"He's here," Rodney whispered, staring at the scanner. "I mean he's in there of course," he clarified, pointing toward the low building in front of them. Hunkered down in the mud behind a series of bushes, Rodney wiped the rain from the screen of the Ancient device and shivered. "You'd think after five days the rain would have let up." He couldn't wait to get back to Atlantis so he could dry up and thaw out.
"How many life signs are around?" asked Lorne, crouching between Rodney and Ronon. Lorne's team had joined Sheppard's team for the rescue five days ago, after they'd finally figured out that the colonel was still on M5J-552.
Sheppard had been taken during an attack against the Katu'urans, a farming community near the gate. Apparently the attackers were the Pegasus version of violent gypsies, raiding and taking what they wanted, including people. Sheppard had gotten in their way and been unusual enough to warrant kidnapping. When they lost his signal, the Lanteans feared Sheppard had been moved to another planet. A week of looking for him had yielded no clues, so they had returned to M5J-552, only to discover something about the planet masked their transmitter signals unless the scanner was close to the source.
"Life signs, McKay?" asked Lorne again.
"Oh, sorry," Rodney said, shaking himself out of his fugue. "Not many . . . looks like two outside and three inside. Everyone else is across the camp in that big building."
"Easy," said Ronon, grinning. "Let's go get Sheppard."
The Pegasus gypsies were no match for the combined forces of Team Lorne and Team Sheppard. It took them less than ten minutes to take the place and they did it quietly enough to not attract any party crashers from across the camp. When they couldn't find Sheppard, they followed some steps down into the basement, or maybe the dungeon. The bottom level was flooded up to their knees, the water ice cold.
"How long do you think this place has been flooded like this?" asked Rodney.
"It is next to the river," said Teyla. "It looks as though it takes on water often, so possibly for days now."
"Here!" Ronon called from the end of the room. By the time Rodney and Lorne arrived, he'd blasted the door open. Sheppard squatted on a metal shelf that seemed to serve as a bed, with water lapping around his ankles. He was balled up into the smallest possible size, shivering violently. His clothes were wet where water flowing down the wall constantly sprayed him, but it was the only place in the room to actually get up out of the frigid liquid. Slowly lifting his head at the sound of people wading into the room, his eyes widened.
"R-r-r-ronon?" His face was pale, but his cheeks held a slight flush, as if someone had lightly brushed a white canvas with a touch of pink. Wet, black hair framed his face, matching the dark patches under his dull, eyes.
"We're here Sheppard," the large man said, his voice faltering slightly.
Rodney, Teyla, and Lorne quickly crowded around the colonel as the rest of the team kept watch. When closer, Rodney could hear a distinct wheezing. "How . . . how long have you been in here . . . like this?"
"N-n-not sure . . . cold."
"We need to get him back to Atlantis," said Teyla.
Ronon held out his hand. "Come on, Sheppard, I'll help you up."
John gripped Ronon's hand, but when he tried to climb off the cot, he almost fell into the water. Would have if Ronon hadn't caught him. His legs appeared to be locked, unable to respond to commands. Rodney reached out to help Ronon get the colonel to his feet.
"Sorry . . . g-g-guess b-b-been here . . . t-t-too long . . . just s-s-s-so c-c-c-old."
Rodney winced at the stuttering apology. Now that they had Sheppard partially upright, he could see how thin the man had become. The wet t-shirt clung to his body, revealing weight loss from his captivity. Apparently he hadn't exactly been fed well the last week and a half. Rodney helped Ronon get John moving toward the door, not easy with the high water level and John barely able to move.
By the time they reached the door leading out of the building, Sheppard was dead weight between Rodney and Ronon. The Satedan threw the pilot's arm around his neck and put his own around Sheppard's waist, looping a finger through his belt hoop. "I've got him," he said firmly.
Rodney relinquished Sheppard's arm and they filed quietly into the night. He remained behind Ronon, making sure that the big man kept their team leader safe. They had lost him once. It wasn't going to happen again.
Halfway to the jumper, Ronon hit a slick spot in the mud, sending him and Sheppard down in a pile of arms and legs. There was much scrambling and flailing and then the Colonel was crawling away through the muck.
"Sheppard," Rodney whispered, taking off after him. "Where are you going? Get back here."
Teyla managed to get ahead of John and kneeled in front of him, taking him by the shoulders. "John, you must stop. We are trying to help you."
John pulled away so fast he slipped and landed on his side, one arm stretched out beside him. Every time he tried to pull it under him, it would slide away, making him growl in frustration.
"John," Teyla said. "Stop." He did. Looking into her face for a moment, he looked at Rodney on his left and Ronon, now on his right, and then back to Teyla.
"Teyla? You guys . . . you're r-r-really here?"
"Yes, John, we are." Teyla smiled, reaching out slowly to touch his face.
With a small nod, John glanced around at the wet forest around him. "Can . . . w-we go home? Want to go home."
