A/N: So after having such a lot of fun writing my last Atlantis story, I'm back again, with more Rodney, more John, more h/c, and also slightly more plot. Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading, please do drop a review to let me know if you liked (or not, as the case may be!) Thanks!
Underfoot the smouldering cinders crunched and crackled, their hard black shells splintering open to reveal the burning red and orange yolks glowing inside, seeds of hell sown over the desecrated land, the dark scorched earth, the drifts of ash. Smoke choked the air, coiling snake-like upwards, rising sparks gleaming though the gloom like hundreds of glittering eyes. The sky was dark, heavy with unnatural clouds of ash and fumes.
There was a strange sort of beauty in the destruction, in the colours of the leaping flames. Terrifying, but mesmerising.
"It's gone." Rodney's voice was quiet. "It's all just… gone." He hardly blinked.
John stood next to him, hand resting on his P90, giving himself the illusion of being ready for action. He was also unable to take his eyes away from the scene. "Yeah. I know."
"It was there, and now it's… gone. This planet was…"
"What are we going to do?" His voice was injected with desperation and terror. And guilt.
For the first time, John dragged his gaze from the blazing landscape to Rodney. The scientist was pale, and shaking slightly, his jaw clenched. "Just hang in there for now, buddy."
"That's not an answer."
"I know, but it's the best I got. Take it or leave it."
They were silent. The wind which had fanned the flames until they had no fuel left to devour swept over the footprints they had left in the ash, destroying them completely.
"Do you think…" Rodney's eyes were glassy, but the stare he gave John was imploring. Imploring him to tell the truth, or to lie, John couldn't tell. He went for the truth.
"There was nothing you could have done."
Rodney shook his head, dismissing the platitude. "There's always something. Things don't just – I mean – "
"McKay. McKay, listen to me." John grasped his friend's shoulder. "Not this time. This time, there wasn't anything you could have done. I know that, and so do you."
Rodney's eyes drifted again to the land stretched out below them. "It's all gone," he repeated, even softer. "My God, it's all gone."
He was shaken suddenly. "Stay with me here," John ordered him. "C'mon, McKay, I need you to focus! You have to snap out of this."
For a moment, he thought that McKay had gone far enough into shock that his words weren't getting through. Then, "Right," Rodney said absently, his sounding thick as it left his throat. "Right. Focusing. Got it."
John released his grip on his shoulder. "Hang in there," he said again. Rodney nodded.
Slowly, the two men began to walk down from the ridge, sliding slightly on the rocks coated with the debris discarded from the fire. And off the steep rocks and onto gentler slopes, over the carpet of splintering cinders, past twisted black skeletons of bushes, charred bark fingers pointing accusingly at the sky. And at them.
"We were too late," Rodney said. "If we'd left earlier, walked faster from the gate, we might have got there before…"
"Then we still wouldn't have been able to do anything."
"You can't know that."
"Be reasonable, McKay. However much you like to tell us you're a genius, even you can't read the future. When we were last here there was no indication that anything like this was going to happen! And however much faster we got there, we would have been too late, unless you've found a handy time machine which can take us back to last week, so that we could have warned the people then, before we knew about the threat!"
Rodney wasn't comforted. All he knew for sure was that a whole world was burning, and he had been able to do nothing about it. Hadn't been able to predict or prevent it, hadn't been able to prevent the inevitable heavy loss of life, which they could currently only speculate on, but from what they had seen of the planet, they were bracing themselves to assume the worst.
He had known some of the people who had lived here, people they had talked to on previous visits, even befriended. Their culture was a simple one. Farmers and traders, living over a day's walk from the gate in hope that they would be able to avoid detection by the Wraith. They wouldn't allow technology on the planet, so that there would be no energy signatures to track. To these measures they attributed the fact that they had lived freely now for three generations, with their only pressing fear being that of fire, which took hold easily in the ethanol-rich grasses unique to the planet.
