“Rodney?” John whispered, patting the other man’s face. He was pale, and still shaking. He groaned a little, and twitched away; John merely tapped his cheek a little harder. “Rodney, wake up you lazy shit. I need to bandage these cuts, and I can’t do it on my own. Rodney,” he hissed, leaning over the other man and still getting no response.
He sighed and shifted back on his heels, his right arm hanging uselessly by his side. “Dammit Rodney,” he snapped, lashing out with his left hand and pushing his thumb into one of the neat cuts on the scientist’s wrist.
“Ow!” McKay squawked, coming awake and looking up at John in surprise. “What did you…” he started, and then trailed off, looking around him. Yeah, John thought, because they were back in the cell and that had surprised him too. “Why aren’t I dead?” McKay muttered, eyes tracking back to land on John’s. “And what the fuck is wrong with your shoulder?” he asked, eyes wide.
John smirked. There was the McKay he knew and loved, and wasn’t it a kick in the balls to discover that about himself on this particular mission?
“Can you sit up?” he asked, ignoring the pain in his arm with the bravado of a well-trained soldier.
“Maybe… I… No,” McKay muttered, and he was white as a sheet again as John helped him prop himself against the wall. “Seriously, why aren’t I dead?” he asked, eyes tightly closed.
John shrugged. “I’ve honestly got no idea. They… You want to hear this? You passed out pretty good.”
“Right, yeah… well, they collected your blood in these bowls, then they all went off singing again. Two of them picked you up and dumped you back in here, and well, I’ve been trying to wake your lazy ass up ever since.”
McKay smiled a little, and John felt his stomach flip. Never, never ever again would he take that sight for granted.
“Seriously though,” John continued. “We need to get you up and bandaged. This one,” he gestured to McKay’s leg. “It looks pretty deep. The others seem fairly superficial…”
“Oh, try telling my haemoglobin levels that,” McKay answered without opening his eyes.
“Ha ha,” John murmured automatically. Then, “Can you get your belt off?”
McKay’s head snapped up and suddenly blue eyes were looking at him intently. John flushed.
“No, I didn’t mean… we can use it as a tourniquet. For your leg,” John mumbled, acutely embarrassed.
“Right, right…” McKay muttered, stiff, sore fingers fumbling at his belt.
John tried hard to convince himself McKay didn’t look disappointed while he tightened the belt around the top of McKay’s leg; McKay holding it down as John pulled with his one good arm (though he knew he’d never normally think of either arm as ‘good’ when they hurt this much). They managed it eventually, after a lot of grunting and swearing. Then McKay helped John strip his shirt off, and they spent an hour or so tearing it into little strips. McKay’s pants were too thick; they’d never have been able to tear the material.
“But you…” McKay started, as John tied another ‘bandage’ on with his teeth. John looked up at him, urging him to continue. “You’re nearly naked! How can we escape if you haven’t got any clothes on?”
John spat out the end of the cloth and sat up, inspecting his work; McKay was still bleeding, but the bandages were slowing the progress. “Rodney, I don’t think that’s really an issue right now.”
“I don’t even have my boots, a little less clothing isn’t going to hurt,” John told him, shaking his head slowly.
“Does your arm?” McKay asked quietly.
“Does my arm what?” John asked, looking up again.
John regarded him for a minute. “Yeah, it hurts Rodney. It hurts a lot. But you can compartmentalise pain, right? Ignore it till you’ve got past… well, the rest. It’s doable. You can do it too,” he added with a nod and a small smile.
“I don’t think I can,” McKay whispered, looking small and exhausted and dejected. John turned and settled beside him, pressing his good side up against McKay. He was hoping for some warmth and got something more; McKay lifted his arm and slung it round John’s shoulders, pulling him tight against the scientist’s warm body.
“Ow,” John muttered, but it was pointless noise; he needed this as much as McKay seemed to.
“Yeah,” McKay whispered, and turned, pressing his dry lips against John’s hairline in a poor imitation of a kiss. “I’m sorry John, in advance. If they take me out of here again, I’ll die; I know I will.”
John was dozing when he heard someone come sit by his bed. He thought they’d go away again if he pretended to be asleep, but after a while he wanted a drink and opened tired eyes to find Lorne’s botanist staring down at him.
