In Time of War
by Eildon Rhymer (aka rhymer23)
Summary: They had never expected to end up in a war zone. Sheppard is captured, but rescuing him is only the beginning, because Sheppard is badly hurt and rapidly deteriorating, the Gate is inaccessible, and the enemy is everywhere, closing fast.
Rating: PG-13 (non-graphic violence and a war-zone setting)
Spoilers: Up to and including Inquisition
Note: Written for Chokolaj in the sheppard_hc Secret Santa fic exchange over on LJ. The prompt is quoted at the end. Huge thanks to ValleyA for beta reading.
The sirens were wailing again. As Rodney suppressed another fit of coughing, a new explosion sounded from somewhere not too far away. At least no-one screamed this time.
"It isn't safe here," he found himself saying. Oh, yes, state the obvious, Rodney! That was what came from accidentally blundering into the middle of a civil war. That was what came from deciding not to stay safely cowering in hiding, but to carry on, heading directly towards the place where the explosions were most frequent. That was what came from seeking out the meanest, most bloodthirsty faction in the whole godforsaken city, and aiming straight for their lair. Well, not really straight, because you couldn't really call a route straight when it involved terrifying twists and turns to shake off pursuit; when you had to roll behind ruins and cower under fallen pillars; when you even went underground through the stinking, crumbling drainage system, for crying out loud! But, still… "It's not safe," he said again, pressing his hand to his heaving chest.
Ronon spared him a quick, sharp glance. "You want to give up?" His face was stained with dirt and smoke, and there was a ragged graze on the back of his hand.
Rodney looked up at the small patch of fiery, smoke-stained sky. "No. No." He swallowed, tasting stone-dust and burnt things, and pushed himself up a little straighter. "No. Of course not."
But Ronon had already looked away, focusing on the expanse of open ground that lay ahead of them. "Do you need to rest, Rodney?" Teyla asked, more gentle than Ronon could be at a time like this.
Yes! his body screamed, because although he wasn't in bad condition, and he worked out - sometimes, at least – even though the ability to run ten miles without breaking a sweat was over-rated and most of those dumb grunts with their muscles and their toned bodies couldn't even count up to ten without using their fingers, and… Stop it! he thought. "No," he said, remembering Sheppard. "I'm good."
They had to rest for a while, though, because a patrol was passing in the shattered square; at least, that was how Rodney interpreted Ronon's urgent hand signals and the taut quiver of his shoulders. A toppled statue formed their hiding place, and when Rodney peered up, it looked as if he was being sheltered by a giant granite hand. The severed head was opposite him, staring at him with eyes of dead jet. The whole thing was covered with a straggly creeper, all blood-red stalks and sickly yellow leaves. Teyla had told him that it was called deathweed – the first thing to grow on the ruins of culled civilisations. Rodney had commented that the name could have been less depressing. Ronon had just looked at him, in a way that had made all Rodney's words shrivel up and die in his throat.
The siren stopped at the highest point of its wail. Rodney let out a breath. It was bad enough to be heading into almost certain death, of course, but that damn siren penetrated your brain and got everywhere, and you couldn't think properly. It made your hands tremble and your chest feel tight. It made you want to scream.
"It isn't clear yet," Ronon hissed, perhaps in response to something Teyla had asked.
Nothing to do but wait, then. Rodney tugged out the life-signs' detector, struggling to hold it still. There were far too many people ahead of them, behind the high walls of faction's headquarters. Every dot meant a man with a gun, eager to kill them.
Teyla watched him looking at the screen. "Can you--?"
"No," Rodney snapped. "I've already told you. I can't locate his subcutaneous transmitter, not using this. He might be there, but…"
"He's there." Ronon was all coiled muscle, his hand resting on stone folds of cloth.
But you don't know that, Rodney wanted to say. We might have gone through all this for nothing. The enemy might have taken Sheppard to another place entirely. They might have already killed him. Rodney and the others were risking everything on a wild guess.
"What else can we do?" Teyla said quietly.
Rodney closed his eyes for a moment. "Yes, yes, I know."
The man Ronon had captured had eventually screamed out the name of the faction that had taken Sheppard. The girl they had come across in the sewers had falteringly confirmed that they were going in the right direction. 'They take people they don't like to the old town hall,' she had said, 'and kill them dead.' Then, as they had moved on, their feet splashing in the filth, and Rodney with his hand pressed to his mouth to keep himself from throwing up, she had screeched it again: 'Dead!' It had echoed in the tunnels. It still did.
"Sheppard would do the same for us," Ronon said. With his face streaked like that, he looked almost feral, more dangerous than the men they were going up against. It was comforting, Rodney told himself - really, it was. But he tightened his grip on the life-signs' detector, remembering how their captive had screamed, and how his blood had glistened on Ronon's knife.
"I know." Rodney's voice rasped, catching on the words. He jabbed the detector into his pocket, and drew out his gun. "You don't have to labour the point. I'm here, aren't I?"
Here, he thought, and Dead! wailed the girl from the sewers. Going back to Atlantis was out of the question, with far more enemies surrounding the Gate than even Ronon could deal with. Their captive had confirmed that it would be a swift execution, delayed only if Sheppard's captors decided they wanted to indulge in a nice, friendly bout of hideous torture first. Every minute counted. Every minute of ducking down beneath the wreckage, hardly daring to breathe for a slow count of a hundred. Every minute spent helping people who were screaming, pleading, begging for help. Every minute getting lost underground. Every minute having to double back on yourself because wreckage made your path impenetrable. Every minute.
Every… damn… minute.
The siren started up again. "No," Rodney moaned, because it was too much. Stupid to care, of course. Stupid to feel… God, and there was that damn deathweed, and the polluted sky, and the freaky headless statue. There was Sheppard, dying, and Rodney was used to fixing things. He did his stuff, shouted at Sheppard for interrupting him, and that was it - crisis averted, end of story, until the next crazy adventure came along. He wasn't made for breaking people out of brutal alien prisons. He wasn't made for going in guns blazing, covering the flank, aiming at two o'clock, and go, go, go!
"They've gone," Ronon said.
But he would do it, Rodney thought. Of course he would. He pushed himself upwards, peeking over the statue's shoulder. The square was vast, with several hundred yards to cross without any real cover. Earlier, they had waded through the detritus of everyday life – discarded shoes, a coat and even a doll. Here there was nothing but stone – an expanse of grey, splashed with the red and yellow of deathweed. Even the flags on the enemy stronghold were grey, and hung limply in the absence of any wind.
Ronon nodded at him, and Rodney thought that there was a message there, but he couldn't read it; it made him think of Roman gladiators: we who are about to die…He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again. Ronon spoke first, though, merely saying, "Let's go."
And that was when the enemy stronghold exploded.
It was never meant to be this way.
"Why can't the B-team do it?" Rodney had complained, strapping on his weapons in the armoury. "I've on the verge of making a very important breakthrough that will revolutionise… What?" he had demanded, catching the tail-end of a smile passing between his team-mates. "Haven't you got things you'd rather be doing? Marines to beat the crap out of? Golf balls to pointlessly hit into the ocean? Babies to do, uh, baby things with? I just don't see why it always has to be us, that's all."
"Because it's an expression of the seriousness of our intention to help them," Sheppard explained as they headed towards the Gate. "Woolsey sends them his brightest and his best. Of course," he added, "maybe he just wants to get rid of us for a couple of days." He said 'us' in a way that clearly implied 'you,' but Rodney decided to rise above such childish provocation.
"I cannot recall you complaining when they welcomed us with a banquet last time, Rodney," Teyla reminded him treacherously.
"There were dancing girls." Ronon grinned.
"And dancing boys," Teyla added. "Some of them were quite pretty."
"And there were holes in the ceiling of the banqueting hall," Rodney grumbled, "and the drink tasted of dust."
"Which is why we're helping them." Sheppard spoke with exaggerated patience. "Culled by the Wraith, city in ruins, in need of our expert help and advice…"
"Oh, yes, good idea!" Rodney exclaimed. "Call in Colonel Oh-goody-it's-an-even-bigger-bomb and Specialist Big-gun-go-boom when you want advice on rebuilding an entire civilisation from the ashes."
"Play nice, Rodney," Sheppard said, but turned more serious as they stood waiting for the Gate to be dialled. "They've been through a lot."
The place always reminded Rodney a little of Sateda. As they emerged from the Gate on the far side, the smell of smoke and ruin made his next complaint dry up completely. The city had possessed just enough technology to resist the Wraith, and had paid a terrible price for it. Even two years after the culling, most survivors still squatted in makeshift huts in the wreckage of their stone houses.
"Something's different." Sheppard stiffened into instant alertness the moment the wormhole winked out behind them.
"Something's wrong." Ronon's hand went to his gun.
