by Eildon Rhymer
Four went out, and three came back. Sheppard has vanished, and the rest of his team lies injured. By the time they recover, the trail has gone cold. As Sheppard and his team fight their own separate battles for hope and survival, the true danger may be different from what any of them expect.
Spoilers: This is set shortly after the early fourth season episode Reunion,and has spoilers up until then, but not beyond.
Update schedule: I've finished my initial writing of this story, but most of it is in great need of editing. Because of the need to edit it, updates will not be daily, but will still be fairly frequent. We're looking at around twelve chapters here.
Content: There is a lot of angst and emotional whump in this story. Don't come here looking for laughs. It's rated T for some violent imagery and general psychological darkness, though there's nothing graphic. It's gen.As I said in the notes to my last story, we're back in those autumn woods in the rain… Not for long, though.
Chapter one: The killing ground
"Something's wrong." Sheppard held up his hand. His eyes flickered sideways, catching Ronon's answering nod, and Teyla's sudden watchfulness. "It's–"
"…and the ridiculous weather," McKay said, continuing some rant that had become to Sheppard like the background noise of the rain on leaves. "Couldn't we just have poked our heads through the Gate, seen the weather, and gone back until… Oh, I don't know. Until it was dry, perhaps? I am very susceptible to colds. I get them much worse than–"
Sheppard flicked his hand in a sharp movement sideways. McKay subsided. Once, not too long ago, he would not have noticed the signal, and would have ignored it even if he had seen it. "What is it?" he hissed.
Sheppard shook his head. I don't know. The leaves shivered with the touch of rain, and the falling water created a constancy of movement. It was a good cloak for an enemy's approach, and there was just so much cover.
"These are killing grounds." Ronon had his blaster out and ready.
Yes.Sheppard swallowed. The ground was covered with a layer of brown leaves, thick enough to hide any manner of traps. The ruined buildings, their stonework almost black in the rain, stood in a way that suddenly shouted deliberate to him. There were solitary walls, jagged at the edges, showing a square of grey sky through the shattered window. Sometimes two walls came together, their apex marked with a pile of rubble from the fallen roof. If this had once been a settlement, the houses had been arranged with no street pattern or order.
It was like a training ground, he realised – a place to practice killing.
"What?" McKay was asking. "What is it?"
McKay looked smaller than normal, drawn in on himself with fear, with his hair slicked close to his skull. Ronon, in contrast, always seemed to grow when danger threatened, standing tall and ready to fight. "A trap," Teyla told McKay, "or so the colonel fears." Her voice was soft, but her hands on her gun were anything but.
"Oh. Oh. We're being hunted?" McKay's eyes darted from side to side, surveying the ruins and the wood. Sheppard did the same, assessing it for defensive possibilities. There was plenty of cover, but the enemy would know its traps, while they did not.
"Perhaps not." Sheppard gestured with his hand again, and Ronon and Teyla moved into position. There was no need for words any more, not with them. "Best be careful, though." He managed a quick smile.
They moved slowly, avoiding the deeper leaves, and avoiding, too, those gaping windows, which would leave them framed for any watching enemy to pick off. The rain was cold on the back of Sheppard's neck, but he felt warm, the blood racing through his veins, ready for danger. "So much for getting to know the new neighbours, huh?" It was just words, just a smile, and did not affect the taut readiness that lay beneath it.
"I hate this place already," McKay grumbled.
"The rain, yes, I know." Was that a human shape pressed against that tree trunk? "Let's hope you don't have to add…" No, it was just a half-buried pile of stones. "…getting shot at and hunted by a bunch of crazy natives."
"Stupid planet, anyway. What sort of people can build a… a barn right around the Stargate, so you can't get a jumper through because of a wall right there?" From the corner of his eye, Sheppard saw McKay bring his hand to his face, his palm inches from his nose.
"Someone who wants to force their enemies to come through on foot," Ronon said, "then hunt them in the killing grounds."
"Yes. Uh. Well. Yes. There's that, and coupled with the rain… Shall we go back? Come back when it's dry, with a nice contingent of Atlantis' finest? And not me, I should add, just in case I didn't make it clear."
"Zelenka seems to be getting a taste for heroics," Sheppard observed casually. "I'm sure he'd agree to come back us instead of you."
"You wouldn't." A tall wall briefly sheltered them from the rain. The respite was almost unsettling. "Would you?"
Sheppard said nothing. All the while he had been talking, his eyes had never stopped scanning their surroundings. Ronon and Teyla, he knew, were doing the same. He had seen no proof of his misgivings, but the feeling of wrongness remained. "Anyone?" he asked.
