Title: Without a Paddle
Notes: Written for the 2009 "Twisting the Twilight Zone" challenge on LiveJournal for the prompt "The Fever"
Characters: Rodney McKay, John Sheppard
Spoilers: Takes place sometime between "Quarantine" and "Midway", so anything up to 4x17 is fair game.
Thanks: To my beta, Gayle, who is 100% concentrated awesomesauce for not only helping me keep the world safe from my atrocious grammar and cavity-inducing schmoop, but for also staying up late and waking up early to help me with this. You are my shining star. A special thanks also goes to Tazmy, who helped me find the proper plot thread in this, uh, slightly non-linear gem. And also a thank you to danceswithgary over on LJ for running the challenge, which helped me break through my writing slump.
Summary: Rodney should have known that the mission was going to suck the moment he stepped through the Stargate, took in a deep breath of the fresh, clean mountain air—and swallowed a fly.
Rodney should have known that the mission was going to suck the moment he stepped through the Stargate, took in a deep breath of the fresh, clean mountain air—and swallowed a fly.
Although if he gets technical about it, not a fly as he knows it... but the P97-45Y equivalent of a fly. Okay, possibly more of a gnat as it was rather small and appeared to be part of an unholy swarm that he had the misfortune of walking into as he emerged from the Gate. Unfortunately Rodney had been too busy flailing and trying to hack up the insect to check exactly what he had inhaled, Sheppard was too busy snickering to care, Ronon was too busy smirking and saying it was a good source of protein, and Teyla was far too busy being pregnant to be there to smack them both on his behalf.
Sadly, that's the high point of the mission.
Whomever (see: Colonel Samantha Carter) thought it was a good idea to let the combined negotiation skills of Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, Doctor Rodney McKay, and Specialist Ronon Dex loose on the negotiation tables was clearly delusional. After all, Ronon's idea of driving a hard bargain was whipping out his blaster and threatening to blow away the other half of the table. Sheppard bore a strong resemblance to the titular character of Jack and the Beanstalk, trading cows and C-4 for tava beans. And Rodney... well, who was he kidding? He had a standing order to smile, nod, and not speak even if spoken to.
With Teyla out on maternity leave, the remaining members of Team Sheppard were saddled with these simplistic and innocuous sounding missions. Sam had scheduled them for a follow-up mission to P97-45Y, called Lisha by the locals, to see if they could negotiate for a steady supply of the ore found in the mountains that was the main component for a gunpowder-like substance used on many worlds in the Pegasus Galaxy.
And if he had been thinking clearly, Rodney would have run away screaming the moment "it seems like a nice place to visit" had left Sam's mouth.
So, naturally that leads to him running away screaming from what seems like a small army of backwoods hoodlums armed to the teeth. He has no idea what happened to their original welcoming committee, but he's definitely not fond of their trigger-happy replacements.
Nor is he fond of running for his life. Or getting separated from his teammates. Or being cut off from the Stargate and the relative safety of Atlantis. Actually, it's pretty safe to say that he is completely, one hundred percent dissatisfied with their current situation.
Despite the cool mountain air, Rodney can already feel the uncomfortable sensation of his shirt plastering itself to his skin. It seems he's worked up quite a sweat on his mad dash from what accounts for civilization here. "This place sucks."
"So you've said," Sheppard mutters as he sweeps aside some low hanging branches. "Several times already."
"Well, it bears repeating."
"No, it doesn't."
"Oh, and I suppose you want to set up a vacation home here?"
"No. I just see no need to state the obvious—much less ad nauseam."
Rodney glares at the back of Sheppard's spiky head as he continues to forge a trail through the thick woods. Rodney hasn't been outmaneuvered conversationally; he just doesn't need to deign that last statement with any sort of scathing comment. Sheppard can probably feel Rodney's disapproval with his fiery gaze. That is satisfaction enough.
Until he trips over a large rock in the middle of the path.
The brush grows thicker and the trail rougher with each step they take. Uphill. As in, further up the mountain—and further away from the Stargate. "You have no idea where you're going, do you?"
Sheppard "forgets" to hold onto the next low hanging branch, and it nearly smacks Rodney in the forehead.
"Whoops, sorry about that," Sheppard apologizes without a hint of remorse.
"You're starting to make me wish I had followed Ronon instead."
"Yeah, I was thinking something similar."
To his credit, Rodney doesn't stick his tongue out, but he does think about trying to reverse the branch trick and see how Sheppard likes it. They continue to fight the terrain for several more long moments, boots crunching on the dry leaves shed by the alien forest. Another bead of sweat works its way down his back.
"I'm lying, of course," Rodney finally says, because the silence is unnerving.
"Not because I prefer your company or anything." He huffs, having to stop and free his pant leg from a particular grabby bush. "But logistically, you were the easier choice. There was, you know, that big raging river and all of the shotguns I'd have to brave if I were going to go Ronon's way."
"Yeah, because he intentionally chose to get cut off from us."
"Well, he was trying to point out that your way was leading away from the Gate." Sheppard makes an angry noise in the back of his throat, and Rodney is forced to duck another flying branch. "Okay, that's just immature!"
"I'm not doing it on purpose," Sheppard grinds out.
"Sure you aren't. You're trying to hold them back, but they're just too strong for you."
For a second it looks like he's really considering it, because Rodney can see the nerve in Sheppard's jaw twitch as he clenches his jaw tighter. Normally, Rodney would take this as a sign to just be quiet, because the man is clearly running out of patience. But his own well of patience and good-will is running dry. And Sheppard was doing it on purpose. "You know, I'm starting to wonder if I maybe should've taken my chances with the cast from Deliverance."
Sheppard makes another angry noise and Rodney instinctively ducks, but there's no swinging branch this time. He straightens up after a few moments and makes a show of trying to smooth out his uniform, ignoring the long, annoyed look Sheppard gives him.
They continue on.
Rodney rubs the irritated skin on his arm, wishing he hadn't opted out of the jacket for this mission. Sure the temperature was favorable, but one never knew when he would be taking an impromptu nature hike from hell. Between the bugs, bushes, and flying branches he's going to be scarred for life.
Okay, maybe not scarred—but he's pretty sure he's gotten a rash from something in this damn forest because his arm itches like hell. Nice place to visit his ass.
"Seriously, where are we going?"