It appeared that they were expected, but it was not the usual spokesman who stepped forward. The welcoming party wasn't actually going as far as to point guns at them, but their expressions were unfriendly, and Rodney didn't recognise a single face. Not that he was good at faces, of course. After six visits, he still couldn't remember the name of the leader. Caron? Karen? A girl's name, anyway, for an earnest, elderly man. Rodney had never liked him.
"You're the people from Atlantis?" The spokesman was tall and young, with the pinched look of someone who never got enough to eat.
"That's us." Sheppard nodded, and Rodney saw how his hand moved ever so slightly at his side, signalling to the rest of them to do nothing for now, but to remain watchful. Rodney eyed the DHD. Half a dozen men surrounded it, one of them leaning on the DHD itself. When he saw Rodney looking at him, he smiled a slow and predatory smile.
Uh… Rodney swallowed hard. "Sheppard," he whispered, "I think…" But Sheppard nodded again, as if to say I know. Afterwards, of course, Rodney would wonder again and again if they could have prevented what had happened, if they had made a play for the DHD right then.
A woman stepped forward and whispered a few words to the spokesman, pointing a finger at Sheppard. That's the one, Rodney imagined her saying. He wondered if he should point it out to Sheppard, but even now, even after all the crazy things that had happened to them, part of his mind seemed to persist in thinking that he was a research scientist in a nice, safe lab, and that other human beings wouldn't really want to try to kill him.
"You're Sheppard?" the spokesman asked. He smiled, though, so perhaps it was all okay, after all; perhaps it was all a silly misunderstanding.
"Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard." Sheppard gave a self-deprecating smile. "Yeah, that'll be me."
The man's smile vanished like the sun behind clouds. "You woke the Wraith, and you consort with them even now. You created the monster that killed countless innocents across the known worlds. We heard about the charges laid against you at the tribunal."
"Which found us innocent," Sheppard pointed out. His tone was light, but Rodney could see his sudden tension.
"Doubtless because of bribery and corruption." The man flapped his hand in a way that conveyed that nothing Sheppard said would be good enough. "And now you bring your poison here."
"We bring aid," Teyla said firmly.
"We don't want aid from the likes of you," the man spat. "You might have fooled Charon and his band of traitors, but things are different now. Charon's dead, and all his sympathisers have been brought to justice."
It wasn't fair. He didn't end with a 'and so will you!' and even a 'seize him!' He didn't give them enough warning, not enough to save Sheppard. Sheppard fell to a plundered Wraith stunner, fired by somebody out of sight. Ronon lunged for him, tried to catch him, but there were too many guns; everywhere there were guns.
People had surrounded them; Rodney remembered that, at least. He remembered the sight of Ronon firing again and again, and he remembered Teyla grabbing his arm. He remembered the sight of enemy after enemy falling, and Ronon reaching out with his left hand, his mouth open and bellowing. He remembered hands on Sheppard's shoulders, pulling him up. He remembered screaming himself – "we have to go back for him! We can't…!" – but there had been an enormous explosion, and the next thing he had known, the three of them had been pressed together in a tiny hole beneath a tangle of wooden beams, bodies heaving, breath rasping, and Sheppard had been gone.
Sheppard was gone.
And now, hours later, smoke was billowing from the place they had traced Sheppard to. Another explosion sounded, even louder than the first, and Ronon vaulted over the statue, heading towards the devastation. "No!" Rodney shouted, screaming to be heard over the noise of falling masonry. "Don't! We don't know…" The noise drowned his voice, and the smoke choked it. Don't know if it's safe, he thought. Don't know if Sheppard was even in there.
He tugged out the life-signs detector, struggling to keep hold of it as he coughed. There were far fewer dots on the screen than there had been only minutes before. All dead, he thought, and if Sheppard really was in there… He showed the screen mutely to Teyla. She nodded, and then she waited for him. Recovering his breath, pressing his hand to his chest, Rodney did the only thing that he could do, and began to move towards the site of the explosion.
"He probably wasn't in there, after all," he found himself saying, even as Sheppard spoke in his mind, telling him to stay positive, because Sheppard always did pluck last-minute miracles out of the jaws of certain doom. "You know what he's like with bombs. He--" He broke off, coughing. "--probably caused the explosion himself. He…" He trailed off, unable to muster the words any more. A fist had clenched itself around his heart, squeezing tighter and tighter with every second that passed.
The life-signs detector lurched with every step, its screen covered with a light film of dust. He scraped at it. "There's still a few people alive. I don't think--" He yelped as his ankle turned over on a stone; recovered himself; carried on, wincing. "--don't think it… took out… the whole building. Maybe just a… wall."
But Teyla was ahead of him now, scrambling over shards of stone. Ronon was even further ahead. Separated, Rodney thought. Picked off one by one. His breath heaving, he struggled to catch up. Ahead of him, dust surged upwards and outwards in an enormous choking cloud. Ronon had already vanished into it, and Teyla was fading.
"It's a trap," he gasped. "A trap." His voice sounded unnaturally loud, and he realised that the masonry had finally stopped falling. Even the damn siren was finally silent. He swallowed. "Sheppard?" Something shifted with a trickle of small stones. "Sheppard?" He tried it again, then choked on dust, doubling over to try to catch his breath.
When he looked up again, the dust was beginning to clear. Ronon and Teyla were shadows on either side of the jagged hole where the wall had once been. And someone was coming out, climbing over the wreckage, walking towards them.
Rodney gripped the life-signs detector and looked at that triangle of dots, as if he needed to see it on screen before it could really be true. Then he jammed it into his pocket, and lurched forward. Every moment, he saw a little more. Ronon had his gun out. Teyla was reaching forward. And the other figure – Sheppard, it's Sheppard, please let it be Sheppard – was approaching slowly, gradually taking shape out of the wall of smoke.
"Sheppard," Rodney breathed, and he slipped, going down on one knee, and scraped the heel of his hand against a slab of rough stone. He pushed himself up again, and he ran forward, and it was, it was, it was. God! he thought. Sheppard! He scraped his hand over his stinging eyes.
Sheppard wasn't wearing his vest, and his boots and his socks were gone. He had a primitive revolver in one hand and a curved knife in the other, but his wrists were a mess and his arms looked limp, the weapons dangling from them as if he'd forgotten they were there. Despite his bare feet, he was walking forward steadily, and even when Ronon and Teyla reached for him, he kept on walking. Teyla's hand slid off him, but Ronon tried again, his hand closing round Sheppard's upper arm. Even then Sheppard tried to carry on walking, and swayed around Ronon in a quarter circle, until finally he stopped.
"Sheppard," Rodney gasped. "God, Sheppard, are you…?" But Rodney was still too far away. He heard Teyla ask much the same question; heard Sheppard mumble that yes, yes he was.
"No, you're not." Ronon was still gripping Sheppard's arm.
Rodney reached them, and stood there, struggling to breathe. There was blood on Sheppard's shirt, he saw, and a jagged hole in the fabric at his shoulder. "We… we came to rescue you," Rodney found himself saying, "from… in there." It sounded limp.
Sheppard's eyes drifted over him, flickered slightly as if with recognition, then carried on. "There's nothing there," he said. "Not any more." He pulled himself free from Ronon's grip, but Rodney saw how Ronon's fingers tightened for a moment, as if reluctant to let him go. Sheppard swayed a little, but didn't fall.
"How badly are you hurt, John?" Teyla asked.
Sheppard frowned, as if struggling to remember something. "Just a scratch," he said at last. "Bullet grazed me."
"Good." Rodney let out a breath. "Then let's get out here."
Sheppard blinked, and frowned again. "Good idea. There's…" His voice faltered for a moment. "…nothing there." His eyes didn't seem entirely in focus, but they appeared to be looking at something over Rodney's shoulder. Rodney twisted round, his heart hammering, but couldn't see anything out of the ordinary for this hellish city.
He turned back in time to see Ronon and Teyla exchanging concerned looks. A thick bead of blood dripped from the curved knife that was trailing from Sheppard's left hand.
Rodney opened his mouth to say something, but Sheppard spoke first. "I'm good." He appeared to give himself an internal shake, for his eyes cleared, and he even smiled. "It's the explosion," he said. "Ears are ringing." He took a step forward, but Rodney gasped, whatever he had been about to say freezing in his throat. There was blood where Sheppard had been standing, smeared on the jagged stones. Blood. Rubble. And Sheppard had bare feet. Sheppard had walked all that way with bare feet.
"Feet," Rodney croaked instead. "Sheppard, your feet."
Sheppard looked down at them, breathed in, held it, then breathed out again. "Yeah," he said quietly.
John remembered waking up in a cage. He remembered struggling to break free from the thick fuzziness of a stun blast, and feeling the familiar tingle of pins and needles throughout his body. Shouldn't be familiar. Even thoughts were sluggish. What sort of crazy world do we live in if…?