"Oh." McKay was slow to answer. "That means me." Sheppard heard the sounds, almost drowned by the rain, of McKay pulling a life signs detector from his pocket. "Still no-one. No-one close, anyway. Just us."
Sheppard tried to tell himself it was just his imagination, but the sense of unease continued. He had done exercises in places just like this. He paused, studying the wall nearest to him. It was crumbling, pitted as if with shotgun pellets. A sheered-off stone revealed the paler rock beneath. It did not look like the natural damage that came from weather and age.
"Can we get out of the rain, at least?" McKay asked. Sheppard caught a vague impression of movement – a hand thrust out pointing, life signs detector still clutched tightly. Ahead, and to the left, three walls of a building still stood, topped with an almost-complete roof. "Take some readings. Plot and plan," McKay said, as he made towards it.
"Too tempting," Ronon said.
Sheppard lashed out with one hand, spinning round to grab McKay by the arm. "What was that for?" McKay protested.
"It's like Ronon said." Sheppard remembered a time when Ronon's sparse statements had sometimes been incomprehensible. Now he understood him perfectly. But still Ronon had wanted to leave.
"What?" Hair was plastered to McKay's brow. "Are the two of you playing some stupid war game?" He brandished the life signs detector. "There's no-one here."
Ronon strode for a few steps away from the building, and snatched up a fallen branch, as thick as his wrist. Glowering with concentration, he walked past McKay, half way into the roofed building, and jabbed the stick into the thickest pile of leaves. There was a metallic snap. He tried to pull it up again, but couldn't. As he pulled at it, the leaves were shaken away, revealing the teeth of a trap, sunk deep into splintered wood.
"Oh." McKay looked pale, his skin white against his rain-darkened hair. "Oh. Oh no. We should go."
"My people use traps like this to snare animals," Teyla said, "but I have heard of those who use them on people, too."
Sheppard pressed his lips together, tasting rain. Every instinct was urging caution. He had no desire to risk his team or himself unnecessarily. Death was an ever-present danger in the job that he did, but he would not risk his life without cause. It was better to be mocked afterwards for over-caution than to press on into disaster. He met Ronon's eyes; saw the same conclusion there.
"Okay," he said. "We'll–"
He never finished it. Something smashed into the wall beside him, sending shards of stone into his face. Dust blinded him, and a sharp pain sliced at the side of his neck. He blinked, struggling to see, struggling to bring his weapon up to return the fire. Then, before he could see again, McKay cried out, and he heard the sound of him falling, crumpling into the dead leaves.
"Cover us." Sheppard fell to his knees. Blinking fiercely, he scraped his hand across his face, thumb digging into his eyes. His vision was blurry, but it was enough to see McKay on the ground, see the way his hands were pressed to his thigh, see the thin trickle of blood seeping through his fingers. It was enough to see the solid shape that was Ronon, scanning the woods around them, ready to return fire. It was enough to see McKay's eyes, large with pain, and his lips that were pressed together, stifling sound. When McKay was silent, it meant that things were bad.
"Rodney," Sheppard hissed. "Rodney." That got the eyes looking at him. Sheppard rummaged one handed in his pocket and pulled out a field bandage. "I'm going to wrap that, okay?" There wasn't much else he could do until they got back to Atlantis. "Move your hands." He tried to convey confidence with his expression, but there was another impact against the stone wall, and Ronon returned the fire, once, then twice, and grunted.
Sheppard bound the wound. "Not too tight," McKay complained. "Are you trying to kill me?" And that, at least, was better. That, at least, was normal.
"Don't tempt me," he said, forcing a smile. He glanced up, seeing Ronon and Teyla, both watchful and ready. From the way their heads were constantly moving, they had not yet located their attacker. Ronon had a bloody gash across his upper arm, but seemed unaware of it.
He came to a decision. "I'm going to move you."
"Move me?" McKay's expression flickered between fear and hope. "Into the dry? If I'm going to bleed to death, I'd rather…"
The rain was already washing the blood away from Sheppard's fingers. He shook his head. The roofed building still looked too much like a trap, and he had no desire to get cornered. No, if they moved to the far side of the building, at least a wall would be between them and their assailant. Assuming there was only one of them. Assuming they weren't surrounded.
"Don't just lie there, but make yourself useful," he said, because McKay's sudden defensiveness was better than the lost look of fear and pain. "Tell us where they are."
"Oh." McKay groped for the life signs detector, almost buried in the leaves, and picked it up with bloodied hands. "There's no-one… No… Ow!" He glared up accusingly when Sheppard crawled to his head, and grabbed his shoulders.