"Away from the gun-toting maniacs." Sheppard's voice is strained. "Unless you'd like to retake the Gate without any heavy weaponry."
The technology by their pursuers doesn't really stand much of a chance against P-90s, Berettas, and obnoxiously overpowered blaster guns. But Rodney chose not to lug around a sub-machine gun to Sam's "nice place to visit", Sheppard somehow lost his at some point during their harrowing escape, and of course they lost Ronon too. Or rather misplaced him. Because "lose" had unfortunate connotations when used with people. So, they haven't lost Ronon. The Satedan probably knew exactly where he was. Unlike them.
"Do you think Ronon made it back to the Gate?"
Sheppard stops, and even though his back is turned to Rodney, he can see that he's taking in several deep breaths.
"I'm just saying—"
"Quiet," Sheppard snaps.
"No, I will not be—"
This time when Sheppard spins around, the irritation is gone, replaced by a wary concentration that Rodney is all too familiar with. He decides to shut up.
Sheppard tilts his head to the side, straining to listen for something that Rodney can't even begin to identify. He tries to do the same but all he can hear is the quiet babbling of a creek a little ways off and the rustling of leaves in the breeze. There's a quiet snap like someone stepping on a brittle twig. It's barely audible, but Sheppard grabs his arm and all but shoves him off the path and into the actual woods.
He doesn't see any danger, but from the firm hand on his back urging him forward he guesses that Sheppard does. Unfortunately, while Rodney is many great things—smart, brave, funny, and of course, brilliant—part-mountain goat he is not. The forest is littered with rocks and snarly bushes that try to trip him. If the bad guys don't kill him, this stupid forest is going to.
Something loud booms behind them and the trunk of a tree next to Rodney explodes, sending a million wooden splinters flying through the air. He covers his face with his arms, still stumbling forward, and doesn't feel one iota of shame for the terrified yelp that escapes him.
With his arms covering his face, Rodney doesn't see the reaching arm of an overgrown bush until it tries to pull him down. He stumbles, but doesn't fall as Sheppard grabs him, forcibly dragging him along.
"Keep moving," Sheppard urges between breaths, hand clamped around Rodney's arm like a vice.
"Oh, no really?" Rodney gasps when his heart decides it doesn't want to fly right out of his chest. "Because I was thinking about stopping and asking for directions."
"I'm going that way." He indicates the area ahead of them.
"Your reasoning being?"
"Good point," Rodney pants. "Although, we really should—"
The barked command is accompanied by a flying tackle from his team leader, and Rodney winds up flat on the ground with the wind knocked out of him. A shotgun booms overhead, the sound rattling Rodney's teeth even as he desperately tries to suck air back into his burning, empty lungs. He'd squeak a thank you, but that would require more breath than he can afford.
Sheppard starts to rise, and barely ducks back down before another deafening boom takes out one of the bushes that had been giving Rodney trouble. He feels the weight shift above him as Sheppard pulls his side-arm, then he hears the gun give off five sharp retorts.
Silence settles around them.
Rodney still hasn't caught his breath, but Sheppard is still hauling him to his feet. The world sways with them, like when Rodney stands up too fast after sitting at his desk for too long. Sheppard doesn't care, nonverbally trying to urge Rodney onwards. Always so damn pushy. Of course, Rodney has no clue if any of Sheppard's shots hit their mark. The urgency suggests that he might have not. Or maybe he's trying to conserve his bullets.
How the hell did Sheppard lose his big gun anyway? On missions it's almost like it's surgically attached to his arm. Of course, he doesn't have a disturbing love affair with his P-90 like Ronon does with his blaster. Rodney pities the fool that ever tries to separate the Satedan from his one true love.
Sheppard herds Rodney deeper into the forest, one hand fisted into the back of Rodney's vest like he's afraid that Rodney's going to wander off aimlessly. As if. Whose sense of direction has been called into question here?
They stumble over the little babbling brook he heard earlier. Then over several more ridiculously sized rocks. But they don't stop there, oh no, because then Rodney might be able to do something crazy like breathe.
Eventually he gives up on trying to figure out where they're going, because it's obvious there's no answer to that. Besides, it's taking more concentration than it should to keep one foot in front of the other and not wheeze himself into exhaustion as they zigzag between the trunks of the tall trees crowding around them.
Right about the time Rodney decides to take his chances with the angry hillbillies, Sheppard calls for a halt.
"I think we may have lost them," Sheppard announces, and Rodney's gratified to see that he's at least winded. It's a little less humiliating if he's not the only one suffering. "But probably not for long. They know this terrain better than us."
That much is blindingly obvious, seeing as Sheppard doesn't know which way is up. Rodney would tell him so, but he's too busy trying to get oxygen back into his lungs.
Sheppard's brow scrunches up as he frowns at Rodney in concern. "You going to make it?"
Normally he might snap out a sarcastic comment about preferring to re-enact the more disturbing scenes from Deliverance with their pursuers. But seeing as how this is the first opportunity he's been granted to take a few seconds and rest, Rodney decides to save his breath and respond nonverbally.
"Charming," Sheppard mutters. Rodney adds a very vivid and obscene Russian gesture to the mix, but Sheppard shoves his hand down and indicates his watch. "Okay, okay. We'll take a five minute break."
Rodney collapses gracelessly to the ground so he might die in peace. Sheppard flops down next to him, lounging back against the trunk of a felled tree and looking far more comfortable than any person should in a godforsaken hell hole.
"You know, if you discount the angry mob of strangers, losing our radios and most of our firepower, getting separated from Ronon, and cut off from the Stargate... it's kind of nice out here."
That statement is so full of inaccuracy, to respond to it would intellectually lower Rodney to another level. So he ignores it in favor of breathing. Because breathing is much more important.
"Well, the scenery is nice anyway."
And evil. Even before they left the path it had already scratched his arms beyond belief. And now that he can actually take a breath in without feeling like he's about to explode, he can feel the itch from the rash growing in intensity.
"Weather's not too bad."
Which is a lie if Rodney ever heard one. He's sweating like a pig, and his arm is really more burning than itching.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Sheppard asks, his voice dropping a few notes to that infuriating soft and concerned level.
"Do I look—" Rodney finally wheezes, "all right to you?"
"No." The answer is short and clipped. "You really don't."
