Author: Kodiak bear
Beta: sholio and Linzi, for testing the 'whumpability' factor grin
Spoilers: Anything up to and including episode 3x16 , The Ark
Summary: There were as many ways to die as there were to live. You could drown, bleed, freeze, explode, fall, burn, seize, electrocute, sicken; and then you could take just about any variation of the above and come up with a hundred different combinations. Written for the Sheppard H/C challenge #7, with these prompts: Element – fire, theme – broken bones, blood, line – Where the hell are you going with that, Colonel? I've only used the first two
AN: This fic has one thing about it that I don't like: no plot. Seriously, it's your basic "bad villagers chase team, they get hurt, have to get home" and nothing more. I wanted it basic when I started because I don't have a lot of time to devote to a response for the challenge and also, this is a character driven introspection story. But the lack of plot bugs me, and even though I still like some things very much in this, I still regret that it isn't more.
The four stages of a forest fire are: ignition, flaming, smouldering and extinction.
There were as many ways to die as there were to live. You could drown, bleed, freeze, explode, fall, burn, seize, electrocute, sicken; and then you could take just about any variation of the above and come up with a hundred different combinations; and all that meant in the long run, was that there were a hell of a lot of ways to die. The ironic thing was, in the past few years John had gone up against most of those. He'd drowned, bled, exploded, fell, sickened and almost froze. The drowning had happened the first time he'd gone through the 'gate. The timeline he didn't live because it'd been altered by Elizabeth's trip to the time before the Ancients abandoned Atlantis. They'd crashed in the Jumper and fell to the depths below and John and Radek died while Elizabeth survived. She'd stuck around the city, and with Janus' help, set a different timeline into play.
He'd exploded while riding an asteroid through a planet's atmosphere; he'd been surprised the ancient shuttle had stayed intact…that he'd stayed intact. He'd frozen on a ship losing atmosphere. He'd had his F302 blown into pieces while he was in it, and ridden a nuke into the belly of a Hive ship only to be beamed clear before it blew. He'd fallen out of the sky more times than he cared to count. Crash after crash; and he'd survived every one. He'd been sickened by the retrovirus, mutated and changed, and he'd still lived. He'd bled from the Beast and from gunshot wounds – what was it about his arm, anyway? The Iratus bug had forced everyone's hand and they'd electrocuted him, shorted out his heart and he'd died. It hadn't mattered much at that point; he was convinced he was going to die, whether it was from the defibrillator or the bug, and personally, he'd liked the idea of cheating that bug out of dinner.
When he'd come to in the infirmary, he'd been almost disappointed because the only thing he'd remembered during his stint as one of the dead, was blackness. Where were the lush green meadows and snow-capped mountains? Or the pearly gates or the sulfurous pits of hell? He had thought if he went anywhere, it'd probably be hell. He'd killed enough to earn a spot, especially lately. But he hadn't expected nothing. It was anti-climatic. How many people get to die and live to tell about it, and all he had to show for it was nothingness. Blackness.
When you joined the military, you quickly got in touch with three things within yourself: spirituality, the meaning of life, and death. Spiritually, John had long ago reconciled himself to the fact that, if there was a God, he didn't seem to give a damn about him, and therefore, John didn't much give a shit, either. He didn't pray for last minute reprieves or miracles, but sometimes if it was bad enough, he'd hoped someone else would. His experience dying only solidified that he was doing this life – and death -- thing on his own.
He'd also figured out that the meaning of life was that there wasn't any meaning. It just was. You could stare at rainbows and stars and into the depths of the oceans, but all you were going to see was that everything around you was going on about their life, lost in their own routines and activities. No one had the magical answer as to why people were. What was the meaning of happiness, sadness, birth and death, and all the time in between? Some organisms would live only days while some would live for billions of years, shining in space. What meaning were you supposed to get out of that? A cosmic entity got to spend eons just being, while other things got to experience time in such a relatively short span that in the grand scheme of things, all it really proved was that the universe wasn't an even playing ground. Humans lived eighty- some years, give or take. Dogs lived around fourteen or fifteen. And some species of turtles could live for centuries. That's about the time John figured out that life was about as big a wheel of fortune as there ever was. Some landed on the jackpot, some hit bankruptcy, and some just seemed to keep hitting numbers high enough to stay in the game.
