silent at that comment. Weir turned to Ronon and Teyla. "Would you excuse us, please?" The two team members left. Elizabeth waited until John was ready to continue.
"Rodney knew exactly what he was doing." John shook his head. "He used that amazing mind of his, saw where I stood, below him on the hill, saw the trajectory of whatever was coming from that direction, calculated the odds, and took one step, knowing that the likelihood of surviving his shoulder wound, because I know Rodney, Elizabeth, and I know that he knew in his head what he was walking into, those odds were better than me surviving a direct hit in the chest." John stared into Elizabeth's eyes. "After all the shit I've dished out to him these last weeks…" Sheppard didn't need to finish the thought.
Elizabeth Weir looked at John Sheppard with frustration. She had approached the colonel more than once these last two weeks, unhappy with how John had elected to handle his 'Rodney' problem. Her objections had fallen on deaf ears each time. Though her chastising of the chief of science had been loud and public, they had both put that episode behind them. She felt that Rodney knew exactly what he had done wrong, how ego and arrogance had brought them to that catastrophe. She knew that Rodney McKay was smart enough to get the point, and now far more aware of the need to be less hasty, more collaborative, and to not allow anything like this to happen again. Her anger, directed with pinpoint precision at McKay at the time, was satisfied by Rodney's apology and by his unmistakable devastation at what had resulted from his actions.
And by his heart-wrenching realization of what might well have happened.
Her anger with Sheppard right then could easily have overtaken her; she had seen this coming. But John, unlike Rodney two weeks before, seemed to get it without the scathing dressing-down that McKay had so definitely needed. Watching Rodney take an arrow for him was like a sledgehammer bringing that point home.
"I doubt that Rodney has changed that much in two weeks, John. He knows that he contributed to a man's death – that fact we can hope did change him for the better," Elizabeth said with a firm belief that it was true. "But his brilliance and his sensitivity and his loyalty…none of that has changed. I think that you forgot that on this mission."
John looked dejectedly into the table, not raising his head, finally acknowledging Elizabeth's words with, "Not just on this mission."
"When Rodney speaks, it's usually for a very good reason. I know sometimes it seems like he talks just to hear the sound of his voice, but if you think back, you'll realize that's just not true. And he's more than aware of the dangers that you face off world every single time you venture out there. He would never have said a word in that situation unless he knew it was important," Elizabeth said, cognizant that she was saying something that the man seated before her already knew.
"I know," John admitted.
"You need to remember it, no matter how mad you are with him."
John nodded. He looked up and said, "Are we done?"
"He's still in surgery," Elizabeth noted.
"I know. I just need some time…" he didn't finish what didn't need to be said.
"Go ahead." Elizabeth shook her head sadly as she watched Sheppard leave.
Hours later John Sheppard found himself sitting next to Rodney McKay's bed. Carson had assured him that the surgery went well and that Rodney would be fine. John knew he could trust Carson to tell him the truth: Carson Beckett was a good man, a fine doctor and Rodney's good friend. But John wasn't worried about Rodney's physical well-being. It was his friend's mental and emotional state that John had caused more damage. He'd spent the last few hours trying to figure out what he should say to McKay to make things right. And he was coming up with nothing. In the end, he had sought out the one person who'd managed to forgive Rodney readily after Arcturus.
"I, uh, I have not been able to…I wanted to but…" Sheppard couldn't even explain his conflicted emotions to Dr. Radek Zelenka - it was no wonder that he'd made no headway in his personal issues with McKay. God, he was so messed up. Why couldn't he have figured that out before this mission?
"Colonel, I do not understand how I can help you with this, except…" Radek thought carefully before continuing. "You must not tell him that I said this. My life will be a living hell if you do. Rodney is special. His mind is the most brilliant that I have ever known. This is not exaggeration, Colonel," Radek said as he saw Sheppard get that look, that 'tell me something that I don't already know' look.
"I have come to understand that there are things about Rodney that I do not like and that I cannot change. It is a frustrating position to be in, I assure you. But I have learned more from Rodney in the short time that I have known him than I can say. And though his ego is unbelievably large and he can be unbearably obnoxious, he has saved us here on Atlantis more times than you or Elizabeth know. This is a complex facility with extremely complicated science. We all rely on Rodney far too much, 'for' too much to make everything work here." Radek linked his fingers together. "There is a symbiotic relationship between Rodney and Atlantis. It was as though he was born to be here, even though his ATA gene is not natural to him. It is easy to forgive him his very complex nature knowing this." Radek paused, watching Sheppard's reaction to make sure he understood, as though he was explaining some complex scientific theory instead of telling him what he should already know about his best friend.
"Besides," Radek added, "he is my friend. I know that the things he said, well, sometimes we speak before we think. This is complicated for Rodney. His quick thinking will always get him in trouble in this regard because he knows immediately where to go to cause the most pain. His words sting. With Rodney, you must learn which words are the important ones."
It was never easy with McKay, yet Radek managed to get straight to the heart of the matter, and the man. His words were not all that different from Elizabeth's earlier. But it wasn't all about Rodney's genius. That beautiful mind was something to behold, that was certain. But it was Rodney's heart that was the true measure of the man. And John had been stomping on that since Doranda.
