Even the Best Fall Down Sometimes
by quiet-december

They find Sheppard at the bottom of a cliff.

Gen, rated PG-13 for blood and whump and a bit of language. AU for 5x15 Remnants, so spoilers for that episode. ~1800 words. My first fic in this fandom, so please be kind. ::chews nails::

(Disclaimer: I own nothing. Especially not Stargate Atlantis.)

They find Sheppard at the bottom of a cliff, lying face down on the bloodstained rocks, one foot still in the water. It's a miracle he lived long enough to drag himself out of the lake. From that height, water is about as soft as concrete.

He survived, though; fought his way up and out onto the rocks, and lay there wet and shattered and dying for God only knows how long, while Parrish and Kiang bitched and wondered what was taking so long and did nothing.

Rodney is pretty sure he could kill them for that. He has no doubt Ronon could, and he thinks Lorne knows it too—no one will tell any of Sheppard's team where the scientists have been taken. Rodney wouldn't be surprised if they've moved them off-world, because Ronon is a bloodhound when he gets his heart set on killing something.

As much as Rodney hates Parrish and Kiang for their inaction, for their criminal stupidity—and he hates them a lot—it's nothing compared to what he feels toward the AI. The idiot astrobiologists let Sheppard lie out there alone, but they didn't run him off a cliff. They didn't torture him and screw with his head and push him over the edge.

The AI did.

"I am so sorry," Vanessa says. She's doing her best impression of 'contrite human', with just a touch of panic—Ronon's gun hasn't wavered from the seeding device since he entered the room. Rodney thinks it would take more than a shot to destroy it, even a shot from Ronon's gun, but the AI has seen into their minds. She knows how easily they could find a way to reduce her reason for existence to a pile of smoldering rubble.

"Give me one good reason I shouldn't destroy you," Ronon says, the words grated out through gritted teeth.

"Please believe that I never intended to cause him harm." She's starting to sound desperate. "I only meant to distract him—"

"Distract him?" Rodney snaps. "Distracting him would have been appearing as Kiang in a bikini. Distracting him would have been getting him to chase after a glowing purple unicorn. You tortured him and ran him off a cliff!" His voice keeps rising until he's shouting. The words ricochet off the walls, and Vanessa takes a startled step back.

More than he's ever wanted anything before in his entire life—even more than he wants to come up with a theory of unification—Rodney longs for a time machine. He wants a way to go back, to start over, to make all of this not happen. (Because he'd been getting complimented by imaginary Zelenka while Sheppard was tortured and dying, and even in their monumentally screwed-up lives that's nowhere close to fair.)

Teyla is clutching Torren to her chest, so tightly that he squirms and makes an irritated baby-noise. There's no sympathy in her face. Even Woolsey, whose mind created 'Vanessa', is standing back with an expression that says he doesn't plan to talk Ronon's finger off the trigger.

Vanessa takes a deep breath. "My programming dictated that I should protect the device," she says, then switches her focus to Woolsey, presumably searching for the empathy he showed her before. "Richard, my creators were a kind people. They would never have wanted anything like this to happen. Colonel Sheppard's fall was a terrible accident, one for which I take total responsibility. Please, I beg of you... do not destroy the future of an entire civilization based on one mistake made by a machine they created!"

"You ran him off a cliff." Ronon echoes Rodney's words, his voice soft like the eerie stillness before a dying man's last breath. The talking is over now. It was over before it started, really.

"Wait," Woolsey says, and Ronon turns on him fiercely, body language clear as glass: tell me to stop, I dare you. I dare you.

To Woolsey's credit, he doesn't back down. He looks straight into Ronon's eyes and says, "We won't destroy it until after we've retrieved the information."

Shen Xiaoyi moves forward to stand at Woolsey's side. "You're making the right decision, Richard."

He doesn't look at her. "I didn't make it for the IOA," he says.

Sheppard blends into the sheets like a chameleon, and Rodney thinks he might disappear entirely if not for the wild shock of dark hair and the days-old stubble.

He sits down in the chair next to the bed and lays his hand on Sheppard's left forearm, one of the few places that isn't bandaged or in a cast. It's stupid, really, but Rodney can't help thinking that Sheppard won't disappear if he just holds on tight enough.

"You really need to wake up," he says. "We destroyed an alien civilization for you." And, wow, saying it aloud makes him feel a little dizzy. For an instant there's doubt, but then Rodney remembers Sheppard lying on the rocks like a broken doll, and everything else is burned away by that image. The device contained an AI and some biological samples that might have been something ten thousand years from now; Sheppard is real, right here, right now. Alive. Still alive, because he's the stubbornest human in two galaxies.