John thought that he'd gotten a pretty good grasp on his draw in life. He was one of those that only hit enough to stay in the game. He'd avoided bankruptcy more times than he'd a right to. On the surface, you'd think cheating death was a good thing. How can staying alive be anything but great, right? Especially when there wasn't a whole lot to look forward to on the other side. Well, the problem was, he kept getting lucky, and he kept surviving the impossible, along with his team, and if you do that too many times, you begin to feel invincible. Immortal. No, not immortal, just – inviolate. You can live through anything. Your friends can survive anything.
And, John thought, it was a real bitch when you realized just how wrong your assumptions could be.
They were running. Or, rather, they were trying to run. Sheppard was carrying a stunned McKay, staggering under the awkward weight while Ronon and Teyla covered them from behind; they'd sprint two feet or so, turn to fire, and then repeat it all over again. The whine of blasts coming way too close caused John to stumble, list drunkenly to the side, then steady the body on his shoulder and press on, his stride barely breaking.
They'd come to MX5-023 on a trading mission. A meet and greet. The Stargate was in a cave so that'd ruled out using a Jumper. Sheppard hated not having his ship as back-up. He felt almost naked without the familiar presence humming in the back of his mind. No escape, no sanctuary, no drones to take out the bad guys in space ships.
Months ago, in a cold organic cell, he'd met his first Wraith sympathizer. Now, almost a year later, they met a whole village of 'em. At first, they'd been greeted with open, welcoming arms. Hello and come eat with us and trade would be wonderful, but the key was wonderful for whom, and that'd be the villagers and the Wraith, not John and his team.
When Teyla had knelt to tie her boot she'd seen a bundle shoved underneath a desk in the Chancellor's office. Curiosity, touched by a niggling intuition she'd felt since they'd arrived, caused her to pull the bundle free and glance at the contents. She found Sheppard's picture and a list of names, including Teyla, Rodney, and Ronon, along with a Wraith communicator.
Teyla had hurriedly shoved it back in place and stood before the woman that was assigned to take her on tour returned. Then she'd made an excuse to check in with the men of her team, where John and Ronon and Rodney had been sitting through a demonstration of fighting techniques in hand-to-hand combat.
She'd whispered in John's ear and he'd fought to hide the alarm that snaked to life inside his gut. Apparently, he hadn't done such a good job of hiding anything and if they got out of this alive, John was going to have to set up some card games and work on getting his poker face on. But now, as he ducked another stunner shot and swore about how Rodney wasn't helping anything by playing dead, he'd settle for just getting out of this alive.
The village had been a few klicks from the caves; the caves had been part of a mountain range and the one housing the Stargate had been thankfully at ground level. It was in an area the villagers had cleared of trees, but the forest grew stubbornly around the buildings and the cultivated fields. There was rock to one side, trees to the other. When John had made their excuses, saying that they needed to check in so their people knew they were fine, the villagers had reacted by standing between John and his team and the path to the caves.
When John had protested, stunners had been the reaction of the day. Figures, John, he scolded himself. Wraith sympathizers are going to have Wraith weapons! Everyone except Rodney had been able to duck and dodge. "Shoot but try not to kill them!" John had ordered. They'd returned fire, Teyla trying to shoot high and to the side, but John had seen at least two villagers fall to the P90, just because there were so many of them, and when you're running and aiming, shots are going to go wild. Ronon's gun had been set to stun and four villagers were down before John had even managed to haul Rodney onto his shoulder. They'd had to run away from the caves, away from the Stargate, and head into the forest.
Another blast whizzed too close, and Sheppard slid to the left, his foot shooting out from under him when he hit a patch of leaves. He went down with a surprised oomph, Rodney rolling heavily to the side.
"John?" Teyla called, glancing over her shoulder while trading fire with the pursuing villagers.
"Fine," he gasped. He struggled back to his feet, grabbing Rodney under his arms and starting to haul him up, when McKay groaned and blinked. "Come on, Rodney, I could use some help here!"
"Shep'rd?" Rodney's eyes fluttered opened and he stared cross-eyed, confused.
"Yeah, it's me, now run, or we're going to be Wraith food!"
"Run?" he asked, then his eyes rolled up.
"John, do you hear that?" Teyla shouted over the sounds of stunners and the rat-tat-tat of her P90. There were shouts from the villagers and the rustling of the leaves overhead. And the roaring…roaring of water!
"A river?" Sheppard shouted.
She nodded while Ronon glared and shot another villager that was brave enough to get too close.
Head toward the river, see if it led to the caves. Odds were good it did, but they'd need to go upriver and if – "Son of a bitch!" John swore. He'd just barely avoided another stunner shot. What was it going to take to get these guys off their backs?
