"I am sure there is no citrus in it, Dr. McKay," Teyla soothed for the third time. "No such fruit grows on this world. The food is safe to eat."
John could see the glint of amusement in her eyes as she glanced at him while Rodney sniffed at the meat one more time and took a tentative bite. Ronon had already demolished his meal and was finishing the portion that the Athosian had left. Sheppard swallowed another mouthful of the most incredible dish he'd had in a while and let his gaze wander around the eating establishment.
His team had been on M2B-521, or Brinamal, for three days now, finishing up a trade agreement, and whatever food they grew here was definitely worth taking back to Atlantis. John hoped someone on the culinary staff could do it justice. In return for food, the Lantians would provide various medicines, training for their doctors, and technical assistance for the farm equipment. It was considered a good trade on both sides.
His eye was drawn to a woman on the far side of the room. Tall, athletic build with long dark hair securely fastened at the nape of her neck, it was the hardness of her face that was most striking. Her stare was hate-filled and cold. He didn't recall ever seeing her before today and wondered if they had crossed paths in the past. He had a few enemies in the Pegasus Galaxy, even discounting the Wraith, but nothing about her seemed familiar. As soon as she noticed his gaze, her faced morphed into a pleasant, welcoming smile and she nodded at him. He smiled back at her, holding her eye for another minute and then returned his attention to his teammates.
Rodney was expounding on the benefits of cat ownership while he wolfed down his dinner. Ronon's expression had glazed over, and Teyla had excused herself to speak with some friends. Dex caught Sheppard's eye, silently begging for mercy. They did a surreptitious rock-paper-scissors which John won. He smirked at the Satedan and pushed back from the table.
"It's been a long day, and I'm beat. Be quiet when you guys come up."
Their rooms were on the floor above the eating establishment. Teyla had been the big winner in the last poker game and had elected to have her own room on the next mission in lieu of all her teammates' worldly possessions, leaving the three men to share a room this trip. Sleep was a precious commodity that John wasn't getting much of due to the snore volume so he was going to take advantage of a few minutes of quiet while he could.
Sheppard reached the staircase and began trudging upward. After a few steps, a wave of dizziness swept over him. He leaned against the wall and tried to reestablish his equilibrium. He blinked a few times and wavered as his head spun and nausea rose. He felt an arm around his waist and recognized the waitress from the restaurant.
"Take a deep breath. I'll help you," she said as she steadied him. "Ready?"
He nodded carefully and took a step up with her assistance. His mind was foggy; he knew he should do something else, call someone, but he just couldn't make sense of anything. They struggled up the rest of the stairs, and he collapsed on his bed when they reached his room. His arms and legs were like dead weights; he couldn't move them even if he wanted.
She rolled him on his back, and he tried to thank her but found his voice didn't work any better than his extremities. He would have to remember to express his appreciation in the morning. The mental haze began slowly dissipating, and he wondered what was causing his sluggishness when she pulled his radio from his ear and began rifling through his vest pockets.
He couldn't believe it; he was getting mugged. McKay and Ronon, and the entire military contingent, would never let him live this down. Then he noticed she wasn't actually taking anything out of his pockets. When she pulled him upright and began removing his tac vest, he started getting worried. Once she had slipped it off, she let go, and he fell back on the bed. He pleaded with his arms to move, but they had already taken the night off.
His heart leapt in his throat when her hands moved to his belt and down his thigh. For a split second, he was back in college, flirting with a girl at a frat party. He wouldn't have hurt her in any way, but he had come on a bit too strong. Fear had radiated from her for a moment, and he had backed off immediately. He hadn't forgotten that look in her eyes, but only now did he actually understand it. He had never felt so vulnerable in his life.
Realizing she was unbuckling his thigh holster didn't make him feel any better since he was now unarmed as well as paralyzed. Could this get any worse?
He heard a sound at the door and decided the answer to that question was a resounding yes. He sincerely hoped it was one of his teammates returning. He would gladly suffer the teasing if he knew they were safe and coming to his rescue. The door cracked open, and the woman he had noticed earlier downstairs entered. She walked over to the bed and smiled at him again, maliciously this time.
