Title: They That Walk Beside
Author: kodiak bear
Warnings: Probably some shady medical mumbo jumbo. Squint please?
Summary: Tensions run high between Ronon and Rodney. A mission meant to give them time to work it out. But things never go the way they are supposed to and now Sheppard's life is in their hands.
AN: This story is set in season 2, shortly after Ronon joined the team, and right after the events in Conversion. Written for kristen999, I hope you enjoy it! Massive thanks to my beta, friendshipper. Incredibly fast and helpful. All remaining mistakes are mine.
They That Walk Beside
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
Journey of the Magi
"You shot me!"
"You wouldn't shut up."
Rodney paused abruptly, unsteady and favoring his left leg, turned, and jabbed his finger downward to indicate his torn trouser, crusted with dried blood. "One of those very sharp weapons cut my leg open!"
Ronon's lip curled. "Flesh wound," he enunciated tightly.
The two had edged closer as they argued, the space between them getting narrower and narrower, and Sheppard realized Rodney wasn't going to just let it go anymore than Ronon. Lately the two had been going at it like kids scrapping in the school yard. Sheppard had kind of felt that Ronon had been itching for any excuse to shoot Rodney and when the mission went south and they'd had to hide or be captured, opportunity walked up and slapped the runner in the face. Apparently. So Ronon claimed.
"Flesh wound?" Rodney's eyes crossed. "Are you mentally deficient? I'm going to need stitches and…and shots and…" Rodney was playing two different tunes in his head. One carried his anger and outrage; the other, his fear over bodily injury. Sheppard watched as Rodney reined in both, his mouth flattening into a thin, stubborn line. "Suffice to say, I'll be off active duty for a week, maybe more if it gets infected, which I'm sure it will!"
Teyla leaned wearily against the wall. They had crouched in that damp, cold cave for almost thirty-seven hours. Rodney, the only injured one on the team, had slept (mostly from being stunned by Ronon) but the rest of them had split watches and found sleep elusive even when it wasn't their turn.
All good things come to an end and, thank God, so do the awful things, because the unfriendlies had finally given up, allowing them the opening they needed to make for the 'gate and escape. Now they were only one junction away from the infirmary – one more turn -- and Sheppard could strip off his filthy, mud-caked uniform, shower, get the once-over, then go to his room and sleep for as long as he needed.
"John, perhaps we should --"
"No." He had known Rodney and Ronon were two unlikely allies from the get-go and he'd known the rocky start they'd gotten of to hadn't smoothed any lately. Maybe this confrontation was what Rodney and Ronon needed. "Go ahead," he said, jerking his head towards the hallway, "I'll drag these two along before they kill each other." Teyla's skeptical smile made Sheppard's slouch disappear. "Hey, I'll have you know, I beat Ronon in our sparring session before we left."
"Coward," Ronon growled, loud enough to draw their attention back. The argument had apparently continued while Sheppard and Teyla had talked, and by the sounds of it, things weren't going any better.
"Muscle-head," Rodney retorted. "And in case you need a definition, that would be a head consisting of tissue related to movement; a head of muscle implies a skull full of useless tissue instead of a brain."
Uh-oh. Sheppard straightened further from the wall and took a step towards Ronon and Rodney, "Hey, that's enough," he said, hands up.
"McKay, if you were the only man left between me and certain death, I'd be a dead man," Ronon snarled. "You'd be too busy whining to notice the knife in my back."
Rodney's face blanched, his fists suddenly clenched. Sheppard could see trouble coming a mile away and inserted himself hurriedly between the two men, hoping to calm things down, but he'd moved just in time to catch a punch in the nose that'd been meant for Ronon. He stumbled back, falling against Ronon's chest. Warmth ran down his lip, dribbling into his mouth even while the pain bloomed and he reflexively lifted a hand to stem the flow of blood.
"Ow, ow, ow!" Rodney jerked his hand back, simultaneously dancing and cradling his hand against his chest, trying to ease the sharp pain in his knuckles.
"Oh, crap," Sheppard muttered, muffled between his hands and the blood that suddenly seemed to be going everywhere. It felt broken – and hurt like hell.
Rodney had stopped hopping and stared horrified at the blood dripping through Sheppard's fingers, "Oh, no…I didn't mean --"
"Rodney!" Teyla glared at her one teammate, before reaching for Sheppard. "John, let me see…"
"Er…Colonel Sheppard? Do you need some help?" A young marine hovered uncertainly behind Rodney.
"No, m'fine." His head might be ringing, but he wasn't going to drop anytime soon. He waved the guy off with a blood-covered hand. "Just a little misunderstanding."
Then Ronon was reaching around him and pulling a wad of cloth from Rodney's vest, thrusting it into Sheppard's hand. "Here," he said gruffly, "you're getting blood everywhere."
Rodney's eyes widened, outraged, "That's my spare shirt! My good shirt! Do you have any idea how hard it is to find them?"
"Enough," Teyla snapped. "Ronon, go to Doctor Weir and give her our debriefing. Rodney, infirmary." She took Sheppard's arm and steered him forward.
Ronon glared for another moment, until Teyla's eyes cooled to sub-arctic. Rodney glared back, until Sheppard shoved him forward with his tacky hand. Bloody noses were a damn messy nuisance. "Move it, McKay," he ordered nasally.
As his head throbbed in time to his nose, Sheppard realized integrating Ronon into his team was turning out to be a lot more complicated than he'd bargained on. Ford hadn't always understood McKay, but he'd been an easy-going Lieutenant, and if he'd ever really wanted to tear into Rodney, his military discipline had prevented it. With Ronon, those barriers not only didn't exist, they weren't even a concept Ronon was willing to comprehend.
Damn. It was never easy, Sheppard thought.
It took another week, Rodney and Ronon both skulking and avoiding him, and his broken nose settling into ugly browns for Elizabeth to haul him into her office.
"John, is there something I should know about?"
She was deceptively calm, relaxing in her chair across from him. But there was always that look in her eyes when she knew the answer to the question. She liked to lead you into the shark-infested waters and then bam, she was suddenly eating you alive. As far as interrogation methods went, it was pretty damn effective.
Sheppard tilted his head to the side, feigning careful measured thought. Maybe he had an idea what it was about. "The mess hall reported us for raiding their stores again?" He took his best guess then quickly launched into a defense – the best defense is always a good offense, right? "Because I can explain that. Turns out the kids on M4X-221 caught this cold from Lorne's team and it mutated and they got really sick. Carson thought it'd be nice if we showed up with chocolate pudding to make the shots a little less painful."
"I'm not talking about the pudding." She fingered the edges of stacked papers on her desk. "These are reports," she said, separating one from the other, finger by finger, and ticking them off, "mess hall – disturbance between Rodney and Ronon over the last slice of chocolate cake. Rec room – disturbance between Rodney and Ronon over what movie to watch for movie night: Indiana Jones or Robocop. Oh, look," she smiled up at him and pushed another paper towards him. "Disturbance at the firing range, between… Ronon and Rodney. Rodney claimed Ronon cheated in the monthly qualification rounds by using an alien weapon and Ronon claims that inferior weapons are no excuse for…" Elizabeth trailed off, coughing self-consciously, and smoothed her hair. "I'll leave that one up to your imagination."
Sheppard rocked forward on the balls of his feet. "I… might have noticed…a little tension," he admitted.
"A little? John, half the security detail has had to separate them!" She gestured at his face. "I assume you've looked in the mirror recently."
He just gave her a look. "So, they're just getting used to each other. That's all." Sheppard refused to consider it was anything else but that. He wasn't willing to take either one off his team. It'd taken him a while to accept that Ford was gone, and then finding Ronon…it'd seemed almost like fate. Ronon brought another element to John's team, one that he knew would keep them all alive in a galaxy that seemed hell bent on killing them.
"At this rate, they're going to kill each other."
He struggled to form a reassuring comeback, but his face just sort of contorted, making his nose ache a little.
"Right." She stood, pulling one last paper and handing it to him. "MX8-992. Teyla's visiting her people while our missions are going into stand down for the holidays and this planet needs an initial survey. I think a little team bonding might be just what the doctor ordered." She smiled, looking pleased as punch. "You'll be back in time for Christmas."
Sheppard skimmed the MALP report and fixed on one detail in particular. "Average current temperature twenty-eight degrees?" He dropped his hand to his side, disgusted, and shook his head. "You're not serious?"
Elizabeth just kept smiling.
MX8-992 was a world gripped in winter. Sheppard guided the Jumper above a crowded forest of snow-draped fir trees. Even though the winter sun was weak, Sheppard knew it was dangerous when reflected from the ground; snow blindness wasn't just a myth. A person could even get sunburned.
"Oh look, we can bring back a Christmas tree," Rodney cracked.
Sheppard ignored the sarcasm but then again… he figured maybe he might just do it. Cut down one of the smaller firs and strap it to the top of the Jumper, Griswald style. Elizabeth had condemned Sheppard to spending the week before Christmas on a survey mission with two men that had apparently reverted to cats and dogs, and he was now supposed to figure out what was up with them and fix it, all while everyone else on Atlantis enjoyed some down time and freshly arrived egg nog. So maybe he was a little grumpy. Maybe he'd relish the look on her face when he brought the family wagon home with a tree too big to fit anywhere but the gate room.
"You're really thinking about doing it?" Rodney stared at him, slack-jawed. "I was joking. Seriously, you can't really expect to bring an alien tree back to Atlantis without it being examined first for…for alien bugs and squirrels and…things."
"I still don't get it." Ronon pushed his feet against the rear of McKay's seat. "A bunch of scientists were putting up a fake tree in the Mess Hall. Weird."
Rodney twisted and glared over his shoulder at Ronon. "Quit kicking my seat."
In response, Ronon smiled and pushed deliberately harder with the foot resting against the chair.
Rodney faced Sheppard, indignant, and demanded. "Did you see that? He's deliberately provoking me!"
"You do realize that we're here because of you," Sheppard said. He sighted a landing area up ahead. The snow depth was moderate so the Jumper wouldn't sink too far, maybe two or three feet. The initial fly-over had revealed a few cities, all abandoned at some point. No significant power readings to speak of, but one city was broadcasting anomalous low-level energy readings in radio frequencies common to the early twentieth century back home, and since this was a survey mission, they needed to not only bag and tag, but check out the only city that seemed worth looking at. Finding a landing spot near enough was the trick, though. Thick forests enclosed the ruins and the best area seemed to be a valley with a broad expanse of open land.
"Don't blame me, blame Conan." Rodney settled back into his seat and started a more in-depth scan as Sheppard began shuttling flight controls into standby.
"He said you, McKay."
"Actually," Sheppard swiveled to the side, climbing out of his chair, "I meant both of you."
He walked down the aisle and started pulling cold weather gear on. He didn't mind the cold so much as he minded how hard it was to handle your weapons and fight when you were bundled up in parkas and gloves. But the survey so far hadn't revealed anything more dangerous than an animal about the size of a polar bear. Not that polar bears weren't dangerous, it was just that he wouldn't go hand to hand with one. He'd just simply point and shoot if one started to charge. And anyway, maybe on this world, these quasi-polar bears weren't even dangerous. Maybe they'd run at the first sign of a human.
By the time he was completely outfitted, he looked at Ronon and Rodney, still sitting there. "Well," he prodded, "we're going to go at some point today, right?"
Rodney threw an irritated look at Ronon before swiveling out of his chair and heading towards his parka. "Just so long as we understand this is not my fault. Ronon's the one who can't get his brain wrapped around --"
"McKay," Sheppard interrupted, "shut up."
Rodney's mouth opened and Sheppard raised his eyebrow. His mouth snapped shut and he grabbed his coat and began stuffing his arms in the sleeves.
"It won't last," Ronon muttered.
The runner found a knit hat and glove bundle flying threw the air towards him and Sheppard gave him a dark look. "Get dressed and shut up." He hit the hatch and pulled his own hat down lower over his ears. "My mother always said if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. Learn it or you'll both be grounded when we get home."
He stepped into the bracingly cold air and hoped like hell they made it back to Atlantis without anyone trying to kill each other. Right now, Sheppard was about two steps away from grabbing Ronon's blaster and shooting both of them.
No doubt about it, he thought, staring at the seemingly endless stretch of snow before him, it was going to be a long day.
A loud crack echoed through the valley. Sheppard had outpaced both of his teammates, more because he needed to get away from the constant petty bickering, but now he turned around and saw Rodney grab Ronon by the sleeve, holding him back.
"Wait," Rodney ordered abruptly; he quickly pulled his scanner from the pocket of his parka. Sheppard paused, he was probably only a yard or two ahead of them, and he breathed hard just like Rodney. Wading through three feet of snow was tiring, he'd forgotten just how much. He could see the ruins peeking over a soft sloping bank about three or four klicks away. Ronon was the only one that appeared unaffected by the hour-long march they'd just made.
"Oh no," Rodney breathed.
Ronon scowled. "What?"
"Would you stop doing that? In case you hadn't realized yet, 'oh no' is bad. Very bad and if I wasn't constantly being interrupted by stupid questions, I would explain it a lot sooner."
Rodney's face was all but hidden in the fur-lined hood of his jacket, but Sheppard could imagine the irritated disgust residing there; it was all too plain in the biting voice. This was getting ridiculous, he couldn't even get ten feet without another fight. He started back towards them, his patience at an end. "Just what the hell --"
This time the noise cut through the air like a single-fire gunshot, loud and echoing. Rodney's head jerked up and he stared, dumbfounded. For a moment Sheppard could see Rodney's eyes widen further and Sheppard realized McKay's pallor had nothing to do with the cold temperature as he hollered, "Colonel, stop! Don't move!" He waved at the broad expanse of flat all around them. "It's a lake," he explained, shouting across the distance between them. "One massive crater lake and we're walking right across it."
"It's frozen, McKay." Ronon looked around them and shrugged. "There's snow everywhere." His breath gusted into a fog in front of his mouth.