He took the last step then, emerging from the fog. He sat up, and almost fell again when he realised that his hands were shackled behind his back. The cage was moving, he realised, and--
A sudden jolt sent him flying sideways, smashing his shoulder into the bars. "I guess the road needs resurfacing," he muttered. The next jolt rattled his teeth; almost made him bite his tongue.
The cold of the bars helped anchor his thoughts. Leaning against them, bracing himself with his fingers on the floor behind him, he studied his prison. The cage was about seven feet square, and it sat on a flat sort of trailer, hitched to a primitive truck that looked like something cobbled together in the aftermath of an apocalypse. Black smoke billowed out of its exhaust, and its engine screamed, struggling to lurch along at barely ten miles an hour. It was--
Another jolt hurled him forward, and he struggled to stay upright, gripping onto the bar with only his fingertips. The road, such as it was, was pitted with holes and strewn with debris. But he couldn't see any other cages, and that was good. His attackers had been particularly interested in him, so he could only hope that the others had gotten away.
He slid himself forward, where the smoke from the exhaust filled his lungs. He tried to breathe shallowly as he pushed his shoulder experimentally against the cage door. A rusty metal padlock locked it on the outside. Then the truck hit something solid, crashing to a halt. John was thrown forward, struggled to recover his balance, and landed heavily on his back, his shackled hands crushed beneath him.
A door opened, and he saw someone walk round to the front of the truck; heard someone curse. "Have you guys heard of seatbelts?" John shouted, as pain throbbed through his hands.
Another door opened. "Hey." Sheppard smiled at the unfamiliar face that approached him. "I think your suspension's busted."
He saw the Wraith stunner, had time to think Oh, shit, and that was all…
…until the next awakening.
"John," he heard, "John," and everything was fuzzy, but with an undercurrent of pain beneath it. That was because of the stunner. No, he thought. No. He wasn't in the cage any more. It wasn't even the second awakening, back in the courtyard. It was all over, finished and done. There was no need to remember it any more. Ronon was on one side and Teyla on the other, and Rodney was fluttering anxiously beside them, babbling about approaching life signs. He was being pulled down behind good cover, and there was… God! Dark eyes. Dark staring eyes, and… No, no, a statue. A headless statue – fallen kings; civilisations lost in the dust. Something from school days: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. No, something after that, or before that, about endless deserts, and people lost to dust.
Stupid, he thought. Stupid, John. Just a statue. His gaze lurched in a circle, and settled on Teyla. "I'm good," he said. "I'm good."
What was the old saying? For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe... well, lots of things were lost, but it culminated in a kingdom. They were stuck here, pinned in their inadequate hiding place, because Sheppard didn't have any shoes. The damn siren had started up again, and Rodney could hear people shouting. Someone was screaming, their voice wailing and bubbling, pleading for help.
He thought Sheppard was listening to it, too. Sheppard was sitting with his back against the statue's chest, and his hair was so sprinkled with dust that it looked grey, like someone fed on by the Wraith. Rodney could see how rapid and shallow his breathing was.
The screaming stopped, fading away into nothing. Sheppard closed his eyes. "We're too close," Rodney found himself whispering. "We won't be able to…" He gestured weakly with his hand, not entirely sure what he had been trying to say, knowing just that he hated staying here, and that he wanted to be back on Atlantis.
"John needs shoes," Teyla said. Sheppard didn't respond to his name. "The safest route is through the tunnels."
Tunnels. Drains. The relics of a sewer system that was no longer working, where you had to splash through foul water up to your ankles. It was doubtless riddled with disease. Rodney had probably already gone down with something hideous. But Sheppard… Rodney looked at his feet again. You seemed so different when your feet were bare – no longer like Colonel Sheppard, who had a solution to everything, but like a vulnerable human body that could be broken and damaged so easily. Rodney didn't think he had ever seen Sheppard's bare feet before.
Sheppard opened his eyes. "I can walk."
"Don't be ridiculous," Rodney said. "Have you seen your feet? We're not talking a stroll on silver sands. There's broken glass and sharp stones everywhere. Yes, yes, I know people can walk over hot coals if they go fast enough, but that's a result of the specific thermodynamic properties of the two bodies, and not…" He trailed off. Sheppard's feet were a mess, and the worst thing, the scariest thing of all, was that he hadn't really seemed to notice. "You just can't," Rodney said, "and I can't carry you, and Ronon said he would, but we're also likely to get shot at, and… well, he can't shoot back if his hands are full of… well, you."
Sheppard frowned, his eyes tracking slowly from side to side. "Where's Ronon?"
"Gone to find you some shoes," Rodney reminded him. "There's lots of, uh, stuff lying around in the ruins."
Sheppard gave half a smile. "Dead man's shoes, huh?" The smile vanished.
"Yeah." Rodney pressed his lips together.
Teyla moved closer to Sheppard. "I need to examine your wound, John."
"It's just a scratch." Sheppard pushed himself up so he was sitting a little straighter. "Listen, I… I just needed a moment. I'm good. What's our status? How far is to the Gate, and how much resistance are we likely to encounter?"
Everything felt a little bit better when Sheppard was talking like that, but all Teyla said was, "I would prefer to determine for myself if it is 'just a scratch.'" She touched Sheppard's side, froze for a moment, then showed Rodney the results of that brief touch. Even though it had been a long way from the site of the injury, her fingers were covered with blood.
An explosion sounded, and Rodney found himself making himself smaller, drawing his head down into his shoulders, even though the sound was far away. He pulled out the life-signs detector, but they were still alone – three dots almost on top of each other. Ronon's dot was no longer there. Rodney looked at Sheppard's blood staining the deathweed, and suddenly, incongruously, found himself desperate for a drink of water.
"…foolish," Teyla was saying, "to continue with wounds untreated. It endangers us all."
"Yeah," Sheppard said at last, his voice quiet. He let Teyla unbutton his shirt and pull it off his left shoulder. His eyes were open all the time, dark and glittering, looking at something that wasn't there.
It wasn't just a scratch. Of course it wasn't just a scratch. The bullet had struck him full on the shoulder, just below the collarbone, and when Teyla pulled Sheppard gently forward, there was no exit wound visible on the back; of course there was no exit wound. "You have lost a lot of blood," Teyla said quietly. Her palms were smeared in it from fingertip to wrist.
"I knew I'd been hit." Sheppard's eyes found hers. "I didn't know… I couldn't afford to stop, you know?"
"I know." Teyla's voice was gentle. She touched Sheppard's throat, taking his pulse, and then there were blood smears there, too, and it was only then, seeing the contrast of red and white, that Rodney realised that Sheppard's pallor was not entirely caused by the dust. "Your pulse is too fast," Teyla said, "and you feel cold." She turned to Rodney, as if she expected him to do something, to react in a certain way.
All he could think was we're screwed. We're so screwed. The bullet was still in the wound. That meant that… Well, he wasn't sure what it meant, just that it was bad, and when bad things happened when you were stuck in a war zone with no access to the Gate, then your regular sort of bad became a whole new level of bad, and Sheppard was probably going to die, and then…
"Bandages, Rodney?" Teyla said sharply. "We can stop the bleeding, at least." She turned back to Sheppard. "Do you have full feeling in your left hand?"
Sheppard looked down at his hand; it was still clutching the blood-stained knife, Rodney saw, and from the expression that flickered over Sheppard's face, he was suddenly sure that Sheppard had entirely forgotten about it, too. "Uh…" Sheppard managed, and that, really, was answer enough.
Screwed, Rodney thought. So screwed. But he fumbled for the bandages, and passed them over to Teyla. But she didn't take them, crouching there suddenly alert. "Someone is…" The tension eased. "Ronon."
"How did you know…?" Rodney began, and he reached for his gun, and he held it there, tight in his trembling hands, until Ronon slid down into the space beside him.
"Got boots." Ronon's eyes narrowed as he looked at Sheppard. "That's not a scratch."
Sheppard gave a one-shouldered shrug. "You'd have called it a scratch."
Ronon gave a quick grin, acknowledging the truth of that. He touched Sheppard's shoulder fearlessly and without asking permission. "You'll be okay," he said, "as long as we're not out here too long. Doc'll fix that when we get back." He dropped the boots beside Sheppard's right hand.
Dead man's shoes, Rodney thought. Sheppard would be walking in a dead man's shoes.
Luckily, though, Rodney was a rational scientist and didn't believe in portents. No, he didn't believe in them at all.
John was struggling to focus. Everything lurched crazily, as if he had had a few too many beers the night before. The ground was tilting and swaying beneath him, and he saw a protruding piece of stonework approaching, tried to avoid it, yet somehow managed to walk straight into it. It slammed into his right shoulder, sending red spears of pain through his body from the left. Everything surged white. If only he could get enough air!
"Sheppard needs to stop." Rodney's voice sounded as if it was coming from the other end of a tunnel.