"Colonel Sheppard. It's so nice to finally meet you."
He caught a flash of movement just before the needle punctured his neck. His eyes slid shut, and the darkness claimed him.
The pain in his shoulders and the cotton in his mouth rivaled for his attention as he awoke. He remained perfectly still, doing a quick mental assessment of his situation. He could feel the manacles on his wrists and the cold stone against his back and bare feet while his chin rested on his chest. He stretched out with every sense but could not detect a presence near him. His head pounded and his stomach rolled from the aftereffects of the drugs. He didn't need Rodney to tell him how screwed he was.
His team! His eyes flew open, and his head lifted as he searched the room. There was nothing to see other than the stone walls and a monstrously large door, not even a window, and certainly no team. He tugged on the cuffs, but they were securely embedded in the wall. He scanned the room again. Assuming he managed to get free, he had nothing to use as a weapon, not a stick or a bucket or even a blanket. At least he was still wearing his black t-shirt and BDUs.
The cell door opened, and the woman entered. "Finally awake, I see, Colonel."
"Have we met before?"
"Not before today, no, but I know all about you. My name is Shaliran Kolya."
John felt the blood drain from his face. "Kolya?"
The malicious smile returned. "Yes. Acastus was my brother."
Sheppard took a deep breath and attempted to keep his voice steady. "Look, I don't know what you think happened, but your brother came after me."
She stepped forward into his personal space. "I know exactly what happened. He attempted to take Atlantis and failed, losing his stature amongst our people. He tried three times to correct that mistake, and you killed him the third time. Did I forget anything?"
"Only the part where he fed me to a Wraith," John growled, trembling with rage. "He hated me, and I hated him. But he is the one that sought me. I tried to give him a way out, and he wouldn't take it. He left me no choice."
"You offered to let him surrender! He would never lower himself to do that."
"What do you want from me? Vengeance? Just kill me and get it over with!"
Her feral grin grew before she backed away. "You think it will be that simple?"
He shrugged as much as the manacles would allow. "Worth a shot. So, what did you have in mind? And where is my team?"
"Your team? Let's see." She twirled her hair around a finger as she paced slowly in front of him. "I had the big one killed immediately; he was too dangerous. The woman I gave to my men to amuse themselves with. I've sent Dr. McKay to my base of operations. Acastus and Cowen were always so impressed with his intellect that I think I'll keep him, as long as he makes himself useful."
"Think so?" She reached in a pocket and pulled out something that resembled rope and held it up for him to see. He closed his eyes as he recognized one of Ronon's dreadlocks. Rage and grief flooded through him, and he bit back a scream, forcing his emotions into that deep, dark part of himself that he rarely released.
"I'll kill you for this," he swore.
She leaned forward until her nose touched his. "I doubt that."
"What are you planning to do with me? If you think I'm going to give up Atlantis, you're crazier than your brother."
She laughed lightly. "Oh, the good Dr. McKay has already done that. Of course, he tried valiantly to hold back, but I'm very persuasive."
Shaliran stroked the side of his face in a gesture eerily similar to every Wraith queen he'd met. John shivered at the touch and wondered briefly if that was there was a special school that all the evil females in the Pegasus Galaxy attended. Then he felt it – the sharp slice of a knife piercing his ribs. He gasped as pain exploded along his right side. She stared into his eyes as she twisted the curved blade and jerked it free, cleaning it on his shirt.
"These are my hunting grounds, Colonel. You will be released into the woods surrounding this facility. Between the elements, the wild animals, and my men, let's see how long you last."
She sauntered to the door and called a guard. "Unchain him and take him to the designated spot."
The last thing John saw was the flash of the stunner.
When he awoke this time, he was lying in a small clearing, his entire body quivering with the hated pins-and-needles effect of the stunner. He lay quietly, trying to keep his mind blank as he waited for the tingling to fade. When he tried to sit up, pain roared in his right side. His hand slid up to press against the wound and came away sticky with blood. He rolled on his left side and then to his hands and knees. Pushing himself up gingerly, he staggered to his feet and headed to the tree line, glancing back once at the pool of blood that had gathered underneath him.
