One Breath at a Time
John's stride lengthened as he raced down the curving corridor of Atlantis. His heart pounded and his breaths came fast, deep and even, as adrenaline coursed through him. His hand flew to his radio. "Where is he now?" John demanded.
"Balcony J-6, west pier," Zelenka responded immediately.
John rounded a sharp left corner, his stride never breaking as he changed course and headed for the nearest transporter. "West pier? How the hell did he get way out there? I thought you disabled the transporters?" Balcony J-6 was an observation point nearly to the top of the tallest tower on the west pier. What his friend was doing there, John couldn't even guess and given the circumstances, he wasn't even going to try.
"He got through before we were able to, John," Elizabeth cut into the conversation. "Sorry."
John grimaced. "I know." His voice was slightly breathless, but there was no condemnation in it. "Turn 'em back on. I need to get out there. And get me the rest of my team. No one else." He staggered to a stop in front the transporter's closed doors and waited, impatience growing at the silence. "Elizabeth?" he prompted.
"I'm sending Doctor Heightmeyer as well," Elizabeth responded.
The transporter doors opened and John quickly entered. "Fine." He punched the closest location on the west pier and closed his eyes briefly against the familiar shimmer of the transport beam. An instant later he stepped out and continued running down the long straight corridor towards balcony J-6. His mind wandered over how fast things could change in this city. One moment he'd been bored to the point of numbness from trying to hammer out a guard rotation schedule for the Gate Room, and the next he was running from his office for a lab on the north pier amidst near panicked chatter on the radio about an explosion, chemical exposure, injuries and hallucinations. John stopped briefly at the lab, to find the medical team present in full force, treating the injured. Their exposure had been mild, but still enough to cause paranoid hallucinations. But McKay, it seemed, had inhaled a high concentration of whatever chemical had been released and had run from the lab, screaming that he was being chased and no one had been able to stop him. In fact, Doctor Simmons was sporting a black eye from trying.
John's gaze narrowed on the rapidly approaching door to balcony J-6 and he slowed his stride, forcing a calm control over his adrenaline and racing heart as his training kicked in.
"Be calm. If the victim is altered, you don't know what mental state he'll be in. Proceed with caution. Know that he's capable of anything and be ready for it."
Training for chemical warfare had been a requirement for anyone deployed to the Afghan or Iraqi theaters, but John never thought he'd be using that training in Pegasus. He stopped in front of the door and took a deep breath before swiping his hand over the door crystal. Inwardly he tensed as the door slid open, but outwardly, he held onto his calm demeanor.
John stepped out into the bright sunshine and stopped, his gaze fixed on the figure standing on the other end of the large balcony, his back pressed against the railing that lined the edge.
John squinted against the sun, an ocean breeze ruffling his BDU shirt tails in spite of being at least a thousand feet above sea level, as he slowly walked towards Rodney. He approached from slightly to Rodney's left, not head on, trying his best to not be threatening. John bit his tongue, resisting the urge to call out to his friend, until he was close enough to do it in a quiet manner. As he drew nearer, details of Rodney's condition started registering with him.
Rodney's gaze was fixed on a point over John's left shoulder, his expression so intense that John wondered if Rodney even noticed him at all. Beads of sweat rolled down his pale face, mixing with blood from a large gash on his forehead, and spots on his shirt, across his chest and under his arms, were dark from perspiration. His chest heaved with fast and uneven breaths, and his eyes were wide, their blue color muted by pupils that were dilated in spite of the bright sunshine. His bloodied hands had a white-knuckled grip on the railing and he was pressed so hard into it that the middle rail indented the flesh of his butt. John's eyes flicked back to Rodney's face as a soft but still scared sounding noise escaped him, but his gaze never wavered from the unknown point it was fixated on. He started trembling, and his rapid breaths were hoarse.
John pulled in a quiet, but deep breath of his own, trying to quell his increasing worry, as he approached his friend. "Rodney?" he ventured calmly, his steps slowing.
Rodney didn't move. His body was rigid and not even his eyes turned to recognize John's presence.
John couldn't read anything from Rodney's silence but fear, and he reluctantly stopped about ten feet away. "Rodney?" he tried again. "It's John. Talk to me, buddy. You okay?" Truthfully, he knew Rodney was a long walk from okay, but at this point, he'd settle for any response at all.
After a moment, Rodney's breath hitched. "J-John?" he whispered, though his gaze never wavered.