Rodney closes his eyes and decides to concentrate on taking shallower breaths. If he can manage that, maybe he can handle more than a few words in a sentence.
"You're really red," Sheppard says. "More than you should be from that run."
"Some of us don't jog five million miles each morning," Rodney finally spits out when he gets his breathing under control. "It's a character flaw."
"McKay—" There's that familiar annoyance. He was kind of starting to miss it.
"I can keep up," he says, because really, what else can he do? Sit here and wait for the goon squad to catch up?
He opens his eyes to see Sheppard staring at him in a way that always unnerves him. Like he's looking right through Rodney and reading his mind. Sometimes he really hates John because of that. Rodney breaks the staring contest, instead trying to look for the sky between the branches fighting for space above them. Maybe it's his imagination, but it looks darker.
How long have they been at this?
"C'mon," Sheppard grunts, "our five minutes are up."
"Already?" He could swear it's only been three at the most.
"Yeah." When Sheppard absently taps the face of his watch, Rodney can see that the minute hand has crept eleven paces forward. "Let's keep moving."
"Why bother? We're already up the proverbial creek."
"Don't you believe in the power of positive thinking?"
"I believe more in the power of pulling over to check the goddamned map."
"Fresh out of those. Guess you'll have to settle for optimism."
"You don't know me at all, do you?"
Sheppard pushes to his feet, although the movement is slower than usual. Perhaps he's a little tired and sore too. Rodney tries to take some comfort in that, but he really can't. Instead he just takes a hold of the hand when it's offered and lets Sheppard haul him back to his feet.
Now that they're off the path, their pace is even slower. Rodney really wishes he had some idea of where they were headed. Are they circling back toward the Gate? Trying to climb the mountain so they can shoot up a flare for help when Sam sends a jumper through after they're overdue? Well, they're going to need to make a flare in that case, because Rodney left his packed in his other set of pants...
Either way, it makes no sense to be moving in a direction without a set destination. If you have no idea where you're going, how are you supposed to know when you get there?
He mops his brow as they crest a small hill. Up ahead, the trees thin out just enough to see... more of the mountain, and a path snaking up and disappearing into the hillside. If Rodney squints, he can see a doorway or entrance of some kind. Oh yeah, that's right. They have mines here.
Sheppard chews his lip as he considers the terrain, probably judging it for defensibility or something equally militaristic and survivalist. He's pretty good at the survival thing, even if he can't navigate his way out of a paper sack. Rodney's just along for the ride, like he always is when things turn south. Just the caboose bringing up the rear. If they were trapped inside a nuclear plant about to explode, oh, he'd be all over that. The absolute man. Disarming nuclear oblivion and taking names. But out here in the woods... he's kind of useless.
He hates being useless.
It's also really quiet. Almost unnaturally so.
That's usually when the shooting begins.
"It's starting to get dark," Sheppard says, his eyes on the sky. "We should find shelter for the night."
"Sounds good," he replies, because if he doesn't then Sheppard might start trying to look at him. Or through him. Kind of like Superman with his X-ray vision. Would Kryptonite have an effect on Sheppard too? "Absolutely fantastic."
Rodney's reply doesn't seem to make Sheppard any happier, because he just purses his lips as he leads the way down the path.
Well, at least Rodney's trying to be agreeable. No one can blame him for lack of effort. He scratches his arm, trying to be discreet so as to not draw attention. It's on fire now, and it feels like the flames are spreading all over his body. A bead of sweat trickles down his neck, disappearing into the soaked collar of his shirt. He stops scratching long enough to try and wipe away the moisture, but all that gets him is a wet hand.
The trees and bushes are still trying to grab him, pull him off the path that Sheppard is making. He fights back, slapping away the reaching twigs and grasping branches. He's not going to let nature keep him from reaching Sheppard's mythical destination before nightfall.
The blues are fading from the sky as twilight approaches. He wonders how much time they have before they're plunged into darkness. Rodney lost his pack about the same time that Sheppard lost his P-90, so they'll be down to the penlight that Rodney always keeps packed in his vest pocket. Not exactly the best tool in their arsenal to keep the darkness at bay.
If memory serves Rodney correct, the Gate was near one of the poles on this planet. If it's the right time of year, they could still have hours of light. Of course, there are a lot of dead leaves on the ground. So it's probably not summertime even though it's sweltering.
Long twilights are usually limited to summers on Earth. Of course, his home planet is tilted on its axis thirty degrees, which is why they have seasons, in all of their wonderfully wretched variation. He doesn't know the tilt of this planet, or the effect it might have on seasons. They should probably see if they can get the MALPs to figure that out before they go on any missions. It's always a good idea to know what the weather is going to be like.
"Come on," Sheppard urges quietly, and he's hovering uncomfortably close again. Which means Rodney's not moving fast enough. It's not like he's not trying though. "We should find shelter. The temperature's dropping."
And that's a goddamn lie. But Rodney's not going to say anything, because if he does they might stop to argue, and then the bad guys are going to catch up. And like hell if Rodney's going to let it be his fault if that happens.
But Sheppard doesn't let go of his arm and they don't keep moving.
"What?" he asks crossly.
Sheppard's grip on his arm tightens as he starts scrutinizing Rodney again. "You're covered in sweat."
"That's because it's hot as hell out here."
"No, Rodney," he says quietly, "it's not."
And that would be a really bad sign if Sheppard wasn't lying. Because that would mean that there's something wrong with Rodney, in addition to everything else on this FUBAR mission. And he can't have something wrong with him. Because if nothing else, he's going to keep up, and he can't do that if—
"Shit," Sheppard says as he pulls his hand away from Rodney's forehead. Like a mother checking her child's temperature. "You're burning up."
"Will you—" he tries to shove Sheppard away. "Stop that!"
"You're not acting normal." Sheppard doesn't sound very happy, but he temporarily retreats to a safe distance. "What's wrong with you?"
"I don't want to—" Stop. But they have. So it's kind of pointless to get upset about it. As Sheppard gives him that look again, Rodney feels his irritation rise. "You don't even know where you're going!"
Sheppard frowns. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Rodney," Sheppard's voice has dropped again, "what the hell is going on with you?"