"No." He managed to raise a hand, fending them off. "I'm good." Stopping was bad. It hadn't hurt much until they'd made him stop. Now every step felt as if he was walking on coals, and he wanted to curl in on himself in misery, except that that meant stopping, and stopping was bad.
"You'll… uh… be okay," Rodney said. "Uh…"
It helped. He started walking – one step, then two; one foot in front of the other – and reminded himself where the revolver was, in case they were attacked.
"What happened?" Rodney asked.
He remembered the second stun blast. Waking from that had been sudden, the pain ripping him out of the lethargy. He'd flailed desperately, not knowing where he was or what had happened; knowing only that it hurt, and that the more he struggled, the more it hurt. His arms were on fire, and his shoulders…
His left foot found the ground, and then his right foot, and the pain eased, and became a different sort of pain. He was standing up in an enclosed courtyard, he realised, with his hands shackled in front of him, just above head height. It wasn't too bad, standing. Unconscious, though, he must have hung there, most of his weight dangling from his wrists.
Isn't too bad, John? he thought. Your sense of priorities is seriously warped. He was a prisoner. His arms were screaming from being held in the same position, and he could see that his wrists were bleeding, rivulets of blood trickling down his bare forearms. Somebody had stripped him of his vest, his boots and his socks, and all his weapons were gone. He swallowed hard, moistening suddenly dry lips. Somebody had stripped him while he lay unconscious. It was stupid to feel so violated when it was just your boots, but that's how it is, John, and you need to forget about it and concentrate on getting the hell out of here.
"Who are you?"
He turned around as much as he could, feeling the pull of pain on his shoulders. His wrists were shackled to a hook attached to a low beam, he realised. The beam ran the entire width of the courtyard, with identical hooks driven in every six feet or so. All but one were empty. Two hooks away, a young man of little more than eighteen was standing, his wrists chained up in the same way.
John gave him a wry smile. "I guess we're room-mates."
"We're going to die." The young man strained at his shackles, tugging them harder and harder, faster and faster. "I don't want to die! I didn't do anything!"
"Hey," John urged him. "Hey! We're not going to die. We'll find a way out of here, you hear me."
The young man didn't seem to be listening to him. He threw himself forward, deliberately letting his whole weight dangle from his shackles, desperately trying to tear himself free. Fresh blood snaked down his arms. There were other bloodstains, too, John saw, some red and some brown, under every empty hook. No, he thought, quite deliberately looking away from the blood. It wouldn't come to that; it wouldn't.
"Hey," John insisted. The bad guys didn't seem to be around, and that had to mean something, right? "Stop it!" he shouted, snapping it as a command.
The young man's face was streaked with tears. "I don't want to die." His eyes bored into John's, pleading for help and understanding. "I didn't do anything. I can't help who my father is."
"We'll get out of here," John promised him.
The young man looked at him with desperate hope in his eyes, then suddenly recoiled. "You're Sheppard," he gasped. "I remember you with my father. You're in league with the Wraith. You brought the Wraith. You did this."
"No." Pain throbbed down from John's wrists, even to his chest. "That's not true. I didn't--"
"You brought the Wraith," the young man sobbed. "That's what they said. They took my father away, and they… I didn't see him killed, but they… they kill everybody. They said… said you'd betrayed us, and that Father… Father was condoning it, that he invited you in. He wouldn't… he said he wouldn't, and then they… they…"
"It's not true," John insisted. He felt cold all over, and the pain was barbs in his throat. "That's not true. Listen… Listen! We need to work together. We need to--"
"I don't want to die!" the young man screamed. "Please! Please! I don't want to die!"
John tried to reach towards him, the shackles digging into his wrists. "Be quiet!" he hissed, but the door was already opening. Half a dozen men trooped into the courtyard, all of them armed. A siren started wailing, and an explosion sounded not too far away, but the men kept walking forward. John had been like that once – so used to the sounds of war that he no longer startled at sudden noises, feeling only a cold, dull clenching of the chest as he wondered if any of his buddies had died today.
"Don't kill me," the young man begged them. "Please don't kill me. Kill him."
"Oh, we will." The leading man gave a cold smile. "We kill all traitors. But this one… Even though we're engaged in righteous warfare, there's still a little time for fun, eh, lads?"
"No," John gasped, thinking they meant to go for the boy, but they changed direction at the last minute, surrounding him.
He fought – oh, God, he had fought. He'd kicked at them, using his body as a weapon, swinging his whole weight from his wrists, but his feet had been bare, and there had been too many of them, far too many of them. The first blow had landed across his stomach, the wooden club driving all the air from his lungs. The second one had struck the side of his head, and his memory was hazy after that. He thought he knew what had happened next, but perhaps it was just a dream.
"What happened?" he echoed, focusing on Rodney, and on Ronon and Teyla ahead of them, because whether true or a dream, it was over, and there was no point thinking about it any more. "Got captured. Escaped. You know; the usual."
"Down!" Ronon hissed, and Rodney dropped to his knees, shielding his head with his arms. Something struck the wall behind where he had been standing, sending down a shower of chipped stone. Ronon was firing his weapon again and again, and Teyla joined in, the P90 loud in the echoing ruins. Something fell down from far above them, crashing to the ground, and Rodney sucked in a rasping breath, and let it out, whimpering. His shoulders hunched, he stood up enough to fire his own gun in the rough direction that Ronon was aiming. He thought he saw movement, silver and black.
"There's too many," Ronon said, still firing. "There's another way down."
Rodney knew that he was going to die at any moment. Another bullet struck the wall, and there was a huge explosion, shockingly near, close enough for him to feel the rush of air and the heat. He took an instinctive step backwards, and would have fallen over a pile of wreckage had Sheppard not been there to stop him, holding him up by the arm. Sheppard had his revolver out, and his face was grim and scary. He stepped in front of Rodney and slotted in between Ronon and Teyla, firing one-handed at the unseen enemy.
"We need to go down!" Ronon hissed again.
"Where?" Rodney asked, because he had no idea where they were, but Teyla did, nodding once at Ronon, and leaving her defensive position. Rodney looked from Ronon to her, and then at Sheppard, whose left hand had crept out, the fingers curled loosely but the back of it resting against the wall, as if holding him up.
"John!" Teyla hissed, but Sheppard didn't turn round until Ronon, firing one final shot, grabbed his arm and half pushed and half dragged him after Teyla, twisting through a tangled corridor of wreckage, down a set of stone stairs, through a cellar that stank of stale wine, and into the darkness.
The tunnels were just as foul as Rodney remembered them, ankle-deep in stinking water. Light came from regular grilles in the ceiling, but it was almost completely dark in between them. A cloud of dust and smoke floated down from the nearest grille, falling as grey scum on the water.
"What if--" Rodney coughed, pressing his hand to his mouth, then flapped his fingers in the direction they had come from. "--they follow us?"
"Then we'll be ready for them." Sheppard was standing there, revolver in hand.
Teyla exchanged a sharp look with Ronon, as if the two of them had seen something that Rodney had missed. "Yes, we will," she said, "but not here. We need to carry on."
Ronon and Teyla went first, moving quietly through the water. Rodney ended up at the rear with Sheppard. Sheppard was getting better, Rodney realised. He always did, bouncing back from things that should by rights have brought him down. Sheppard's injury wasn't as bad as it seemed, Rodney told himself. He'd looked bad for a while, but now he'd recovered. His steps were steady and he was gripping the revolver tightly in his hand. Nothing was as bad when Sheppard was like this. They were going to be okay. Well, they probably weren't, because they were still in a war zone and still cut off from the Gate, and they were probably all going to die hideously, but Sheppard was going to be okay.
"What are they fighting about?" Rodney muttered, as a distant explosion rumbled through the stone walls.
"Us," Sheppard said quietly. "It's because of us."
"What?" Rodney snapped his head around.
"Nothing." Sheppard brought his right hand up, frowning down at the revolver.
The tunnel grew darker and darker; two grilles in a row were covered with wreckage, blocking out the light. Ronon and Teyla were vague shapes ahead of him, and Sheppard was just sound. When the light returned and Rodney was able to see him, he looked horribly pale, but everything was pale and washed-out in the pale grey light from above.
Rodney concentrated on walking. Sheppard moved away from him, closer to the far wall. Rodney chewed his lip for a moment, then followed him, keeping him close. Sheppard's going to be okay, he thought, but what if he wasn't? What if…?
"Dead!" someone screamed. Sheppard gasped and brought the revolver up, holding it in two hands, one tense, one clumsy. As Rodney watched, the left hand failed to complete its grip, and fell back down to Sheppard's side. The tip of the revolver lurched in an incomplete circle, then stilled.