"Yeah." John kept his voice soft. "You're bleeding, Rodney. What do you say we go let Carson take a look at that?" He took a step forward.
Rodney pushed harder against the railing, lifting one of his feet to the bottom rung.
John froze, his heart leaping into his throat. "Whoa. Easy." He raised a hand slowly. "Everything's okay." His gaze narrowed slightly. "Rodney? Look at me," he insisted. "What's wrong?"
Rodney's gasp was choked. "D-don't y-you see… see it?" His whisper was strained. "H-hear it…?"
John glanced around, not expecting to see anything and he didn't. The only sound he heard was Rodney's fast, rough, breathing and the warm breeze blowing across the balcony. He looked back at his friend. Aw, hell… "Rodney," John firmed up his quiet voice, "there's nothing there. It's just you and me."
"Yes," John insisted. "C'mon, buddy, trust me. It's just us."
Rodney's eyes widened. "It… it's coming!" His voice, heavily laced with panic, rose. "N-no!"
Faster than John could react, Rodney braced his foot against the bottom rail and pushed himself up to a sitting position on top of the railing. John tensed, barely keeping himself from running to his friend to pull him back, knowing that if he startled Rodney, this could end quickly and tragically. He took two quick breaths. "Rodney," John struggled to keep his own voice from wavering, "you gotta trust me. You're safe." He took another step forward. "C'mon. Come down off there and we'll talk. I won't let anything hurt you, I promise."
"It's g-getting closer…" Rodney's voice returned to a whisper. "I c-can… j-jump d-down to the… the n-next level. G-get away."
John's mind raced. Jump? A jump from this height was suicide, but in his altered state, Rodney either couldn't recognize that logic or was so panicked by what he thought was trying to 'get' him that he felt he had no alternative. Whatever the reason, he had to be talked down. Now. "Rodney, please," John swallowed against a throat that was suddenly very dry, "don't move, okay? We'll figure this out, buddy, I promise." He licked his lips. "You're no safer jumping… down to the next level. You gotta trust me on that."
Rodney's nod was jerky. "H-help…"
"Colonel Sheppard, this is Teyla. Ronon, Doctor Heightmeyer and I are nearly to you. Is Rodney all right?"
John slowly reached up and tapped his earpiece. "This is Sheppard. Teyla, I need you three to stay where you are. Don't come out here under any circumstances." He hated ordering them to stay but with Rodney's hallucinations, he was afraid that anyone coming through that door would set him off. John had made the first step to getting Rodney to trust him enough to come down and he didn't want to lose that.
"Colonel Sheppard…" Heightmeyer entered the conversation.
"Not now, Doc." His gaze still focused on Rodney, John cut her off, having a pretty good idea what she was working up to. "Rodney's sitting on the railing and seems convinced that he can jump down to the next level to get away from a… thing stalking him. If someone comes through that door…" He let the statement trail off, trusting that Heightmeyer would get the point.
"Oh, my God," Heightmeyer answered, clearly understanding the situation. "Do not make any sudden moves towards him, Colonel. You can't do this forcefully. You have to talk him down. Carson has informed us that the hallucinogenic influence seems to wear off quickly, so he could come around any time now. Keep that in mind."
John nodded to himself. "Got it, Doc. I'll leave you on Vox, but I'm done with this conversation. Sheppard out." He took another step towards Rodney, slowly narrowing the gap. He had no intention of trying to physically pull his friend back from the edge, but Rodney's seat was precarious at best. If he started to fall, John wasn't just going to stand there and let him go, even if it meant risking his own life in the process. "Rodney?" he asked quietly, "you still with me?"
"J-John," Rodney whispered, "help me, p-please."
John's chest tightened at his friend's desperate sounding plea. "I want to help you, Rodney, and I will. But I can't if you jump down to the next level. You have to stay here for me to help. Do you understand?"
"Rodney," John insisted, "let me help you. We're teammates, right? That's what we do; help each other. I got your six on this one, buddy, but you have to stay here for me to help you."
"S-six… t-team," Rodney stuttered, before he blinked hard. He pulled in a quick, ragged breath and blinked hard again, his gaze clearing. His eyes darted around and for the first time since the ordeal started, he looked John right in the eyes. "Sh-Sheppard?" he managed.
John stared intently at him. "Rodney?" Beyond the confusion in Rodney's eyes, John saw clarity. Heightmeyer's words echoed in his head.
"Carson has informed us that the hallucinogenic influence seems to wear off quickly, so he could come around any time now. Keep that in mind."
