Spoilers: None really, but set not too long after iSunday/i.
Summary: No matter what part you play, everyone feels the pressure.
A/N: This has been crawling around my harddrive for the past two years, trying to convince me it's readable. I've decided to give it a shot. ;-)
This has been beta'd on several ocassions by both Ashanome and NebbyJen; they tried their best, but I take full blame.
"Courage is grace under pressure." –Ernest Hemingway
Jennifer was absorbed in examining the Ancient diagnostic tools that had been uncovered by the archeologists so she didn't notice the first rumblings. She absently noted the increased chatter on her radio, but paid it no attention. The next one, accompanied by dirt filtering down from the cracked ceiling tiles, made her look up. But she didn't move, not comprehending what was happening, until Sheppard – pushing two other scientists in front of him – caught her by the back of her tac vest and practically threw her toward the exit.
"Damn it, Doc. Run!"
The wall had stood for more than 10,000 years. Over forty feet of stone inscribed with Ancient script and decorative flourishes, it had withstood the best that Mother Nature could fling at it. But that was before the Earthlings, with their insatiable curiosity, came to Pegasus and began excavating the site. Now, with a quiet, almost anticlimactic whoompf the wall hit the ground, flinging debris from the collapsing hillside into the air and obscuring the floor of the ravine.
Coughing in the dust-laden air, scrabbling for hand and footholds, Jennifer fumbled desperately for the top of the gully. When unseen hands latched onto her arms and pulled her over the rim she could have wept with relief.
She was lowered to the ground when her knees gave out and a canteen thrust into her shaking hands. She stared at it dully as leather-clad legs, closely followed by several pair of camo-covered ones, flashed past, heading in the direction of the ravine. She shook her head. That seemed wrong somehow.
Voices buzzed over her head but she didn't register what was being said until a hand grasped her chin and forced her to look at the speaker.
"Jennifer, can you hear me? Are you injured?" Teyla asked, concerned gaze checking her for any visible trauma.
She did her best to shake off the stunned feeling and nodded her head. "No, I'm fine. I…" A harsh tickle at the back of her throat surprised a cough out of her. The function of the canteen she was clutching returned. She took a mouthful, swishing it around and then spitting it out to get rid of the grittiness in her mouth. Taking measured sips, she looked around, instinctively counting heads and looking for injuries.
McKay was just visible in the jumper's front compartment, gesticulating and talking a mile-a-minute. Drs. Brackett and Callum, the archeologists who had invited her to the site, were huddled on a rock, looking miserable but unharmed. She realized the legs she had seen must have seen Ronon and the Marines assigned to the excavation going back into the ravine which was still obscured by airborne dust.
She stood slowly, Teyla rising with her and keeping a solicitous hand on her arm. Her gaze swept over the large clearing again, searching frantically.
"Where's Colonel Sheppard?"
"You're not a stupid woman, Elizabeth," McKay snapped impatiently as he flipped up the lid on a bench seat in the jumper and then slammed it back down again. Still nothing useful in there. "Stop saying 'recovery' when this is a rescue mission. He still shows up on the life signs detector. He's alive."
"I'm sorry, Rodney," she said, sounding both contrite and worried at the same time. "I didn't mean to – "
He sighed, his hand fluttering like a light-captive moth beside his head. "No, I'm sorry. I'm… I… This is just so frustrating. It's been fifteen minutes. How soon before someone shows up with the equipment I asked for? Shovels we have in plenty, but we can't start digging down to him until we get this wall removed."
"Lorne is supervising the loading of the jumpers right now. They'll be there in a few minutes."
"Dr. McKay!" "Rodney!"
He turned toward the group that had been walking the edge of the ravine, peering down into it as if expecting to see something besides that huge slab of stone. When Teyla saw that she had his attention she pointed to her ear and a large smile broke across her face.
The hard fist that had lodged in his chest loosened slightly and his breath escaped on a relieved sigh.
"He's conscious, Elizabeth," he reported, striding out of the jumper. "They have him on the radio. I have to go. Tell Lorne to hurry up."
He'd changed frequencies on his radio before she had a chance to reply.
Jennifer listened as his teammates talked to Colonel Sheppard, encouraging him, assuring him that the rescue operation was moving apace. His replies had been coherent, but his breathing was obviously difficult as he paused frequently to draw a breath. She signaled that she wanted to speak to him, earning her a glare from McKay who was currently speaking, stammering out awkward phrases of reassurance. She ignored him.
"Colonel, this is Dr. Keller, Jennifer," she began, reaching for the datapad that had come with the emergency kits and pulling up his medical history. It was a depressingly large file.
"Doc, y'okay?" A gasping breath. "'E'ryone else?"