"Dead!" The girl ran out of a side passage, her splashing footsteps sounding far too loud to belong to just one person. She clapped her hands together when she saw them, heedless of the circle of guns. "You came back!" she cried. "They didn't kill you." Her smile vanished. "Yet," she said. "They kill everyone in the end. Is that your friend? They've already killed him."
The barrel of Sheppard's revolver lurched sideways. No, Rodney thought, he didn't believe in portents – never had done, and never would. Sheppard lowered the gun and took a step forward, but the girl screamed and ran away. The rhythmic splashing that was her footsteps seemed to go on for a very long time.
"It isn't true," Rodney found himself saying, "what she said."
He saw Sheppard smile, comforting and normal even in the fading light. "Of course it isn't."
The smell seemed less repulsive this time, or perhaps it was just became he had Sheppard to watch. Perhaps it was because Sheppard kept turning round, covering their rear with his wavering gun. Rodney almost touched him, but withdrew at the last minute. "Are you…?"
"Good," Sheppard murmured, then blinked and said, "No, not good, but it's better when I've got a job to do, you know? Watch your six. Look…" Sheppard's voice faded away, and he didn't seem to realise it. Rodney bit his lip, and wondered whether to call for help.
"What did you mean," he asked instead, his voice too loud in the silence of the tunnels, "when you said they were fighting because of us?"
Sheppard stopped walking. His left hand came up, once again trying to grip the revolver, and once again failing. He frowned, tried to bring the hand up instead to his face, teetered forward three more steps, then collapsed.
Rodney tried to catch him, but was slow, far too slow. He shouted for help, but something exploded very close, almost on top of them, drowning his words.
The cave-in happened only seconds later.
John could feel hands on his body, trying to drag him away. "No," he moaned, and he tried to fight them, tried to push them away, but his arms felt as heavy as lead, and dust was filling his lungs, like a heavy weight pressing down on his chest.
"Stop fighting, Sheppard," he heard someone say, and was he dreaming, imagining Rodney? He'd been captured. He was strung up. The hands were trying to strip him of his clothes and boots. He tried to curl away from them, making himself small. If only everything would stop lurching! He was underwater, at the bottom of the ocean, with a huge weight of water on his chest, and the light was fuzzy and far away. No, he thought. Captured. Escaped. Safe. His right hand closed on something solid. "Ow!" Rodney squawked, and John murmured, "Sorry, sorry," and tumbled into the darkness again.
The voices followed him there. "I think the ceiling is stable here," they said, and, "Stable, yes, but we still can't get out. Way out's blocked remember?" and, "We will find another way," and "John" and "Sheppard" and "can you hear me?" and "of course he can't," which faltered into a "what's wrong with him? Beyond the obvious, of course."
He remembered waking up in the cage on the back of the truck. No, no, he wasn't there any more, was he? He was hanging from shackles, and his wrists hurt, but the fire inside him was worse, far worse.
A naked flame touched him on the throat, pressing against the vein. "His skin is cold and clammy," Teyla said, "and his pulse is far too rapid. I believe he is in shock."
"Shock?" Rodney echoed, and John was still trapped beneath the water, able to hear them, but not able to swim towards them. "He hasn't lost that much blood, has he?"
"We will find out." Teyla sounded grim. "Can you…?"
John couldn't understand what happened next. He heard the sound of scraping stone, and Rodney shouted something, sharp and urgent. Water splashed. He gasped when something was dropped onto his body. "Extra jackets, to keep you warm," Teyla said gently. Water rose into a tidal wave that engulfed him in swirling darkness.
There was nothing there this time. It was like life ending, then starting again. He opened his eyes just a slit, but all he saw was faceless shapes in the darkness. His legs had been raised, and someone was pulling his boots off. He didn't want them to, but when he tried to kick them away, to stop the enemy from stripping him, the pain nearly tore him in half.
Perhaps he screamed then. The light from the P90 was like a blade, and Rodney's expression was horrible, more sickened and terrified than was normal even for him. John tried to smile at him. "Hey, it isn't… that bad, is it?" His voice didn't sound like his own, but like the voice of an old man. "You okay?"
"No, I am not okay," Rodney began, and John tried to sit up, to show Rodney that he didn't have to worry about him, at least, but--
"John. John." He thought it was a long time later. He shivered under the shackles that kept his arms from moving, under the bars that pressed down on his chest. "No, you need to keep them on," Teyla told him. She held them down. Fabric rasped against his chin.
He couldn't see Ronon. He didn't know where Ronon was. He turned his head from side to side, trying to find him, but hands as hot as flames caught hold of his face. "John." The flames licked over his brow. "Where else are you hurt?"
He had to give his report. You always did, when a mission went south. "Shoulder," he said. "Feet. Wrists. Hit my head but didn't pass out. Good. It's good."
The flame moved to the side of his head. Light pierced his eyes, and he screwed them closed, turning his head away with a groan. "Sorry," Rodney murmured. "Sorry."
"Side," John managed to rasp out. "Hurts. Like… knife in the gut. Side. Left side."
He felt hands work on him. He felt his shirt pulled up, felt fingers push the fabric away. The air was shockingly cold, and he felt his body start to shiver; tried to stop it, but couldn't. "Oh God," he heard Rodney breathe. The flames that were Teyla's fingers went still.
John felt the question in that stillness. "They had me beat." He felt a finger of flame brush softly across his skin. This time he really did scream, or would have, stifling it by slamming his mouth shut, but the pain surged red; everywhere there was red…
His side was on fire. He struggled for breath, struggled to find his footing. His captors were walking away. One of them tossed the club away, and it landed heavily, then rolled slowly for three complete turns before it stopped.
"No!" the boy screamed. "No! Please!"
John forced his unresponsive fingers to move, wrapping them around the chains, so that he was holding himself in place, rather than dangling there. Breathe, he thought. Breathe. It was just a beating, just bruises. He'd been through worse. The pain was a knife in his side, radiating fire throughout his body, but it was just pain. You couldn't give in to pain, not until the mission was over and everyone was safe. You had to--
"No!" the young man shrieked. "Please! Help me, please! Don't let them do this, please!"
John gripped the chains tighter, pulling himself more upright. The shackles twisted, digging into his wrists, drawing fresh blood. His attackers encircled the boy, and one of them reached up, unfastening the shackles. The young man screamed as he was wrestled to the floor, screamed as he was dragged to a slab in the middle of the courtyard, screamed as the sword was raised, and screamed as it fell. When it fell a second time, though, the boy was silent.
It was only afterwards, when the enemy withdrew, that John saw that the young man's eyes were still open, staring unseeingly directly at him.
It was only afterwards, as the enemy walked towards him with red footprints, that he realised that his own throat was hoarse from shouting, and that the blood from his wrists was thick all the way down to his elbows.
But when the enemy came for him, he was ready. Slumping in his fetters, he made no sound at all as they unfastened the shackles, tugging the metal free from his raw wrists. Only when both hands were free did he make his move. His hand closed on a knife, brought it up, and then everything was red, everything was red…
"John," he heard, at a different time and in a different place; but perhaps it was the same time – perhaps he had never left. But the redness surged and turned to black, and then--
"I believe he has suffered some internal injury." Teyla's face was stark in the thin beam of light.
Rodney wrapped his arms around his body, trying to keep warm. "The hideous bruising was the clue, eh? The symptoms of excessive blood loss even when he isn't… when he hasn't…?" Though the shoulder wound was bad enough, with the bullet still lodged inside him, and Teyla's fingers stained with blood from gently easing up Sheppard's shirt. Rodney let out a breath, shivering with the cold. "What are we going to do?"
Teyla pushed her hair from her face, leaving smears of drying blood across her brow. "From the location of the bruising, I believe he may have ruptured his spleen."
"How do you know that?" The cold grew more intense. His arms were bare, his jacket lying over Sheppard's body, but Sheppard's skin remained as cold as ice. "You're a medical doctor now?"
Teyla moved out of the beam of light, her face moving into the darkness. "I learned what I could."
"But not enough to save him." He thought of his own tools and weapons – his computers and sensors and devices – all of them useless at a time like this. "I've learned things, too – of course I have, because, well, me – and I know… It's serious, a ruptured spleen, and you need urgent medical treatment, and he's not going to get that here, is he, and… Oh no! Oh no no no no no! His shoulder! The water's not deep, but he fell right in it, and there's bound to be all manner of infections lurking in the water, and then there's his wrists and… and his feet, and who did those boots belong to? Probably someone with… with bacteria, alien bacteria, and now you've taken them off again, to expose the cuts to the air, but the air's foul, and we can't get back to Atlantis, and no-one's going to come for us, not until it's too late, and he's bleeding inside, and you can't treat that with bandages; you can't treat that with anything, and--"
"Rodney," he heard Teyla saying. "Rodney." She was back in the light again, and the blood on her face had gone. "It is serious, yes, but we are not going to give up on him."