He doesn't know, which is a little disconcerting. It's not terrifying, because terrifying is what will happen to them if they don't get off this planet. Terrifying is not knowing why they're being chased or what will happen to them if the bad guys catch up. Terrifying is finding out why the nice people that lived here have been replaced by these barbarians. Terrifying is being lost in a man-eating forest. Terrifying is not knowing if Ronon is still alive. Terrifying is the fact that somehow Sheppard has gotten him to sit on the ground and him not noticing until just now.
And they need to keep moving, but Sheppard's doing a pretty convincing imitation of a roadblock. "How long have you been feeling like this?"
Terrified? All his life. There are just too many things that could go wrong with everything. Too many variables that can lead to disaster.
"Rodney, how long have you been feverish?"
"Fine. How long have you been 'hot'?"
He blinks. "Shouldn't you know that?"
"Well, why not?" He'll use small words, because sometimes getting a straight answer out of Sheppard is like pulling teeth.
"It's actually getting a little cold out here," he says, projecting the very image of patience. Of course he is neither patient nor cold. What a goddamn liar.
"McKay. How long?"
He shakes his head, because he doesn't know. Which is stupid, because he should be able to answer a simple question like that. "I don't... what's going on?"
Sheppard purses his lips, and to Rodney's great discomfort, decides to play field nurse some more. He squirms, because he prefers to get his medical attention from professionals who know what they're doing. Like Carson or Keller. But he can't get it from Carson anymore, because Rodney didn't want to go fishing. Because fishing involves the outdoors, and Rodney really hates the outdoors. And the outdoors seem to hate him in return. So it's a fair trade.
But he can still have Keller look at him, because she's still alive, which is rather helpful when scheduling doctor's appointments. And she's really easy on the eyes, but he doesn't tell her that. It'd probably make her uncomfortable, and despite rumors to the contrary, he is trying to do better with people. Besides, she is a consummate professional, and is always all business. And that's really okay with Rodney, because anything else would be inappropriate.
She's still pretty. Appropriateness is overrated.
"What the hell?" Sheppard's unlicensed examination has reached his forearm, and he's eyeing the bright red, irritated skin in a way that makes Rodney's throat go dry.
"Rash," Rodney explains. "I think."
"How long have you had it?"
Rodney tries to remember, but it seems like he's been scratching at it forever. "A while."
Sheppard leans in to get a closer look, and Rodney knows he's in real trouble the moment John's blunt fingernails start to dig into his skin. "This isn't a rash."
Rodney swallows. "Oh?"
It's difficult to crane his neck to see the area that Sheppard points out. Beneath the red skin, he can barely make out a tiny white dot, no bigger than a pin prick. It looks suspiciously like a spider bite, but on this mission from hell, that's the only thing they haven't encountered so far. Rodney would remember that, because he's sure that Sheppard would have screamed like a little girl if he had seen one. So, definitely no spiders.
Actually, other than themselves (obviously) and the angry hillbillies, the only sign of non-plant life was that stupid swarm of gnats he had walked into—
"What?" Sheppard asks warily.
"I told you we should have gone back. I swallowed one of those things. I mean, it tasted disgusting—"
"The bite is on your arm," Sheppard points out as if Rodney doesn't know the difference between his elbow and his esophagus.
"I can see that." But there was more than one gnat, as indicated by the hellish swarm. Maybe Sheppard was too busy laughing to notice that part.
...but he's not laughing right now. From the grim look on his face, Rodney's not sure if he should be more concerned about the bite on his arm or whatever crazy thought has entered Sheppard's head. When he stops even pretending to smile, it's never a good sign.
"We're going back to the Gate."
"Weren't we already doing that?"
For a split-second, the grim determination is replaced by a flicker of uncertainty. He really doesn't know. He doesn't know where the hell they're going, and Rodney's going to die from a spider-gnat bite in the woods.
This is the worst mission ever.
Sheppard attempts to try and clean the bite area with what he has in vest, but really, it's kind of useless at this point. It's been there for hours, and they've been going at this ridiculous high pace for almost as long. With the amount of running they've done, and the amount of blood that's been pumped through Rodney's veins, it's probably too late. If the spider-gnat's venom is deadly—
"Knock it off." Sheppard doesn't even look up, but Rodney can still feel him looking through him. "It's not that bad."
Yes, because he's both an entomologist and a toxicologist in one. "Pull the other leg."
"How cold is it supposed to be, Colonel?" he snarls. Sweat is still dripping down his neck and most of his shirt is now soaked underneath the tac-vest. It's absolutely disgusting.
Sheppard stops immediately, dropping Rodney's arm and instead hauls him to his feet. Which, "ow."
"I am not fine. I am dying."
"Sorry, I'm going to have to get a doctor's opinion on that first. Guess you'll just have to stick around until then."
Insufferable bastard. Rodney hates him.
They start heading off... in some direction, and Rodney should really stop trying to figure out where because that would require some geographical knowledge that he doesn't have. So they just move in whatever direction Sheppard's internal compass decides is north. And it's going well even if Sheppard doesn't seem to think that Rodney can walk on his own. Really, he's been managing just fine on his own up to this point.
"You can stop that."
"I will once you start walking in a straight line."
"Do you want me to touch my nose and recite the alphabet backwards while I'm at it?"
"Only if that'll get us there faster."
"I hate you."
"Just keep moving."
"You're like a broken record."
"Just keep moving."
"I thought so."
And they do keep moving. One foot in front of the other. A rather boring process if Rodney does say so himself.
So repetitive. So thoughtless. So pointless.
"Come on," Sheppard urges, and Rodney wants to punch him. Because he can do this. It's walking. It's simple. Something he has been doing it since before he was even a year old. Just like breathing, it's not something you easily forget.
He trips. Possibly over that same damn rock, because, he realizes as Sheppard catches him and he's staring at the ground, they're back on the path. "Are we going backwards?"
"Why don't you leave the navigation to me?"
"I would, but you can see where that's gotten us so far!"
"I know exactly where we're going."
"Quiet." Sheppard tilts his head in the general direction of the forest.
Right. Being hunted. Loud noises aren't a good idea. Neither is heading back toward the people wanting to kill them. "We can't go this way." At least he thinks so.
There's no twig snap to warn them, no sixth Sheppard sense to get them moving, but Rodney knows they've made a mistake because there's another deafening boom of a shotgun. John grabs him by the vest, spinning him around and dragging him back into the underbrush. He feels like they've done this before. Focusing on breathing, focusing on moving, focusing on not dying horribly as the trunks of the trees around them explode and try to perforate them with their splinters.