John slumped against a tree and assessed his situation. He was barefoot, weaponless, injured, and on enemy territory. The knife wound was deep and serious. He knew he would die slowly from internal bleeding unless human or animal caught him first. He considered hiding somewhere and waiting for death but discarded that idea immediately. Teyla and Rodney were still alive, and he would fight to his last breath for a chance to rescue them. His time was limited so he needed to get moving.
Sheppard pushed away from the tree and headed into the woods. He needed to find something to use as a bandage because not only would the blood trail lead Lady Kolya's men to him, it would attract the animals as well. But first he needed water. He concentrated on listening to the sounds of the forest like Ronon had taught him and felt the grief well up at the thought of his friend. He grasped a nearby tree and leaned his forehead against it as he fought for control. Shoving the emotions away, he stood quietly and was rewarded with the sound of running water in the distance. He hobbled toward it, choosing his steps carefully to preserve his feet as much as possible.
Finally reaching a small stream, he knelt on the bank, taking a few sips then drinking deeply, the cold water quenching the thirst that had been plaguing him. He removed his shirt and washed off as much blood as he could. He found some long narrow leaves that he tied together and wrapped around his waist, securing his shirt over the wound to staunch the blood flow. He found a couple of thick sticks that resembled bantos rods, not thinking about Teyla, but nothing he could use for footwear or to carry water.
He searched for a place to hide, one that would give him a view of the surrounding area. His main objective was to capture one of the men coming for him. Sheppard needed weapons and shoes. A shirt or jacket would be good too, not to mention something to eat. He needed to stay near the water especially since he knew the men would look for him there first. He would force some unlucky soul to help him.
John found a small outcropping of rocks on a hill overlooking the stream. He made his way to the top, carefully covering his tracks, and found a concealed spot with a clear view. He tried to work out the kinks in his shoulders and arms, stretching occasionally to keep the area around his wound from stiffening too much. Using a flat rock to sharpen one end of the sticks, he began planning his attack.
Sheppard was realistic enough to know he was in no shape to attack Kolya's base of operations alone. He had no GDO to gain access to Atlantis and no idea of the gate address of this planet which was definitely not Brinamal. He would convince the soldier he captured to lead him to the stargate and drag the man with him to the Alpha site. John had to stay alive long enough to explain what had happened and order Major Reardon and his men to find the remaining members of his team.
His patience paid off as two men came into view carrying standard Genii guns. These men were obviously not well trained as they talked, skipped rocks on the water, and kicked at sticks. Even McKay, hang on Rodney, had more stealth than Abbott and Costello there.
They walked past his spot, never looking up. Sheppard crept down the small hill and slammed a rock against Costello's head, causing him to slump bonelessly to the ground. Abbott turned at the sound, looking shocked as John swiped the gun from his hand with one stick and struck him across the face with another. He staggered backward as the pilot continued to pound him with the sticks. When he fell, Sheppard jabbed the sharpened end to his throat.
"Let's get one thing clear. The only reason you're still alive is that I need you to get me to the stargate. If you can't, I'll be happy to kill you now and let your body rot right here."
John hated to kill, doing it only if necessary, but he could do it and do it well. He had the distinct feeling that this man wasn't going to help him, and the pilot couldn't afford to leave him running around the forest. He mentally opened the floodgates of the cold, dark place in his heart where he hid all the bad stuff from his life and felt the rage and grief surge through him.
Abbott's jaw tightened, and he glared at John. "You'd better kill me then because I'll never help you."
"Done." Releasing control to the rage, Sheppard pulled back the stick and thrust it with all his might through the Genii's throat. The man's eyes widened in shock and then flattened in death. John quickly ran through his pockets, finding a radio and a knife. The boots were a size too big but better than nothing. He shrugged into the coat and turned back to the other man. Costello hadn't moved. Sheppard tied his hands behind his back with the same stringy leaves and then checked his pockets, discarding the radio, but keeping the knife and gun. He also found the Genii version of a power bar and ate it slowly as he waited for the man to awaken.