Rodney slowly turned his head, his gaze leaving John and fixing on the railing, and the long drop just behind him. His breathing turned rapid and shallow, as the reality of his situation sunk in. "Oh, G-G-God…"
John's own eyes widened to match Rodney's. "Easy, McKay, don't move. You'll be fine, just don't move. I'm going to come get you, okay?"
"N-no!" Rodney wobbled on his seat and John froze mid-step.
"Rodney?" John watched intently as his friend's gaze fixed on a spot on the balcony deck, his breathing turning even more rapid as he started to hyperventilate.
John knew a panic attack when he saw one. He'd only seen it once before – a young soldier they'd pulled from a hot combat zone, hyperventilating in the back of his Pave – but the memory stuck with him.
"H-how… what," Rodney stammered, his body rigid and rock still in spite of his fast breaths. "D-dizzy…"
John took two more slow steps. "Rodney, listen to me. You gotta slow down your breathing, okay? Deep breaths, buddy, c'mon." He watched intently as Rodney stuttered through one deep breath and tried another. "That's it. I'm gonna walk up to you now and help you off that railing, okay? Just take it easy. You're gonna be okay." John walked slowly up to Rodney and carefully reached out. He slowly settled his grip onto Rodney's right forearm before tightening his fingers around it. "I got ya," he said quietly.
"Sh… John?" Rodney looked up, his expression a mix of panic and desperation.
One side of John's mouth turned up, just slightly in a reassuring half smile as he stared Rodney directly in the eyes. "Yeah," he whispered, "I'm here, buddy." He tightened his grip, his smile fading as Rodney wobbled slightly.
"Dizzy…" he repeated, blinking hard.
John reached out and slowly grabbed Rodney's other arm. "Rodney, I need you to let go of the railing and grab my arms. I won't let you fall, I promise."
Chained by a panic attack that left him paralyzed, Rodney stared at an indistinct spot on John's chest. "C-can't…"
John tightened his grip. "You can. You have to do this. C'mon, McKay," he added a note of command to his soft voice, "you need to do this. Let go and grab my arms, now."
Rodney exhaled hard, inhaled sharply and exhaled hard again, before his hands abruptly latched onto John's arm, their grip painful but still relieving.
Immediately, John stepped back, pulling Rodney with him. He staggered, as his friend's weight fell heavily against his body, before Rodney's knees buckled. John held firm, slowly lowering Rodney to the deck. He let go with one hand and cushioned Rodney's head as he slipped into unconsciousness. John tapped his headset. "Teyla, McKay's down. You guys get out here. And call Carson, ASAP."
"We are on our way," Teyla immediately answered.
John reached out, finding Rodney's fast carotid pulse through clammy skin. He sat back on one heel and rested his arm on his bent leg. For the first time since this ordeal started, he took a deep breath before letting it out in relief.
"… my head…"
John's eyes sprung open at Rodney's soft voice. He lifted his head off the back of the chair, wincing at his stiff neck before he looked over at the bed right next to him. A pair of groggy blue eyes returned his gaze.
John reached behind and pulled aside the privacy curtain. "Doc? Guys? He's awake." John returned his attention to Rodney as the rest of his team, plus Elizabeth and Carson joined him.
Carson swiftly walked up to his bed, looked at the monitors for a moment before shining a penlight in each of Rodney's eyes.
Rodney groaned, weakly batting at Carson's hand. "…torture!" he managed with weak indignation.
Carson only smiled. "Welcome back, Rodney."
"What the hell… happened?" Rodney's voice was rough but still irritated. He looked around before his gaze again fixed on John. Abruptly the anger left his expression. "Oh…" His voice trailed off and a tinge of red touched his cheeks.
"Good to see ya awake, McKay." Ronon walked closer to the bed and tapped one of Rodney's feet.
"We are relieved that you are all right," Teyla added, squeezing one of Rodney's hands. "We were quite worried about you."
Rodney swallowed and looked away from John. "Yes, well, can't keep a good scientist down, and all of that," he answered, his voice getting stronger. "Though it's a wonder I've survived this long with the morons that work with me."
Elizabeth sighed, her expression turning tolerant. "No one did anything wrong, Rodney. It was a ten thousand year old system. There were bound to be some glitches. Radek found information in the database about the chemical you and two of your team were exposed to. It apparently was used to clean the coolant system for the city's hyperdrive. Very powerful chemical, but when it's mixed with water, it's rendered harmless and biodegradable. The chemistry department is very excited about the find."