Rodney's exasperation took hold…again. He rolled his eyes. "Frozen ice, contrary to some uneducated people's opinions, comes in different thicknesses, directly related to the length of time subjected to freezing temperatures. We have no idea when winter started on this planet. It could've been months ago, or weeks!" He extended his hand with the scanner. "And that sound you're hearing…it's not the sound of ice daintily saying hello."
"The Jumper!" Sheppard had heard enough. He'd landed their ship on a god damn frozen lake with ice that might not be thick enough to support the weight. He dropped the P90, letting it dangle by its clip, and sprinted as if their lives depended on it – and just maybe they did -- quickly passing Ronon and Rodney. He heard Rodney shouting at him to stop, but he was thumbing the remote control, deactivating the cloak. All that mattered was reaching the ship and getting it airborne. Everything else could wait. "Come on, come on," he chanted under his breath, feeling the interminable slow progress hampered by the snow.
…and then the ground shook under his boots and Sheppard was dropping as if the floor had been yanked out from under his feet.
Rodney gaped at the sight of the Jumper, ass-end sliding into a wash of slate-gray water, ice chunks submerging only to emerge along the disturbed edges of the widening maelstrom of a hole, taking Sheppard with it. "Oh, God."
"McKay!" Ronon started running towards the site. "You've got to hold me."
"What?" Rodney had followed Ronon, his heart beating wildly. "Are you nuts? Sheppard just fell into a frozen lake and you need a hug?"
They were there, at the edge now, and Ronon's look was one Rodney wasn't used to seeing all that often, as in, are you completely stupid? Ronon slung off his pack. They all carried gear for cold weather bivouacking, even though they had brought the Jumper. Sheppard had insisted preparation wasn't just for Boy Scouts. Now with their only source of shelter settling on the icy floor of a lake, Rodney hoped like hell he got to tell Sheppard just how much he appreciated the man's foresight. They had tents, sterno, sleeping bags…well, two sets now that Sheppard had taken the other down with him…
"The rope, McKay," Ronon explained, as he quickly tied it around his waist. He toed the edges of the sharp ice. "It's easy to get lost underwater."
"Right, of course," Rodney swallowed, "I'm Canadian, I know these things. I'm just…" he waved at the water, "in shock…or something."
Ronon thrust the rope into Rodney's hand and then dove in without even giving Rodney a chance to offer him good luck. It'd all happened so fast…Ronon had stripped off his parka and gloves and they had been abandoned so near the edge that the disturbed water lapped over, coming perilously close to drenching the important cold-weather gear. Rodney shoved the scanner into his mouth and with his boot he toed the gear further away from the edge and started wrapping the rope around his waist, tying it off with a knot.
Was Ronon insane? How was Rodney going to support the weight of two people, and on ice? Wait…scanner…life signs! Rodney pulled it from his mouth, staring at the screen with both dread and need.
One…two…oh God. Three…but one was really weak, flickering…dying.
The unexpected tug on the rope jerked Rodney so hard he fell forward before he could catch his balance, sending him sprawling face-first into the ice and slush that'd been created by the icy water mixing with the snow. The scanner went flying, skidding into the lake. Oh no. "Tug…tug back!" Rodney snapped to himself. He hoped that's what Ronon had meant. He quickly started pulling, forgetting about the scanner – there was nothing he could do about that now, anyway. The rope was definitely heavy enough to be the dead weight of two men, he thought, as he fought to get purchase with his boots on the ice. He stumbled back, grunted, his boots slipping out from under him. He landed on his ass and kept pulling. It felt like hours until Ronon's head crested the surface of the exposed lake, gasping for air, sluggishly trying to pull himself and his burden up.
There weren't any words to say as Rodney edged forward to help. The ice had to be a half-meter thick; strong enough to hold a human, but obviously not enough for a Jumper. Still, it meant that the edges were safe enough that he could cautiously crawl forward to help, and Rodney did. He got his hands into Sheppard's soaked parka and pulled. As he did, Ronon pushed.
"Come on," Rodney growled. Sheppard's jacket was hooked on a shard of ice and the entire situation had just started to piss Rodney off. "You are not going to win," he snarled at the ice, and kicked furiously at the lip that acted like an anchor in the twisted, wet coat. With sudden give, Sheppard's body slid out and Ronon was clambering drunkenly after him.
"He's not breathing," Rodney said, not even sure why he bothered. It was painfully obvious. Sheppard's body was totally limp, lifeless. "Get your wet clothes off or you'll be just as useless." Rodney unzipped Sheppard's parka, fighting with the water-logged jacket. He got access good enough for CPR and biting the end of his glove, pulled his hand free, sliding it under Sheppard's neck, god, he's so cold, tilting his head to start rescue breathing.
Not breathing, no heartbeat – two breaths, fifteen chest compressions – Rodney moved through the motions without thinking, chanting, "Don't do this, Sheppard. Don't…do…this," re-check breathing, nothing…pulse…pulse…weak, thready, oh God. Rodney fitted his mouth over Sheppard's icy lips and breathed again, and again, and pulled away just in time to avoid lake water in his mouth. It gurgled up from Sheppard's, choking the man even as Rodney frantically rolled him to the side and pounded his back. "That's it, just breathe, you're going to be okay," but it so wasn't okay. Rodney wasn't just scared, he was terrified. The only medical help was half a planet away and through the Stargate, and they weren't going to be overdue for a week!
Sheppard rolled to his back, moving clumsily, and coughed more. His eyes tried to open but he never quite got it and after a few attempts, he gave up. Rodney could see the shivers begin to take over the colonel's body. Ronon had rescued Sheppard from the depths, but not his gear. Rodney had an extra set of long johns, but not a spare parka. Still, they couldn't leave Sheppard in all this wet stuff – he'd be dead in hours.
He looked over to see Ronon bare-chested, shaking so hard Rodney was surprised he wasn't flying apart, as he pulled a dry leather jerkin over his head.
"Help me get him undressed," Rodney called. He got up and dragged Sheppard further from the water's edge. Then he retrieved his pack and hurriedly dug through until he had the spare set of thermal underwear...sleeping bag…he needed that too.
Ronon knelt over Sheppard, water dripping from his dreds. "Sorry, buddy," he said as he began to unbuckle Sheppard's belt.
"I think he's got other things on his mind." Rodney started on Sheppard's boots, thanking God for the colonel's lazy method of shoe tying…ie, he never did tie his boots, he just sort of tucked the laces down the sides. So far from regulation it was probably enough to send the military idiots into a spin, but he'd always laced up proper when he had to deal with people like Sumner and Everett and then Landry when they'd been recalled to Earth.
Rodney's fingers were going numb; they felt fat and swollen and clumsy.
When Ronon went to rip off Sheppard's shirt, Rodney grabbed his hand and snapped angrily, "These are the only clothes he has and we might be here for a while. Just…unbutton them…" when Ronon gave him a look, Rodney added, "quickly, of course."
They got John down to his boxers and then even those had to go. The sleeping bag was stretched out, laid open, and Ronon lifted Sheppard's naked body to the dry down bag and then they both got busy tucking the unresponsive limbs into the clinging cotton undergarments. By the time they were done, Rodney was panting; his lungs ached in the dropping temperatures.
"We need to warm him up." Rodney looked at Ronon, shivering and cold, "you need to warm up." He realized he still had the rope tied firmly around his waist. He stood, a head rush almost blacking out his vision when he did. "I need to eat," he told himself. "Get the other bag, we'll connect them together, sandwich Sheppard until he's recovered enough to make for the old city."
But Ronon was sinking to his knees, his head drooping.
Rodney swore. "Never mind, I'll do it," and he jogged to Ronon's abandoned bag, grabbing it and running back to Sheppard's side. It took yet more precious time to get the other sleeping bag out, zip it together, and by then it was time to get Ronon in and Ronon was doing his best impression of a zombie. "Ronon – in." Rodney pushed on the runner's shoulders, used a snow-covered boot to nudge hard at the back of Ronon's knee to further collapse the big guy into the sleeping bag. It still took some manhandling, but Rodney had Ronon in good enough to zip them up.
Then he made sure their heads were firmly ensconced. He took off his boots, standing on the edge of the bag and hoping like hell nothing with deadly intentions was going to come anywhere near them until he got Sheppard warm enough to think and talk again. Next, Rodney shucked out of his parka. Then he climbed into the bag, squashed against the outer edge and Sheppard. He could hear both Ronon and Sheppard breathing, but Sheppard's body was like lying against an icicle. Rodney lay there awkwardly, trying not to shrink away from Sheppard. No one else was coherent…just do it, he told himself. He turned towards Sheppard, reached around the colonel's body, and tugged him in closer. Then he breathed and said, "Not a word of this goes past this bag or next time, I let you die."
Of course, Sheppard wasn't exactly conscious so Rodney resolved to repeat the threat when the colonel woke up.
Ronon woke, disoriented and heavy. He might not have McKay's brains, but he was quick where it mattered. Within seconds of waking, Ronon had remembered the sickening sound of ice breaking, a sound he hadn't recognized at first. On Sateda, winters were mild, and if it snowed it didn't last long. He remembered Sheppard bolting past him, Sheppard figuring out before them that the Jumper was in jeopardy. Sheppard, reaching the ship only for the ice to give and swallow them both. The rest was a blur – stripping his gear and parka, tying the rope, tossing the end to McKay and knowing what he was doing meant that his life, and Sheppard's if he was successful, was going to rest in the hands of the guy he'd been fighting with for almost two weeks – the man he'd given up on as a hopeless case. But McKay was all there was standing between him and death, and as he felt the warmth of the body next to him, Ronon realized he was still alive and so was Sheppard.
The long, lean back shifted against his and Ronon rolled, exposing his face to the hostile climate to look at their surroundings. It was night giving way to morning, the twilight of dawn, but he could still see a few stubborn stars peeking through the lightening sky. The morning was crisp, chilly, but maybe a little warmer than when they'd arrived – most likely the cloud cover's doing.
"There's probably a good explanation why I'm stuck between you two," Sheppard mumbled sleepily, "but it better not be because you were pissed at him."
Ronon grunted and started to unfold his body from the warm confines of the survival bags. "The Jumper fell through the ice and you went with it."
Sheppard rolled his head towards Ronon and blinked. "Oh."
"That was pretty stupid."
"Don't start with me." Sheppard grimaced and lifted the bag. "Whose clothes?"
Ronon got himself untangled only to sit back down and slide his leather boots over an extra layer of socks. The boots were frozen, but leather was an ideal material, wicking away moisture from the body. They'd unthaw and become supple and warm soon enough. "McKay's, all your gear is gone. We need to find shelter until a rescue team is sent." He could see Sheppard contemplating it, even saw McKay stirring on the other side of Sheppard, but nobody else was up and moving. "Now," Ronon added pointedly. He could smell a storm brewing.
Sheppard nodded but Ronon wasn't convinced he was really getting the situation; whether he did or not, he rolled the other way and started nudging McKay. Instead of listening to the complaining, Ronon focused on their gear. He was wearing his spare set of clothes but McKay had a pair of pants and shirt and Ronon tugged those free of the pack and tossed them at Sheppard.
"Oh, thanks, Rodney," McKay intoned sarcastically, "I wasn't planning on using them anyway."
The first flakes began spitting valiantly around them. Ronon hefted one bag over his shoulder and tossed the other at McKay. "We need to go."
Maybe it was because McKay was from Canada – a place Teyla had explained frequently got snow – but he stopped looking mulish and shifted instead to worry. He scrambled out of the bags and once Sheppard was dressed, his feet encased in an extra pair of socks and stuffed back into his still-wet boots, McKay hurriedly unzipped the two sleeping bags from each other. He rolled them into as small of a ball as possible, wiping the snow away from the material as he worked. If he noticed that Ronon had shifted the heavier contents to his own pack, McKay never mentioned it.
It wasn't till they started struggling through the snow toward the ruins, that McKay gave an appraising look at Sheppard. "You look pale," he accused.
Sheppard glanced over, his eyebrows scrunching together. "Thanks, McKay," he drawled, "And you look…"
"Look what? Do I look sick? I knew sleeping that close to you would give me something!"
"…look perfectly normal," Sheppard finished dryly.
I'm fine," Sheppard insisted, "just sore from the unexpected swim. Think Ronon might've gotten a little rough pulling me out."
"McKay probably cracked your rib." Ronon had learned it was a common thing after CPR, sure seemed like people on Atlantis had to get the life-saving treatment a lot. "You should take it easy."
Sheppard blanked. "CPR?" He looked down at his chest, startled, and ran his hand over the sore spot before glancing over at Rodney. "I was dead?"
"Yes, you were dead." Rodney shuddered. "Temporarily, and if I cracked one of your ribs it's the least you deserve for doing something so stupid. Seriously, running onto breaking ice, what were you thinking?"
"I was thinking I needed to get the Jumper or I'd be stranded on a world with you two."
"Oh ha ha ha," McKay mocked irritably. "Just remember, it was my body heat that kept you alive." Rodney tripped on what was most likely a ridge of ice hidden under the snow, but recovered quickly.
Ronon tuned them out and focused on how much further they had to go. The open expanse stretched all around, but Ronon could make out the trees rising up above a shoreline in front of them. The valley they were in had a rising slope that hadn't been obvious from the air and it was a little like walking on the side of a hill. The distance was deceptive -- it would be hours of slogging through knee-high snow to reach the trees and Sheppard didn't have a parka; his other clothes were still wet and rolled into Ronon's bag. If he were to put them on they'd do more harm than good.
"You should really see Carson about that."
Ronon stared blankly at McKay. "What?"
"I said your snoring has reached biblical proportions and you should see Carson about it."
Sheppard pitched forward. "What the hell --!"
Ronon hauled him to his feet and they all peered over the thin crevasse his stumbling had exposed. McKay's forehead wrinkled in disbelief. "Oh crap," he finally said, "That's bad. This…this lake must merge with a glacier."
"How's that possible? Cold enough for glaciers but ice too thin to support a Jumper?"
Ronon had no idea what a glacier was. He considered asking but one look at McKay's eyes and he abruptly changed his mind. Last thing he wanted was to give the guy more reason to ramble on about something.