If Rodney never sees another tree in his life he'll die a happy man.
That's probably going to be in the next few minutes, and since they'll still be in the middle of the evil enchanted forest it looks like he'll die unhappy, just like he always thought he would.
They keep running. Uphill, making Rodney's legs burn with the effort, arms pinwheeling as he bounces between the tree trunks like he's stuck in a pinball machine. He's expecting a bright light to start flashing "TILT" in front of him any moment now.
Even though Rodney is struggling to keep moving forward, Sheppard seems to have enough wherewithal to pull his gun and start returning fire again. Déjà vu. Rodney counts nine shots before there's a long pause. Reloading. Right. With the way they're zigzagging through the trees, it's impossible that each shot was a hit.
Sheppard's wasting ammo. He was trying to conserve it earlier.
They're going to die.
Sheppard resumes firing, the angry retort of his forty-five blending into the almost constant roar of the shotguns. The sound is deafening. The ground shakes with it. The forest attacks them with its aftermath. And Rodney has no idea why they're running, what they've done to deserve this but he keeps moving, because if he stops, if he lets the stupid twigs and branches trip him then they'll be dead. And it'll be his fault.
He's reassured by the tight grip on his vest resolutely pushing him further into the darkening night. It tells him that John is still with him. And that maybe they won't die, because John won't let them.
He's stubborn like that.
Although if he can accomplish that goal with a little less mayhem and terror, that'd be nice. Rodney's breaths are coming in ragged gasps, and he's barely staying upright on the rough ground. The echoes of the booming shotgun haven't faded, if anything they're getting closer. And even if John Sheppard is a stubborn bastard, he can't keep this up forever. And Rodney knows that he's going to have to stop, because the world is spinning in front of him, and he's pretty sure that's really, really bad.
The insistent hand at his back urges him on. So even though his feet feel like they're going to fall off and that the heat is battling the forest to swallow him whole, he keeps moving. One foot in front of the other, because it's the only thing he can do. Because if he stops, then he's dead. And John is also dead because he'd stop too, because he's stupidly loyal like that. And Rodney doesn't know what he's ever done to deserve that kind of loyalty, but he knows he can't let it down by letting his two left feet trip him. So he keeps going.
That's why it's a surprise when it's John who has to force them to a stop.
It takes Rodney a few seconds to comprehend that's what's going on, and he tries to shake off the hands trying to break through to him. Everything is swimming in and out of focus and his heart pounds painfully in his chest, trying to break free and find someone who won't make it work overtime. He's so focused on trying to breathe and not die of a heart attack that it takes him a long while to notice that it's a hell of a lot darker now.
He doesn't know where they are. Not like he had any idea before, but now it's dark. They couldn't have run all the way through twilight. Surely Rodney would have died from a heart attack or exhaustion first.
"I think it's an offshoot of the mine," John says, using his Kryptonian powers to see through Rodney's brain and know exactly what he's thinking. "Looks abandoned."
Oh, goody. Just what he needs. Possibly something to fall on top of him in addition to everything else. It's probably going to collapse the moment Rodney catches his breath just to be contrary.
Worst. Mission. Ever.
Rodney continues to lie on the floor, gasping like a dying fish while Sheppard glares at his pistol, turning it over in his hands as if it's disappointed him. "I'm out of ammo."
The world keeps on spinning while John starts going through all of the pockets in his vest as if that might magically turn up more bullets. Rodney closes his eyes, trying to fight the vertigo with darkness, but it doesn't help much.
"Hey." Something nudges his side and he cracks open an eye to see Sheppard staring at him. Again. Does he know how creepy and unnerving that is?
"Still with me?"
"Stupid... question." His throat is dry, voice cracking with the effort. Too much running. Not enough water. Except for sweat. He's still sweating. Aren't you supposed to sweat after the fever breaks? Maybe he's not really feverish then, and John's just lying about it being cold.
"Sorry." There might be a ghost of a smile, but in the darkness it's hard to tell. "Had to check."
"Use... your eyes."
"I'm not impressed."
Rodney just glares at him, because a proper reply would require stringing together too many words.
"You also stink. You really need to take a shower when we get home."
"I think I'll pass."
"If that's true," Rodney squeaks as he feels a hand patting him down, "why is your hand on my thigh?"
"Where's your Beretta?"
"I just did."
"You did not—"
"Here it is. I'm going to borrow this."
"Knock yourself out." Although not literally. Because someone needs to be conscious and coherent, and Rodney's not sure he can be that person.
Something cool touches his forehead and it takes him a second to realize that it's Sheppard's hand, for some reason trying to check his temperature like a good mother hen. If Rodney had the energy, he'd shove him away. As it is, John presses his lips into a thin line. "You're going to be fine."
It doesn't feel like it. But Sheppard seems convinced. Of course, he also seems convinced that the bitter Budweiser swill in his fridge is actual beer and that nuclear bombs make fun amusement park rides. So perhaps his sense of reality is a little skewed.
Which is probably the case, because how can Rodney be fine if he's going to melt into a puddle before they ever make it home? He can already feel himself dripping to the floor. Or maybe that's just more sweat. It's hard to tell.
"I'm sorry," Sheppard admits quietly.
What does he have to be sorry for?
"I didn't realize... I should have noticed something was wrong earlier."
"All about you... isn't it?"
"I'm going to get you home." Sheppard lifts his lip into a snarl, but he doesn't look at Rodney. "You are not going to die. I promise you that."
Well then that's that. If John Sheppard says so, then it's going to happen. Forget the miles they have to travel to the Gate, or the people hunting them for no apparent reason, or the heat that's going to smother them before they make it a few steps, or that they've already lost Ronon, or that Rodney's going to die because of a fucking gnat. John Sheppard says they're going home. So they are.
Because he doesn't break his promises.
Rodney has no idea how he does it, or why, but John always keeps them no matter what. Even if the consequences are horrible and bring further ruin upon everyone. He keeps them. It's baffling. It's inhuman. It's almost enough to chase away the monsters.