"Good, because that's where the rest of us want to go. It's freezing and pouring down rain, in case you hadn't noticed," Rodney said.
John chuckled and then slumped over in the mud as if the exhaustion was just too much. Not thinking, Rodney reached out to touch his shoulder when it looked like he'd passed out. There was a sudden impact and sensation of falling and then John was straddling him in the mud with his arm pressed to Rodney's throat, making it hard to breathe. He was suddenly aware that the others were all calling to John to stop, but with his vision graying, he couldn't seem to add his own encouragement.
And then he could breathe again, an act he relished as he sucked in copious amounts of oxygen. Rodney knew he probably looked like a floundering fish, but he didn't care. His heart was racing so fast that he was dizzy. Or maybe that was the lack of oxygen.
"Rodney, are you all right?" Teyla squeezed his shoulder.
"Yeah . . . fine . . . " Teyla helped him sit up and he could see Sheppard slumped over in Ronon's arms. "You didn't . . . stun him . . . did you?"
"Passed out finally," the runner responded.
"Oh . . . okay . . . we should go now."
Ronon grinned and nodded as Lorne rolled his eyes. "Why is it rescuing one of you guys is always some kind of crazy adventure?"
"Not always," Rodney protested. "Maybe every once in a while . . . or more . . . okay a lot, canwegonow? So we don't freeze?" Rodney took off toward the jumper and hoped everyone else would follow . . . soon. The wind had picked up and it really was cold out here, which couldn't possibly be good for Sheppard, even if the man could still knock you down and strangle you to death.
Fifteen minutes later they lined up at the bank of the overflowing river they had crossed a few hours earlier. Where the waterway had been full to the edge before, it was now lapping the base of the surrounding trees, as well as the Lanteans' ankles.
"Where is the bridge?" Rodney said, aware that his panicked voice was an octave higher than normal, but unable to control it. Crossing the river had been treacherous before, with water up to the bridge and occasionally spraying up between the slats. Now the whole structure was gone.
"Could it have been swept away?" asked Teyla.
Ronon lowered Sheppard's unconscious form to the ground and joined in the search. "There!" he pointed. Rodney stared where the big man had indicated, but only saw swiftly moving water.
"There's nothing there! The water must have . . . " He squinted in the darkness, leaning forward slightly as if the small difference in distance actually helped him see any better. Then he saw it. The water moved differently over the spot Ronon had indicated. The bridge was still there, just under who knew how many centimeters of water. "How did you . . . never mind. How are we going to cross that?"
"Very carefully," said Lorne, still staring at the invisible bridge. Sheppard was wearing off on the man. Rodney was pretty sure that Lorne hadn't been this annoying when he'd first arrived. Then he remembered his first real dealings with Lorne on that planet with all the radiation when they'd been looking for Ford and sighed. On second thought maybe Lorne had mellowed a little since then.
"Seriously, how are we getting across that?" repeated Rodney, hoping for a real answer that made him think they could actually pull this off.
"I don't suppose anyone brought rope?" asked Lorne. He quickly glanced around and then sighed. "Yeah, I didn't think so. Then we go across single file holding onto each other so if someone slips, we can hang onto them."
"Or they can drag the rest of us into the river with them," muttered Rodney, figuring this was a perfect recipe for disaster. He resisted the urge to point out they were all going to die.
"We will not let that happen," said Teyla. How could she always be so optimistic and comforting? It was almost annoying . . . or it would be if she didn't make it sound so plausible.
"Fine," Rodney said with more than a little sarcasm. "I'm not carrying Sheppard. He's a lot heavier than he looks and I have a delicate back."
"Don't worry, McKay," said Ronon, chuckling as he slapped the scientist on the back. "I'll get him." They turned back towards the colonel in unison as Lorne began making assignments about the order of their crossing.
"Where is he?" Rodney stared at the disturbed spot where Sheppard had been deposited only moments before.
"John?" Teyla hissed, following the smeared trail through the leaf litter back toward some bushes. Ronon and Rodney followed on her heels. Lorne's voice faltered in the background, asking someone where they thought they were going.
"Sheppard?" Ronon somehow managed to shout in a whispered voice. They had no idea if the bad guys were on their tail or not, so they had been trying to keep the noise at a minimum.
"He's here," Teyla said as they came to Sheppard crawling through the mud and dead leaves.
"This is just sad," Rodney said, watching his friend slip and land face first in the mud.
Ronon grinned as he knelt. "Maybe, but he crawled away without any of us noticing. He's getting better." Ronon took Sheppard firmly by the upper arm and rolled him over onto his back. "Hey, Sheppard, it's us. We're trying to help you."
John immediately pulled away and began a sliding crab walk that got him no where. "No, I'm not going back. You stay away . . . I'll kill you . . . stay away."
Rodney was taken aback by the strength of the outburst and found himself backing up a step in response. While Teyla and Ronon looked shocked as well, they actually moved in closer, with Teyla reaching for John's face.