McKay shook his head, stepping back gingerly from the exposed rent in the ice – too thin to pose a danger, but Ronon understood if there was one this size there could be more even wider and more dangerous. Suddenly the distance to the forest-lined shore seemed even farther.
"It happens all the time, there are places in the world where summer temperatures reach fifteen, twenty degrees, but the glacier floats within the lake; usually it runs into the body of water from a landmass, especially in the cases of volcanic glaciers," he turned and his stare encompassed the entire area, "we're in a bowl, a crater, this is probably a caldera from a massive volcano. The snow is hiding the uneven slopes."
"Active?" Sheppard straightened, concerned.
Ronon didn't like the amount of effort it seemed to take Sheppard and, not that he'd admit to agreeing with McKay, Sheppard did look pale.
"Hopefully it isn't." McKay eyed Sheppard critically again. Then he was shrugging out of his parka. "Here."
Sheppard didn't take it. He shook his head and was going to tell McKay to put it back on but Ronon snatched it roughly from McKay's hands and tossed it at Sheppard. "You need it, quit being a baby."
Snow bred a stillness you could almost feel, and that quiet, muffled sense seemed to smother him. The path to the edge of the trees, to the shelter of the ruined city, had seemed long but doable – but now it was a possible deathtrap. One wrong step and they could fall, break an ankle -- maybe if it were wide enough, something worse. They couldn't go back, nothing that way except endless trees once they cleared the valley. It was too far to walk to the 'gate. The sides rose up around them, probably just as dangerous as walking ahead – and the shelter they needed was in only one direction: dead ahead.
While Ronon thought about the danger, McKay had started to dig through his pack. After a moment, he pulled a bundle of wire and started grumbling. "What're you doing?" Ronon puzzled.
Sheppard shivered in the parka. "He's trying to make a…"
"Depth stick," McKay replied. He was hunched over and didn't look all that happy. "To test the ground in front of us." He straightened and tossed the wire down, disgusted, "But it's not stiff enough."
Sheppard's P90 had been lost in the Jumper disaster so Ronon dug into his boot and pulled the longest knife he had free. He flipped it in the air, caught it by the handle, "This do?"
The matching looks weren't as hopeful as Ronon had figured but Sheppard finally shrugged and said, "It'll have to, but we'll need to take turns. It's not gonna be easy going"
After about an hour, Ronon understood the expressions on their faces. The handle on the knife was only the span of a large hand plus the blade. He'd be better off using his blaster except he wasn't going to risk losing the best weapon they had between the three of them. It was painstaking progress and he'd volunteered to go first. They were the eyes while he tested the ground. He crawled on his hands and knees, searching under the snow with the knife, feeling forward. In that entire time, he'd only found one more split about a finger's length across. Not even the span of his foot. His legs were numb, his wrists and cuffs icy and wet from snow creeping in.
McKay took the next shift, taking the parka from Sheppard before dropping and beginning to search. He made a crack about needing a dog or being a dog or something, but Ronon wasn't paying attention. He was staring at Sheppard who wasn't looking so great.
"Just a headache," Sheppard replied. He waited while McKay searched forward another body length of ice, his face pinched with pain and still pale when everyone else's had taken on the more normal ruddy color of cold-caressed skin combined with exertion. Ronon wasn't reassured with Sheppard's explanation, but he also knew there was only one thing that mattered right now and that was getting off this sheet of ice.
Just a headache. Sheppard almost felt guilty about that one. But when Rodney shot him a worried, stressed look over his shoulder, maybe not so much. He was exhausted beyond what slogging through the snow should've done and his chest hurt; his throat felt raw, and he was pretty sure he was suffering through what was gearing up to be one of the worst colds he'd caught since they'd left Earth.
Getting sick sucked, but getting sick on a mission was a lot higher up on the crap meter. He'd probably been fighting off whatever virus it was that now had a hold before the dunking – maybe the same as those kids had on MX4-221. Except there wasn't any Carson around to give him a "miracle" shot. And definitely no chocolate pudding, he thought grumpily, as his stomach rumbled.
Their supplies were limited, shelter still seemed too far away and none of them knew what they'd find when they did get to the city. A rescue team wouldn't come for a week, maybe a little earlier if Elizabeth had another one of those hunches, but he wasn't going to count on it. And now he was sick.
They were seriously in trouble, only two of them didn't know it yet.
Rodney started to pitch forward and only Ronon's fast reflexes saved him. He dove forward, locked his arms around Rodney's legs and yanked back, hard. They wound up in a sprawling heap in the tousled snow, Rodney staring at a split in the ice that was at least three feet across.
Ronon barely had a chance to let go before Rodney was scrambling up, swiping angrily at the snow clinging to his pants, and snapping, "What'd you do that for?"
Ronon's brows scrunched together, a dark look crossing his face. "I saved your life, McKay."
"I was perfectly capable of…of catching myself."
"You'd be dead."
"I wouldn't," Rodney protested hotly, "do you ever listen: perfectly capable of catching myself!"
"Fine," Ronon bit out, "next time I'll let you die."
Sheppard intervened at that one. "No, you won't," he retorted, pressing a hand against the bruised area on his chest. Yeah, that rib was definitely cracked. "Ronon, if you see McKay's in danger, you save him, got it?" Before Ronon could answer, Sheppard turned his glare on Rodney, "And you'll let him, understood?"
"I got it." But Ronon still looked pissed.
"That's completely unfair --"
Sheppard tilted his head warningly to the side and Rodney rolled his eyes and muttered a disgruntled, "Fine."
"Good," he choked, finally losing the fight he'd been silently waging in suppressing the growing tickle in the back of his throat. He coughed, covering his mouth and doing his best to make it look as if he'd just swallowed wrong.
They could see this side of the split where the snow had been dislodged in the small scuffle, but the opposite side remained hidden beyond the split. For all they knew there was another equally dangerous crevasse right after this one. Or there might not. The precariousness of their situation wasn't lost on any of them and it just figured that the tension between McKay and Ronon had eased only enough to shift onto him. They were staring at him as if he'd just coughed up blood or something.
He shivered and Ronon stripped off his parka and thrust it toward him. "Your turn," he said. Then he stepped gingerly toward the wide crevasse and considered the area ahead. "We need to jump carefully, don't know if there's another after this one."
"It was just a cough," he protested lamely.
He wasn't as believable as he'd hoped, judging by the shrewd looks that studied him openly. Rodney huddled in his coat and shook his head. "You look like death warmed over, you swam in a frozen lake and almost died – no, did die—and then you were hypothermic. Shut up and let us think here."
He was sure that called for a response from him but Ronon was already jumping the distance, landing easily on the other side. Sheppard watched as he toed forward carefully, checking the immediate area for any more deadly hazards. "It's clear," he said, satisfied.
A gust of wind blew across the barren valley, whipping the fur that lined their hoods and making them hunch even smaller in their jackets. Ronon, dressed in only his leathers, shivered noticeably. They needed to go and go now. Sheppard backed enough to get up some speed – it was only three feet – and jumped before he could dwell on it. He made it with little room to spare. Hey, cracked rib, totally understandable. Rodney, though, hesitated.
"McKay. Jump." Ronon narrowed his eyes at the hesitation he was seeing, "It's not that far, quit being a …" he leaned toward Sheppard, "what's that word?"
"Yeah, that one. Quit being a wimp."
"A healthy fear is a sign of mental well-being," Rodney remarked to himself, "just because some of us are idiotic…" he was taking steps back, "crazy, with no sense of…" he started running forward, "self-preservatioooonnnn..," Rodney landed on the edge, teetered wildly, and both Ronon and Sheppard lunged forward, grabbing his coat. They pulled him forward and Rodney, suddenly as white as the snow, swallowed and mumbled, "Thanks," but if he meant it for Sheppard or Ronon or both, Sheppard wasn't sure. And it probably didn't matter. He was trying hard, again, to stifle a coughing fit. I've felt worse, he tried to rationalize, this isn't anything other than a cold. And he might've believed it, if it weren't for the pulling lethargy that made him want to curl up right there on the ice floe and sleep, even though it'd mean certain death from exposure.
"We should get going," he said. Progress was slow but the tree-line was growing closer. It might take the rest of the day to get off this glacier-lake, but they'd make it.
Rodney scanned the horizon that held Sheppard's attention and nodded abruptly. "Right, we don't want to spend another night out here. One night that close to you was enough." He pulled Ronon's knife from his oversized pocket.
"Thought you dropped it when you almost fell," Ronon said, apparently surprised to see that McKay had managed to hang on to the important blade.
"Are you kidding? It's the only edge we've got right now." Rodney had dropped to his hands and knees again and was stabbing into the snow just ahead of him, inching forward.
It was back to the tedious work of scouting out their path.
Sundown and they had at least made it off the glacier and into the relative safety of the trees, but now Rodney knew that instead of stopping, they had to keep plodding towards the city and the shelter it'd offer. Though the sun hovered at the edge of the horizon behind them, the last fingers of light were obscured by the encroaching thick, gray clouds. Rodney knew that meant snow. A lot of it, and soon. The earlier flakes had petered out, unable to develop into the full-blown storm that was threatening now.
Sheppard coughed behind him, ensconced in Rodney's parka. They'd kept swapping so everyone had a turn wearing the necessary warmth and protection. The temperatures here weren't sub-zero, thank God for small favors, because if they were, two parkas wouldn't have been enough. Then again, as he listened to Sheppard struggling behind him, maybe it hadn't been enough after all.
"Gather sticks," Ronon murmured, sidling up near him so they wouldn't be overheard.
"Why would I want to… oh, never mind." Rodney hadn't had to depend on his surroundings for survival in quite a while. They'd need to build a fire and for that you needed wood. Great, one more thing to carry.
Ronon merely gave him a look and dropped a thick log into his arms.
It took everything he had not to throw the thing at Ronon's head. Every time Rodney turned around it seemed Ronon was lording his superior fighting and survival skills over Rodney, pointing out every inadequacy he had, and Rodney had finally gotten fed up with it and started fighting back – it'd been all-out war since that point and neither one was softening their position.
Well, only enough so much as he hadn't complained when Ronon had grabbed him that second time on the edge of the crevasse. Sheppard had gotten a hold of him too, so that nullified Ronon's help.
When darkness took over completely, Rodney's pack bulged and weighed four times as much and his arms were full. Sheppard hadn't even mentioned it, preoccupied as he was with taking one step after another. He'd also handed over the parka early, explaining sluggishly, "I'm hot, worked up a sweat from all the hiking."
They still had a couple of flashlights between them and they used them now. They'd found a break in the looming fir trees that led toward the city. Rodney theorized it had at one point been a road, judging from the uniform width winding ahead of them. Because they'd lost the scanner – okay, because he'd lost the scanner, something Ronon had been quick to point out when he'd had to explain how it'd happened – they had no way of verifying that they were still alone, but their initial scans had shown no human life signs. It wasn't as reassuring as it could be, but it was something, as he spied blocky shadows looming ahead of them.
They'd finally made it to the abandoned, ruined city; snowflakes swirled around, obscuring their vision of the architecture and whatever condition the city was in. Rodney felt the loss of his scanner all the more now. The city was a shrouded mystery, so long as the snowstorm raged, and they were standing on the precipice of a potential disaster. They had no idea what was in there, if it was even safe – but Rodney also knew, they didn't have a lot of choices at this point.
"Stay with Sheppard," Ronon ordered. Before Rodney could demand why, he was melting away into the inky darkness.
"Great," Rodney grouched, "I'm second in command, not Conan."
"He's probably going to chase any polar bears away," Sheppard explained wryly.
Rodney hadn't heard Sheppard narrow the distance between them –surprising, given the raspy, loud breathing -- and jumped. He turned and pointed the flashlight into Sheppard's face; Sheppard pulled back, thrusting his hand in front of his face, blocking the bright light.
"McKay," he bitched.
"Sorry." Rodney pointed the light to the side and smiled tightly. "In that case, Ronon can keep deluding himself. If anyone deserves to be eaten by a bear, it's him."
"Knock it off." Sheppard leaned against a tree on the outer edge of the snow-covered road. "Whatever the hell is going on between you two, you better work it out." He scrubbed his hand tiredly across his face. "I'm not losing either of you because you were too stubborn to work together."
Sheppard sounded like he was on day four of a seven day cold, scratchy and hoarse and worn to the bone. Rodney was thankful for the darkness veiling his worry. He was terrible at poker, never could hide what he was thinking or feeling. It was hard to stay angry with Ronon when he was worrying about Sheppard – only so many directions his emotions could go.
He jumped, again, and then tried to breathe. Ronon, Rodney would've sworn, looked like the cat that ate the canary. He'd snuck up on Rodney and deliberately spooked him.
Sheppard stumbled in the snow and that stilled the biting comment Rodney had just waiting to be launched. Sheppard waved off the helping hand Rodney offered and moved forward. Before Ronon could slide away, Rodney whispered, "I know you did that on purpose."
"Did what?" Ronon didn't even try to look innocent.
But then he was loping ahead, leading them into what Rodney had to grudgingly admit was a good shelter -- and just in time, he thought, as the snow that'd held off earlier began to fall thickly and the wind's magnitude increased enough to make them unsteady on their feet. The storm that had held off was beginning to let loose and none of them wanted to be out in it.
Rodney didn't know the general state of the city, but this house was fairly intact. Ronon was already kneeling by a blackened stone fireplace in the corner. The front door was one solid piece of thick pine, and as Rodney trailed into the room, his mind was already cataloging facts and what they meant: walls made of planed wood meant the people of this world had at least developed past grass huts and mud shelters before whatever catastrophe had destroyed them. The windows were shuttered except one on the northern face of the cabin, that shutter hung crookedly, dangling from a broken hinge. The windows and shutters were not airtight, not even close, as the wind whistled through the cracks making him shiver more. It was a lonely, keening sound, and it made Rodney want to scurry under a thick blanket and stay there for eternity – or for so long as they were stuck on this planet.