There's a loud stomping of several pairs of heavy boots clomping around somewhere near, and Rodney tries to swallow, tries to breathe, but he can't do either. John lays a hand on his shoulder, and Rodney doesn't know if John's trying to shush him or lend some sort of silent support. Either way, it's deathly quiet except for the angry voices and stomping outside. Sheppard presses closer, shifting his position to where he becomes a human Kevlar vest. And it should never surprise Rodney that this person is the same one who was arguing with him so fervently earlier. It shouldn't surprise him, but it always does.
Probably because he doesn't deserve it.
Rodney has saved the galaxy and put his life on the line more times than he cares to count. He knows this. He's almost a hero himself, and that should be good enough. But he's horrible with people. He hurts them. Everyone. Especially those he cares about. He hurt Katie even though he was trying to do right by her by breaking off their engagement. He hurt Jeannie because she wanted different things for herself than he did. He hurt Elizabeth by reactivating her nanites and not letting her die. He's hurt John. A lot. At Doranda. With the nanites. With Wallace, even though that wasn't what Rodney had wanted at all. And if Rodney dies, that's going to hurt too.
There's the distinct possibility that Rodney may hurt John more than every other person combined.
But John doesn't care. He still puts himself between Rodney and danger as if it's the most natural thing in the world.
The angry noises have died away, and it's quiet now except for the sound of breath whistling between John's tightly clenched teeth and Rodney's wildly pounding heart. They're alone again, left to the oppressive heat in the cave... mine... thing... whatever. He closes his eyes, hoping that might give him some sort of relief, but it doesn't. It just makes it worse.
He has to get out of here. He has to get cool or he's going to melt. Or catch fire. Which would really suck.
"Rodney?" John says quietly, and he feels the cool hand on his forehead. "C'mon, open your eyes."
He does, but it doesn't look right. It's too dark, and John's face looks strange. Lopsided and bowed like Rodney's staring at a reflection in some funhouse mirror. That's really not right and he tries to communicate that to his human shield.
John frowns and says for Rodney to hang on. So he does.
And John says that he didn't mean it literally. Which is just confusing. He really needs to stop saying things he doesn't mean or that just aren't true. Although Rodney can't really remember off the top of his head a real lie that the man has told. He's sure he has though. Told a lie. John that is.
"Rodney, let go," John says, voice sounding thick and troubled, which is pretty confusing in and of itself. Of course, not much is really making sense at this point, so that doesn't come as a surprise.
The prolonged contact seems to make John uncomfortable. Of course, he's an aphephobe, so that isn't very surprising either. He starts to carefully pry away Rodney's fingers, which is more difficult than it sounds because he's holding on to John just as tightly as he would the last pack of pudding in the mess.
But John Sheppard is not pudding.
He has far more consistency (when he says to drop the gun, you should drop the gun). He's also got more hair than would be considered sanitary by the FDA or Bill Cosby or pudding enthusiasts everywhere. John also isn't nearly as tasty as pudding. Rodney knows this first hand, because John has just covered his mouth with one of his hands and is trying to tell him to be quiet. Rodney takes this opportunity to confirm his "not tasty" hypothesis by licking the hand obstructing his breathing pathway. It tastes like dirt, sweat, and something coppery and metallic and Rodney regrets his scientific curiosity, because he wants to spit, but John is still covering his mouth, face twisting into some grotesque expression, as if he's being put through some awful kind of torture instead of just sitting in a dark mine shaft with Rodney.
"Quiet." The harsh whisper is louder than a freight train—or the screaming of a Wraith dart—they're in another galaxy so he should use the proper galactic simile. John's eyebrows knit into that same concerned line. "I think they're coming back."
Apparently that's a bad thing, although Rodney doesn't remember exactly why, but if John says so then it must be true. He doesn't lie. Except when he does. But he hasn't done that lately.
The hand covering his mouth presses against his still moving lips a little harder, and out of the corner of his hazy vision, Rodney can see the muzzle of a nine millimeter make an appearance. The words stop spilling over and he just watches the wavering tip of the gun, the way John's fingers occasionally tighten on the hilt. It's shaking so much that it's making Rodney nauseous. Or maybe he's the one that's shaking. Either way, he closes his eyes before he loses his breakfast/lunch/elevensies with John covering the only convenient point of exit with his dirty, sweaty, foul-tasting hand.
The darkness is surprisingly cool and inviting Rodney decides that he might stay there for a while.
But something is jostling his shoulder, and he reluctantly drags his eyes open to find his good arm slung across John's shoulder, because apparently it's time to move again—and that's just typical John Sheppard. Move, move, move. Think, think, think. Do, do, do. Mock, snark, mock. Bark, bark, bark...
That's not right.
Sheppard's not a dog, even if he does a good shaggy dog impression with that overgrown excuse for a haircut—and he has the sorriest hangdog expression Rodney has ever had the misfortune to witness time and time again. He also has the same embarrassing habit of shoving his nose into other people's... business. (Rodney thinks about taking the analogy one step further, but it would be crude and possibly untrue. Or true. That's one question Rodney really doesn't want to know the answer to. What Sheppard does in his off time is nobody's business but his own.)
John lets out an undignified snort that borders on a snicker.
Rodney would ask what's so damn funny, but he's supposed to be quiet.
"Not doing a very good job of that," John says, and Rodney can't decide whether he sounds amused, concerned, or ready to just leave Rodney where he stands/sways and forget this whole pointless exercise. "Don't be stupid. I'm not leaving you."
And maybe John's using his super Kryptonian powers of deduction and super sight to look through Rodney, or maybe he's not being as quiet as he thought. It seems brain boiling fevers might rob him of a necessary brain-to-mouth filter.
"That problem is not limited to fevers," John says, sounding so amused with his witty little quip that Rodney wishes that he had thrown up on the man's hand. That John doesn't find so funny, because his face twists up into another unreadable expression. "Just try and keep everything down, okay?"
That's a tall order considering that the muted colors of the world are melting together like a Salvador Dali painting. He tries to hold onto something just in case he drains away with everything else. His fingers find purchase on something and he holds on like he's never held on before. There's a returning squeeze, a sign from the world beyond this acid trip that they might make it home if he just keeps hanging on. So he does.
Because it's all he can do.
"You're going to have to help me out here some," John grunts. "Come on, Rodney, walk."
He's trying, damn it! But it's hard to put one foot in front of the other when his legs are wobblier than jello.
Rodney likes jello.
"No, no, no, back to walking."
What is the point?
"The point is getting the hell out of here."