Again, he resumed his stumbling run, this time heading for the source of the sound. The ground was slippery, needles and leaves and lichen. It was a funny thing, the ground could get like this in two conditions; wet and very, very dry. This time happened to be because it was dry. Just our luck, he thought sourly, because it made it hard to hide their trail or muffle the sounds of their feet. Every step was crunch, crunch and snap, snap, as dry leaves and branches broke under their boots.
Guess it didn't matter, anyway. The villagers weren't far enough back that there was any hope of hiding their progress. There wasn't a heck of a lot of stealth involved in running for your life.
"Whoa!" John slid to a stop, almost toppling over. Ronon's hand grabbing his jacket and yanking him back was all that kept John and Rodney from taking a header down the cliff and into the river below. Holy crap. It must've been a good eighty to a hundred feet down, and that water looked about as angry as hell. Whitewater rapids as far as he could see; as a plan began to form, he could only hope it was deep enough.
"Shep'rd?" Rodney's head moved along with his mouth as he tried to look around.
Teyla's gun clicked, out of ammo.
They'd managed to put a little distance between them and the bad guys, but not enough. The villagers would be on them in seconds.
"Put me down!" Rodney ordered, indignant and suddenly shaking off the effects of the stunner with more speed than before.
"There's too many of them," Ronon panted, bending at the waist.
Their backs were literally against the wall. John looked down and then over his shoulder to see slivers of people coming closer through the trees. The villagers had slowed their approach. They knew Sheppard and his team were trapped. It'd be practically suicide to jump, but it was also suicide not too. Death by water or death by Wraith? One now, one later… But at least jumping gave them a chance.
"We've got to jump." He let Rodney slide to the ground, stared at him apprehensively. "McKay, you with us?"
"Oh, great," Rodney groaned. "I wake up just in time to die."
"We're not gonna die." Ronon glared defiantly at the water. "Try to hit with your legs stiff, don't bend."
Teyla nodded. John steadied Rodney, grabbed his arm, and looked at him. "You ready?"
"No!" A blue blast blowing by their heads caused Rodney to shake and shout, "Fine, fine, let's go!"
John took a deep breath, glanced a final time at his team and nodded. Then they turned and ran for it, taking a leap off the edge and feeling air underneath their feet. Butch and Sundance, except now it was times two. He saw, out of the periphery of his vision, Teyla and Ronon flailing madly, trying to keep their bodies upright as the air buffeted them on the way down. Thanks to gravity, free-fall was a fast experience. Not too much time to contemplate how bad it was gonna hurt when you hit.
The impact of his body with the water jarred his teeth so hard that John worried they'd been pushed up into his skull. He felt one of his legs shear back, heard the snap, and felt the "oh my fucking God" pain burn hot, bright, and fantastically strong, shooting through his entire nervous system with amazing speed and making him gasp.
The bad thing about gasping when you've hit water is that you tend to inhale water, and John was gulping bucket loads of icy mountain run-off, desperately trying to stay afloat even while he tried hard not to scream from the pain of having his leg pulled back and snapped like one of the dry twigs he'd stepped on earlier.
Oh, damn, damn, damn, DAMN, that hurt!
He coughed, spluttered, and felt his lungs burn along with his leg and saw the swirl of clouds blur into the blue of the sky. Water at his chin was suddenly over his head, and John couldn't see anything anymore.
He woke up screaming and retching and reaching for the source of unremitting agony down low on his body. Strong hands shoved his shoulders down and it pissed John off that he fell back without even a struggle. Weak. He felt boneless from the pain. He also felt leaves underneath him, and roots, and he was shaking and shivering and feeling like he was going to throw up. "What the --" he rasped.
"I'm trying to help you; quit fighting me, Sheppard."
Rodney leaned over John and fiddled with something near the hot spot, the location of his invocation, or epitaph, or … damn, he had no idea. He couldn't think straight and who the hell cared anyway. "You're killing me, McKay," he whined. Because seriously, he was. Sheppard was sure that the pain was that big and overpowering.
Not even being shot had hurt this bad.
"I gave you morphine, you shouldn't be feeling anything." But John could see Rodney pause and stare at him. "Seriously, what are you feeling?"
Agony. Fire. Freaking-cut-my-leg-off-and-throw-it-away-and-it'd-make-it-all-better pain. "There's no way you gave me morphine," he gritted through clenched teeth.
With a frown, Rodney started fishing around in the forest detritus until he came back with an empty ampoule. He read the label and his eyebrows went back, his eyes widened and he said, "Oh, no."
"Oh, no, what?" John's fingers clenched and his nails dug into the hard dirt.