That not being an option, Rodney pressed on through the door and into the small house. The door was on the northern part of the building and walking in he could almost see the imaginary line dividing the cabin into two distinct sections. To the left was the living area, a fireplace in the corner, two chairs and a couch along the back wall. By the door, and the window with the broken shutter, sat a rickety table with two more chairs. If you crossed that imaginary line, capstoned by a thick beam running along the ceiling, you would be in the kitchen and utility area. Shelves filled with broken crockery and other things he didn't recognize lined the walls and a large basin, stained and cracked, was in the center stage of the southern-facing wall. Maybe the thing next to it was a refrigerator or possibly a stove. It was hard to tell and Rodney was an astrophysicist, not an anthropologist.
Sheppard dragged himself around Rodney, aiming for the couch.
A ladder rose up in the very back of the room, not more than a few steps from the couch Sheppard was slumping on, and central to that imaginary line between the two living spaces. Rodney wandered over, peering up curiously through the hole. A loft maybe? There didn't seem to be any bedrooms so it was likely the sleeping was done up there. Whatever it'd been for in the past, it now stood dead and quiet, the only occupant, the cold winter air that managed to seep in through the cracks in the walls and windows.
Rodney figured the city couldn't have been empty for too long or the fabric on the couch, and even the wood, would've rotted back into the ground, ashes to ashes, dust to dust...tens of years versus thousands. Rodney stepped away from the ladder and back into the living area. He'd shrugged his pack off when they'd first walked in and he got it now, dragging it to the fireplace. Ronon had already coaxed a small fire to life and was carefully feeding it.
"The rest of the wood," Rodney explained needlessly. He even started unpacking, but Ronon shook his head and glanced over his shoulder at the shivering, coughing Sheppard. Rodney gulped and nodded, wiping bits of loose bark chips and moss from his pants. "Right."
He tipped the bag over, let the remaining wood fall into a clumsy pile, and grabbed the lone med kit left to them, a sleeping bag, and an MRE. Rodney, in general, disliked sick people because they tended to be contagious – and that usually meant he would catch whatever virus the person had. It was like he wore a secret germ-attracting device, meant to call every dangerous bug or bacterium his way. It was a miracle he'd managed to avoid certain death. Kate had even explained his fears were valid, something about a near death experience with the nanovirus, the whole preparing for imminent demise only to live. It made perfect sense and Rodney pulled out that card every time Carson tried to rope him into helping with one outbreak or another – Sheppard was probably sick because he lacked the same sense of self-preservation.
Kids. Rodney shuddered. Only one thing worse than kids and that was sick kids.
"Hey." He hesitated and hovered over Sheppard. He held a sleeping bag in one hand, partially unrolled, a med kit and MRE in the other. "It's not much but maybe it'll help."
Sheppard looked at Rodney's hands and started laughing, until it got twisted by his wet cough and turned into choking, which made Rodney drop everything, frantically trying to help Sheppard breathe again, because breathing? It's important. He was on his knees on the couch, trying not to sneeze at the dust kicked up in the air by their motion, while pounding unsuccessfully on Sheppard's back.
"Enough," Sheppard gasped. "I'm good." He spluttered, swallowing down another cough, but he'd quieted enough that Rodney stopped hitting him and flopped down on the couch. Jesus. Talk about on-the-job stress.
"You sure? Because you sound like this one kid I used to know with asthma. He had this kind of wheeze-whistle thing going on? Very creepy."
"I'm sure," Sheppard wheezed, waving him off, "it was just – a wise man bringing me three gifts, but it's not exactly gold, frankincense and myrrh, and I'm definitely not Joseph, Mary or Jesus."
"Oh, no." Rodney thrust a hand against Sheppard's forehead. The burning heat warmed his cold fingers almost instantly. He yanked his hand back and knew he was broadcasting 'that look' to Sheppard. The "we're so screwed" look. "You're hallucinating, delusional, whatever."
Sheppard reached for the med kit and the sleeping bag. "It's a fever, Rodney, I'm not hallucinating. If I were, you'd be that blonde nurse bringing a steaming hot tub of water for my sponge bath. I've just…been thinking about Christmas…and maybe… the blonde nurse."
The joke fell flat but Rodney mustered up a half-hearted, pathetic quirk of his lips. "The thing those kids had, what was it, exactly?" he probed.
"A cold, but it progressed to a viral form of pneumonia in about eighty percent of the kids that caught it; nasty little mutated bug." Sheppard tossed two Tylenols into his mouth and dry swallowed; the grimace that followed might have been from the latter, or from realizing the poor choice of words – mutated bug bore some recent, unpleasant connotations.
Sheppard reached for the sleeping bag on the floor, sending up more motes of dust. The room was suddenly much lighter than Rodney had realized – Ronon's fire was warming and lighting up the dingy room. "Here, go stand by the fire while I try to make this livable."
"It's fine Rodney --"
"It's not. There's more dust here than the movie set of Lawrence of Arabia, go, move." Rodney pushed him off the bed, trying not to notice the slow, pained movements. Sheppard was really sick, coughing on top of a cracked rib, and all they had was a lousy kit with useless antibiotics – the shots Carson had given those children were an anti-viral to target the specific virus on that planet. Their med kits didn't carry anything that'd help.
Centuries of dust, who knew what kind of nasty microbes were lurking, and Sheppard's immune system wasn't in any shape to fight off yet more bugs. Rodney dug in the kit, found an emergency blanket at the bottom – sonofa—why didn't they think to wrap Sheppard in that yesterday?
He tried not to swear out loud while he tucked the material around the tattered cushion, hoping it'd at least keep most of the dust contained and away from Sheppard. Then he spread the sleeping bag on top and turned down the edge, before facing Ronon and Sheppard.
It had warmed enough that Rodney couldn't remember when he'd stopped feeling cold. Sheppard had shrugged out of Rodney's parka and Ronon's was abandoned in a heap underneath the broken window. Rodney reluctantly stood, feeling more tired than he'd felt in a while. It was the stress, too much was enough to create an after-adrenaline slump that'd knock a person out for hours, if not days. But before he gave in and tried to sleep, he had things to do. Rodney gathered the parkas, tossing them on the table, before going back to Ronon's gear and digging out all of Sheppard's wet things. He dragged the two dining room chairs close enough to the fire that the garments would dry, but nothing would burn, and draped the clothes as best as he could over the frames so they'd dry as evenly and quickly as possible.
"You should eat," Ronon told Sheppard.
Sheppard shook his head, fought down another cough. "Not hungry, just want to get some sleep. I'll eat in the morning."
Rodney watched as Sheppard stumbled across the small distance, falling into the sleeping bag. He only got the top pulled halfway before he stilled, sighed and closed his eyes, too tired to move anymore. When Rodney looked back at the fire, he realized Ronon's attention was centered on Sheppard also.
"He's in trouble," Ronon said softly when he caught Rodney watching him.
"Stating the obvious again."
"You know what, McKay? I'm getting sick of your --"
"Sick of my what?" Rodney hunched dejectedly on the floor. "My intelligence, my ability to save your ass on a consistent basis, because just say the word and next time I'll let you drown. Or blow up. Or insert whatever calamity I have saved you from recently."
"You wouldn't have to save my life if you weren't causing the disasters in the first place," Ronon retorted. He picked up a large log and glared at Rodney.
Rodney was pretty sure Ronon wasn't going to hit him. Sheppard would be pissed if he did and for whatever reason, Ronon cared what Sheppard thought – least Rodney was pretty sure he did. "You wouldn't hit me with that."
Ronon's grin was predatory but he tossed the log onto the fire and settled back in his cross-legged position, staring watchfully at the windows, doors and Sheppard.
"You forgot about the emergency blanket," Ronon accused. "It might've kept him healthy."
"And it might not have," Rodney snapped. He unsuccessfully fought off the urge to go to Sheppard and before he knew it, he was hovering over Sheppard again, pulling the sleeping bag up around his shoulders and tucking it gently around his neck. Rodney's hand slipped against Sheppard's forehead – still too warm.
When he turned away, unhappy, worried, angry at himself because he should've remembered the emergency blanket, he found Ronon still staring at him, his face inscrutable. "What?" Rodney demanded.
Rodney grabbed another MRE, tossed Ronon the one Sheppard had turned down, and then commandeered the other sleeping bag. "I'm eating and going to bed. You should too."
"Why d'you get the other sleeping bag?" Ronon was already ripping into the meal with his teeth.
"Because I didn't spend seven years living on the run and sleeping in caves," Rodney pointed out sharply, "and since you never fail to remind me how good you are at coping with nothing, go," he waved at the floor, "cope with nothing."
Ronon surprised Rodney by shrugging enigmatically and saying, "Fair enough."
Whether they were both too tired to argue anymore or their worry and Sheppard's wheezing subdued them, they ate in silence, only the sounds of the cracking, hissing and popping of the wood filling the small house. And when Rodney was finished, he wrapped himself in his sleeping bag and went to sleep, hoping like hell that Elizabeth would send an early rescue team.
Ronon slept fitfully in the parkas, periodically waking to keep the fire roaring and the room warm, listening to the storm rage outside. Once he rose and quietly checked on Sheppard when Sheppard's breathing argued equally with the howling outside; Ronon woke him just enough to coax him into swallowing two more pills before returning to his improvised bedroll. He knew about lung diseases like this, from Melena. There'd once been an outbreak on Sateda and their doctors hadn't had the medicine of Sheppard's people.
He remembered the cure they'd found. The ingredients were common, but it had to be steeped carefully for a day before it'd be strong enough to do any good. In his years of running, he could recall seeing the Elderberry tree on a lot of planets. Vegetation didn't seem to vary a lot from world to world and now that might be a good thing. If he could find the tree, he could dig the roots, and then it would be a matter of finding some type of container that could withstand heat and letting it simmer for a day. But the liquid needed to be taken for a week, or more in bad cases.
He couldn't search in the storm and the dark, but come first light – storm or no storm -- he'd leave Sheppard in McKay's care and go hunting for the medicine. As irritating as he found McKay, he knew the man would protect Sheppard's life with his own. Ronon just wasn't convinced McKay would do the same for him, or even that McKay's decisions wouldn't cost them all their lives…eventually. Disaster seemed to follow McKay on a regular basis.
Morning light, when it came, weakly filtered in through the dirty glass exposed by the broken shutter; cracked, spidery lines shot wildly from a central point in the window. It was quiet-- the storm must've worn itself out or maybe it was just a temporary lull. Ronon levered himself off the floor, feeling stiff and tired from a combination of things. The icy swim, the long march, the work involved in scouting a safe path off the glacier, sleeping on the floor. He might've lived for years like this but that didn't make it any easier.
He was surprised to find Sheppard propped against McKay, struggling to breathe, both men wide awake. He'd slept through them moving around, and that alarmed Ronon more than how bad Sheppard looked. Ronon hadn't slept through anything, ever, not since his life depended on it. Then again, he hadn't gone swimming in a frozen lake before, either. And he hadn't had any else to trust and depend on.
"I've got to go out." He bent down, grabbed his parka; he spied his knife on the table and grabbed that too.
"No," Sheppard rasped, "too dangerous. We stay here." He pushed himself upright, hunching over his knees to catch his breath. After he'd managed that, he looked up at Ronon, his eyes red-rimmed and watery. "I mean it, Ronon."
"Like you're in any condition to give orders," McKay snapped. He pushed himself out from behind Sheppard and padded across the short distance to their gear near the fireplace. The floor creaked as he went and Ronon was pretty sure McKay mumbled something about falling through the floor and dying but it was soon lost in the rifling through supplies. "Hang on." He pulled some electronics from his pack and squinted at Ronon, "You've got your radio?"
Ronon was getting irritated. If it was a lull, it wasn't going to last and he didn't have time to waste. "Why?" he demanded gruffly.
"Because I assumed if the storm kicks up again you'd like to be able to find your way back." McKay accepted the radio from Ronon and took it to the table. "I can rig up a..." he started prying open the device they normally used to send their ID through the gate, "…a simple locator beacon. The closer you get to us, the louder and more frequent you'll hear a beep in your ear piece." He stopped tinkering and snapped the thing back together. "There, easy modification." McKay handed Ronon's radio back and gestured for him to walk away. "Try it."
Ronon opened the door, surprised by the rush of icy air against his face, diving into his lungs. The fire was warming the cabin a lot more efficiently than he'd have thought it would.
McKay's, "What are you waiting for! Shut the door, freezing here!" prodded him forward; Ronon stepped over the threshold, pulled the door shut and jogged forward, counting off thirty or so paces, before tapping the ear piece. After a moment, a dim beep sounded in his ear. Ronon listened and purposefully stepped away. Stepped further away. Finally another beep, even weaker, sounded. He turned and took a few steps back towards the house and another beep, slightly louder sounded. Huh. A crude tracking device, but he had to admit, it was better than heading out into a potential storm without anything. Tracking and keeping your bearings in this kind of an environment was a lot more of a challenge and Ronon wasn't going to turn down any extra advantage he could have. Not when Sheppard's life depended on it.
The door swung open and Rodney's head peeked out. "Well?"
"It works." Ronon loped back and pushed past a pleased-looking McKay. He saw Sheppard sitting by the fire, wrapped in the sleeping bag and stirring listlessly at a pouch from another MRE. "I think I can find some medicine that'll help you. I'm going."
Sheppard turned enough to look him in the eye. He didn't look happy about it, but he nodded and coughed. "Fine, just…don't get killed."
Ronon bared his teeth in a smile. "I'm too tough for that." Then he had his knife, some gloves and one of the empty packs and was ducking out the door. He hadn't even gotten ten paces away before McKay jogged up, calling at him to wait.
"What?" Ronon rounded on him. "I've got to go, McKay."
"You really know where to find something that'll help Sheppard?" McKay was dressed in only his standard uniform shirt with the blue t-shirt underneath, his long johns still on Sheppard, and he shivered in the cold air. He hopped back and forth, rubbing his hands together to try and keep warm. "Or are you just going for a long shot?"
"You think I would lie?"