And now a freak meteor shower had set their world ablaze within the space of a few short hours. It hadn't even counted as a proper mission, this visit. No trading negotiations, no diplomatic advances. Just a routine check-in with the peoples' leader, with a night's camping on either side of it in a deep cave on the high ridge which acted as a further barrier between the small villages and the gate. They hadn't had any warning of what was about to happen. Maybe the local people had noticed the signs in the sky without realising their importance, but they hadn't made it there to ask them.
"We're going the wrong way," Rodney said, in sudden realisation. "Sheppard, we should be heading towards where the villages were. There might be survivors. We need to help them…"
"We're going the right way," John said harshly, with no clue to how much of the harshness was due to the smoke rasping against the lining of his throat, and how much wasn't. "Think about it. We're hours away from the nearest settlement as it is. And even once we got there, what would we do then? Look, the best thing we can do is get back to Atlantis as soon as we can, and launch a full search and rescue operation with jumpers and proper medical support."
The words made sense, but to Rodney it still felt like running away, dismissing the disaster as not their immediate concern. And he couldn't shake the feeling of responsibility. Atlantis was technologically superior in every way, and they had formed an official alliance here nearly a year ago, pledging help if it was ever needed. And they had failed to provide that help in time. There must have been some clue, something that he could have done to warn them…
The same thoughts had gnawed at him during the hours in which the two of them had been trapped inside the cave in which they had just spent a night's sleep; hours filled with the crackling snap of flames and the insidious tendrils of smoke curling like dark vines along the walls and dispersing into the air, clouds of particles far more dangerous than mere pollen. Hours of cowering against the back wall, biting his tongue as much as he could, because he felt like a record stuck on a loop, only a few thoughts cycling through his head which usually buzzed with what felt like hundreds at once. He had hardly even noticed John's presence as he had become lost within his own mind.
And now the same thoughts continued to haunt him through long, exhausting hours of trudging through the changed landscape. The route they had taken to get to the ridge was almost unrecognisable. He could feel the high temperatures of the layer of cinders covering the ground rising up through the soles of his boots, not to mention the radiating heat in the air which his clothing inadequately protected him from. Sweat beaded along his hairline and trickled down his face. He wiped the droplets away with the back of his hand.
They were several miles from the ridge now, and were walking across what had been grasslands dotted with woody knolls and outcrops of rock. Now only embers grew. Around them, spurts of flame occasionally flared up as smouldering seams beneath the surface found their way to new oxygen reserves. Rodney stopped paying particular attention to them after a while. He didn't even comment when it became obvious that John was leading them both along the wrong bearing, just nudged him onto the correct one.
John didn't speak, either. It was hard enough to breathe in the thick air; talking just made it harder. He remembered oil wells in Afghanistan, and the thick choking clouds which had poured from them for days on end. He remembered the sound of screaming, and felt a coward's relief that they weren't going to the villages quite yet.
He glanced over at McKay, walking about a half-pace behind him, struggling as usual to match his speed. The man's breath was coming in gasps, and his face was flushed from the heat and smeared with soot. His eyes were still slightly dazed, still not able to fully take in what had happened. Probably still trying to think of ways he could have foreseen this.
John paused. "How about we take a break for a minute?"
Rodney nodded gratefully, bending over to draw what oxygen he could from the air into his lungs. John looked about them, trying to pick out any remaining landmarks which could indicate how far they still were from the gate.
Suddenly there was a creaking, groaning, snapping noise, and before either of the men had time to react, a plume of suffocating smoke and ash billowed up as a tree, already leaning at a drunken angle and devoured and weakened from the inside by ravenous tongues of fire, crashed down on their path, dragging clutching branches with it. John instinctively spun away, grabbing hold of Rodney's sleeve and dragging him with him. Rodney shrieked, twisting, possibly thinking that one of the twisting branches had caught him, and they both went down hard, John releasing his grip on the scientist, and pushing himself back up as soon as he hit the ground, away from its layer of heat which blasted his exposed skin.
"McKay, get up quickly!" he shouted, not wasting time to catch his breath.
No movement or sound in response. "McKay!"
Rodney was lying still, a dark limp shape. John rolled him over. "McKay, look at me."