She heard a snort behind her and McKay muttered something she didn't catch, and then Teyla's quiet tones as she drew him away.
"You asked that earlier, Colonel. Do you remember?" Jennifer asked, concerned.
"Yes," he answered immediately. "But they don' wan' me t' worry."
"Ah, I understand." And she did; it was quite apparent how protective of each other these four were. "I promise you, I didn't have to treat anything more serious than a sprained ankle and I think Sergeant Haas was more embarrassed than injured."
"And now I'd like to find out how you are, Colonel."
"Dr. Keller has asked that I help you stay awake, John," Teyla said. She knelt at the edge of the deep gully, following the movement of the Marines as they drilled holes in the huge slab of rock and readied the cables. The long wall had cracked into several pieces when it fell, but the one over where the Colonel was trapped was one of the largest. Rodney and Radek were nearby, arguing about the best way to attach the cables to the jumper and whether or not more than one jumper would be needed to lift the wall.
"Where'd she go?" The quiet, gasping voice was so unlike Sheppard's usual confident tones. "'s she okay?"
She looked over her shoulder. The doctor was sorting through the emergency medical bags and speaking to the corpsman that had brought them through the stargate. It was the second time within the last hour that Teyla had seen Dr. Keller go through these same motions.
"She was not injured, John."
There was a brief pause. "Wasn't her fault. Tell her."
She shook her head. "You will tell her once we have you out of there. But you know she will worry regardless."
There was silence for so long she feared he had fallen asleep. She cursed her inability to make 'small talk.'. She was more comfortable with silence than with idle chatter when with friends.
"John? Are you asleep?"
The startled snort belied his, "No, no. 'm here."
She smiled worriedly. "I fear I am not doing a good job of keeping you awake. I do not know what to speak of. Is there – ?"
"Your people," he said abruptly. He coughed and his breath hitched on a groan. "The new… homeworld… How's it goin'?"
"Are you sure?"
Sheppard's breath sounded shallower than before. Her forehead creased. She wondered if she should fetch Jennifer, but what could the doctor do?
"Yes. 's normal."
Teyla's head dipped in acknowledgement. "The first tava bean crop is nearly ready to be harvested," she began.
McKay paced back and forth at the top of the ravine, directly above the spot where the life-signs detector had pinpointed Sheppard.
"Come on, come on, what's the next one, Colonel I-Could-Have-Been-Mensa?" His hands made a rolling 'hurry up' motion as he waited for a reply. Soft, rasping breathing was all he heard in his comm.
"Sheppard! Wake up!"
"Huh?" Sheppard gasped. "Oh… You said… six one… six three?" There was a rough, throat clearing noise and then, "Six one seven… three is next."
"Six thousand one hundred ninety-seven," McKay shot back immediately.
Sheppard groaned. "You have… these… written down?"
"If you'd quit trying to fall asleep I wouldn't get so many steps ahead of you. What's next?"
"Six… one nine nine. Tired… Change subject… now?"
McKay frowned in concern, his hands clenching and unclenching. Sheppard's breathing was sounding a lot more labored, his responses were getting slower. God knew what the weight of all the dirt and stone was doing to his ribcage, his lungs. McKay whirled and stomped in the opposite direction, hands gesturing at his side as if carrying on their own conversation.
Damn it, what was taking those Marines so long? How long did it take to drill a half dozen holes through two feet of stone and attach cables? Didn't they realize –?
"Six thousand two hundred three. I'm crushed you're not enjoying playing 'Name that Prime,' Sheppard," McKay snapped as he walked along the ravine edge. He had been shooed back up to the top earlier, Zelenka muttering something about him being a hindrance – which was just wrong. At least he could watch to be sure they were doing it right. "And, sorry, no, we can't talk about something else because you won't talk. You'll listen and fall asleep. And Keller wants you awake and alert."
"Not her fault."
He grunted in amusement. "Except for being slow, and that's probably genetic." There was a brief pause and then he asked again, "Six thousand two hundred three. What's next?"
"Uhm, six tw…"
The sound of harsh coughing erupted in his ear. He grimaced, squeezing his eyes closed. After a moment he looked over to where Keller was monitoring the conversation. The doctor spread her hands in a helpless gesture.
Sheppard's breathing finally calmed again, although it seemed to McKay that there was more of a wheeze to it than before.
"You all right?" he asked quietly.
"I don't know what's taking so long. It could be the rock the wall was carved from is especially dense, but it looks like granite to me. Or the Marines are taking a coffee break every time I turn my back. Or… I don't know what. We should have had you out of there by now."
There was the sound that could have been amusement, but ended as a cough. "Not your… fault… either. And don't… dis… my Marines."
McKay rolled his eyes. "'Your Marines.' Have you heard some of the jokes your Marines tell about the Air Force?"