"I gave you a stimulant." He gave a frustrated sigh and dropped the hand holding the wrong medicine against his thigh. "I'm sorry, it was just…you almost drowned, I almost drowned; they were next to each other in the small kit that survived our fall and I must've grabbed the wrong one…
Crap. No wonder John had woken up to his leg being splinted. Then again, he thought, as he pushed up with a shaky elbow, he hadn't even thought he'd wake up at all after he'd gone under. "What happened?" He was starting to gather enough of his senses together, and ironically, that was thanks to Rodney giving him the wrong medication. They were in a forest, he could still hear the river not far off, but Ronon and Teyla weren't anywhere to be seen. "How did…"
"How'd we survive?" Rodney guessed. He shook his head and wiped a tired hand across his forehead, glaring at the sunlight beating down on them through the branches. There were lines of pain around Rodney's mouth but John couldn't see anything as an obvious cause. "I think Ronon had a lot to do with it." He glanced back at John, wincing as he moved. "Truthfully, it's a little blurry."
"What happened to the villagers?" Rodney interrupted again.
"Would you quit doing that?"
"I'm sorry! You know I get like this when I'm nervous."
John had to breathe in a few times to avoid embarrassing himself by moaning pitifully. "I know, it's okay, just tell me while I can still think straight, what's going on?"
"We're about a kilometer or two downriver," he looked frustrated, "away from the caves and the 'gate, in case you're wondering. We're on the opposite shore from where we were. Ronon and Teyla hauled us into the woods, so we're somewhat safe, at least for the time being. They went to scout around and see if there's shelter, or a path back to the 'gate."
"Is there?" he asked, craning his neck so he could look around. Definitely in trees and the hard ground was doing nothing for the fiery pain that had shifted into a deep thrumming ache that set his teeth on edge and made him want to punch something, just so he could distract himself from it for one second.
Rodney shot an alarmed look at Sheppard before reaching for his 9 mm. "It's wet," he whispered, breathless. "Is it going to work?"
"Maybe," Sheppard replied warily. He tried to get up, but instead of making it anywhere, he had to bite back a groan.
"Oh, great." Rodney rolled his eyes heavenward and seemed to think about how many times everything had gone against their luck. He knew he was the only thing between John and whatever it was that was coming their way, so he squared his shoulders and pointed the gun toward the noise. The barrel only shook a little.
When Ronon and Teyla emerged, Ronon carrying the source of the noise, the big guy regarded the gun aimed at his chest and casually shook his head. "Just us, McKay." He didn't look worried at all that Rodney might have shot him. Instead, he hefted the branch, about mid-chest size in length and about six inches thick, and explained, "Thought you might need a crutch. It's not much, but --"
"It'll have to do," Sheppard surmised. Of course, that was if he could even get to his feet, let alone stay upright and hop-walk.
"That's good," Ronon said.
His tone caused John's head to cock to the side, exasperated. "What?" he demanded. "Just say it."
"They're shooting flaming arrows into the trees. Smoke us out, is my guess. They know the river will keep it from crossing to their side."
"This just keeps getting better and better." John felt sick from the pain, sick at the thought that the woods were about to go up in flames all around them, and sick that he was going to be the liability that got his team killed if they didn't leave him behind.
And now that Ronon mentioned it, he finally figured out what that smell was that'd been growing more persistent in the air, niggling at him in the only place in his head that wasn't still screaming from the pain in his leg; woodsmoke. "We've got to go," he said, because he'd drilled the "we don't leave people behind" too many times to expect them to leave him now.
It was something John had reluctantly accepted. You can't have it both ways. You can't fight to save every person, risk your life repeatedly, then when it was your life in the hotseat, expect those around you to disregard it. To leave you to save their own skin.
And it kinda sucked. Not that he wasn't proud of his team, or proud that he worked with people who felt mostly the same; no, he was and is. And it wasn't that he hadn't come to terms with it, because he had. After the events on Sateda, John had realized something. His team would either live together, or die together. Well, unless John was kidnapped and fed to a Wraith again, but what're the odds that'd happen? Frowning, he shoved the disturbing thought away.
"Don't put any weight on your leg," Rodney reminded him, gasping a little. "It's already a mess. Carson wouldn't appreciate you making it worse."
"I won't; trust me, Rodney, putting weight on my leg is the last thing on my mind." He waved his hand toward Ronon. "Help me up," he grunted.