"Teyla," Sheppard hissed. Teyla joined him, her eyes grave. "Concentrate on the life signs," Sheppard told McKay, and the man did, frowning at the screen as, between them, Sheppard and Teyla dragged him through the piled leaves in the lea of the dark wall. A moment later, Ronon joined them, his attention still turned outwards.
"There's no-one there." McKay's face was pale, and the dead leaves surrounded him so thickly that Sheppard had an unpleasant image of a body in the ground. "Look." He thrust the life signs detector towards Sheppard, showing their own four dots, grouped so closely that they were as one.
"Sono-one shot you, then, McKay?" Sheppard retorted.
"I don't know, okay?" McKay snapped. "I could be dying here."
Sheppard wanted to exchange a glance with Ronon, but the other man was still looking away. Instead, he concentrated on McKay. "Can you walk?"
"Can I walk? I've been shot in the thigh, for God's sake."
Teyla was on guard at McKay's right side, serene and deadly. Unseen by McKay, she gave Sheppard a quick nod. "And we're out in the killing grounds, to use Ronon's encouraging phrase, with some invisible gunman trying to kill us. Do you really want to lie here all day? Because I don't. I think it's time we got out of here. I'm aborting the mission. We're going back to Atlantis."
"Oh." McKay's lips moved with the start of a complaint, but then he set his jaw, and sat up. It clearly hurt him, but he said nothing. Good for you, Sheppard thought, but he didn't speak it, only watched, ready to help. He had long since come to realise that there was steely courage beneath McKay's cowardly façade, but he never ceased to admire it. Some things were not said out loud, though. However he said it, McKay would hear sarcasm.
When McKay was sitting, Teyla offered him her arm, and between the two of them, they managed to raise McKay to his feet. McKay's skin was the colour of paper, and he was biting his lip tightly, stifling the words that made him what he was. Sheppard let him stand there for a moment, his arms around their shoulders, his wounded leg raised from the ground. Then it was time. "I'm going to let go," Sheppard told him quietly. He slipped out from under McKay's arm.
"What?" McKay protested. "Why–?"
Sheppard saw Ronon half turn towards him, then turn away again. It was to Ronon that he spoke, more than to the others. "I want you to take Rodney to the Gate."
Ronon's muscles tensed and went still. McKay had the words for all of them. "What? What are you going to do? Where are you going?"
"We don't know who's out there." Sheppard took his P90 in both hands, readying it. "You'll be moving slowly, unable to evade. I… won't. I'll just lead them off a bit – fire a few shots, make some noise. You need to keep as hidden as possible." He smiled. "Don't worry – I won't do anything stupid. I'll be right behind you." He nodded at each of them. "See you at the Gate."
There was no time for farewells. Farewells suggested an ending. He darted away, showing himself briefly in the gap between buildings, and took refuge behind another wall. He could still see them – McKay and Teyla looking his way, small in the rain, and Ronon already focused on their goal. Then he turned away from them, and moved on. He did not look back.
"And we went along with this plan, why?" McKay grumbled. "We let him go off and do his crazy self-sacrificing thing without…" He gasped, groaning with pain. "Of course, I couldn't be expected to say anything, being wounded and all that, but you–"
"Quiet," Ronon hissed. The trees around them were still, with the falling rain the only movement. Rain blurred his senses, and he hated it. He kept them in the shelter of the buildings as much as he could. Shelter was good, but it was also like a blindfold, preventing him from seeing the true threat.
Behind them, there was the sound of gunfire – the rapid bursts of Sheppard's weapon. McKay's head snapped round. "Is that…? We should… I mean, you should…"
"Sheppard said he'd make a noise."
The Gate was only minutes away, but McKay was moving at half speed. Ronon hated this slow pace. When enemies attacked, it was supposed to be fast – a blur of movement, senses as sharp as a blade. Their lives were in danger, but they were moving along at this slow crawl, with time to see the curl of every leaf at their feet.
"Plan makes sense," he told McKay. What didn't make sense was that it was Sheppard who was doing it. Ronon itched with the urge to run alone, to lead the enemy on a wild chase away from his friends. Instead, Sheppard had given him this role. Protect McKay, his eyes had said. I'm trusting you with this. Trusting him, who had not been able to save his former friends. Trusting him, who had been prepared to leave this team and never look back. No, it should have been Ronon on the outside, and Sheppard here with the friends who had never betrayed him. But he could not, and never would, say such a thing. All he had done was return Sheppard's nod, and now here they were.