"I see what you mean," John said as he rose to leave. "It's late. Thanks for talking to me."
"Colonel, there is nothing I want more than for you and Rodney to work out your differences."
John Sheppard smiled. For all the bickering and the competition between the two scientists, Rodney had found in Radek Zelenka a kindred spirit; they were soul mates in geek speak. Rodney had said terrible things to Zelenka, for all to hear, yet Radek had managed to see reason so clearly, despite the lashing from McKay's bitter tongue. Sheppard knew that Zelenka was a better man than he for being able to see Rodney McKay with such sweet clarity.
"He was awake earlier," Carson said as he watched Sheppard watching McKay. The insinuation in Beckett's voice was clear: why weren't you here?
"Yeah. Elizabeth wanted me in on Lorne's team's debriefing."
"I see," Carson said as he took the washcloth, soaked it in the basin of cool water, and placed the wet rag on Rodney's forehead. John frowned as he watched the physician work. Carson seemed tense; John didn't like what he saw.
"What's wrong?" Sheppard asked.
Beckett looked up from his patient, venom clearly written on his face.
"You're joking, right?" Carson asked incredulously, shoving his hands into the pockets of his white coat.
"Am I laughing?" John responded, his voice rising in returned anger.
Carson looked at Rodney again and then turned back to Sheppard, lowering his voice. "I really don't think this is the time or place for this discussion," he explained softly in deference to his sleeping and well-medicated friend. "And I have to go set a broken arm, so I don't have the time right now, period." He stared at John as he continued, "You should understand that Dr. Weir has apprised me of what has been going on." Sheppard looked mad, for a moment, as though Elizabeth had broken a trust. But the look on his face changed quickly to understanding.
"I am hesitant to leave you here with him, Colonel. Can I trust you to behave appropriately?" Carson asked as he removed the cloth from Rodney's forehead, looking worriedly at the soundly resting man. "Or do I have to escort you out and leave instructions for him to be left undisturbed?"
"Carson, I would never…"
"John, I would never have thought that you would have allowed this to happen."
"I didn't mean for it to happen," John offered miserably.
Carson saw the grief and the regret in Sheppard's eyes. He could see that he could trust John to be with his friend and patient, his own anger at the situation clouding the fact that Beckett knew John Sheppard to be a good man; he knew him well enough to not even have had such thoughts. If only John had acted more like 'that' John Sheppard of late.
"He's developed a fever. I don't know yet if it's related to his injury. It's not infected, and we didn't find anything worrisome on the arrow, but it was an arrow from an alien planet. X-rays don't show any foreign matter. It's hard to know yet whether there's any correlation. He could just be getting sick. He had been working non-stop on many different projects around Atlantis." Carson wanted to tell Sheppard how many times that he'd had to force Rodney to eat or sleep these last couple of weeks. "He was a little run down before you left on this mission." John frowned at that. "I regret that I let him go, but the worst I thought he'd come back with was a cold."
McKay had been working, heads down, to get some of the improvements implemented during the unexpected two week stand-down that the events on Doranda had wrought. Rodney's list of fixes to better living conditions on Atlantis had grown quickly during their time in the Pegasus galaxy, but emergency repairs, off-world excursions and discoveries, and just maintaining the 'ancient' Ancient systems had not allowed for much time to work on enhancements. Rodney's self-assigned penance these last long fourteen days had been to work his way down the list for the betterment of all the inhabitants of Atlantis, with little concern for what working that hard might be doing to himself. No, he hadn't been thinking of himself at all lately, and that was something for both Carson Beckett and John Sheppard to be concerned about.
"I'll stay here with him. Keep him comfortable."
"Only use this when he appears hot. I don't want him getting a chill. And if he wakes, don't keep him awake with too much talking. He's had quite a trauma and he needs rest. You can apologize to him properly when he's feeling better."
"Okay," John said as he watched Carson head out. "Hey, Carson?" Sheppard whispered loudly. Beckett turned back. "Thanks." Carson Beckett nodded and then left the room.
John sat next to Rodney's bed. His teammate was resting comfortably. It was probably the first time since…the only time in fourteen days. If what Beckett had said was true, and John knew that it was, then Rodney had to have been dragging when he left with them on this mission. He should have been the least likely person to be on their toes yesterday, yet he was the one who saved Sheppard's life. John folded his arms on the rail of the bed, and then rested his chin on the cushion it provided. He watched Rodney, breathing easily in drugged sleep. He wanted his friend to wake up, despite Carson's warnings. He wanted to explain, if he could. He needed to apologize now, not later.
About an hour after Carson left Rodney began to stir. His breathing was less steady now, the inhalations becoming more uneven huffs. He turned his head to the left, toward John, and then winced. He calmed quickly and then seemed to head to sleep once again. Rodney rested his head into the pillow, and then moved to the right, this time the wince eliciting an extended 'ow' from the patient.