McKay had been as aggressive as Ronon lately, both of them fed up with the other, so Ronon expected his accusation to cause another firestorm of sarcasm, but instead he got the opposite. McKay looked troubled. And tired. "Just…stop it, okay?" He kept moving back and forth. "However hard it may be, we need to work together and put aside our…issues…no matter how valid they are. You said you could help him, yes or no, or is it more wishful thinking?"
Was everything out of McKay's mouth a backhanded insult? Ronon wasn't used to restraining his temper, but he stomped on it now and made a point to keep standing still, refusing to even let a little tremor from the cold show, even though it was so cold his breath was forming frost on the bushy hair around his mouth. "In all the worlds I've been to, I've only seen a handful where the Elderberry tree didn't grow. Its roots help people with the same symptoms Sheppard's got. That answer your question?"
McKay's chin came up and he stopped moving. "Yes. I…that's…thanks," he said, then turned and scurried back to the warmth of the house.
Ronon found himself staring at the door long after McKay had gone in.
Sheppard didn't like giving up control, but he had other priorities right now. Like breathing. Even though he could feel his hair sticking damply to his forehead, he felt like he was dunked again in the glacial waters of that lake. He pulled the sleeping bag tighter around his shoulders and coughed miserably. Every single cough hurt, thanks to his busted rib. He knew he was really, really sick and it took all he had to try and put his foot down when Ronon said he was leaving.
He knew he'd lost and he'd tiredly watched while Rodney did his thing and Ronon tried out the rigged homing device. The beef stew from the MRE tasted like sawdust and when Ronon had said he might know of some medicine that'd help, Sheppard had grudgingly accepted he needed whatever help his team could give him.
Then Ronon was gone and Rodney was back and Sheppard stood, handing off the half-eaten stew and staggering to the bed, couch, whatever, thing.
"You're going to bed?" Rodney stared into the pouch, sniffed and made an interested face. He looked around and spied a plastic spoon on the packaging debris on the table and grabbed it. "You just got up."
Sheppard dropped with a groan, feeling both heaven and hell in the movement. "I'm sick. I'm entitled to lying around."
"Yes, well, it's creepy in here," Rodney complained half-heartedly.
He closed his eyes and wished his chest didn't hurt so much. The floor creaked as Rodney moved around the shabby cabin; Sheppard heard the scrape of a chair being moved across the floor, then Rodney tugged on Sheppard's shoulders. "Here, sit up a little." Through lidded eyes, Sheppard saw Rodney holding a parka, wadded up into a pseudo-pillow. "If you stay upright it makes it easier to breathe."
"Thanks, McKay." Sheppard let Rodney guide him up, then down, and the change in angle really did seem to help. A stack of tissue was thrust into his hand.
"To wipe your nose, those are my clothes, remember?"
Sheppard laughed, got caught in another bout of coughing, and then just gave up trying to stay awake. He was dog tired…
… "Ronon! God damn it! Conan, you better not be pulling some kind of sick Satedan joke!"
Rodney's angry, panicked shouts woke him. He felt hot, incredibly hot, and a little queasy. He had to force his eyes open and stared blearily as Rodney hurriedly put his radio on and checked his pistol. Then Rodney turned, and, realizing Sheppard was watching him, tried to put on a calm face. "You're awake."
"You're leaving?" Sheppard accused. Rodney never had been good about hiding things.
He watched as the debate played across Rodney's face: to tell or run. He strode over to Sheppard, made an apologetic gesture at the thick coat propping him up, "Yours is still damp," and when Sheppard hunched forward a little, he pulled it free and shook it out, sliding his arms into the sleeves. "Ronon needs some help gathering the stuff --"
"McKay," Sheppard warned. Let them start lying and next thing you know, you'll never get the truth out of them.
"Fine," Rodney huffed. He thrust his pistol into the front pocket of the parka. "I think he ran into one of those bears and from the sound of it, Ronon was losing."
Sheppard tried to stand, only for two things to happen: one, his body refused to cooperate, and two, Rodney pushed him back down. "Are you stupid, or just that eager to die? You're too sick to go anywhere and don't even think about coming after me."
"I'm serious, Sheppard," Rodney's expression was sober, "you try to go out there and you're signing your death warrant, and possibly ours, because we've got enough to deal with without you blundering about making yourself worse." He pulled on a pair of gloves, working the material down around his fingers. "I'll be back and if I'm not…" he nodded a little, as if steeling himself for the inevitable, "then make sure the rescue party keeps searching until they find our bodies. I'm too smart to be some bear's dinner."
The protest was right there…right there…but it lost to the overwhelming urge to cough up a lung. His eyes watered from the burning pain in his chest and he couldn't see.
When he recovered and could see and breathe again, Rodney was gone.
FUBAR much, he thought angrily. Sheppard had wanted Rodney to get along with Ronon, and vice versa, but this wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind. He'd envisioned telling stories around the fire, doing some guy bonding and all that. Not Rodney having to rescue Ronon after both of them having rescued him. And he sure as heck hadn't bargained on becoming so sick he could hardly stand.
Now they were out there, facing god only knows what, and he was stuck in bed just trying to take the next breath. Sheppard pushed his palm against his hurting rib and rolled up, gaining his feet, panting from the physical toll; he managed to get to the chair Rodney had left by the fire. He might not be able to help them, but he could keep the fire going.
"Sheppard had to park on thin ice, get sick, then you, you go and face down a polar bear and now I'm the one stuck saving everyone's ass!" Rodney tightened the bandage around Ronon's thigh, ignoring the sharp hiss of pain; served him right.
He'd run towards Ronon's signal, his lungs burning from the cold air, only to stumble into a scene that looked like it'd come straight out of a B-movie slasher flick. The red-stained snow, blood spattered almost randomly in the small clearing. A dead bear carcass slumped still and silent on its side a yard or so from Ronon's body, the fur burnt on the head and shoulder from Ronon's gun.
Initially, Rodney stood rooted to the spot, stunned by the scope of blood loss demonstrated so plainly in the snow. It was only seconds. He'd swear it was only seconds. Then he was running to Ronon's side, kneeling, and pulling his gloves off, his pistol loaded and ready in one hand just in case another bear was around. He thrust his free hand into the parka and sought Ronon's pulse. When he found it, steady and reassuring, Rodney let out a sigh that might've been a "thank you, God." Then he'd pulled his hand back and started assessing Ronon for injuries.
Field medicine had never been his favorite class but he'd endured. And maybe, someday, he'd thank Carson and that idiot doctor from the SGC, because their tenacity had probably saved Ronon's life.
Well. Okay. Maybe "save" was a little melodramatic. But you never know.
Ronon had regained consciousness while Rodney was pulling a roll of gauze from the med kit. He'd had the foresight to shove the med kit in an oversized pocket, knowing that whatever had taken out Ronon probably hadn't done it with a stunner, or anything else equally harmless.
"Any tighter and I'll lose my leg to rot," Ronon gritted through clenched teeth.
"Any looser and you'll die from blood loss, so shut up." Rodney rocked back on his heels after he finished and wiped a hand across his forehand. He felt the reassuring weight of the pistol against his chest. He'd put it back in his pocket, the gun replacing the med kit, but it was in the front breast pocket – easy to get to in a hurry – and he'd left it unzipped. If these bears were anything like other predators, the scent of blood was likely to draw more.
"We need to hurry."
Rodney stared up into the leaden sky. "I know." Bears weren't their only threat. He looked down at Ronon. "Can you walk?"
Ronon glanced dismissively at his bandaged leg. "I'll walk."
"You don't have to always act so macho, big-guy, 'I don't feel pain'; it's stupid and completely unrealistic. You've got nerves, just like the rest of us, and nerves transmit both pleasure and pain."
"I'm not acting," Ronon grunted. He flopped back after trying to get up, beating the snow angrily when he failed. "It's how we were raised." Ronon glared at Rodney. "You don't have to whine about everything. You're not always about to die. Wounds heal, pain is temporary."
Rodney folded his arms across his chest, bulky though the parka was. "It's not whining, it's…expressing oneself. And sometimes wounds don't heal, and pain isn't always temporary."
They stared at each other. Rodney and Ronon – total opposites, even without the added social barrier of coming from two very different galaxies; Sheppard and Ronon had at least had that soldier-warrior thing going on, but the only thing Rodney and Ronon had in common was their appreciation for food, and they'd found lately that their differences were a lot bigger than they'd thought.
A growling noise reached their ears before the first snowflake and Rodney grudgingly offered a hand. Ronon took it and grabbed his bag from the packed snow beside him. He let Rodney guide his arm around his shoulders and then they took the first step, Ronon hopping awkwardly the best he could; between the height and size difference, they probably looked like idiots. After they'd gone only a few yards, Ronon held back and pulled his blaster from his holster. He'd managed to kill the bear with it, but he'd been ambushed and hurt first. He still wasn't even sure how it'd happened. Now he held it out to Rodney. "My aim's not as good with my left hand. You're a better shot right now if one of those things comes at us."
"Where's my tape recorder when I need it?" Rodney knew he'd probably never hear those words again.
Ronon stared at him, a disbelieving look on his face. "Don't make me shoot you."
"Right," Rodney took the weapon, surprised at how heavy it was, "not shooting me, good."
A few more steps and Ronon asked, "How's Sheppard?"
Ronon stepped wrong, causing Rodney to jerk crookedly; he grunted and skidded to the side. "Horrible." Who knew dragging a wet Satedan through the snow would be so hard? "How's your leg?"
Ronon overcompensated, "Horrible," he deadpanned, and almost unbalanced them both.
"Good." And Rodney really meant that.
The laughing, when it came, surprised both of them, Ronon first and then Rodney – when he finally believed Ronon wasn't going to slug him.
Ronon wouldn't have believed it possible, but he and McKay had spent the past thirty minutes limping awkwardly back to the old city without arguing or attempting to kill each other. They'd heard sounds of an animal following but the increasing snowfall was a larger concern because the animal appeared to be losing interest about halfway back to the old city. Or maybe the blood loss was getting to him. Ronon had kept track of their position but he was surprised to find that McKay didn't need his help in finding their way back to the house.
When they banged through the doorway, McKay pushing Ronon towards the chair by the fire, he almost felt something nearing respect for McKay. But then McKay was breathing, "Sheppard," in that low, worried voice, and he realized the lump on the floor in front of the fireplace wasn't just an empty sleeping bag – it was Sheppard.
His leg burned as he hopped after McKay. "Is he --"
McKay looked up at the ceiling, his eyes shutting briefly while he swallowed, relieved. "He's alive."
Ronon slid the pack off his shoulder and started pulling the Elderberry roots out. "I need a pot, kettle, something to steep this in, and snow." At least with the snow they had a ready supply of fresh water.
"Sit," McKay ordered. When Ronon started to protest, McKay pointed at the gauze that was turning red. "I'll get Sheppard back in bed then find something for the roots; just stay, you won't do anyone any good if you pass out from blood loss."
It galled him to have to sit, but McKay was right. Ronon wasn't used to following orders, or even knowing when he should anymore, but he wasn't any stranger to injury and he knew when he could push his body and when he couldn't. That bear had swiped him good on the leg and he'd not only lost a lot of blood, but he needed to disinfect it. Probably would still get infected but at least the antibiotics in the med kit should be enough to hold him for the rescue party.
A day of stewing, soaking, steeping, a day before the roots would be of any use to Sheppard. Ronon yanked angrily at his pants, exposing the raw wounds from the bear's four claws. Two were just grazes but the middle two, they'd gone deep enough to cause problems.
He listened as McKay helped Sheppard. The med kit landed by his foot. "Fix your leg," McKay ordered.
There was more rustling and the floor groaned as McKay paced. "I've got nothing big enough. I'm going to search the homes around us." He hadn't even taken off his parka.
Ronon nodded to the blaster that'd been tossed on the table when they'd seen Sheppard. "Take that. I think whatever was following us took off a while ago, but you can't be too sure."
Ronon wouldn't have figured even a couple of days ago that he'd be stuck relying on what he'd pegged as the weakest link on his team. And even more, he wouldn't have guessed McKay would've done as good as he had so far. Rescue was still about six days away, though.
The door slammed with a gust of air that drew shivers over Ronon's arms. He'd gotten out of the parka, thrown it back toward the window. The wind was whistling through the cracks again, the fire crackling and popping, and Sheppard wheezed and rasped. It was warm but Ronon had never felt as cold as he did now. He picked up the first aid kit and pulled out the disinfectant, needle and thread. Beckett had mentioned something about not stitching wounds that'd been exposed for too long, but without any other options, Ronon figured he'd stitch the deepest cuts and leave the rest open.
As Sheppard fought for every breath in the corner of the room, Ronon muffled a cry at the awful pain of disinfectant hitting the weeping, bleeding wounds. It was like acid, burning and burning, worming further into his leg. A vain part of him was glad McKay wasn't around to see just how much pain Ronon could feel.
He'd just threaded the needle when McKay returned, a large pot in hand. He stomped the snow from his feet and shook off his parka, letting the heavy kettle fall to the floor with an audible thunk. "It's filthy, but in good shape I guess." He ruffled his hands through his hair, dislodging the quickly melting snow from his head. "I'll boil some snow and scrub it the best I can. He doesn't have to drink it, does he?"
"Oh." McKay stopped and stared at the kettle. "Well, possible death by old kettle or certain death by virus…"
Ronon pierced the outer edges of his skin with the tip of the needle and bit his lip. "Possible death," he said, even though he was pretty sure McKay wasn't expecting an answer. It was one of those…what'd McKay called it…rhetorical questions. That was it.
"Are you stitching your leg?"
Ronon felt McKay's eyes on him for a few moments more before McKay picked the kettle up and lugged it to the fireplace. There were two divots in the stone and McKay had obviously thought ahead and found an iron rod to fit into those openings so that he could hang the kettle from the rod, over the fire. While Ronon worked on his leg, he watched as McKay began filling the kettle with snow. He'd found a wooden bucket, too, and though it had a hole in the bottom and part of the wood at the brim was broken, it was capable of bringing snow to the pot.