"Damn it, Rodney! I said we're getting back home." Yeah, so he did. "And I'm going to need your help if we're going to do that." Of course he is. John always needs Rodney's help. "Yes, I do." Although usually it's something of a technical nature. "Walking will work just fine." Not something physical. "You're heavy." Rodney's not so good with the physical stuff. "Rodney—" He's really more of a hindrance than a help during a fight. "You're not." He doesn't really want to fight. "We're just walking here." And he wants to go home. "That's what we're trying to..." But he doesn't know how to get there. "Fine. I'll carry you."
But Rodney should be able to walk.
"Why don't we talk about jello again?"
What's wrong with him?
"Or make crude canine metaphors."
Is this what dying feels like?
"Rodney—" They jerk to a stop, and Rodney feels his empty stomach lurch with the movement. John grips his shoulders, fingers cruelly digging into the sensitive fleshy area under his collarbone. "Stop it. You're not going to die. Do you hear me?"
Rodney tries to focus past the melting clocks and trees and make out the furious and frazzled face staring him down.
"Do you hear me?" John asks.
"Yes," because Rodney does.
Unfortunately, someone else does too according to the distinctive sound of a gun cocking. The world explodes; dirt and vegetation go flying as John forcefully throws Rodney out of the way. He lands in an ungraceful heap, and the dirt and leaves on the ground do nothing to break his fall. He tries to move, pick himself back up, but it's taking too long for his arms and legs to respond to what should be very simple commands.
The retort of Rodney's nine millimeter is different than John's forty-five. Where the other was a commanding boom, this one is a quick, efficient blast. He strains to pick it out from the cacophony of returning shotgun fire, because it's easier to listen than to visually keep track of what is quickly descending into a melee.
John is a black silhouette against the darkening forest, never coming to a complete stop as he pivots on his heel between shots. He's the epitome of the cool action hero, dodging gunfire as each of his shots hit their mark. Or maybe the other guys just don't know how to aim. But they keep coming. In the dark light, they're just shadows to Rodney's eyes. Shadows emerging from the foliage like demons bleeding from a Salvador Dali nightmare.
But Dali never painted demons. Michelangelo did. They're crossing genres now, going from surrealism to Renaissance, which really shouldn't happen. Things should stay the same. Like the ground. Falling away from him as he flies in the air.
Someone's grabbed him. Hands covered with tough calluses, and a rough handling that doesn't care about Rodney's queasiness. It's not John, he knows that, but when the cold metal touches his cheek, he can't help but lean into it. The small point of cool contact eases some of the fire raging in him.
The cacophony of gunplay fades into an unsettled silence.
"Drop it," a deep voice booms next to his ear. "Now."
There's a soft thump as something lands on the forest floor. Everything is washed in shadows, so he can't tell exactly what. But he can hear the tightness in John's voice. "There, it's down. Now let him go."
"Whatever you say."
The ground rushes up to meet Rodney, an angry jolt racing down his spine upon impact. He rolls over, trying to cough and spit out the mouthful of dirt he just inhaled.
"Bastard—" He doesn't need to see John to know that he's trying to rush forward. Rodney tries to wave his hand, something to indicate that he's okay. Relatively speaking.
"See? He's fine."
"He better be."
The air is thick with tension, the soft buzzing of nighttime insects filling in what would be silence. And that's just what Rodney needs. More bugs and reality warping venom.
"You put up a good chase."
"'course, it's easy to get turned around in these woods if you don't know where you're headed." The booming and gravelly voice does sound a lot like Ned Beatty. And maybe Rodney's really just trapped in some Burt Reynolds' movie inspired nightmare, and all he needs is the right jolt in order to wake up. He hopes it doesn't involve rivers, though. He's wet enough. "You are lost, ain't ya?"
They're way too far up the creek now, their canoe is sinking, and they've lost all of their paddles.
"I think we can find our way fine." John makes a terrible Burt Reynolds. He's got the flippancy down, but needs a little more work on the twang. Up the sophistication some and tone down the rage. "But thanks."
"Dun' know about that," Ned Beatty drawls, "looks like you might need a bit o' help."
Rodney needs Ned's help like he needs another spider-gnat bite.
"This one here's got the fever."
"Can you help him?" John's still seething, but he's forcing a good amount of desperation into his tone. He shouldn't do that. Shouldn't show weakness.
"Can," Ned says, long and slow as if he has all the time in the world, "but I won't. You killed my friends—"
"I was defending myself—" a grunt and a whoosh of air cuts him off. Rodney lifts his head, trying to pick John apart from the murky shadows. The best he can make out is one shape doubled over, pinned between three others.
"All trespassers will be shot," Ned snarls. "Took generations, but we've finally taken back what's ours. Not going to let you thieving outsiders start land grabbing again."
"Again? We haven't—"
"Maybe you ain't Genii," Ned says, "but you stink just the same."
Rodney begs to differ. The Genii haven't even invented antiperspirants. Probably a low priority. No one ever succeeded in galactic conquest by smelling nice.
"We didn't do anything—" But another thud and gasp cuts John off.
"You would. Genii, Menarian, Lishan—" the tall shadow advances on the others, and there's another painful sounding thump, "—none of you seem to understand this is our land." If the next few words out of Ned's mouth turn out to be "squeal like a pig", Rodney doesn't think he'll be altogether too surprised.
John can't suck in the next gasp as they deliver another blow.
There's a pounding in Rodney's ears, but he's not sure if it's from the blood rushing in his head or the locals fists laying into John. John who should be able to take on them all, but is outnumbered. John who is outnumbered and can't fight back. And Rodney's on the ground burning up and being useless.
He doesn't want to die.
He grabs a handful of dirt and leaves in an effort to gain some sort of traction and get moving again. To where to he doesn't know, but he knows he should be moving forward. Inching forward if he has to.
And John's going to save Rodney, because he promised. And John doesn't break his promises.
There's more scuffling and cursing as they try to contain the thrashing whirlwind that is John Sheppard. Rodney grabs another clump of ground, pulling himself along. Six inches down, miles to go.
But John can't save Rodney if he's dead. And if he's dead, he'll break his promise.
Ned growls. If there are words he doesn't bother to articulate them, but his intent is as clear as the moonlight glinting off the barrel of his shotgun. More leaves, more dirt, but Rodney's still too far away.