"Rodney," Teyla said, "concentrate on walking."
Ronon heard the sound of an impact far away, in the direction Sheppard had taken. McKay flinched. Ronon clutched his weapon, and was careful not to show that he was flinching, too. He remembered turning and leaving his old team without a word, because he had heard the sounds that told that his friends were in danger. He wanted to be running with Sheppard, but he wanted to be here, too, protecting his team. He wouldn't - couldn't - lose these ones, too.
"We could leave you behind," he said to McKay, because he understood by now why Sheppard liked to bait the man so much. "Go through the Gate and come back for you tomorrow."
McKay's squawk had the effect Ronon had known it would. He strode past them, scanning the woods on all sides. Something struck the ground beside him, and he snatched his foot back, and jerked his chin towards the shelter of the nearest wall. Show yourself! He fought the urge to bellow defiance. Supported by Teyla, McKay was hopping and trying to stay small. "I thought Sheppard was supposed to be leading them away from us."
"Didn't work." And fighting was better than creeping away, cowering from an enemy who was afraid to show his face. When the enemy was unseen, you only had formless anger, with nowhere to direct it at.
His eyes flickered from side to side, choosing a route that would keep them in cover. Get McKay to the Gate first, and then maybe come back… He chose his route, and took the first step. At the second step, enormous pain engulfed his foot. He registered the metallic click a moment later, but he was already falling, dragged to the ground by the metal teeth that had sunk into his ankle.
"A trap," McKay was saying. "Oh no. Oh no. They could be anywhere. I don't want to move. I can't… What if they're…?"
"Can you support yourself, Rodney?" he heard Teyla saying. "I need to–"
"Yes. Oh. Yes. Of course. I see. Go."
And Teyla was on her knees beside him, hands reaching for his foot, but Ronon snarled at her to go away. The points of the metal teeth were invisible, buried in his leg, but there was very little blood. The pain was terrible; the sense of being pinned here was worse. Raising his weapon, he blasted at the hinge, choking back a scream at the sudden movement. The edge of the blast caught him, tearing away fabric and skin. Gritting his teeth, he shot the trap again, destroying the other hinge. He tore the metal away from his flesh, and blood welled freely, staining the leaves.
"Oh." McKay looked sick, his face washed-out and pale. Even the dark wall behind him was fading, but Ronon blinked fiercely, and colour began to return to the world. "That's not right. That's one way of… I thought… I thought we were supposed to be keeping quiet." He looked around desperately, as if seeking enemies, but his gaze kept on returning to the blood-stained teeth of the trap.
"He is right," Teyla said quietly. "Can you–?"
"I can walk." Ronon stood up, and the pain was terrible, but nothing that he had not felt before. Once he had evaded the Wraith on a broken leg, and killed the two that were hunting him, too.
Teyla's hand hovered close to his arm, then was snatched back. She fell backwards, her head audibly hitting stone, and lay still in the dying leaves.
"What?" McKay's voice was shrill, disregarding silence. "What happened?"
Ronon was on his knees beside her, one hand on her chest, the other on his weapon, and attention warring between the two of them. "Struck in the shoulder," he said. "Vest stopped the worst of it, but–"
But Teyla was already stirring, her eyelids fluttering briefly, then opening. "I…"
Ronon thought. All three of them were injured, and they still had no idea who was shooting them, or where they were. They could make a stand here, or they could run. The Gate was only minutes away, and Sheppard had told them to head for it. Ronon had not survived as long as he had without knowing when to run from a fight.
"I can walk," Teyla said, answering the decision she must have seen in his face. She stood up, swayed a little, but didn't fall. Their eyes met. Help McKay, he said with a nod.
She moved to McKay's side, and after that there was just running. He went first, mindful of traps, and his foot slowed him, and the other two, hobbling behind him, matching his footsteps, slowed him even further. Not too far away, he heard the sound of Sheppard's gun, and he heard answering fire, but he carried on. No-one shot at them. The rain lashed his face, stinging his eyes. Leaves crunched beneath him, and he braced himself once on the corner of a wall, taking the weight off his foot for an instant, then he ran on, forcing it to hold him.
"Oh," McKay said from behind him. "This is… This is…" Then nothing.
More gunfire. Ronon snapped his head around, and saw a tree, taller than all the others, that stabbed him suddenly with a memory of home. Then the memory faded, and became other memories - woods and forests on worlds too numerous to remember, and always darkened with threat. He still saw no-one he could shoot.