Rodney let out a shaky breath. "No." He pressed his hand to his face; the palm stank of foul and horrid things. "No, we're not."
But the explosion had sealed off the passage in the direction that they needed to go. They'd dragged Sheppard out of the water; taken him to a tiny side chamber where the floor was littered with stones, and there had been a rat, or something very like it – a rat! – lying dead in the corner, and the beam of the P90 showed the air to be thick with dust, and there were probably hideous vapours that you couldn't see, and they were screwed; they were so thoroughly screwed.
"Help me," Teyla said, and Rodney moved closer, forced by the size of the room to sit with his knees pressed against Sheppard's side. And Ronon wasn't back yet. Ronon had probably gone off and gotten himself killed, and the enemy was coming for them even now, and--
"Fresh bandages," Teyla said, "to replace those that got wet," which was like locking the stable door after the horse was bolted, but Rodney did what was told, and pulled the layer of jackets off Sheppard just enough for Teyla to pull his shirt down over his shoulder, and to pull off the sodden bandages – were they brown with dirt, or was that just shadow? – but Rodney didn't look at what she did next, but looked instead at Sheppard's face and his throat and his dog tags and the pale skin across his right collarbone and--
"He isn't breathing," he gasped. "His heart isn't…" His fingers trembled as he touched Sheppard's throat, and he found nothing, no pulse at all, but he tried again, moving his fingers until he found it, but it was so faint as to be hardly there at all, and it fluttered so fast, like the heart of an injured bird Jeannie had once brought inside, that had died in Rodney's cupped hands, just a scrap of flesh inside brown feathers.
"His blood pressure is dangerously low," Teyla said.
"I know, I know." Rodney didn't want to remove his hand; didn't want to lower his guard in case Sheppard's heart stopped beating. Then he heard a sound in the tunnels behind him, and whirled around, snatching up the P90, and even when Ronon called out his name, he couldn't quite bring himself to relax.
"How is he?" Rodney hadn't often heard Ronon's voice like that, almost gentle.
"Going to die," Rodney said, "unless we get home soon."
But Ronon had news. Ronon had bad news. Rodney listened to him talking about it, as he watched Sheppard stir faintly in his sleep. He didn't look peaceful in his unconsciousness, but in pain. His eyelids kept fluttering as if he was going to wake up, but each time he sank under again.
They couldn't get out, Ronon said. The grilles weren't big enough to climb through, and the way ahead was comprehensively blocked, no possibility of digging through it, and, no, they couldn't blow it up, because it would probably bring half the city down on their heads. Back the way they had come, the enemy was thick on the ground, searching through the ruins of their destroyed headquarters, baying for blood and vengeance. Ronon had slipped out by himself, but he didn't think that four could do it, and if they had to carry Sheppard, they didn't stand a chance.
"Atlantis will come for us," Teyla said, when the silence had gone on for a little too long; Rodney had found himself holding his breath, half-expecting Sheppard to say something, to come up with a positive suggestion, to organise them, to make a plan.
Sweat was glistening on Sheppard's brow, his body even now throwing away fluids that he so desperately needed. "Not for another twenty-four hours," Rodney said. "We need food and water. I can't go for that long without food – hypoglycaemic, you know? And some of us have surrendered our warm outer clothing, and...."
Sheppard moaned, but didn't wake. Rodney bit his lip, and once again touched Sheppard's throat; once again had to search until he found the pulse, by which time his own pulse was racing almost as fast.
"Sheppard hasn't got that long," Rodney said, and he could tell by their faces that they knew it, too.
A floating disc with eyes was looking down at him. John blinked; tried to resolve it into a familiar face. Rodney, he thought. Even thoughts were sluggish. He couldn't remember where he was. That scared him, worse even than the pain that ripped through him when he tried to move.
Rodney's hand fluttered onto his shoulder. "Why didn't you tell us? Is it the hero thing – playing the hero, carrying on, making us look bad because we can't--?"
"Rodney," he heard. Teyla's voice, firm, gentle, chiding.
"It's just…" He heard Rodney sigh. "Why didn't you tell us?"
"What?" He managed that, at least. Everything was fuzzy, but he was cold, so impossibly cold, except for his shoulder, which burned and blazed.
"That you were hurt. Hurt inside." Rodney almost started another word, cutting it off after the initial D.
John tried to move, but Teyla held him down, pressing on his good shoulder with only her fingers, but it felt like the weight of an entire building, and he was weak, too weak to resist it. Teyla's voice rose and fell, weaving in and out of the fire and the darkness. She told him that he would be okay. She offered him water, the drops warm on his lips. She tucked him in and told him to stay still, and he remembered his mother, and pain twisted inside him, twisting like a knife.
"Didn't know," he said, seeking Rodney. The light was wrong. P90 in the darkness, he thought, because we're on the run, running from the bad guys. He tried to moisten his lips, but even his tongue felt dry. "What's… status?"
"How couldn't you know?" Rodney's voice was shrill. The blur of his face turned to Teyla. "And why didn't you realise? You examined him? Just a bullet wound, you said. Just a bullet wound. God! Just a bullet wound?"
"Didn't… know…" John coughed. There was a black hole at the centre of the universe and it was trying to drag him into it. He curled his fingers, clinging on, feeling scabs crack at his wrists. He remembered a club landing on the ground and rolling away, over and over and over until it stopped. He remembered the haze of a head injury, and blows landing on his stomach and ribs, again and again and again.
"But how could you miss it?" He saw Rodney scrape a hand over his face. His arms were bare and he looked cold; John stirred, trying to offer him one of the jackets that covered him, but Teyla held him down again, a hand on his arm. "It's not really a small thing, is it – bleeding to death from the inside?"
"It doesn't matter, Rodney." Teyla sounded weary, not like her usual self. "There are more important things…" But their voices faded into the darkness. He heard them talk about Ronon and Atlantis and twenty-three hours. He tried to ask them to fill him in, so he could take command, could resume his duty, could get them out of here and back where they belonged, but his muscles had been replaced with water. He couldn't even lift his head.
"Got to…" John managed. "Got to… get out."
"And the prize for stating the obvious goes to Colonel Sheppard."
John remembered having a gun – a primitive thing, similar to a revolver. He remembered his hand closing around it, remembering dragging it from a man's hand, pulling and tearing, stabbing him with the knife he held in his other hand. He remembered ducking and kicking and striking out with the knife; tearing himself free; running backwards, shooting. He remembered the boy's eyes, dead and staring, and the way one of the boy's murderers had screamed as he'd fallen to the floor, and the pain of blood returning to his arms, and how everything had swayed and lurched as his head had pounded with pain.
He felt liquid on his lips again. Teyla said something. Rodney said something. Teyla said something. The enemies shouted, and he wasn't quite sure if he was there, or here.
There was hard and shattered stone beneath his hands. He remembering finding a doorway; pausing in it to shoot backwards; feeling something strike him hard in the shoulder. He slammed the door and leant against it, breathing hard, fumbling for the bolt. His knife clattered to the floor, and when he stooped for it, he found himself falling instead, striking the ground hard with both knees. He pushed himself up, feeling his breath heaving in his chest, his blood hammering in his shoulder, in his wrists, in his head. He had to get out. They'd killed the boy – the boy who'd screamed for help; the boy he'd promised to save. He had to find his team again. He had to get out.
You did this, the boy said. You did this. You.
His enemies were pounding on the door. The room led into a larger one, full of clutter, but there wasn't a way out, not a proper one. No windows, no doors. Everything swayed. Two stun bolts and a head injury. Think. He pressed the heel of his hand to his brow. It was just a store room. Stupid, John. You've locked yourself in a store room.
The hammering ceased. A bullet slammed into the door. He looked at the piles of barrels and boxes in the larger room. Can hide behind them, he thought. Set… ambush. He wouldn't give up. Had to be calm, rational… Why was it so hard to think? Because I've… taken fire. Something crunched underfoot, and he felt the pain of that, too. He didn't have a vest, so no supplies there. There were barrels. In video games, you smashed barrels and there was money in them, or you climbed on them and…
"Teyla, I think he's…" He heard those words suddenly clear, reality cutting through memory, or perhaps the other way round. Different parts of him hurt at different times. It was his feet, this time…
Feet, as he ran through the store room, crunching over shattered stone, and used the bloody knife to claw open the nearest crate, and then the second and then the third.
Black powder. Black powder, and a spark…
"We can't go on like this," Rodney said. "We've got to do something."
"We are," Teyla said, and she spoke about fluids and bandages and pain-killers and warmth, and her hand touched his brow, warm and dry.
"But it's not going to be enough," Rodney said, as John ran his fingers through black powder, and knew what he had to do.
And now Ronon was probably off getting himself killed, too. "It has barely been an hour," Teyla tried to reassure him, but an hour was quite enough to get yourself killed in a place like this.