“Parrish?” John croaked, still annoyed at the way his voice wouldn’t obey him; it kept cracking and fading altogether, even if he had something important to say. Especially then.
“Yes. Sir,” Parrish offered slowly. He was twitching a little, one hand pulling at the bottom of his jacket, and John frowned.
“Everything okay?” John asked, lifting his head a bit and wondering what kind hearted fuckwit put the water glass on a table on his right side, just where he couldn’t reach it.
“No,” Parrish’s voice cracked and John glanced up; the man was staring down at his lap, one foot tapping nervously.
“Parrish?” John repeated, trying to sit up a little and fumble his left hand over his body to reach the bedside table. He stopped, hand poised over his chest, when Parrish’s head snapped up, and he started talking.
“Nick… um, Major Lorne, said to come and talk to you. He… he sent me back, said he didn’t want me on the mission.” John stared; there were tears in the other man’s eyes. “He, they think… we found out that one of the hunters is dead, or missing, something. Nick’s going to look for the body, he thinks it might lead them to Doctor McKay,” he paused and took a deep breath. “Doctor Weir’s sent two more teams through, they’re all looking. He’s… he’s not dead. They didn’t kill him, they… the poles… heads… Oh God,” he whispered, and put his head in his hands.
John blinked. He couldn’t work out if the scientist was upset that he wasn’t on the mission, or that he had been, or that Lorne still was.
“Um,” he managed, staring at the other man’s bowed head, forgetting about the drink for now.
“Yes well,” Parrish’s head came up and he wiped his eyes on the back of his hands. “My point being, McKay isn’t dead.”
John stared some more, “Yes he is,” he whispered after a minute.
“Nick doesn’t think so,” Parrish answered determinedly.
John raised an eyebrow, in a movement McKay always used to describe as girly – John was aiming for patronising.
“The villagers didn’t kill him,” Parrish insisted, leaning a little closer.
“I never said that they did,” John answered, quietly now. What was the point in arguing?
“They’ll bring him back,” Parrish replied, glaring defiantly.
“They’ll bring back a body,” John whispered, dropping his eyes. “But that’ll be good. That’ll be… I’d like to say goodbye.”
“What happened?” Parrish begged. “Give me a reason to think Nick isn’t risking his life for nothing, trailing around in the middle of nowhere with those maniacs. Please.”
They came again the next morning. John was sleeping, and Rodney roused him when he saw villagers moving their way. They sat together, at the back of the cell, watching as one of the men sliced through the cords holding the cell closed; they weren’t going to be needed again.
John felt a shiver run through him as Rodney rested a hand on his leg and squeezed gently. This was it; this was the end, John thought as two strong men lifted him up. He didn’t struggle, but he made no effort to support his own weight. Why help them? Why make it easier?
Rodney was making quiet whimpering noises behind him, as he was manhandled to his feet. They’d discussed it; during the night, decided why waste energy fighting the inevitable? They were both so weak anyway. Rodney had been retching sometime in the night, with nothing in his stomach – it was painful to watch. John didn’t like giving up, but this… he’d never been trained to deal with bloodletting and people who put heads on stakes and left bodies for the vultures. The military had never trained him in how to watch someone he loved die; he realised belatedly that there really was a point to those fraternisation rules. He gagged again at the thought of that, dropping his head and letting the guards carry his whole weight. Then he moaned in pain as he was thrown to the floor, closed his eyes as he heard the soft thump of Rodney landing beside him.
There were footsteps, light and quiet, a body stopping by John’s head. He felt the whisper of a hand running over his forehead, shivered a little as the touch receded.
“They are ready.”
John shuddered. He didn’t think he’d ever be ready for death. He really did believe that death was a part of life: didn’t mean he had to look forward to it though. He didn’t want to be one of those heads on stakes, didn’t want Carson or Lorne or Ramirez to find his wasted body pecked by vultures. Why couldn’t these fuckers burn their victims - destroy the body, make sure there was nothing left for anyone else to find? For anyone else to cry over.
He didn’t lift his eyes as they started chanting, he turned his head instead, blindly reaching out with his good hand to find Rodney. Their hands bumped, fingers entwined and John wanted to make promises he knew he couldn’t keep.