At one point, Ronon had to stop. He was seeing spots and feeling woozy. When he opened his eyes again it was to see McKay standing right in front of him. "You're not dying, tell me you're not dying."
He shifted his leg and winced. "Not dying."
"Good. Because, you know, I…well generally…" McKay struggled with whatever he was trying to say, "it's just…I'm not usually good…with words. And even though I think you're an ox…" Rodney pulled up the other chair and sat down heavily, "you're our ox now and it's been… there's baggage… from Ford and you did cut me down without making sure I didn't break my neck and --"
"McKay, I get it," Ronon said.
"Right, then you understand that 'Conan' is a term of affection."
Ronon looked at him, skeptical.
"It is! Why doesn't anyone believe me?"
"Are the roots boiling?" Ronon asked abruptly.
"Not yet. I'm going to scrub the pot first. I've got Sheppard propped on my parka again, got him to take some Tylenol and water. He's hanging in there."
Ronon gestured at the thread leading through his skin. "You want to help?"
"Uh," McKay looked a little green, "I was never really any good at sewing."
"Don't your people say 'practice makes perfect'?"
"We also say 'no pain, no gain' which is completely ludicrous, you really want me learning how to sew on your leg?"
A particularly strong gust of wind rattled the shutters and howled down the chimney, dampening the flames. Ronon had come as close as he ever had to asking for help and McKay was clueless. Maybe Ronon was thankful… maybe not, but either way, McKay tended to the fire and Ronon, black spots having receded enough, started back to work on his leg.
Sheppard fought against the bitter liquid in his mouth, hot and foul. He couldn't breathe, his chest burned and ached, and someone was holding his head in place, firmly refusing to let him get away.
"Stop it, Sheppard."
More of it was dribbled between his parched lips. He swallowed because it was either that or drown.
"That's good, just a little more," the disembodied voice promised.
He almost threw up the "little more" but as promised, that was it; he'd just started drifting back asleep when he was pulled up, hands steadying his torso in a semi-upright position and then someone was pounding on his back. It hurt but he didn't have anything left to struggle with.
The rhythm of the pats almost put him back to sleep; Sheppard was exhausted. He was dimly aware of being maneuvered back down, and someone whispering, "Go back to sleep."
He was never sure how often it happened but he knew it was at least a few times before he finally woke up enough to grasp what was happening. The cabin was filled with a bitter aroma, but felt warm, the air moist and welcoming on his throat. "Rodney?" he rasped, searching the room for someone else. McKay had been with him…and Ronon…Ronon! Sheppard almost fell out of bed. Something had happened and Rodney had gone to help Ronon; had they come back?
The voice was coming from over his head. What the--? "Rodney?"
"Hang on, we're in the loft." There was thumping and shuffling and then the creak of the ladder.
McKay was covered in dust but grinning idiotically. "You're better. It actually worked!"
"Of course it worked." Ronon hopped out from behind Rodney.
Maybe he still wasn't awake, because Sheppard could've sworn they'd just come from the ceiling and why was Ronon limping? "The loft?" he repeated dumbly. There was a loft? That couldn't be safe.
Rodney grinned and thumbed at Ronon. "It was a bet."
"Are you sure he wasn't just trying to kill you?" It came out a little slurred since Sheppard was already fighting to stay awake, but he watched as Rodney's grin faltered.
He looked at Sheppard, his mouth open, then at Ronon, who was now grinning, then back at Sheppard. His jaw worked but all he managed was to splutter, "I...no…it was a Satedan…test…of courage…" Rodney snapped his mouth shut, a look of realization creeping over his face, and stalked over to the fireplace. He ladled liquid from a steaming kettle into one of the metal cups and brought it to Sheppard, thrusting it over his face. "Drink."
"McKay," Ronon started, almost sounding contrite.
"What is this?" Sheppard reared back, the source of the bitter smell suddenly very clear. "It smells awful."
"And tastes awful too, according to you," Rodney replied smugly, "but it's saving your life, now drink."
His hands shook but he got most of it down, unfortunately.
"How long?" he managed to ask after he finished.
Ronon had stumped over to the chair, and settled down, his injured leg – how'd he hurt his leg? – stretched out in front of him. "Three days, but it's been four since we got here. Another three or so and the rescue party should come looking."
Sheppard nodded, satisfied. Whatever was in that stuff, it was working, and his chest even felt a little better. He watched Rodney adding more wood to the fire, watched Ronon begin to whittle on a stick. The fire was hypnotic and Sheppard found himself giving in to the heavy, pulling arms of sleep.
Rodney hated whittling. After nicking the pad of his index finger for the third time, he threw the knife down, tossed the unrecognizable lump of cut wood into the fire, and sat back in the chair, feeling irritated and out-of-sorts. Sheppard was still sleeping, something that logically, Rodney knew was good for him, but that left him stuck with Ronon for hours on end. Polite conversation had a way of always boiling down to the same end – one of them pointing out how stupid the other was for not being able to do something.
Whittling – how hard would you think it was to cut wood?
"You give up too easily," Ronon said; he peered at Rodney over the chunk of wood he was working on in his lap. Shavings littered the floor, but it made Rodney feel somewhat better that he couldn't recognize whatever it was that Ronon was carving, either.
"It's not giving up when the task is pointless, it's merely recognizing futility, and wasting time for the sake of wasting it is, in itself, stupid. Ergo, if I'd kept whittling I would be stupid."
Ronon's knife paused. "Are you saying I'm stupid?"
A week ago, Rodney would've retorted "yes" but it was by Ronon's skills that Sheppard was still alive. Then again, he hadn't gotten over that "Satedan test of courage" yet either – "Maybe, are you actually making anything?"
Ronon snorted and went back to carving. "If you can't tell, maybe I'm not the one that's --"
"Shh!" Rodney spun his torso around. Their chairs were slightly angled towards each other, facing the fire, the large window with the broken shutter was to their left, only letting in a sliver of light from a bright moon. Sheppard slept on the couch to their right, to the side of the fireplace. Rodney had heard something and it wasn't them or Sheppard.
The night was waxing and it was the first night without a storm raging at the dilapidated house. Maybe the sound he'd heard was a normal night sound that they'd missed hearing before because every night since their arrival, the wind had howled and whistled angrily through the windows and chimney.
Moments passed. Ronon frowned at the window, waiting to hear whatever Rodney had heard, but all they heard now was the sound of their own breathing, the fire burning, and Sheppard's soft rails and wheezes. Time ticked by and Rodney had almost begun to relax, when a snuffling sound at the door stiffened his spine. It was down low, at a thin crack between the bottom of the door and the floor. He'd stuffed Sheppard's parka against it in an attempt to block as much heat as possible from escaping. Sheppard's clothes had dried and were waiting for him when he managed to stay awake long enough to do more than look around at everybody.
"Did you hear that?" Rodney whispered.
Ronon straightened, holding the knife tighter as he set the wood on the floor and carefully motioned at Rodney to be quiet.
Before Rodney had even processed that there was something seriously wrong, a sudden flurry of noise boomed around him, splinters of wood and glass hitting him, as a massive body exploded through the partially-shuttered window, barreling into Rodney. He'd barely managed to get a protective arm up over his face before he was being driven into the floor, a snarling, growling mass of stinking wet fur overwhelming him. He thought he was dead; no, Rodney was sure he was dead. This was it. This was the end. Then another inhuman scream filled his ears and something solid collided with the bear, the sudden absence of pressing weight eliciting a thankful gasp from Rodney's lungs.
He scrambled back, inching away, stunned, just shy of paralysis from shock, when he realized the object that had tackled the bear, that'd saved his life, was Ronon.
"Shoot it!" Ronon was trying unsuccessfully to disentangle himself from the beast.
Rodney's mouth was dry; Ronon was going to die if he didn't shoot it. Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney saw Sheppard struggling to rise, shouting something at him, but his world had narrowed to the distance between himself and Ronon's weapon. It had skittered wildly across the floor, flung from the table when the animal had fallen against it, the weight of the bear snapping the old wood like brittle toothpicks.
Rodney lunged toward it, the movement instantly drawing the attention of the bear as it swung its boxy head and stared him straight in the eyes. It was almost…hypnotic…purple, deep, deep purple eyes, staring at him, blinking, pleading… "McKay! Don't look at it!" Ronon had managed to roll to the side, blood seeping from the corners of his mouth, his face twisted in anger, "get my gun, and SHOOT it!"
A loud clunk startled Rodney and he was able to pull his eyes away. Sheppard had fallen on the floor and the noise distracted the bear, too. Its attention shifted to the weakest animal in the room – Sheppard.
Rodney made his move as the bear charged. He felt his fingers wrap around the solid handle, felt the glass and wood grind into his belly as he stretched, and then dig painfully into his back as he rolled, bringing the gun to bear on the target just past his feet, and then he fired.
The shot was perfect. The bear's body jerked, stiffened, and then slumped to the side in a brilliant whine of ozone. McKay's hand dropped, the gun clattered to the floor. He stared, horrified, at what'd just happened, but Ronon knew he'd just saved Sheppard's life. Saved both of their lives.
Ronon hadn't figured out exactly how the other animal had gotten the better of him before, but after he'd watched this one stare McKay into some kind of trance, he realized there was more to these bears than the typical predator. If it hadn't been for Sheppard making a noise, they might all be dead. It'd pulled the bear's eyes off of McKay, allowing McKay to break free of the spell and go for Ronon's blaster.
"McKay," Ronon's voice was hoarse, "good shot."
Cold air seeped into the room from the damaged window and Ronon shivered. He felt a contrasting warmth seeping across his thigh; he'd ripped his stitches in the fight with the animal.
"Rodney?" Sheppard sounded like he was barely clinging to consciousness.
Ronon saw Sheppard's head drop back to the floor. He waved feebly at the stinking carcass that was far too close to him. "What Ronon said."
The aftermath was slowly dissipating from McKay; he was losing that gun-shock look, stirring on the floor. When he did finally talk again, Ronon was levering himself off the floor. "It followed us. It waited out the storm and attacked," McKay's eyes were wide and stressed. When Ronon didn't say anything, he demanded, "Do you realize what that means?"
"Maybe they were mates?" Ronon figured it was as good of a guess as any. In a lot of animals, mates formed life attachments. If one died or was killed, the other almost went out of their way to seek out death. It was something Ronon could understand.
Sheppard was trying to push away the bear, a disgusted look on his face. Ronon knew from firsthand experience just how bad the animal smelled.
"Mates?" McKay looked momentarily thrown. "Who cares if they were mates? Intelligent, it was capable of premeditation, thought, planning! Do you realize what that implies – if there's more out there, just waiting for an opportunity…"
Ronon stretched to reach the chair, pulling himself the rest of the way with a muffled grunt. The gauze was almost completely red. He wiped his hand across his mouth, finally realizing he'd gotten a busted lip from earlier. He was surprised he wasn't dead, but the bear hadn't expected him to charge. The element of surprise had initially saved his life and then McKay had saved it again.
"Maybe there aren't," Ronon said reasonably, "you always worry over everything?" His philosophy was if it wasn't in the immediate future, there was time to worry later. Right now Ronon had to fix his leg, they had to patch the window and wall, because the fire was battling unsuccessfully with the cold air, and they needed to get Sheppard back in bed and the bear carcass outside.
"It's how I'm still alive," Rodney snapped, grabbing Ronon's gun off the dusty floor. "I'm always thinking four or five steps ahead." He stared speculatively at Ronon. "We should teach you how to play chess."
Sheppard groaned. "Guys, d'you mind, I'm dying."
Ronon sniffed. "It's pretty ripe. Got to be opening up those airways." The smell was making his eyes water and he was a few steps away.
"You're bleeding again." McKay was halfway between Ronon and Sheppard. He seemed torn between who to go to first.
"Help him," Sheppard rasped. "I can wait." He coughed and jerked himself back, trying to get as far away from the animal as he could. Ronon didn't like that Sheppard was too weak to even lift himself off the floor. At least the bear hadn't had the chance to cut him up – injury on top of his illness might've been too much for Sheppard's body to handle.
When McKay turned to argue with Sheppard – did the man argue over everything? – Ronon got a look at McKay's back. Glass had cut into him in multiple places and blood dripped copiously on the floor; he was completely oblivious. Heat of battle -- Ronon knew it could create numbness to injury.
"You're bleeding, McKay."
"What? Where?" McKay spun, trying to look at all areas of his body at once. He looked down, saw the spots of blood dripping around his boots. "Oh my god." He looked at Ronon, surprised. "I'm bleeding."
"McKay, I need your help." Ronon had quickly assessed the situation and it was grim. The spots were returning at the edges of his vision. "I need to get the bleeding stopped."
"But I'm bleeding." The shock was back with a vengeance.
Ronon gritted his teeth. "I'm about to pass out." He hated admitting weakness. Hadn't ever admitted any yet, not even when that arrow had gone through his calf. But if he admitted it now, it could get McKay's thoughts off his own injury and get Ronon some help that he might not necessarily die without, but he wasn't stupid enough to turn down. Then they could fix McKay's back, help Sheppard, and get the bear out of the cabin. Step by step, and then he'd give McKay's fears about any more bears skulking about, some thought. They had days till the rescue party would arrive, days that they were still vulnerable. The Elderberry root was easing Sheppard's symptoms but it wasn't the cure it'd been for Ronon's people.
"Pass out," McKay repeated. He swallowed, his hand holding Ronon's gun hanging loosely by his side. "That's bad."
"Yeah, that's bad."
Woodenly, McKay walked to the now broken table and laid the weapon down where there should've been a surface but wasn't anymore; it promptly fell the rest of the way to the floor – then he found the med kit where it'd been tossed onto the pack in the corner, untouched despite the earlier chaos. Then he was kneeling next to Ronon, cutting away the soaked gauze, and, white-faced, sterilizing the needle used earlier with alcohol. "I hope you don't mind scars," McKay joked nervously.
"Got plenty of 'em," Ronon assured him. "There's only one that I regret."