"Yes, I'm sure they are," Rodney grumbled. He looked at Carson. "So, what? Should I expect to get a cancerous brain tumor from exposure to this miracle chemical?"
Carson smiled. "No. Neither you or the two members of your team seem to have any lasting effects from your exposure, besides the temporary hangover, which I'm sure you got the brunt of, since your exposure was the most severe."
"Lucky me," Rodney muttered. The irritation fled his face as his expression grew distant. "It's pretty fuzzy but I do remember…" His voice trailed off as he slowly looked at John.
John shifted in his seat slightly, uncomfortable with Rodney's piercing look. Sure, the argument could be made that John saved Rodney's life, but accolades and gratitude were things he wasn't comfortable with. He'd done what he needed to do and that was it. At least that's how it was for him.
"Well," Elizabeth interjected, "we'll leave you two to chitchat." She smiled knowingly at John as he looked up at her. Rodney apparently remembered at least something and while John never relished these kinds of conversations, he figured he and Rodney needed to talk a bit and apparently Elizabeth had come to the same conclusion.
Elizabeth smiled slightly and nodded. She looked back at Ronon, Carson and Teyla for a moment before ducking around the curtain, all three of them right behind her.
John looked back to Rodney and found himself still under his friend's intense stare. "Look, McKay, we don't have to talk about this. Just glad you're okay." His smile was a little strained.
"Yeah," Rodney answered quietly. "Guess my days on your team are at an end, huh?"
John furrowed his brows. "What? Why?"
Rodney looked away. "I had a panic attack. You can't have someone on your team who's going to panic." He shrugged. "I get it. I never really wanted to go off-world anyway. My science is supposed to be the good science. A clean and warm lab, coffee, underlings to do my bidding, that kind of thing." His voice hardened and turned defensive. "Off-world is for your Neanderthal military types."
John closed his eyes briefly and shook his head as he tried to keep up with McKay's train of thought. "Hold on a second…"
"No, no. I get it. No need to explain," Rodney interrupted, his gaze still averted from John.
"McKay, shut up," John insisted. "You're not off my team, damn it."
Rodney slowly turned his head and looked at John. "What?"
John sat forward. "You weren't exactly yourself, Rodney. You were under the influence of a chemically-induced hallucination that threw you into a tailspin. I get it. I don't…" He looked away and shifted uncomfortably. "I don't think any less of you, okay?" He looked back at Rodney. "So knock it off."
Rodney blinked, and then blinked again. "Yes, well, I can keep my cool in a crisis situation…"
John fixed him with a deadpan stare and Rodney sighed.
"… most of the time," he admitted.
In spite of himself, John chuckled quietly and shook his head. "You're a hell of a piece of work, McKay." A long moment of silence followed his statement and John looked up at Rodney again, seeing nothing but sincerity in Rodney's expression.
"I… I don't remember much," Rodney's voice was quiet, "but I do remember you talking me down off the railing. If you hadn't been there…"
John waved his hand almost casually. "Forget it. Just glad I was there."
Rodney nodded and turned his head away. "Yes, well," he folded the top of his blanket across his chest and smoothed it down before he looked back at John. "Thanks."
John's mouth quirked, a faint smile popping up for just a moment. "You're welcome." Silence fell between the two men and as it lingered on, John started to feel just a bit uncomfortable. "So," he cleared his throat, "still want to be a Neanderthal and go through the gate?"
"Someone has to be the intelligent one," Rodney answered, his expression taking on an all too familiar arrogance.
John just shook his head and stood up. "Get some sleep, McKay."
"Yes, well, send the voodoo doctor back in here with something for my head, so I can do just that," Rodney answered as he settled deeper into his pillow.
John turned and grabbed the curtain. He paused for a second his mind passing over how close they'd come to losing Rodney. He looked back at Rodney who sighed.
"Don't get sentimental on me, Sheppard." Rodney smiled slightly.
John returned the smile and whipped aside the curtain. "Wouldn't dream of it."
For the HC Bingo Square: Panic Attack. (Two down, three to go!)
Many thanks to Kristen999 and Wildcat88 for betas and suggestions and to TanaquiSGA for her input when I was trying to hammer out a plot for this story, not to mention a summary! Annoying muse gave me one scene: John talking Rodney down off a balcony/ledge/something high, and said "write that!" *headdesk*