McKay started to reply, but the activity down on the slab caught his eye. "What the…?" He looked around, and then frantically waved Ronon over when he caught the other man's eye. "Colonel, I have to go check on the progress. Ronon's going keep talking to you. We'll have you out soon. I promise."
" – trust you," Sheppard replied quietly.
Ronon squatted and peered over the edge, watching as McKay and Zelenka shook fingers in each other faces. He thought Sheppard would appreciate the little drama, but he had been told not to say anything negative about the rescue efforts. And he supposed that if he was the one pinned under a rock wall then he might not want to hear about two guys arguing about the safest versus the quickest way to get the wall lifted. At least the Marines, under Lorne's direction, were ignoring the argument and continuing their efforts to free their commanding officer.
Grunting impatiently, he climbed back to his feet and resumed pacing, trying to relieve some of the tension building up inside him. It had been vaguely amusing when the others had gravitated to this spot when they took their turn keeping Sheppard alert; as if being nearby lent something to the effort. He had been surprised when his own pacing had brought him here. Now, despite his growing restlessness, he couldn't make himself move more than five yards in any direction.
Speaking of keeping Sheppard awake…
"Hey..." Ronon began, and then paused while he thought of something to say. "Did you remember to order some more of those pretzels I liked? The ones with the cheese in the middle?"
"Hmmm? Yeah. I sent… email in last… data burst. Mitchell'll send… in next care… package."
"Good, good." He listened to the fading tones and shook his head. Ronon understood the combat engineers were trained for this, trained to work as a team, and that they could get to Sheppard faster without his 'help,' but still… He felt as if he would explode if he didn't do something… anything.
"What?" he snapped back, before realizing it had been Sheppard who had spoken. "Sorry. "
"Y'r growling. Y' 'kay?"
He could feel Keller and Teyla glaring daggers at his back. "Yeah, I'm fine, Sheppard." He blew out a vexed breath, running his hands over his hair, tying the dreads away from his face. "I'm just… I want…"
"Feel… like a run?" Sheppard wheezed. And Ronon heard the humor and sympathy in the rough whisper.
"Yeah, I do," he admitted ruefully.
"Me too," and now Sheppard sounded wistful.
"I'm not good at –" Ronon began, breaking off at the sound of a jumper taking off behind him. He turned and watched as the Lorne maneuvered the craft over the work site. A small part of the heaviness in his chest eased.
"Hang on, Sheppard. They're about to lift the wall."
"I'm know you're uncomfortable, Colonel," Keller murmured as she bent over her patient. She adjusted the oxygen mask that had been knocked askew. "I don't want to give you anything stronger for the pain until after I've run you through the scanner."
Sheppard nodded his understanding. He coughed, grimacing at the pain. Breathing was still being done in short gasps, so he had to pause frequently when speaking. His voice was further muffled by the mask, "I'm okay, Doc. Happy t' be here."
The doctor looked embarrassed. "I wanted to say," she began, waving a hand toward the back of the jumper, "I'm –"
"Doc," Sheppard interrupted with a frown, "don't. I won't say I'm fine, if you don't apologize. Deal?" A tired smile peeked under the mask.
Keller fussed with his IV, adjusting the flow. Finally, she nodded, looking up to meet his eyes. "A deal, then."
Sheppard's eyes flew open and he gasped hungrily for air. Expecting too feel a musty pitch-blackness pressing down on him, he saw instead the familiar furnishings of the Atlantis infirmary, the lighting dimmed for the night. And instead of feeling compressed and straining for enough air, his lungs expanded easily even if it made his ribcage ache. He relaxed back into the pillows, his eyes closing.
A rattling exhalation brought his eyes open again and he lifted his head to look around.
Teyla was curled up asleep on the bed next to his, still dressed in her uniform. He doubted she had ever made such a noise, awake or asleep.
Ronon was leaning back in a visitor's chair, his booted feet propped on the same bed. It must have been him snoring, his head tipped at an awkward angle as he slept.
Or it could have been McKay, who chose that moment to let loose a snorting grunt. His chin bounced on his chest as he breathed, slumped on a chair between the two beds.
Sheppard dropped his head back on his pillow, grinning.
He recognized the floating, detached feeling of a heavy-duty painkiller at work in his body. Judging from the sore ribcage and the bulky length of his elevated leg he would probably be grateful for it when he was more awake.
He shifted slightly in the bed. A cough from a dry throat escaped him and three pairs of eyes flew open and zeroed in on him. He smiled and held up a hand, letting them know he was all right. It took a few moments, but they relaxed back into their sleeping positions and his own eyes drifted closed again.
And he heard a quiet, "Six thousand two hundred three. We'll pick it up tomorrow."