He was broken by the fall, twisted and shattered in far too many ways, but Jennifer thinks he'll recover if... when he comes out of the coma. He'll need physical therapy, maybe more surgery on his right leg, but he'll be all right if he'll just wake up.

Teyla touches Rodney's shoulder, and he glances up. She looks tired, the angles of her face sharper, more hollow. "Kanaan got Torren to sleep," she says. "Jennifer said I could stay here tonight. You should get some rest, Rodney. You look very tired."

"Seen yourself lately?" Rodney shoots back, because the filter between his brain and his mouth is broken, or possibly never existed in the first place.

Teyla just smiles a little, sadly. "We are all tired," she says, and leaves it at that. She pulls up a chair, sits down, and reaches out to grasp Sheppard's wrist, just below the spot Rodney is holding. She has long, graceful fingers, and her skin looks like burnished bronze against Sheppard's.

Fifteen minutes later, Ronon shows up. He doesn't say anything, just pulls up another chair. He runs his fingers carefully through Sheppard's hair, avoiding the stitched gash at the left side of his forehead. When he's satisfied that the hair is sticking up properly, Ronon stills, lets his palm rest lightly on the uninjured side of Sheppard's head.

"You need to wake up now, Sheppard," he says quietly.

They stay like that for a long time, listening to the steady beeps from the heart monitor, medical language for he's alive, there's hope. There's still hope. The beeps are rhythmic and Rodney is exhausted. He drifts, leaning forward in his chair, his fingers gone numb around Sheppard's arm.

There's a sigh, the soft rustling of sheets. Muscles twitch beneath Rodney's hand, and he jerks his head up so fast he almost gets whiplash. Beside him, Teyla leans forward. "John?"

Sheppard's eyes are open. He's tense, headed toward panicky—heart rate rising, breathing accelerating. "It's all right, John, we are here," Teyla says, and he looks unsteadily at each of them in turn.

Then his eyes move down to where Teyla's fingers are clasped like an anchor around his left wrist. He wiggles his fingers, makes a fist, and his breathing starts to even out. He turns his attention back to his team, trying valiantly to focus on their faces. He doesn't seem to be in much pain, which isn't surprising; Jennifer's got him doped to the gills.

"It's about time you woke up," Rodney says, "I've been sitting here for ages and my back is hurting like you would not believe because these stupid chairs are so uncomfortable and seriously, with all the time we spend here you'd think they could get some—ow!"

Ronon thwacks the back of his head. "Shut up, McKay."

Sheppard smiles a hazy, drugged smile, and it's the most beautiful thing Rodney has seen in... forever.

Sheppard's bony elbow is digging into Rodney's side, and he can't scoot away because Teyla is squished against his other side. They're all crammed onto one couch in the rec room. Onscreen, Tony Stark is busy trying to evade fighter jets.

Sheppard decided to have a beer to celebrate being off pain meds and walking all the way to the mess hall on his own (if you don't count all the times he stumbled and Ronon just couldn't help but grab his arm). "A beer" seems to have turned into "several beers", and now Sheppard's head is honest-to-God resting on Ronon's shoulder. He's watching the screen with an expression that makes him look seven years old: oooh, fast dangerous things! Explosions!

"I didn't wanna wake up," Sheppard says, out of the blue.

Rodney shifts, partly to get the razor-sharp elbow away from his ribs—seriously, Sheppard could stab people to death with his scrawniness—and partly to see Sheppard's face better. He's still staring at the screen, but Rodney's pretty sure he isn't seeing Iron Man anymore.

"I thought..." Sheppard stops and looks down at his left arm, and Rodney wonders, because Sheppard never has told them exactly what the AI made him see.

"I guess I was hiding," he finally continues, "and I didn't want to come back. But then I felt..." he gestures vaguely toward his arm. "And I realized..."

"That you were not alone," Teyla finishes when his words trail off. Her eyes are shining in the dim light. "That we were there."

Sheppard gives a small nod and finds a more comfortable spot on Ronon's shoulder. Oh, he is so drunk. Of course he's drunk—Sheppard sober doesn't admit things like this. Heck, Sheppard drunk doesn't usually admit things like this.

Ronon glances down at Sheppard with a little smile that looks entirely out of place on a gigantic, Wraith-killing caveman. Teyla is solid and warm against Rodney's left side, and Sheppard's elbow isn't boring holes in his ribs anymore. He settles down to watch the movie. Nobody says anything more, because even Rodney knows there are some things they don't ever have to say.

Things like, We would have stayed there forever, if we had needed to. Things like, We wouldn't have let you go.

No matter what.

the end

A/N: For the record, I'm not totally convinced they would have destroyed the device even if Sheppard had fallen off the cliff; I'm just playing with one possible scenario. I also played a little with the height of the cliff and what we saw at the bottom of it. Hopefully I'll be forgiven. :)