Rodney opened his eyes, and after a second frowned slightly at John, as though he was having trouble focusing. "Ow," he said, pitifully. There was dark blood running down his face from a deep gash where his head had struck against a sharp-edged rock beneath him. He had apparently been too busy trying to defend himself against the 'attack' to use his hands to try to break his fall. He blinked slowly. "Ow," he said again, his voice quieter.
"Are you ok to get up?" John asked.
Rodney gave him a look which would usually be a withering glare, but on this occasion didn't really get there. That was when John noticed the burnt material on Rodney's leg. He had clearly had the added misfortune of landing on an especially hot zone.
"Let me have a look at that," he said, crouching down next to him.
Instead of protesting, Rodney simply gave a tense nod. Even more worried now, John pulled back the cloth. Part of it had singed away almost completely, and fell apart easily at a slight tug, revealing a deep burn on the side of his right lower leg, red and blackening skin stretching over an area larger than a hand span. Next to him was the culprit; a smouldering stump of a bush used by the planet's inhabitants as fuel on account of its exceedingly dense wood, which burnt in a way somewhat akin to coal.
"Do you think you'll be able to walk?" John asked, without much hope. He estimated that they were still a couple of hours from the gate at normal speed, and he knew from first-hand experience just how painful serious burns like that one could be.
"Doubtful," Rodney confirmed for him through clenched teeth.
"Right." John looked around. There was one of the rock outcrops a couple of hundred metres from them, seemingly clear of flammable material. Rodney followed his eyes, and reached the same conclusion.
"You're going to leave me behind?"
"Not for long," John said, guiltily. "I'll bring help soon, but you won't be able to make it to the gate like this, so you'll have to wait. We just need to get you to those rocks. You'll be safe there until we pick you up in a jumper, ok?"
"Ok," Rodney said weakly, clearly still not happy with the idea, but unable to come up with an alternative.
"Great. Come on then, buddy. Let's do this."
With an arm around him, John managed to hoist Rodney to his feet. He took most of the man's weight, trying to help him keep off his damaged leg as much as possible, and steeled himself to ignore the gasps and huffs of pain which came from him as they lurched across the cinder-strewn ground, one step at a time. It was agonisingly slow. By the time they eventually reached the haven of the rocks, Rodney was white under the soot and ash sticking to the sheen of sweat on his face, and sticking also to the delta of blood which tracked around his eye socket and down the side of his cheekbone from his temple. John tried to lower him down gently onto the smoothest area he could see, but didn't really do much more than partially control his collapse. His eyes were closed.
John tapped his face. "McKay, c'mon, stay with me here!"
Rodney cracked his eyes open slightly. "G'way," he mumbled through dry, cracked lips.
Ignoring that, John did his best to clean Rodney's head wound, but it wasn't an easy task with all the particles in the air which seemed determined to adhere to it. Eventually he was forced to simply stick a dressing over the gash, reasoning that it was better than nothing and would do for now. The burn on his leg he left alone, afraid of inadvertently causing more damage.
"I'll be right back," he said, trying to inject more confidence into his voice than he actually felt. "Just stay here and… you know… have a rest or something."
"Your bedside manner sucks," Rodney muttered.
John allowed himself a grin. "Just don't go anywhere."
"I really don't think that'll be a problem, Colonel." Rodney's breath was coming in short gasps, and the look in his eyes told John that his exaggerated confidence hadn't fooled him for a second. "Just go."
John gave him a reassuring smile, which was somehow not as reassuring as usual. And then he jumped down to the level ground, strode around the outcrop, and was gone.
Rodney stared after him for a long time. Or, at least, it felt like a long time, but lifting his arm to check on his watch seemed to be too much effort. His head throbbed, and the slow-rolling beads of blood seeping slowly from beneath the field dressing made his skin itch. Spikes of pain shot through his leg, and he clenched his jaw against them.
After a while he no longer saw any point in keeping his eyes open, so he let them fall closed. Sheppard would be back soon… he just had to wait a little longer…
He was jerked out of his stupor by an unexplained noise. His eyes snapped open, but there was no sign of the rescue party he was hoping for. Nothing in his vision but the unnatural, ever-darkening clouds looming ominously above the hellish landscape.