"Rodney?" John asked, concerned that McKay might be in some kind of pain that he could get help to alleviate. John placed his hand on Rodney's uninjured shoulder. Rodney grimaced as he moved his head deep into the pillow, the need to move stiff muscles trumping any aches and pains that the movement might cause. He blinked sluggishly once, and then twice. A few more deliberate blinks of droopy lids found Rodney McKay's slightly drug glazed blue eyes staring back at Sheppard.
"Are you in pain?" John asked. "Should I find a nurse?"
"Mmm…um…no. Stiff," Rodney explained. "Kind of hot."
"Yeah. You're running a temperature," John told the physicist helpfully as he patted the cool, wet cloth across Rodney's forehead.
Rodney let out a frustrated sigh. "Crap," he said as he tried to flick the washcloth away with his good hand, though the pull of the IV stopped him quickly from continuing the motion. "Infection?" he asked tiredly.
"Carson's not sure. Your wound's not infected."
"Hm." Rodney's breathing gave the impression of sleep once again. John watched his friend ease into the much-needed slumber. The apology would have to wait after all.
"Why're you here?" Rodney questioned through a yawn. "Must have better things to do."
John frowned, knowing that a pre-Arcturus Rodney would never have felt the need to ask such a question.
"You're my friend and you were hurt on my watch." He set the washcloth in the basin and leaned back in his seat, grabbing the arms of the chair nervously. He looked down toward the floor and then back up to a tired but healing McKay. "You were hurt because of me."
The one thing that could always be counted on in John Sheppard's life was that Rodney McKay would be prepared to argue, no matter what extreme circumstance he found himself in. Rodney this day – just hours out of surgery, exhausted, hurting, recovering, and feverish – was no exception.
"Any one of us could have been that guy's target," Rodney rationalized.
"That's not what I meant. If I hadn't been such a bastard, if I hadn't been so stupid and ignored your input we all might have seen what you had seen, or at least have listened when you spoke."
Rodney closed his eyes tightly; it was obvious to John that he had upset the scientist, and that was so not what he wanted for his friend right then.
McKay gathered himself quickly and said, "I…I thought you might never trust me again. You said you wanted to, but you haven't acted much like…." The conversation and the emotions were without doubt not what Beckett was expecting when he left John alone with his patient.
"There was a time when you always listened to me." Rodney's voice broke as he said it.
Oh was Carson ever going to have his ass, John thought.
He pulled the chair up closer to his friend and placed his hand on Rodney's forearm. He squeezed it and said, "I have been very unprofessional with you lately. Not just with you, but you have borne the brunt of it, that's for sure. I was so angry at you, and I have made a huge mistake in not talking to someone about it before now." Sheppard wished that he had been so concerned for his own mental state of late; all that had transpired since Doranda could have gone so differently if he had.
"You should have talked to me," Rodney answered accusingly. "Sometimes it really is about talking."
John nodded. "I know. Elizabeth said that my tactics in dealing with you have sucked."
"She did?" Rodney asked, closing tired eyes. "Smart lady," he said through a heavy breath, "though I doubt she used such a pedestrian description."
John smiled. "Yes she is, and no, she didn't." He watched Rodney breathe deeply. The man could easily fall asleep if John would just stop talking. He remembered what Carson had said. "Hey, get some more sleep. Carson said not to tire you out."
"Carson's a smart man," Rodney said softly as sleep rounded the corner.
"We'll talk more when you wake up."
Rodney blinked a couple of times, trying desperately to keep his eyes open, and said, "I wanna talk s'more now."
John rubbed his friend's arm warmly. "We'll talk later. But before you sleep, just remember that I do trust you. I respect you, and I cherish you as a friend. And I am so sorry that I have been such an ass."
"Mm-hmm. Have been," Rodney agreed, sleep just moments away.
"Smart man who can recognize it," Rodney noted.
John smiled. "Go to sleep, Rodney."
"I can do that."
John Sheppard knew that Rodney would sleep now. He had learned from others around him these last few hours how he should have been acting all along these past two weeks. He hoped that when people took stock of him that they wouldn't see him in too bad a light after this last period of time. That he hadn't recognized how he had been acting was disappointing to the Air Force colonel…he was sure there were others who were feeling the same. It seemed he'd be mending other fences while he worked most closely on the broken links of his and Rodney's fractured friendship.
Rodney seemed to possess a limitless amount of good will, especially considering everything that was thrown at him, the unbelievably high expectations everyone had of him. Rodney's forgiving nature was something that he could definitely learn from and use should something ever happen again to shake his beliefs in those he trusted most. He hoped that McKay never lost that openness and trust. John hoped that the lessons he'd learned from this experience would help him to measure up in Rodney's eyes once more. It would be the most important thing on his agenda, the file at the very top of the pile.
Because though the expedition needed Rodney McKay healthy and at his egotistical, and one could hope, not so arrogant best, John needed him for far more…far more than his science colleagues needed him. John needed him as a friend, sometimes as his foil, his partner in discovery, and his partner in crime. He needed Rodney for the fun and the challenge that the man from Canada brought to his life. He needed Rodney to help him know how to best measure the value of his own life.