He hoped it wouldn't take too long and that Costello would decide to help. Eventually, the little man's eyes opened, and he blinked at the pilot in confusion before reality caught up with him. He sat up too quickly and immediately slumped back to the ground, moaning. Sheppard approached cautiously and knelt beside him.
"I'm going to offer you the same deal I offered your friend. As you can see, he decided to decline. You can either take me to the stargate, or I'll kill you right now."
Costello eased up slowly and glanced at the other Genii. He looked fearfully back to Sheppard. "If I help you, she'll kill me."
"You're going through the gate with me. After that, you can go anywhere you want. Refuse and die now, or help and live another day. Which is it?"
"I'll help you."
"Good choice. Let's go."
The Genii climbed to his feet and staggered away with Sheppard following closely, gun aimed at the back of the man's head. It took all the concentration the colonel had to put one foot in front of the other, blinking at the dots that danced in his vision. The third time they passed the same crooked tree, John rammed the barrel into base of Costello's skull.
"If you think I haven't noticed you're leading me in circles, think again. This is your last chance, Lou. If you jerk me around one more time, you'll be dead before you hit the ground. Understood?"
"Yes," he answered shakily.
They stumbled along for another hour, but at least they weren't going in circles anymore. John fervently hoped they were actually headed toward the stargate and that they would be there soon. He didn't have much time left.
Through a break in the trees, Sheppard caught a glimpse of two more Genii soldiers just before they all entered a small clearing. Costello made a run for it but didn't get far before the bullet from John's gun hit just behind his left ear. The surprise and gore froze the other two men, Laurel and Hardy, long enough for the pilot to fire in their direction before darting into the woods. Laurel dropped like a rock, but Hardy only staggered back a couple of steps before giving chase.
John's breath came in ragged gasps as he tried to stay on his feet. He was light-headed and bleeding profusely from the knife wound. With Abbott's radio, he could hear Hardy's call for backup and then wood exploded near his head as the Genii began shooting at him. Sheppard ran harder than he ever had, dodging bullets and tree limbs. But luck doesn't last forever, and the impact of the gunshot to his left shoulder knocked him to the ground. He rolled as best he could, bringing up his own weapon and firing at the soldier. His aim was true, center mass, and the big man collapsed to the ground.
Atlantis' military commander struggled to rise but finally gave up, his body simply refusing to obey. He stared at the sky, imagining himself flying one last time. The coldness of death continued to seep into him, and he closed his eyes, trying to accept the inevitable. Gunfire echoed in the distance, accompanied by the sound of Ronon's blaster. God, Ronon would be pissed if he knew someone was using his gun.
He couldn't believe it was going to end this way. He'd failed. He hadn't rescued Teyla or Rodney, and he hadn't avenged Ronon. His family was dead because he wasn't strong enough to save them. He thought he could hear Teyla screaming his name, and he squeezed his eyes shut as sorrow and shame rose with such force it trickled down the sides of his face.
"Oh, God, Teyla, I'm so sorry," he whispered to the trees. "I really wanted to save you, but I just can't this time. You have to be strong. Do whatever it takes to survive. You can do it. You're one of the strongest people I've ever met. McKay needs you."
John gasped for breath as the pressure in his chest increased. "Sorry I can't help you, Rodney. Just hold on. Don't say or do anything stupid. Stay alive so Teyla can find you."
The wind caressed his face and carried panicked McKay tones on it. Sheppard grinned at the sounds, run, Rodney, escape while you can, recognizing how much he was going to miss his team and wondering why he'd never told them.
The sound of boots pounding toward him reached his ears, but he knew Shaliran's men were too late. At least Lady Kolya's face wasn't the last thing he would ever see. He conjured up a mental image of his team as they'd been at dinner and held it for a moment before surrendering to the blackness.
Pain rippling along his side woke him. He could feel hands on him, and adrenaline shot through his veins.