"Shh, John, it is Teyla. Look at me John . . . we are here to take you home . . . back to Atlantis." Sheppard finally stilled, staring at Teyla as she gently leaned forward and stroked the side of his face.
"T-T-Teyla?" John whispered, his voice rough and low.
"Yes," she smiled. "Let us help you."
The colonel looked confused for a moment and then frowned, glancing first at Rodney and then Ronon. "Ronon . . . Rodney . . . you're here."
Rodney sighed. "Yes, although I thought we already established that."
"What's going on?" asked Lorne, coming up behind them and scaring Rodney out of at least ten years.
"The colonel made another break for it," explained Rodney. "Fortunately he didn't get very far, but we're having to repeat the whole speech about being here to rescue him. They must have scrambled his brains before they dumped him in that leaky cellar."
"Do you really think they didn't interrogate him?" asked Ronon, with a dark scowl that made Rodney nervous. "If you look, you can see the bruises."
Rodney had seen them, some blue and black, but most of them the greens and yellows of old bruises on his pale skin. They had beaten him until they decided he was of no use and then dumped him in that stinking dungeon to die. Rodney suddenly realized his fists were clenched and his stomach knotted in anger. "I saw them," he said tightly.
Ronon nodded in a way that said he understood and Rodney relaxed his clenched hands a bit. "We need to get him back, don't we?"
"We do," said Teyla. "John, can you let us help you?"
Funny how helpless Sheppard looked, lying in the mud with head leaned against Teyla's side, his noisy breathing illustrating the sheer effort each breath took. His eyes were unfocused and he was shivering again. "Help me?" It seemed to take all his effort just to lift his head enough to look at his team. "Want . . . want to go home."
"Then that's where we'll take you," said Ronon, holding out his hand. John looked at it a moment before attempting to reach out with his own hand. He didn't make it very far, bur Ronon grasped it and pulled the colonel to his feet. John stood there for about three seconds before his eyes rolled back in his head and Ronon scooped him up in a fireman's carry.
Moments later they were crossing the bridge, their feet sliding carefully forward as they inched along in a line. They couldn't actually see the closely linked wooden slats, going by feel to keep from stepping off in the swift current. Each of them held onto the person in front and the person behind, with Ronon and his cargo carefully placed in the middle.
Rodney expected to step off into the death trap of a river with each and every step and found himself surprised every time he didn't. He would have collapsed in relief when they reached the other side, but then they were hurrying to the jumper they'd left parked in the clearing. He found himself smiling when they were safely in the ship, finally out of the rain and the cold wind, on their way home with Sheppard now returned to the fold. For the first time in almost two weeks, he truly relaxed.
John knew immediately that he was home because he was warm and dry for the first time in . . . he didn't even know how long. Time had become a huge blur with nothing but cold and hunger and pain that had evolved into a suffocating need for air. Breathing was definitely easier, if not easy, although his chest still felt heavy and sluggish. Nasal cannula seemed to be helping him breathe, even if they also made his nose itch. Although his body was one huge ache, it was muted and distant enough to ignore for now.
"Hey, feel up to a visit?"
Blinking, John looked up to see Rodney peering around a partially closed curtain.
"Yeah," he said, or tried to say. It came out sounding more like a garbled grunt, but evidently Rodney knew what he meant because he pulled the curtain back to reveal Ronon and Teyla and they all piled around the bed. John felt a sudden sense of warmth that had nothing to do with layered blankets covering him, but had everything to do with the team he had always known would come for him.
Rodney raised the head of the bed while Teyla procured a cup of water and a straw, for which John was immensely grateful. His mouth was so dry he wondered if someone had removed all his saliva glands while he was out. He'd been so cold and so tired, trying to keep out of the water that he knew would eventually kill him. In the end, the only thing that kept him upright was the knowledge that were looking for him, that if he hung on long enough, they would find him. And they had. He smiled.
"Okay, what are you grinning at?" asked Rodney.
John sighed and that made him cough. Teyla gave him another sip of water. "No, not you, you, but you as in all of you. I knew you would come . . . and you did."
"Well of course we did," said Rodney, who was also grinning. "You always come for me."
"And me," said Teyla.
"And me," said Ronon.
"We don't leave our people behind," said John.
"And that includes you," said Ronon.
"Even when you keep trying to escape and making our rescue a lot more difficult than it needs to be," added Rodney.
"What?" John barely remembered them getting him out of that flooding cell.
"Figures, he doesn't remember," said Rodney with a long, drawn out sigh. "Carson said your fever got so high you were lucky it didn't fry your brain." Teyla coughed. "Okay, that may not have been exactly the way he put it. But you were pretty out of it the last few days, so I'm not surprised you don't remember."
"Then tell me," John said, grinning again. He wanted to know every detail and he wanted to hear it from these guys. Mostly he just wanted to be with them. The last week or two, however long he'd been gone, had been lonely. Snuggling down under the covers, he watched his friends pull chairs up and surround his bed. The voices of his teammates surrounded him, but all he really heard was welcome home.