The sound came again. High-pitched, like a bleat from some frightened animal, probably trapped somewhere. "There's nothing I can do for you," he said aloud, without realising he was doing so. "We're both stuck here."
He heard it again, louder this time, and less animal-like. More… human. Human. A jolt of realisation snapped him back fully into the moment. "Is there someone there?" he called, surprised at how weak his voice was.
He thought that there were words in the reply, although not strong enough for him to pick out. And they came from higher up in the same cluster of rocks which were currently supporting him.
"Hello?" he called again.
Definitely in response, the sound came again, and this time he could unmistakably hear words. "Help me!" A child's cry. Rodney tried to force his confused brain to work out what to do. He was dreadful with children, but he couldn't just leave one alone and afraid, if he could do anything about it.
"Where are you?" he called back.
"Help!" came the wavering cry again. This is why I don't get on with children, Rodney thought to himself, as he gritted his teeth in anticipation of what he was about to do. They don't understand how to provide you with useful information.
"Alright, I'm coming for you!" he called, trying to make himself sound confident and assured. "Just – just wait a minute, ok?" Without giving himself time to think about it, he rolled over onto his good leg, pushing himself up with his hands to prevent his weight from going onto the other. Then he crawled awkwardly, clambering upwards over the uneven surfaces, hissing with pain as the burnt nerve endings jolted and fired sparks of pure agony through him, blinking to try and clear his vision, which kept shifting in and out of focus.
The child seemed to have fallen silent. Perhaps scared by all the noise he was making, or perhaps realising that there was no longer any point in shouting.
After what felt like an eternity, Rodney finally found himself looking into a crude shallow cave between several of the rocks. He had travelled barely twenty yards from his starting point, but the effort it had taken was enough to cause him to collapse face-down onto its floor, gasping for breath, the smoke he had inhaled burning his throat and stinging painful tears from beneath his eyelids.
At last he was able to roll over and look around, and found a pair of large, dark eyes staring into his. The owner of them couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old, and she gazed at him in abject fascination. Ash was tangled into her dark hair and smeared across her face, except for where fresh tears had traced pale rivulets down her cheeks.
"Hi," he groaned, as soon as he had caught enough breath.
She considered him. "Hi," she finally whispered. And continued staring, apparently waiting for him to say something else.
Ok, he really didn't know how you were supposed to talk to kids. "Uh, I'm Rodney. What's your name?"
"Lin. Hi." He tried to think of something appropriate to say. "Um. That's a nice name." He propped himself up against the nearest wall and closed his eyes, relishing the coldness of the stone against his pounding head. He coughed on the dizzying fumes as images of flames flickered in his mind. Burning…
There was a sharp tug on his sleeve. "Don't go to sleep!"
"Huh?" He opened his eyes again, to find that the girl had moved closer. "What's it to you?"
"Don't go to sleep," she implored him again. Her lower lip trembled, and something inside Rodney responded.
"Are you out here on your own?"
Lin shook her head. "My father told me to stay here until he came back."
He hoped that his thoughts didn't show on his face, or at least that she wouldn't be able to interpret them. "Was that before or after the fires started?"
"After," she said. "He's getting help, but I've got to stay here until it's safe."
"Oh." Rodney's heart sank. How was he supposed to tell her what it was like out there, and the probability of anyone surviving it if not sheltered by caves like this one? He decided to try and move the conversation onto a different tack. "My sister's got a little girl, you know, just a bit younger than you. She's called Madison."
"Where does she live?" Lin asked, interested.
"A long way away from here." This remark seemed to impress her considerably less, but he couldn't be bothered expanding on it.
His conversational skills now exhausted, Rodney lapsed into silence.
"You're bleeding," Lin informed him, after a few minutes.
"Yes. Thank you. I know. You're very useful."
"My father will make you better," she said gravely. "He's a healer. He was showing me herbs which only grow this side of the ridge." She hesitated, twisting the hem of her soot-blackened dress in her hands. "His name's Taren. Do you think he'll be back soon?"