And if John breaks this promise, it'll kill him. And Rodney doesn't want that. So he's going to save John. And then John can save him.
His hand lands on something cold, smooth. And it takes his fingers too long to explore the familiar hilt and barrel of his own gun. He doesn't hear John's reply to Ned, it's all a jumbled mess. Sound, light, darkness all swirl together, and the Beretta shouldn't weigh as heavy as it does.
Rodney's going to miss, because he can't see. Because he can't keep his hand from shaking. He fumbles, thick fingers unable to find purchase on the slick trigger.
Ned hefts the barrel up and takes aim.
The sound of the shot is deafening, and the recoil nearly breaks Rodney's hand. One of the shadows crumples to the ground, but the shapes are so indistinct he can't tell who. It could have been John.
He could have just killed John.
That's not what he wanted.
The shadows are angry, turning on each other. He can't pick them apart anymore, and they merge into one giant lump. More thumps, a sickening snap, followed by a deafening roar—and then silence.
It's dark now and Rodney can't see.
But he can hear. He can hear the crunch of a single pair of boots making their way toward him, and he should find the gun on the ground, should go out fighting because that's what an action hero would do, or John, except that Rodney killed him, and he didn't want that, he didn't want to kill anyone, but they were going to—
Rodney's hand manages to close around the gun, but a strong hand stops him by gripping his forearm. He could almost sob with relief, but instead he just holds on tight.
Now he can save Rodney.
Which is good, because there's no holding the darkness back anymore. He falls into its cool embrace, not worried that it's pulling him under, because he's not going to die.
Because John doesn't break his promises.
It's still dark when Rodney wakes up, but even before he opens his eyes he knows he's back home. His nostrils are invaded by the overwhelming smell of Downy and Tide trying to overpower the antiseptic scent of the infirmary. It's routine and familiar. His eyes are gritty, still heavy from sleep, but he manages to open them enough just enough to see John's sock-clad toes twitching a few inches from his face.
Rodney can't see any more of John, but he can tell from the deep snuffling breaths that the man's fallen asleep in that ridiculous position once again. A deeper, rough snore cuts through the air, a stark contrast to John's soft breathing... Ronon.
Something tight in Rodney's chest eases.
He would listen for Teyla, but recent experience has taught him that she's not allowed to participate in the infirmary sleepovers. Too much risk of her catching something from one of the other patients.
But he's home. And everyone made it back.
His arms are still heavy, but he manages to push John's feet away from his face and further down the bed. He doesn't have energy for more than that as sleep starts to drag him back under. But right before he gives into the darkness for a second time, he spies the corners of John's lips twitching up ever so slightly.
Keller declares him on the mend the next morning. One of the nice things about living in a wildly advanced city inhabited by Earth's brightest minds is that they have everything they need between brains and technology to concoct an antivenin in no time at all. Of course, Rodney had been out of his mind delirious for most of that part, but that's probably best forgotten anyway.
The day passes by so extremely blasé and normal that Rodney almost forgets that he might have anything to be uncomfortable about. But when John starts turning over the pudding pack stolen from Rodney's lunch tray and just stares at it, an unpleasant tickling starts up in the back of Rodney's mind.
He takes another bite of blue jello, but he can hardly taste it. Reluctantly, he swallows the spoonful in one gulp and sets the cup back on his tray.
John looks up, startled out of his reverie. "Something wrong?"
"What? No. I'm just not hungry."
Sheppard's eyes track from the jello, to Rodney, and then back to the pudding pack in his hand. He clears his throat and sets it back on the tray, trying not to look awkward as he leans back in his chair.
"Not going to eat that?" Rodney shoots back.
"Then why were you staring at it like it was going to reveal one of life's great mysteries to you?"
"I—" John sighs and runs a hand through his hair. "...was thinking. Sorry."
"I said something, didn't I?"
Rodney tries to hold his gaze, but finds that it's more comfortable to pick at his jello. Yes, much safer. "Out there. I said something... embarrassing, didn't I?"
And Rodney knows he did, because he has vague recollections of shaggy dogs, Kryptonite, melting clocks—and for some bizarre reason, Bill Cosby. He can't even begin come up with anything close to a plausible explanation for any of that. (Bill Cosby?) But John doesn't say anything. In fact, he's silent for so long that Rodney feels safe enough to put down his spoon and stop pretending to be interested in something else.
He's hoping that maybe Sheppard forgot the question, but when he looks up, John is staring at him—through him—and it's déjà vu all over again.
Rodney squirms, because John is considering him long and hard before answering. "You said a lot."
"Like always, you said a lot." John doesn't blink, continuing the staring contest as if it's really important for Rodney to understand. "But nothing you should be embarrassed about."
John quirks a brow. "Am not."
Liar that hasn't stopped staring. "That's seriously creepy, you know?"
"That—thing you're doing. Stop it."
"Stop looking at me."
"Way to release your inner preschooler, Rodney."
He glares at John.
"And now you're looking at me."
"What are you, ten?"
"Give or take thirty or so years." John arches the other brow, as if issuing a challenge. "And you're still looking at me."
"I—you started it!"
"Actually, you did. I was just looking at the pudding—"
"And why would you be doing that if I hadn't said something strange?"
"Because..." John trails off and looks away. "It doesn't matter."
"Yes, it does!"
"It wasn't embarrassing."
"But it was strange."
"You had a hundred and five fever. Of course it was strange. At that temperature not even you can think straight." He shrugs. "And that's... okay. You know?"
"No, I don't."
John smiles—almost fondly—and Rodney can't help but feel like he's missing something vitally important from this conversation. Like he said something out there that's going to make Sheppard look at him differently. But John just picks up the pudding pack and starts tossing it between his hands again. "So, if Ronon's smuggling mission is successful... video golf or Competitive Minesweeper?"
"But no cheating this time."
"You're not going to say anything else about this?"
"What's there to say?"
"I don't know... something."
"Can't think of anything."
"You're such a liar."
John smirks and just leans back in his chair. "But I don't lie."
And seeing how Rodney is safe and back at home, it's hard to argue with that logic. "No," he admits softly, "you don't."
John blinks, momentarily taken off guard. Rodney pretends like he doesn't see, and instead snags his spoon and resumes eating his jello. Because maybe John is right. Maybe sometimes, nothing needs to be said at all.