"Still no life signs," McKay said, his voice jolting with the rhythm of his steps. "Only one. That'll be Sheppard. He's–"
"Quiet." Ronon held up his hand. They were nearing the large building that held the Stargate. He had to assume that it was guarded. "Stay here."
He dropped to the ground and crawled forward. As he did so, dead leaves bunched up in front of him, spilling over his face and shoulders like a wave. He supposed it was good camouflage, but if anyone… No, there was no-one. No sound in the building. He reached the door, covering the interior with his weapon, but there was no-one inside. He turned to the others, their faces like smears in the rain, and beckoned them on. No-one shot at them.
"Thank God." McKay unfolded in the sudden absence of rain. Supported by Teyla, he hopped to the DHD and leant on it heavily.
Gunfire sounded, fast and urgent. Stationing himself in the doorway, Ronon tried his radio. "Sheppard." No answer. "Sheppard. We're here."
He had counted to six before there was an answer. If he had reached ten, he would have pushed himself away from the wall, and headed out into the rain to find him and fight at his side. "By 'here' you mean the Gate? That's good. I'm on my way. Things are a little… interesting here."
"He's coming." Ronon turned to the others. McKay's hand was hovering over the DHD, clearly eager to dial, but his face had the set look of someone who had no intention of leaving until his team was complete.
Ronon waited. Teyla joined him, and they stood on either side of the doorway, guns trained out into the rain. Sudden movement made him jerk his gun around, but it was only a leaf falling slowly from a high branch.
"Tell him to hurry," McKay's voice said.
The rain grew even more heavy, pounding at the carpet of leaves, drumming at the roof. "Ow!" McKay protested. "This place leaks."
Ronon swallowed. His leg was throbbing in time with his heartbeat. When he glanced sideways, he saw that Teyla was listing to the side, but she met his gaze with fierce determination.
"Nearly there," Sheppard's voice said across the radio, just as Teyla said, "I see him."
Sheppard emerged from behind a building, running mostly backwards, ready to fire at any pursuit. "Start dialling," Ronon told McKay, and to Teyla he said, "Go."
Teyla left. Ronon took one step back, covering the door, but leaving it clear. Behind him, he heard the sound of the wormhole engaging. McKay was speaking. "This is McKay. We're coming in hot… ish. Warm, perhaps. I don't know. I… No, just get a medical team ready for us. I–"
"Just go through, Rodney." Teyla's voice was strained.
"He's here," Ronon said, for Sheppard was only a dozen paces away from the door, and he was close enough now that Ronon could see that he was uninjured.
"Go." Sheppard was nodding at him, telling him to go through. Ronon stood for a moment longer, then turned and headed for the Gate. White-faced with relief, McKay looked at the doorway just once, then stepped through. Teyla followed, almost falling into it. Ronon's foot was hurting more with each step, strength bleeding out of him. "Go," Sheppard commanded him, only steps behind him.
Ronon stepped through. He emerged to find Teyla on the floor, unconscious. A medical team was already approaching. Colonel Carter was helping McKay to sit down, then turned to shout something over her shoulder. Someone Ronon didn't know tried to lay hands on him, too, but he waved him away, and turned to face the Gate and his team leader.
Sheppard wasn't there. Ronon looked around, frowning, wavering at a sudden bout of dizziness. There were people in black uniforms all over the Gate Room, but Sheppard wasn't there. "Where's Sheppard?" He said it aloud. McKay's eyes were already fixed on the Gate with hungry desperation.
The wormhole disengaged. "Colonel Sheppard didn't come through." Carter said it with no trace of emotion in her voice.
"Dial back!" McKay cried. "Dial back!"
"I can't," a technician said, a moment later. "Someone must be dialling out at the other end."
"Sheppard," McKay said, with hopeful certainty.
The Gate remained dead. No-one came through.
Teyla was wheeled away. Someone was clearly trying to take McKay away, but he was fighting them. Ronon saw it all only dimly. His eyes were fixed on the Gate, as colours bled away, and everything tended towards grey.
"Ready a team," Carter ordered. "As soon as we can, we're going back." She turned to Ronon. "Tell me what you can about what we're going to face there."
He still didn't look away from the Gate. "I'm going with you."
"You can't command me." As he spat it out, he almost hated her. She was not Weir, not Sheppard, not anyone he knew. She was a stranger, and how dared she…?
"You can barely stand," she said, her voice hateful in its reasonableness. "You'll slow us down – jeopardise our chances of retrieving Colonel Sheppard. Do you want that, Ronon?"
And he hated her more than he hated the Wraith, because it was true. All he could do was wait – helpless, useless, injured – and the Gate was still dead, and Sheppard did not come back.
End of part one