"He shouldn't have gone." Rodney's arms were wrapped around his body, but nothing could keep away the cold. "We should have stayed together. Sheppard likes us to stay together. What will Sheppard say if Ronon doesn't come back?"
The words hung in the foul air, worsening the stench. If Ronon didn't come back, Sheppard wouldn't be in a condition to know about it. He couldn't last twenty-four hours, and they couldn't carry him to Atlantis, so Atlantis had to be brought to them. The Gate was heavily guarded and the city was full of danger and enemies, but Ronon thought he had a chance to make it through by himself. "Some things are easier to do by yourself," Ronon had said, but some things weren't. Sometimes you needed someone with you, guarding your back, but when Rodney had pointed that out, raising a trembling hand, Ronon had just looked at him, then at Sheppard, and then had gone, not even a goodbye, not even speaking of the fact that this could be the end for all of them.
"How long…?" Rodney looked at his watch, where the minute hand seemed to be moving at a quarter of its normal speed. How long before we give up on him? How long does Sheppard have? How long before…
Before what? Before Teyla took that final, fatal step, and went after Ronon? How many people did you have to hurl one by one against a no-hope situation before you gave up and accepted the inevitable? Sheppard never gave up, but Sheppard was unconscious, his heartbeat barely there. I don't want to be left alone with him, he thought. He didn't want to be the one whose fingers felt the moment that the pulse ceased completely. Didn't want to be the one who had to find something to say, when they were trapped and dying in a sewer, for crying out loud!
Teyla's hand squeezed his. "John is still alive, and it took us several hours to travel from the Gate. It will be a few hours before we can expect to hear from Ronon."
They didn't know if the radios were safe to use, so they had decided to err on the side of caution. Rodney didn't even know if it was day or night out there. The grilles had been sealed up, and the only light they had come from the P90, but even that was fading, the battery nearing the end of its life. His watch said almost eight o'clock, but that was set to the day and night rhythms of Atlantis.
It seemed wrong, so shockingly wrong, for Sheppard to die in the darkness, just slipping away in his sleep. He didn't even look like Sheppard. Sheppard was never still; he hadn't realised that before, had he? His feet were bare, and he was covered with clothes and blankets, like a child tucked in to sleep. It wasn't right. It wasn't Sheppard.
Something was dripping in the main tunnel, water or dust falling down from above, falling rhythmically… No, it was footsteps. Someone was coming, just one person, their steps light and slow. "Dead," the girl called, her voice echoing and coming back doubled. "Is he dead?"
Rodney saw her flinching from the light of his gun. "No, he isn't dead," Rodney told her, "and he isn't going to die, because he's Sheppard, and Sheppard doesn't do things like that – have you seen the number of suicide missions he's come back from? – and you have to stay positive, because… because…" He couldn't find the words; something was robbing him of words. He scraped his hand over his face, then did it again, and he was cold, so cold, and hungry, and he was trapped in an enclosed dark place and there was nothing he could do, absolutely nothing, and all his skills and talents were useless here, and if Sheppard's body decided to fail, there was nothing any of them could do about it, nothing at all.
"Rodney," he heard. "Rodney." Teyla pressed a power bar into his hand, and Sheppard stirred, muttering something in his sleep. Rodney sank down to his knees beside him. "We'll get through this," he said, perhaps to himself, perhaps to Sheppard, perhaps to Teyla, perhaps to the girl. But he wasn't good at doing positive; never had been. That was Sheppard's job, and what would they do without him? Where would they be? Who would they be?
John struck a spark, and watched it die. He struck another one, and it took, travelling along the snaking line of black powder. He retreated as far as he could, crouching down behind a pile of empty barrels.
The explosion rocked him, pain exploding in his shoulder, in his side, in his chest. Stone rained down. He peeked out; saw daylight. He had just clambered through the hole when the second explosion came, hurling him forward. The third came as he was picking himself up, and he ran forward, managing a dozen steps before the fourth came, the biggest – a wall of fire behind him – and he couldn't stand, ears ringing, vision blurring, but he had to, he had to carry on walking…
And the fire blazed, and the smoke was thick, like a heavy weight on his chest, but he was cold; why was he cold? He heard familiar voices calling his name, and he carried on walking, because his team had come for him, they would always come for him, and he had found his way back to them, and he would keep them safe, gun in one hand and knife in the other. He wouldn't let them die, not like the boy in the courtyard, the boy he had promised to save.
Ronon on one side and Teyla on the other, and Rodney behind them, struggling to keep up, and he wanted to smile and say it's good to see you, guys, but he couldn't quite remember how to, and he couldn't stop, he couldn't, because although he was back with his team, he still had to bring his team safely home – had to carry on, had to – but he couldn't, because Ronon stopped him, a hand on his arm.
A hand on his arm…
He blinked. Rodney looked awful, drawn and stricken. Teyla was trying to hide it, trying to be strong for him, but the strain was clear. "Ronon?" he managed to say, because Teyla was the one touching him, not Ronon. They were in a dark place, not outside. He still hadn't brought them home.
"Ronon is getting help," Teyla said.
John felt detached from his body, but when he moved, the pain came crashing in like a red wave. He tried to sit up, but he remembered fire and an explosion. He hadn't meant to blow the entire place up. He'd thought it would be a small explosion; thought he'd taken steps to guard against a chain reaction. How many dead? You did this, the boy had screamed. A wounded people were tearing themselves apart because of him. Ronon was facing danger, doing the task that should have fallen to John, and the others were holed up here in the dark because of him, because of him.
"Got to…" he rasped, but, "No," Teyla said. "Lie still." And there were sounds coming from somewhere else – stamping, splashing, shouting – and Rodney's face was a mask of terror as he said, "They're coming. It's too late. They're coming."
John had a revolver. He found it; gripped it. "No," Teyla said, but he had to; he had to. He couldn't stand, but he managed to sit, gun clutched in his right hand.
Rodney and Teyla took up places on either side of him, so close that it was almost as if they were holding him up. Rodney was swallowing hard, moistening his lips. "What are we going to do?" he asked.
John remembered another time and another place: Shoot until we can't shoot any more. But Teyla and Rodney weren't Ronon. Unlike Ronon, they wouldn't understand. Teyla had a son at home, and Rodney wasn't made for a life like this. It was different this time – no comfort in this situation, none at all.
"Do whatever we can," he said, "to stay alive." Whatever I can to keep you alive. He knew that this was the end for him – he could feel it in every fading heartbeat – but the others… God, the others…
The steps grew closer. "Teyla take left, and Rodney take right," he told them. "I'll…" He struggled for breath, struggled to keep from falling into the darkness.
Goodbye, he wanted to say. It's been…Knowing you, being with you, has been…
The enemy came, and there was shouting; everywhere there was shouting.
"You got through." Rodney didn't know if Ronon had heard him. Ronon's face was etched with dust and his clothes were blood-stained. Whenever anyone tried to get him to sit down at the back of the jumper, he pushed them away. "You made it. We…"
We made it. He couldn't complete it. The rescue party had arrived in the nick of time, but Rodney had no idea if that had been quick enough. Jennifer was attaching an IV to Sheppard's arm, and shouting commands, full of words that didn't mean anything. Sheppard was unconscious again, and he looked far worse in the faint blue light that came from the jumper's controls than he had looked even in the darkness of the tunnels. How he had found the strength to sit up and hold his gun in those final, terrible moments, Rodney would never know.
"Tell them to prepare for immediate surgery." Jennifer looked up. There was blood on her brow.
"Is he…?" But Rodney was pushed away, useless once again. He felt Teyla squeeze his arm, then watched as she did the same to Ronon, and watched as Ronon finally yielded, letting her lead him to the bench. Rodney sat beside him, then stood up again and began to pace. There's nothing we can do, he thought, as Jennifer shouted urgently, saying that Sheppard's heart had finally stopped beating.
Afterwards, Rodney would remember the next few days only in fragments. He worked in his lab, and although he was never able to lose himself in his work, he produced good results. He bickered with Zelenka, although Zelenka treated him gently, as if he was made of porcelain that would break. He ate sometimes with Teyla, and sometimes with Ronon, but never with both of them at once. He didn't sleep very much.
Woolsey asked him for his report, and Rodney shouted at him, saying that it really didn't matter what had happened on that godforsaken planet, did it, until they knew whether Sheppard--
"But I still need your report," Woolsey said.
"So you can do things by the book?" Rodney sneered, but Woolsey shook his head, twisting his hands in a way that Rodney wanted to hate, but recognised as sign of distress and nervousness. I need to understand, Woolsey's eyes said, how a city that invited us in as friends ended up murdering one of our own.