"I'm just checking your wounds, Colonel. Please hold still," a vaguely familiar feminine voice requested.
It wasn't the comforting Scottish brogue he had been hoping for. When long hair brushed his arm, he panicked. He would kill Shaliran Kolya if it was the last thing he ever did. He felt wires and tubes rip as he sat up, wrapping his hands around her throat.
"Sheppard! What the hell are you doing?" McKay demanded as he peeled the pilot's hands from Keller's neck. "She's just trying to help, you idiot!"
"She had Ronon killed and gave Teyla… and hurt you… and… and…."
Rodney held on to his team leader's wrists. "Calm down and look at me. Look at me, Sheppard."
John stopped flailing and stared wild-eyed at McKay.
"You're safe. We found you and brought you back to Atlantis. You're in the infirmary."
"Then where is Beckett?"
Rodney blanched and released Sheppard's arms as if he'd been burned. John could see pain and guilt flare in the scientist's eyes before they skidded away to focus on a far wall. "He, um, Carson died, Colonel. Don't you remember?"
John felt like he'd been punched as the memory surfaced. The adrenaline vanished, leaving him limp. He slumped down in the bed and then startled as his peripheral vision caught movement. Dr. Keller was leaning against the bed next to his, wide-eyed and rubbing her throat where his fingerprints stilled blazed a bright red.
"Oh, God, Doc, I'm so sorry. I thought… I didn't realize…."
She managed a weak smile and stepped back to his bed, all business. "It's OK, Colonel Sheppard. I should know by now to be cautious around soldiers when they awaken. Now, let's get you fixed up."
Keller straightened and reattached the leads and IVs John had ripped away while Rodney keyed his radio and spoke a few quiet words. The doctor finished and checked his vitals, notating his chart as she went.
"You gave us quite a scare, Colonel. The gunshot wound was a through-and-through that miraculously missed anything vital, but the knife wound was a different story. The blade made a mess of your liver. It took a bit of surgery to get the bleeding stopped. Your team reached you just in time."
Sheppard's eyes drifted back to Rodney. "Team?"
"Yeah, remember us?"
"I don't understand, McKay. How did you get away from her?"
"Away from whom?" Ronon's voice boomed as he and Teyla entered.
John gaped at them in amazement, looking from one to the next and finally settling on the Satedan.
"But, I thought…. She said…. Damn. She tricked me." Sheppard could feel himself getting choked up and swallowed the lump in his throat.
"You keep saying 'she.' Whom do you mean, John?" Teyla asked gently.
"Kolya's sister, Shaliran."
"Kolya has a sister?" McKay sounded incredulous. "You've got to be kidding." Rodney sat down heavily and scrubbed his hands over his face.
"So she didn't capture any of you?"
"No, John. She did not capture us."
"Then what happened?"
The three exchanged glances. The Athosian nodded at Rodney who stood and began to pace.
"Shortly after you left the table, Ronon slid sideways out of his chair, and Teyla began wavering a bit. Her friends grabbed her before she fell. One of them whispered to me that someone was hunting us. I called you on your radio, but you didn't answer. Teyla's friends helped me fight our way out and get them to safety. By the time I got back, you were gone." McKay's gaze dropped to the floor. "I'm sorry, Sheppard. I didn't intend to leave you behind."
John saw guilt flicker across their faces. He focused on Rodney. "You did exactly what I would have told you to do, McKay. There's nothing to feel sorry about." He turned to Ronon. "And before you start apologizing, there's nothing you could have done." He stared at Dex until the man nodded, knowing they would need to have a private conversation before the Satedan's guilt was assuaged.
"How did you lose one of your braids, Big Guy?"
"McKay said someone came at us with a knife during the fight at the eating establishment. How did you know?"
"She showed it to me as proof she'd killed you."
He heard Teyla's quick intake of breath as she took his hand in hers. "Oh, John. You thought she'd killed us?"