McKay's hands were surprisingly steady as he tied the thread and if he wanted to ask about the scar, he didn't. The wounds were weeping, blood obscuring the edges of the wound. It took Ronon blotting it with a fresh pad of gauze and McKay quickly piercing the skin, then repeating the process, for every stitch to be made. McKay was mostly silent as he worked, only once uttering under his breath, "I'm going to be sick," but if he was just being melodramatic or meant it, Ronon didn't know, because he never was. Though by the time McKay finished, Ronon regretted asking for help. McKay hadn't exaggerated when he'd said he couldn't sew. It felt like his leg had been used as a pin cushion – repeatedly.
He told himself he was shaking from the cold.
"Put some more logs on the fire," Ronon told McKay. "I'll check on Sheppard."
When he limped over and looked down, it was to find Sheppard either sound asleep or unconscious. He guessed it didn't really matter. Sheppard's breathing was harsh and painful, and Ronon realized they were late with the next dose. When he reached down, he could feel the heat from Sheppard's fever already digging in again, gaining ground. He frowned, trying not to let his worry show. It took some work to pull Sheppard back onto the couch, but while he did that, McKay built up the fire as much as he could without touching the bottom of the kettle. "We need to get some wood from another building, to patch the wall."
"What's going to hold it in place?" Getting Sheppard back into his bed had Ronon almost sweating. "Your will alone?" McKay might be good at fixing Ancient devices but he wasn't a woodworker. Ronon tucked the sleeping bag around Sheppard, lingering for a moment; he stared reluctantly at the fever-blotches high on Sheppard's otherwise pale cheeks, and his sweat-slicked hair clinging to his scalp.
Ronon felt worry and fear, because he was already beginning to care for these people, and Ronon hadn't been in a position to care about anyone except himself for a long time. He'd spent seven years on the run, most of it alone, and now he found himself thrust in a situation where there were others suddenly depending on him. Maybe some of his animosity toward McKay had been more about Ronon's own fears than anything else, and McKay had been an easy target. And he had really considered McKay the weak link, but that assumption was beginning to lose ground.
He sighed, and wiped an angry thumb across his nose, turning back to the dead animal. It really did stink.
For Sheppard, time jumped.
There was a blur of images: a horrendous roar of shattering glass, splintering wood and growling rage. He remembered a huge animal rolling on the ground, remembered the sound of Ronon's blaster echoing in the cabin and the sharp smell of decay as the bear loomed over him, moments away from latching onto his shoulder with fangs that Sheppard would have nightmares about for a while.
He was pretty sure someone had killed it before it'd taken a bite of him. It probably would've grabbed him and ran, that's what bears tended to do on Earth. They'd drag their victims to another spot, eat them whenever. Then again, attributing Earth-characteristics to alien animals was probably stupid.
Sheppard remembered struggling to breathe. He had realized at some point he'd fallen to the floor and then he remembered talking to Ronon and McKay…least he was pretty sure he had, but then things went dim again and he was back in the nebulous world of fever-induced haze. His memories were as confused as his thoughts and he wasn't completely sure of anything lately.
Loud banging and arguing drew Sheppard's attention back to the present.
"When I looked for the kettle last time, I found this old saw mill," Rodney paused. "Thought I told you that?"
"Would I've worried about how to fix the wall if you had?" Ronon retorted.
"Huh. Could've sworn I told you." There was more pounding then a pained shout. "Are you going to just sit there and watch as I permanently maim myself?"
"I'm still deciding."
Sheppard cleared his throat. He was thirsty and his skin felt itchy and uncomfortable.
"He's awake! Get another cup of that stuff." Rodney's worried face suddenly appeared over Sheppard. "How d'you feel?"
Sheppard rolled his head and tried to blink his eyes into staying open, not an easy thing to do. He tried to talk but his voice seemed to have disappeared and all that came out was a scratchy, ghostly, "M'fine."
"Please, you're so far from fine --"
"McKay means he's happy to see you're awake," Ronon interrupted. He peered at Sheppard from over Rodney's shoulder. "You remember anything?"
Sheppard scrunched his forehead. "A bear attacked us?"
"Good enough. We're fixing the wall --"
"I'm fixing the wall!"
"—and keeping a look out for any more of those bears, but if they're out there, they're hiding good."
"I see…" Sheppard found himself struggling to breathe again. Talking and breathing weren't working in tandem. He'd meant to say that he could see Ronon and Rodney were still bickering, but instead he found Rodney sliding behind him, propping him up, and Ronon retrieving another cup full of that awful stuff and helping him sip when his hands trembled too much.
When he'd managed to drink the entire cup, Sheppard let his head rest against Rodney's chest. Ronon studied him openly. "You're gonna make it," he said flatly, "another two days and a rescue party will be here."
Sheppard licked his lips and nodded tiredly. He knew there was something he should be saying but his eyelids were already growing too heavy for him to keep open. "Be…careful," he slurred.
"Be careful, he says," Rodney grumped, "like I'm anything but." He aimed and fired, watching as another tree teetered unsteadily, before falling to the ground with a soft thump in the snow.
It was the morning of the fifth day. Two more days until a rescue party should, hopefully would, show, and two more days until Christmas, and where was he? He was shooting at tree trunks, keeping a watch for man-eating alien bears, hurting from a dozen cuts and even more scrapes on his back and stomach, a few of which were deep enough that Ronon had returned the favor and put stitches in for him.
It was a miracle that they hadn't gotten sick and caught whatever virus Sheppard had – or maybe the incubation period just wasn't over yet. It'd been about two weeks from the time Sheppard helped Carson to when they'd left on this godforsaken survey mission.
Either way, if the rescue team arrived on time, they'd have the benefit of modern medical care, unlike Sheppard. If it hadn't been for Ronon's Elderberry roots, Rodney was sure Sheppard would be dead. The root medicine was acting in part as an expectorant and now after three days on it, the crap clogging Sheppard's lungs was beginning to break up and the coughing was worse, way worse. Someone needed to sit with Sheppard constantly now, helping him through the bouts that left him shaking and weak. At times Rodney thought for sure the coughing was never going to end, and the medicine was going to wind up killing him before the virus, but each time Ronon patiently pounded on Sheppard's back, loosening the congestion and helping him through the bouts.
It'd been a long time since Rodney had seen anyone that sick, anyone that he'd cared about, at least. Whether Sheppard lived or died mattered a great deal to him, and Rodney wasn't one to forget anybody who kept Sheppard alive.
But it frustrated Rodney, being stuck out here, chopping up firewood with a gun designed to blast holes in things, while Ronon was inside caring for Sheppard. Their roles should've been reversed. Rodney should be in there, helping Sheppard, instead of wrestling with trees. It wasn't that he liked playing nursemaid, it was just…grunt work…it wasn't really his thing. And if one of those bears came poking around, Rodney would rather it was Ronon out here facing it down.
Ronon's leg dictated job assignments, though. Rodney waded through the snow to the new-fallen tree. They had depleted the firewood they'd originally gathered and whether Rodney liked it or not, it had to be done if they were to survive.
Then again, maybe Rodney was relieved that Ronon had stayed inside. Seeing Sheppard struggle like that, just to breathe… Rodney shivered.
Maybe Ronon had realized Rodney's fears – drowning, anything to do with asphyxiation…it scared the crap out of him. Rodney had been as surprised as Ronon when he'd offered to stay with Sheppard and trusted Rodney to use his one and only gun, and to watch out for himself while working outside. Rodney still hadn't figured out how he was going to haul the firewood back to the cabin, least not without a multitude of ineffective trips – he'd need to build a sled -- but one problem at a time.
"McKay! Get in here!"
Rodney didn't even ask why, though he felt the blood drain from his face. Ronon was panicked and Rodney ran.
When he burst through the door, he found Ronon bracing Sheppard, his lips turning a disturbing dusky blue, as Sheppard hunched and struggled for air. Rodney swallowed, feeling sick. He shut the door and pulled off his gloves, discarding them and Ronon's weapon on the floor. They had no table anymore; he remembered that this time. He saw Sheppard glance at him, his shoulders trembling from the effort it was taking to get precious air into his lungs.
"Pneumothorax," Rodney breathed. He always had watched too much ER.
"What is that?" Ronon was helpless against what was taking Sheppard's life, right in front of them, and Rodney could read the anger Ronon felt as easily as he read a book.
"A collapsed lung, it creates a pocket of air in the pleural cavity," he explained even while he snatched the med kit, digging through searching for a chest tube kit even while he knew there wouldn't be one. There was IV tubing… "Your knife," Rodney demanded, snapping his fingers. He got the bottle of alcohol, more gauze and surgical tape. "We need a cup, fill it with water."
Ronon's knife slapped against his waiting palm. The cup followed right after. "Lay him down," Rodney ordered.
In seconds, Rodney had a short length of tube cut and ready. He wasn't letting himself think about what he was about to do because he knew if he stopped, if he just for one second realized the implications of what he was attempting to do and what could go wrong, he'd never have the courage to do it – and then Sheppard would die.
"What are you doing?"
"I've got to relieve the pressure; without it, his lung won't inflate and he can't breathe." Rodney had everything ready; he gave Ronon his full attention. "Hold him still, he can't move. Do you understand?"
Ronon nodded, wordlessly, and knelt behind Sheppard's head, pushing Sheppard's shoulders down against the couch. Satisfied, Rodney looked at Sheppard next, but instead of looking afraid or panicked – any emotion Rodney knew he'd be feeling, Sheppard nodded, eerily calm. His eyes were rolling up inside his head though; he was losing the battle against hypoxia. Rodney was certain he was going to puke. "Which side?" he whispered.
When Sheppard jerked his right hand, Rodney cut the long johns aside and quickly swabbed the area just below his nipple and slightly to the side, feeling the space between the upper ribs. He closed his eyes and steeled his nerves, before making a small incision. Blood instantly welled at the site and Sheppard flinched, even with Ronon holding him down. With blood-slicked fingers, Rodney grabbed the tubing he'd cut and began forcing the end slowly into the wound.
Sheppard's pained grunts made him fumble.
"Don't stop," Ronon urged, "keep going."
"I can't…it's not working," Rodney faltered.
"He's going to die if you don't."
Maybe it was Sheppard finally passing out, or Ronon's blunt assessment, but Rodney tried again, and again, and finally on the fourth time, he heard the welcoming hiss of air escaping from the tube. He plunged the end into the cup filled with water, watching as air bubbles rose to the surface. When the air had bled out, the water would create positive pressure, preventing air from traveling back through the tube.
Rodney buckled against the edge of the couch, the deathgrip he had on the knife loosening. "Tape…tape it in position," Rodney managed to say. Then he crawled, clawed his way to his feet, staggered to the door and collapsed in a snowdrift outside, gagging, even while he wiped his hands furiously in the snow.
When Ronon came for him, Rodney was leaning shakily against the weathered wood. "You should come in."
"No, this…I can't. I just…" Rodney covered his face with his cold hands. "I'm sorry, you're right, I'm not like you guys. Things like this…" He uncovered his face, breathed raggedly and looked to the sun that shone despite the freezing temperatures. "Give me anything electronic, technological, or theoretical. Give me a database, a computer, a miracle to pull off and I'm your man but --"
"What do you think that was?" Ronon demanded roughly. "You saved Sheppard's life, McKay, and if that's not a miracle, I don't know what is."
Rodney glanced at Ronon, temporarily forgetting the sun, the feel of Sheppard's blood on his hands, "Was that an insult?"
Ronon's lips peeled back in a grin. "If it makes you feel better."
Night had reclaimed its territory and Ronon was thankful for it. Tomorrow the rescue team should show. They hadn't found any signs of another bear and Ronon was pretty sure that the second one had been the mate of the one he'd killed in the woods. Didn't mean there weren't more out there, but either the others didn't care about them or they were as smart as McKay thought, and had realized that messing with them meant death.
Whatever the reason, Ronon was thankful. He felt off – rocked, and on edge, because it seemed like things he'd been certain about were not as certain as he'd thought.
McKay snored in the corner, one hand carelessly resting on Sheppard's shoulder, as if he'd needed the constant reassurance of Sheppard's chest rising and falling in order to finally sleep.
So much had happened in the past six days, things that left Ronon confused. He wasn't always the best judge of character – look what Kell had done – but Ronon had thought he'd had most of the people he dealt with on Atlantis figured out. He'd figured McKay was a whining liability, and wondered why a man who seemed to be a good leader, would let McKay on his team. But after this week… Ronon realized that the very real doubts he'd had about his -- and the other's -- safety in McKay's hands, had, slowly but surely, disappeared down the same path as his life – the one he'd had before the Wraith had taken away everything he'd ever cared about.
When morning came, it'd be Christmas – their Christmas. This holiday that was such a big deal to many of Sheppard and McKay's people. Ronon shifted in the chair and began another down stroke with his knife. He'd started whittling earlier without a clear picture of what he was going to make. He hadn't explained it to McKay at the time because he'd figured McKay wouldn't have understood. Maybe he would've. Either way, Ronon knew what he wanted to create now.
He ignored the aching in his leg, knowing the infection he'd been holding off with the pills from the med kit was worsening. He'd seen the same signs in McKay's wounds. If the rescue came any later, they'd be in trouble, but Ronon figured if most of the people on Atlantis were like Sheppard and McKay, there wasn't much reason to worry. Not yet, at least.
The wooden figure in his hand was taking shape but Ronon knew it'd still take most of the night to finish it. He was taking watch, Sheppard needed some more medicine in a couple of hours. McKay had said they needed to leave the tube in his chest until Beckett could deal with it.
Ronon leaned back and visualized the rest of the figure in his mind, before making another cut.
Waking in a med-evac stretcher, floating in the air – it was a little disconcerting, no matter how bad you felt. If you were conscious, you were compos mentis enough to think "holy crap". Sheppard did, and then he quickly closed his eyes and waited for reassuring hands to grab his stretcher and pull him safely into the hovering Jumper.
"Careful with him, you'll spill the water," Rodney fussed. "The chest tube is --"
Carson spluttered, "Chest tube?"