Teyla pushed her weapon to the side and took an arm while Ronon took the other. That's when John noticed how little Rodney had moved. He started putting together pieces – the wincing, the breathlessness… John wasn't normally this slow, but the pain – no, scratch that – the gut-twisting agony from his leg had distracted him.
"What's wrong with yooouuu – son of a bitch!" It got twisted and cut-off by his sudden need to swear through the haze of red as Ronon and Teyla hefted him up off the ground. Crap! John tried to act like he was okay, even through the cold sweat that seemed to break out all over his face and the dizziness. He'd had a few broken bones before, but he'd been mostly lucky in that afterwards, all he'd had to worry about was lying there and waiting for someone to help him with a stretcher and morphine.
This time, he was having to stand, and think, and try very hard to not pass out. He almost begged for some drugs, but he knew it was a bad idea. He could barely function now, let alone sedated. He wasn't going to be the weak link…well, okay, he was already, but he wasn't going to willingly make it worse.
"Are you all right?" Teyla asked worriedly.
He waved her off. Not because he was okay, but because he didn't have the ability to answer. Then Rodney was standing, hunching, pushing an arm against his belly while staggering over to John. "I broke ribs, Sheppard." Rodney was a smart guy; he'd known what John had tried to ask before the pain had snatched the words away.
"How…bad?" John gasped, happy he could at least talk again.
Rodney looked at him impatiently. "How does your broken leg feel?"
"Don't be…such a…jerk."
Teyla thrust the branch-crutch at John. "We must go." She tilted her head towards the treetops. "The smoke is getting thicker and we'll need the cover of the trees for as long as possible while we work back towards the caves. They'll have people waiting along the other side of the river. When the fire gets too close or the smoke too thick and we must head to the riverbank, we'll be," her chin came down and her mouth curled, "how do you say it, John? Sitting ducks?"
John swallowed and nodded. He knew that. The smell was stronger. "Where'd they start the fire, upriver or down from where we're at?"
"Up," Ronon replied. "We'll have to try and cut west of the river, quickly, get ahead of it if we can. Least the wind's not blowing, that'll give us some time."
"That's too dangerous!" Rodney's face twisted in disbelief. "We can't walk faster than fire can move, especially not with gimp Sheppard."
The reminder of John's liability did nothing for his mood. "We don't have a choice, Rodney." He tried to jump forward, leaning heavily on the stick. He was pretty sure he didn't faint from the pain.
"If we go east, we'll be forced into the open by the river. It is too dangerous. We'll have to try to go around and hope that it does not spread faster than we can move."
Rodney remained stubbornly hunched over. "It'll spread faster."
"Then what should we do, McKay?" demanded Ronon. "Go east and get captured? Give up and be handed over to the Wraith?" He shook his head and snarled, "I'd rather burn to death."
"Carry me," John said.
They stared at him. He looked at the stick, then down at his leg, tied in the white bandages meant for slings and splints made in the field. "Look, Rodney's right. We're not gonna be able to outrun this. Not with me slowing you down. I know you won't leave me behind, so carry me." And his damn pride would just have to slink off and sulk in private.
Ronon glared. "You hate me carrying you."
"I hate dying more," John pointed out reasonably. Then he glanced to Rodney, who was contemplating the possibilities. "With your ribs, you think you can move fast enough to give us a shot?"
He bobbed his head, conceding the possibility. "Maybe. But I'll need painkillers. Lots of them. Because seriously, I'm in a lot of pain here."
John rolled his eyes and nodded at Teyla. She knelt by the opened pack that was mostly ruined after their trip through the river, and drew a packet of pills, tossing them to Rodney. He quickly dry swallowed, then inhaled deeply, rolling his shoulders. He winced again and said, "Okay, let's do this. Before I change my mind about how crazy this is."
Ronon looked warily at John. "You ready?"
No. But, "Just do it."
"It's gonna hurt."
"It can't hurt more than it already does."
Ronon nodded, then got his hands under John's shoulders, waiting for John to wrap his arms around Ronon's neck. This was so damn embarrassing. Dying is worse, dying is worse, John chanted in his head. Then Ronon swept a hand down lower, bringing up John's bottom half, cradling him like he was a stupid kid; the pain made him turn his face against Ronon's leather shirt and muffle an unmanly scream against the runner's chest and then everything went mercifully gray.
AN: this story has four parts, to coincide with the four stages of forest fires. I've got the first three written, still doing edits, and I'm finishing the wrap up (part four). So this should be complete within a couple of days and I'll try to get part 2 and 3 up tomorrow if I can, if not 4 but I've got yard work day tomorrow and washing cars so not sure I'll make it that fast!