"I – " Rodney's head was spinning, and he really didn't feel up to this sort of conversation. "I expect so," he said miserably, his voice trailing away.
She looked at him, her eyes pleading for hope, and he tried to distract her again. "But I do know that my friend's coming back for me soon. In an hour or so." The unit of time might mean nothing to her, but he couldn't be bothered trying to find a reference frame within her culture. He was having enough trouble keeping his eyes open. "Hey, maybe you can help me watch for him?"
Lin nodded gravely, obviously attracted by the importance of the role. "What's he look like?"
Rodney swallowed the instinctive retort that she was hardly going to see anyone else arriving, especially not in a puddlejumper. After all, she couldn't help being a child, and she didn't seem to be such a bad one, as they went. "He's, um… he's dressed like me, but with a really insane hairstyle, like he's been pulled through a hedge backwards." Did she know what a hedge was? Well, it hardly mattered. "And he's got an appalling sense of humour."
Good description, McKay. Really helpful, that.
He could feel himself beginning to drift off. Somehow, his eyelids seemed to have fallen shut. Nearby, Lin asked, "What's he called?"
His head was spinning, and even that simple question took a bit of thinking about, but he managed to find the answer. "Uh… Sheppard. Colonel John Sheppard. You need to… need to keep watch…"
While something of his consciousness still remained, he felt a warm body nestle alongside him. Lin rested her light head against his shoulder, and he managed to put an arm around her. Then he slept.
He was jerked awake by someone shouting next to his ear. His eyes opened slowly.
Lin was leaning out of the cave, shouting and waving her arms. Blearily, Rodney tried to tell her to stop making such a noise, but all that came out of his mouth was an incoherent mumble. A fine layer of ash now coated the parts of his clothing which he could see.
"McKay? Hey, you there?"
At the familiar tone he managed to lift his head properly, as Sheppard suddenly appeared in the cave entrance, in a fresh uniform, a wide grin on his face which had been scrubbed clean. He looked strangely out of place, silhouetted as he was against the dark, smoke-filled sky. "Hey, buddy. You ok?"
Speaking was such an effort. It felt as if ash was layered inside his mouth, too, pressing down his tongue. "Mmm." No, of course I'm not, what does it look like?!
"Glad to hear it," John said jovially, giving him a friendly pat on his shoulder. Ow. "There's a jumper waiting just outside, and we've got a one-way ticket back to Atlantis ready for you. The other jumpers are already on their way to the villages with search-and-rescue gear."
Rodney pointed vaguely towards Lin, who had sat back on her heels to follow the exchange. He felt too tired to try and speak again.
John smiled at her, instantly more at ease in her presence than Rodney was, even now. "Hey there. You did a great job calling out to us, you know." She beamed happily at the praise. "What's your name?"
"Lin?" He paused. "Really? Taren's daughter?" She nodded, her forehead creasing in confusion, and then smoothing in sudden hope. "We were going to look for you after we'd found McKay! Your father's on one of the other jumpers. He got to Atlantis via the Alpha site and raised the alarm. That's the reason we're here so quickly; the teams were about ready to leave when I showed up."
Lin's face and eyes lit up, and she let out a squeal of pure happiness as she hugged John, smearing soot across his clean clothing, and then hugged Rodney, knocking against his injured leg. "I'm going to see him soon! You were right!"
At that precise moment, however, Rodney was finding it quite hard to share her enthusiasm. "Oww," he moaned, at last finding his voice. "Ow ow ow ow ow…"
John pulled her firmly away. "Ok, I think he's had enough for the moment." He glanced at Rodney, and winced sympathetically. "Nice job finding her."
"Thank you," Rodney groaned. "Any chance we can get out of here now?"
Things were beginning to fade out again, everything blurring together. But when he closed his eyes, there were no more nightmare images of flames behind the closed lids, just safe, welcoming, comforting darkness. He felt John rest a hand on his shoulder. "Good idea. Alright, McKay, let's get you home."