"Can I finish?" Rodney demanded.
The conversation took place around Sheppard. Sometimes he kept his eyes open enough to look; other times he just let the voices flow over him and closed his eyes tight against the niggling discomfort in his side and the tight ache in his chest.
Once the rear hatch was secured, the cold air around him quickly turned warm, the blankets tucked carefully around his body were now too much warmth when combined with his fever and the artificial environment of the ship.
Sheppard had learned the hard way to appreciate the infirmary. After you were on the wrong end of field medicine, the real deal became a hell of a lot more precious. He knew it'd be a while before he forgot the feel of Ronon's -- thankfully sharp -- knife, cutting into the side of his chest, or Rodney poking and digging with the tubing. It'd saved his life -- not being able to breathe was an awful feeling in itself --but the pain had been enough that he'd passed out in the middle of it. He was more than relieved to have it behind him and the comfort of the clean, bear-free infirmary ahead.
"Doc, McKay saved Sheppard's life." Ronon's simple statement brought a hush around Sheppard. "If he hadn't done what he did, Sheppard would be dead."
The timing was good; Sheppard stared upward and caught the surprised look on Rodney's face – a brief expression that Sheppard could only equate to the clumsy kid being picked second instead of last – but then Rodney's face turned to him and all he saw was worry and fear. Sheppard gave him a sleepy smile, trying to reassure Rodney that he was okay, he'd made it, thanks to Rodney and Ronon.
Carson nodded unhappily. "Well if you'll be doing field surgery, Rodney, then maybe next time you'll make a point to show up at your refresher course in first aid and buddy care."
For now, Rodney was off the hook. And Sheppard figured Carson would get over it anyway. Beckett was satisfied enough at Sheppard's condition because he patted Sheppard on the shoulder, his eyes crinkling in the corners as he gave John his best "you're fine" smile. "We'll fix you up in no time, Colonel. A couple of days in the infirmary and you'll be good as new."
"Couple of days?" Sheppard repeated. "Christmas?"
"It's already Christmas, Sheppard," Rodney explained. He slid to the bench, stretching his legs far to the side because of the stretcher blocking his leg room. "Merry Christmas, it's a wonderful life, ho ho ho."
Ronon dropped next to Rodney, but he stretched his legs out in the opposite direction. The Jumper felt a lot smaller than Sheppard was used to, nestled between the two benches in the rear; one side taken up by Carson and a med tech, while Ronon and Rodney took up the other side. Sheppard worked his jaw, feeling self-conscious because he was the center of attention – literally.
But now the big guy's attention turned to Rodney and he patted McKay's leg, smiling crookedly. "You know, McKay? It is a wonderful life." He slumped low, folded his arms across his chest and slept the rest of the flight home.
Sheppard, on the other hand, found it hard to sleep, even though he wanted to. He closed his eyes but sleep remained stubbornly at bay. He tried to ignore the tech taking his vitals before they went through the 'gate. He did ignore everyone when his stretcher was hefted onto a gurney, except for following directions. When told to "scoot over, carefully" he did. Really, he just felt like crap. He was still running a fever, he'd sweated and suffered a week in a dirty bed in a ruined city and he felt every inch of it. A shower had never sounded so appealing…just sucked that he'd be the first to admit he'd never make it through one without falling on his face.
He was painfully aware of Carson removing the chest tube despite the local anesthetic – you could never dampen the tugging and pulling sensation; the nurse helped him into a clean gown – scrubs were too hard and he was too damn weak to help – and he really tried to pretend he wasn't aware when the nurse gave him a sponge bath. Crack as many jokes as you'd like, the real deal was never all that much fun. The gentle squeeze on his arm when she was finished let him know he wasn't fooling anyone, but they were respecting his need to just lay there. Interacting took energy and after so many days of battling the virus, struggling to breathe, intermixed with bouts of worry for Ronon and Rodney – hell, Sheppard kind of figured if he didn't fall asleep soon he would pass out.
He did, though –sleep, that is, not pass out. And when he woke up again, it was late. Teyla was back, talking quietly with Carson across the infirmary. Some flowers decorated the table next to his head and he was not all that surprised to find the beds next to him filled with Rodney and Ronon. What did surprise him was finding them playing chess, Rodney sitting in his bed, the portable table between them, and Ronon splayed out in a chair on the side.
"It can move two ahead, but only the first time. After that, just one square."
Ronon held a pawn up. "Can it fight?"
Rodney snatched the pawn and settled it back into its place. "Of course it can fight, every piece can." He frowned at Ronon. "And we say 'attack' not fight. But only diagonally. And only pieces in front and one square – like this." Rodney took a pawn and a knight and demonstrated. He replaced the two figures in their respective places and looked expectantly at Ronon. "Got it?"
"That's stupid. Why can't it fight with something in front of it?"
"Because…it's a…" Rodney looked at the pawn, an intense look of concentration on his face – it actually looked like he was in pain. "Look, rules in games…they never make sense. It's about battlefield strategy, thinking steps ahead of your opponent. Do you want to learn or not?"
"Then move your --" Rodney paused, he'd begun to move his first piece. "What? Did you say --"
"No," Ronon repeated. "It's a stupid game. If I were to attack you, you'd just fight back diagonally?"
"Of course not! That's not the point --"
"Then again, that explains a lot," Ronon continued.
Rodney sat back in his bed and regarded Ronon irritably. Sheppard sighed. A week of hell and they were still going at each other like little kids; the whole mission had been for nothing.
But then Rodney folded his arms and said, "Huh. What about monopoly, then?"
"You land on squares, buy property, and charge exorbitant prices once you get all of the same color. Very slumlord'ish."
Rodney stared owlishly at Ronon. "No. It's a kid's game. It's purely entertainment value only. Well, that and making stupid deals just to keep playing when the outcome is all but inevitable."
Ronon looked across the room at a stack of boxes and pointed at Yahtzee. "What about that one?"
"You roll your dice, that's it."
"Sounds good." Ronon climbed out of the chair and limped over, retrieving the red box.
When he limped back, sat down gingerly and started opening the game, Rodney pointed out, "Before we start I want to make clear that Yahztee is a game of chance, luck, no skill involved at all."
"Just…making sure you know…so if you win, it has absolutely nothing to do with being better than me."
"McKay, I don't need to beat you at a kid's game to know I'm better than you."
Sheppard was thankful Carson had threatened him with sedation if he tried to get out of bed without permission. Rodney and Ronon were Teyla's problem now, and he watched as she glared at them and walked over. She had that "big trouble" look brewing on her face.
"Colonel Sheppard almost died," Teyla said severely, "and you two continue to argue ceaselessly. It is past time for you both to reconcile your differences. Rodney, you will never be as strong as Ronon, but your strengths lie in knowledge. And Ronon, you will never be as smart as Rodney but your strength will save many lives."
Rodney and Ronon looked at Teyla, then at each other.
"Did I say I was smarter than you?" Ronon asked Rodney.
"No. Did I say I was stronger than you?"
"Huh." Rodney picked up the five dice and dropped them in the cup. "I go first."
"Because it's my table."
Teyla glanced over Rodney's head at Sheppard. She looked as perplexed as he felt. Well, maybe more had been resolved on that planet than Sheppard had figured.
Sleep stole him away again, and the next time he woke it was middle-of-the-night late, judging by the lack of people and lights. He wasn't sure what had pulled him out of his dreams. He felt pretty good. The medication Carson had him on kept the fever down and the inhaler was easing the pain in his chest. The root stuff Ronon and Rodney had fed him on the planet had broken up most of the congestion in his lungs so coughing wasn't the problem that it had been.
It took a moment for the low murmuring to catch up to him. Ronon and Rodney were talking. He turned his head towards them and saw Rodney staring at a carved bear he held cradled in his palm. It looked a lot like the one that had almost eaten him. Sheppard felt a little like he was intruding so he turned his head and stared up at the ceiling.
Moments later he heard the rustle of cloth and soft feet padding across the floor toward his bed. Rodney smiled awkwardly. "Hey, saw you were awake."
Sheppard nodded and looked around Rodney – Ronon was heading for the bathroom. "You two getting it worked out?"
Rodney nodded thoughtfully, "Yeah, he's…" Rodney fiddled his thumbs before meeting Sheppard's eyes, "He saved our lives back there. It's just…Ford was…and the whole Wraith thing and…"
"I know, Rodney," Sheppard said softly, his voice only a little scratchy.
"Right. Well, I've got something for you."
"You saved my life, too, McKay, that's more than anyone can ask for."
Rodney shrugged. "It's not much." He pulled the hand-carved bear from his pocket. "Just a little…memento of our trip."
Sheppard stared at the thing. He reached his hand reluctantly for it, the IV tubing pulling a little as he did. "Uh," he tried to look thrilled, "it's really…thoughtful of you…McKay."
"You hate it."
"Great, well it's the thought that counts, anyway."
Sheppard nodded. "Absolutely."
The bathroom door slid open with a hiss and Rodney glanced back, saw Ronon, and looked uncomfortable, shifting and beginning to walk backwards, "Well, I'm just…I'm going to…I need to use the bathroom…and then, you know," he thumbed at his rumpled bed, "get back to sleep." Rodney covered his mouth and produced a pitiful cough, "Carson said I should be feeling the, uh…virus…soon, you know…CPR…mouth-to-mouth just guaranteed I got it…"
"Okay, sure." Sheppard tried hard to hide his grin. "Merry Christmas, Rodney. And thank you, again."
"You're welcome." Rodney waved, already rushing away.
Ronon limped over and glanced at the door that Rodney had just disappeared through. "He left?"
"Yeah, had to use the little airmen's room." Sheppard jerked his head at Ronon's thigh. "How's your leg?"
Ronon eased himself into the chair and looked dismissively at it. "Fine, it'll heal fast."
Sheppard figured it'd take a little more time than what Ronon would admit – he'd gotten the low-down from Carson on Rodney and Ronon's conditions. Rodney's blood test had come back positive for the same virus that'd wiped the floor with Sheppard, but Carson had already given him the anti-viral. That combined with the medicines on Atlantis, he'd hopefully have an easier time of it. He'd gotten his cuts cleaned and the stitches Ronon had done were left in. Ronon was clean,the virus was only contagious through bodily fluids – like mono. It'd caught like wildfire among the kids on that planet, but here in Atlantis it wasn't a big risk. Atlantis hadn't even tried to go into quarantine mode. One of the kids had probably snuck a drink from Sheppard's canteen when they'd been there, exposing him.
Ronon glanced at the figure wrapped in Sheppard's hand. "What's that?"
"Something Rodney gave me," he let his fingers loosen, exposing the carved bear, "said it was a memento from our mission." Sheppard shrugged. "Probably just something cheap he got from an airport in Canada."
"Can I see it?"
Sheppard handed it over and shifted his body around, trying to ease the crick in his back. He watched as Ronon glared at the figure before tossing it back to him. "I gave that to McKay for Christmas."
"And I'm sure he loves it very much," Sheppard recovered, "in fact, he stressed to me it was very valuable."
"Then why'd he give it to you?"
Because the bear looked like a marmoset on steroids, Sheppard thought grimly, but instead he put the most earnest expression on his face and asked Ronon, "Have you ever heard about an old Earth tradition called 're-gifting'?"
"He didn't like it."
Sheppard really did have a lie ready, but then he switched gears and looked at the bear, then at Ronon, "It's maybe a little…too naturey…for Rodney. Now, if you'd carved a ZPM --"
Ronon narrowed his eyes at the figure, and Sheppard could just see him redesigning it in his mind – "Think so?"
"Definitely." Sheppard shifted some more. He was getting sleepy and he could tell it was getting time for his next dose of Tylenol or whatever Carson was giving him to keep his fever down. The edges of that familiar fever-induced lethargy were creeping over him. "He's…I know he's not what you're used to…he's not…a fighter, but he --"
"—can hold his own," Ronon murmured. "He saved your life." Ronon studied Sheppard, as if seeing the fever in his eyes, "saved both our lives." He stood up and when Sheppard held out the figure, shook his head. "You keep it. This thing with McKay…maybe it really wasn't ever about him."
Sheppard pressed his head further into the pillow, trying to look at Ronon without moving too much. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Ronon looked definitely uncomfortable and Sheppard wondered just what the hell Rodney was doing in that bathroom that was taking so long. Ronon looked over his shoulder, towards the door, and they were having one of those "moments" where there were things that needed to be said, but they were guys, and guys don't really know how to find their way through those things without feeling stupid. Ronon finally shrugged and squinted at a light to the side of Sheppard's head. "There's a lot of stuff I carry with me…stuff that doesn't have anything to do with you, Atlantis, McKay, but if I act a certain way, it's because of my…stuff. And McKay, he's…you're good at your job, Sheppard. I trusted in that when I agreed to stay so…" he gestured at Sheppard with a loose-limbed hand, "I know you wouldn't let anyone on your team if they couldn't pull their own weight. So…we're good, right?"
"We're good." And Sheppard was relieved he'd be able to deliver that particular Christmas present to Elizabeth…tomorrow.
Ronon kept standing there, looking like an awkward puppy. Sheppard grumbled, tiredly. "I'm about to pass out here, don't make me embarrass myself."
"I'm gonna throw this bear at you."
"Already lived through it twice."
"I'll sic Beckett on you."
Ronon backed away, gestured furtively at the door. "I told Teyla I'd meet her for breakfast, so…"
Sheppard let him beat his strategic retreat, because really, he was about to pass out. He was getting kind of tired of feeling like that. Once Ronon disappeared through the door, Rodney peeked from the bathroom, head only, "Is it safe?"
Sheppard buried his head under the pillow with a groan. And Elizabeth was worried about Ronon killing McKay?
THE PROMPT: Sheppard suffers some form of respiratory distress/illness/weirdness/injury that gets progressively worse as time goes on that is NOT an allergic reaction to something and he's not near medical help. There's some type of active threat and I'd like a Ronon and John fic, but John, Ronon and Rodney is also cool.