But Sheppard wasn't dead yet. He clung on to life, and there was always one of his team beside him, sitting by his bed, moving aside only when the doctors commanded them to. He had undergone two operations, emerging from each one hanging onto life only by a thread. The bullet was gone, and the spleen was repaired. Jennifer said that she had almost been forced to remove it entirely, but in this, like in so many other things, Sheppard had proved lucky, his dice falling just this side of total disaster. He still hadn't woken up, though. His fluids had been replaced and he was no longer icy cold, but a fever raged from the bullet wound and the filthy water.
Rodney didn't like visiting him. Sheppard wasn't supposed to look like that, lying in bed, lost in a place where no-one could reach him. He couldn't stay away, though. He tried to eat, he tried to sleep, he tried to work, but he kept drifting back. He couldn't stop thinking about the time when he had thought Sheppard was going to die right in front of him, but it was even worse to think of Sheppard dying when he was away.
"He's strong," Ronon said, and Rodney remembered how Sheppard had found the strength to sit up right at the end, and how he had taken the lead in the fight. Our last stand. It would have been their last stand, if Ronon and Lorne and the others hadn't arrived just in time. No way out from this one. No way out at all.
"We can't keep on cheating death," he said. "One day even Sheppard's luck has to run out."
He stood on the balcony one evening; he remembered that afterwards. He breathed in the cool air, but thought he could still smell the stink of those tunnels. Why had it affected him so badly? They'd all faced death before. Anxiety and despair were his daily companions, so why…?
"Because it was so unexpected," Teyla said quietly. "We thought we were helping them."
And it was because Rodney had been so powerless. His team-mates had been at death's door before, but never while completely cut off from medical attention, and never without there being something practical for Rodney to do to help save everyone's lives.
And because Sheppard still wasn't out of danger three days later. And because while Rodney still always expected the worst, a small part of him had been trained by Sheppard to hope for the best, but this time… this time…
He tried again to sleep. Just before dawn, he found himself beside Sheppard's bed, watching him move restlessly beneath cooling blankets.
But when Sheppard opened his eyes and said his first lucid words, Rodney wasn't there, but back in his lab, struggling to focus on his work. Ronon was there, though, so Sheppard didn't wake up to find himself alone. That was what mattered.
No. Sheppard would live. That was what mattered.
Much of it was hazy, but much of it was not. John remembered the important things: fighting with his team alongside him; counting them in the jumper and letting himself go when the count came to three; the boy in the courtyard, and what he had said.
"He said it was our fault." He hadn't meant to say it out loud.
Ronon's face was impassive. "He?"
"There was a young man," John said, "a prisoner like me. He said…" He shifted position painfully. "…said we were the cause of the war – because they'd heard that we were in league with the Wraith and they blamed the ruling faction for inviting us in."
"A pretext," Ronon said. He only hesitated a moment before saying it.
John swallowed. "Perhaps. No. Probably. I know that." He'd been in enough war zones to know that people didn't always pull together at times of stress. In an ideal world, the human race would be united against the Wraith, but the world wasn't perfect. A culled people could fall apart afterwards as they fought about how to rebuild. Different factions seized on any excuse to make a bid for power.
"It wasn't your fault," Ronon said.
But it hadn't been their fault, either – those innocent people who had survived the Wraith culling, only to die to mortars and street fighting in the ruins of their homes. John hadn't meant to kill so many in the explosion, and he had no idea how many they'd killed in the tunnels.
"It was because of the tribunal," John said. "The damn tribunal. Woolsey did his thing, and… I thought it was over, you know? It was so obviously fixed, I didn't argue it properly. But what--" He coughed. Even now, dosed up on drugs, it hurt like a knife in his side. "--what if they had a point?"
"They didn't." Ronon dragged his chair closer. A nurse passed by, paused to look at him, and carried on. "Listen, Sheppard…" Ronon looked down for a moment. "People make mistakes. Accidents happen. It's intentions that matter, and what you do afterwards." Ronon looked him full in the face. "You people try to make things better. You do make things better. Wouldn't be here if I didn't think that. Neither would Teyla."
"I know that." His voice was thick, pain constricting his throat. "I just can't help but wonder…" He saw explosions every time he closed his eyes. "If we'd never gone there in the first place…"
"Then it would be as dead as Sateda," Ronon said.
"What's up with Rodney?" John asked Teyla one evening, when she had accompanied him on a short walk to a place where he could see the sky.
Teyla took her time about answering. "He… took it badly," he said. "There was very little we could do to help you. I believe that Rodney felt that his skills were particularly… useless." She pushed a strand of hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear to stop the breeze from taking it. "If the rescue party had arrived only a few minutes later…"
"But it didn't," John said. Bad stuff happened, but you always found the strength to move on. You couldn't torment yourself with the might-have-beens. Pain healed, leaving just another scar, barely there at all.
Teyla shook her head. "It could so easily have gone another way."
And Torren would have grown up without a mother, because Teyla had stayed in the tunnels with John. He looked at her, gripping the railing for support. "I'm sorry--"
"No." She shook her head, and this time she was smiling, tears shining in her eyes. "This is the life that I chose, and those are the risks. And you are right: everything turned out well in the end." She touched his hand, then stood beside him, her hand next to his on the railing. "I would not have left you there, John. None of us would."
"But--" He opened his mouth to protest, because it hurt, the weight of knowing that someone would put themselves in danger for you.
"You would do the same for us," Teyla said. "It is just how it is."
John had struggled to find a way to say it, and in the end he just blurted it out. "You did help."
"What?" Rodney froze, fork in hand.
"Just by being there," he said, and instinct was to look away, to bury the words in activity, to move on and pretend that he hadn't said them.
He didn't, though, and he watched a whole myriad of expressions flit across Rodney's face, before settling on the beginnings of a smile.
"I want to go back," John said, when the conversation had drifted to a natural lull. "To…" He didn't even have to say it. He would be back on active duty in three days, but he still tired easily, and still felt the dull ache of pain in his side and his shoulder.
"Are you crazy?" Rodney gestured sharply with his hands. "You almost died, for crying out loud, and we… we weren't far behind you in the whole rushing headlong to certain doom thing."
John remembered the explosion; Rodney had finally admitted to him quite how many life-signs had winked out on his screen, killed by John's inadvertent act. He thought of the people they had killed in the tunnels. That particular faction was weakened, but others would rise. He had to undo the damage he had done. He had to truly believe that the Atlantis expedition was innocent of the charges the tribunal had laid against them, and he had to convince a whole wounded people of this fact. He had to prove it.
"It doesn't have to be you," Ronon said. "You don't--"
"Owe them anything?" John echoed. "I know." But perhaps he did, in a way. He had killed so many in his time, and every killing had been to protect someone who mattered; but he had still killed. He couldn't regret it, but he could never be happy about it. In the tunnels, it had been them or his team, and he had chosen his team without a moment's doubt, because they were his, and that's what it was like when you were a soldier: you protected your own, and you killed people who were someone else's own. It was how things were, and he wouldn't have it any other way, but, still…
"The war wasn't our fault," Ronon told him.
"I know," John said, but mistakes happened, sometimes unwitting ones, and you had to do your damnedest to fix them. You had to do your damnedest never to make the same mistakes again. That's what his life was about. If he didn't truly believe that the expedition was doing more good than harm, he would have walked away years ago, but if he truly believed it, then he had to put his money where his mouth was. He had to go back. They had to fix this mess that they had unwittingly exacerbated.
He had to heal. Some wounds left more than a thin silver scar.
"Okay," Rodney sighed. "If you're determined to play the hero…" His hand fluttered. "You're not going without us, are you?"
"Course he isn't." Ronon put his hands on his hips.
"Of course not," Teyla said.
"And we won't take our eyes off you next time," Rodney said. "And we'll take a lot of reinforcements? Peaceful-looking ones, with white flags, but stout sticks? And Woolsey can come along and use those lawyer skills he's so proud of; isn't it off-putting, how proud he is of his talents? And we won't go in any tunnels."
"No tunnels," John agreed, and he leant back in his seat and smiled, because perhaps they might not win this one, but they won more than they lost, and there was hope in the Pegasus galaxy where previously they had been none, and out of the whole sorry mess, he'd made friends – Rodney, Ronon and Teyla: three friends found in a place where he had never thought to find anyone.
He remembered walking out of the wreckage, with fire at his back and pain stabbing through him with every step, and seeing them there in front of him, taking shape out of the smoke. That he remembered.
That he always would.
The prompt: "I'd like a fic where Shep is in shock and neither he nor others realize how seriously injured he is. And he's barefoot - think Die Hard. Add in some kind of scenario where Shep can't get immediate medical attention because of some threat, and we have a nice whumpalicious problem!"
Justifying the barefootedness was a major challenge – but an enjoyable one! The entire story was built up from the "how on earth do I get him barefoot?" question. I wasn't sure if "in shock" meant emotional or clinical, so I went for a bit of both. Hope this is okay! I fear the whole thing might be a bit darker and more bleak than you intended, but it's how it turned out.