Sheppard could feel his throat tightening again but decided not to hide it this time. "No, not all of you. She said she'd killed Ronon. She said that you… that she had…. That you and Rodney…." He just couldn't force the words out, and, banishing the mental images, he settled for staring at her, whole and healthy. "I tried to save you, but I couldn't. I'm sorry, Teyla." His voice shook as he squeezed her hand.
Tears glistened in her eyes as she said, "As you stated, there is nothing to feel sorry about. We are all alive and safe."
He nodded at her words and stalled for time by sipping from the water glass by his bed. He was exhausted and could feel sleep nipping at his heels, but there was one more thing he needed to know.
"How did you find me?"
Rodney grinned. "Once I got Teyla and Ronon to Atlantis, I went with Lorne's team back to that stupid planet. The only explanation for what happened to us was the food. Due to my preference of not dying from anaphylactic shock, I hadn't eaten much of my dinner, but I could feel the effect of the little bit of the drug I had ingested. Which reminds me, I am never eating another meal off-world. We'll just have to keep a big stock of MREs in the jumper and our packs, and I don't care if it offends the locals. I am not-"
"What? Oh, right, um, where was I?"
"With Lorne's team."
"Ah, yes. Anyway, we went back to that hole in the wall, and I found our waitress. She took one look at us, well, Lorne's team anyway, and confessed everything. She even had the gate address of her contact, who I now assume to be Satan's sister. We came back to Atlantis to get some back-up and send a MALP. Ronon and Teyla insisted on coming so we all piled in the jumper and rescued you."
Rodney looked smug. John stared at him for another minute and then turned to Ronon. "Are you telling me that McKay saved all our lives?"
"Humiliating, isn't it?" Ronon huffed.
"And I thought his head was big before. I'm not sure it'll fit in the jumper now."
Teyla giggled. "We can strap him to the roof."
"Oh, you're hilarious. Really. The next time you get drugged and kidnapped, I'm going to leave your sorry asses there."
Sheppard snickered and then groaned. "Oh, ow, don't make me laugh."
"We should let you sleep, John," the Athosian said. "We will see you tomorrow."
"Um, before you go, I, uh, I want to say something. When I was lying in that forest, I really thought that I was, well, that I…. Um, what I'm trying to say is that I've never taken the time to- God, I suck at this." He stared at his hands as he plucked at the blanket spread across his legs. Taking a deep breath, he blurted, "You guys are all the family I've got, and I would really miss you if you weren't around."
Teyla patted his leg. "We feel the same way about you, John."
"Um, yeah, what she said." Rodney stammered as Ronon nodded in agreement.
An awkward silence followed until Teyla smiled at him again. "It is time for you to rest now. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, guys." John shifted a bit until he was comfortable and felt his eyelids drooping.
His team headed out, but McKay hesitated at the door and turned back. "Did you give up back there in that forest?"
"What are you talking about?" Sheppard forced his eyes back open.
"You weren't breathing when I found you. We barely got you back. Did you give up? Did you think we were either dead or out of reach and give up?"
John ran through all the things he could say and chose the truth. "No, Rodney, I didn't give up, at least not until the very end. I thought you and Teyla were in danger, and I would never give up while I thought there was a chance of reaching you. My body just gave out."
"And then I thought the Genii were coming for me, and I-"
"Yeah, McKay. I guess I gave up."
Rodney stared at him for a long minute. "We don't leave our people behind, Colonel. Remember that next time. We'll always come for you. Besides, I'd hate to break in a new military guy. It's taken me three years to finally get you trained properly. God only knows what the SGC would send to replace you. Caldwell, knowing my luck. Anyway, no giving up next time."
"Let's try not to have a next time."
"Done. Goodnight, Sheppard."
John closed his eyes as the infirmary doors swooshed shut behind the departing scientist. Gratitude for his life and the lives of his family soaked into his soul, and he allowed it to wash away a little of the darkness he kept stored there. He drifted off to sleep secure in the knowledge that, even though Shaliran Kolya was still out there, his team was safe. That was enough for now.
Written as a PIF Meme for karrikln1671 who wanted Sheppard ficlet that was "angsty, whumpy and yummy delicious". Let me know how I did.