“Stand,” the new voice ordered, the one who’d said they were ready. It was reedy and thin, and when John looked up he realised it was because the man was old and withered. There were feathers in his hair, and bloodstains on his hands. John shook his head.
“No,” he whispered. But he meant, ‘I won’t bow to you. I won’t die under your command.’
The old man nodded, white hair falling in a curtain around his face.
“Make them stand,” he said, and John was hauled upright, shaking with fatigue and pain as they left him to stand one his own. “We have tested you,” the old man said, and John listened to him, but he turned to look at Rodney.
“We have tried your minds.”
John thought about the coffin cell, and what Rodney must have felt when he was doing CPR.
“We have tried your bodies.”
John closed his eyes and pictured Rodney’s crooked fingers, the bruises on his chest, and the bloody cuts all over his body. He thought about his own pain, about his shoulders and hands and feet; and then he lifted his head defiantly and locked eyes with Rodney.
‘Don’t give them the satisfaction,’ he tried to say with his eyes, and swallowed hard when he saw Rodney’s chin tilt up, saw the defiance in the other man’s face.
“We have found you strong. Emotionally. Physically. You are both very strong,” the old man was continuing. He walked round to the other side of Rodney, lifted his hand and shook a little cloud of red dust over Rodney’s back and then his chest.
“You are worthy of our hunt,” the man continued, walking back to John and repeating his movements, until the hair on John’s chest was red and his nose was itchy.
“Now,” the old man stood back and gestured for one of his guards to come forward. “These are your weapons I believe?” he asked, and held out two 9mms, John and Rodney’s, procured from their kit when they were captured.
John nodded his head, staring at the man. What the fuck was going on?
The man smiled and held one of the guns out to Rodney, the other one to John. ‘Take them,’ he seemed to say, nodding with his head.
John stretched out his arm, he didn’t normally shoot with his left hand, but he didn’t really have a choice now, did he? His fingers closed on the cold handle of the gun and he shared a second’s confused eye contact with the old man, before his fingers tightened and he raised the gun, firing it in one smooth motion.
There was nothing in the magazine.
“Ah,” the old man smiled, wagging his finger as if at a naughty child. “No bullets. We have seen weapons like these before. We know how to work them. You will be given bullets when you are released, deep in the forest,” he turned then, to look at Rodney as well. “You will be given one bullet each. You will use them: either to shoot my men, or each other, or yourselves. But you will use them. You people always do,” he added with a sickening smirk.
Parrish gasped, staring at John wide eyed. “Please tell me you didn’t shoot him?”
John glared. “I didn’t shoot Rodney. I dropped my gun, lost it in the undergrowth. We were running… I fell,” he gestured vaguely to the stitches on his forehead. “He… we both fell…” he trailed off.
“Colonel Sheppard?” Parrish asked, he obviously wanted to hear the rest, and John steeled himself to tell it. He breathed heavily though his nose for a moment, trying to clear his thoughts.
They stared at each other for a second, and then whirled, trying to load their weapons and train them on the receding men, to shoot wildly at their departing backs. It didn’t work. The natives lived and breathed the forest, and disappeared with barely a rustle of leaves – this not considering the fact that neither John nor Rodney could have loaded their guns without a good ten minutes and a lot of help from the other.
“What now?” Rodney asked eyes trained on the trees around them, watching nervously for the reappearance of a hunter, for the glint of a spear in the gloom of the forest around them.
“We run,” John whispered back. “They said we had two hours before they followed us, right?”
“Right, they said they’ll come after us at noon,” Rodney replied, and John was so incredibly glad that the other man was here, that he was on his feet – despite his pallor and the blood seeping slowly through the makeshift bandages.
“We make for the Stargate then,” John told him decisively, tucking the 9mm into the waistband of his shorts; glad for a moment that he’d actually been wearing some when they left Atlantis. He lifted one foot gingerly and stared down at the thick red mud already caking it. His feet were going to be shot to shit by the time they got back. He looked up and caught Rodney looking at him, pale and scared. “We find water, and maybe something to eat, and then we make for the Stargate,” he said again, reaching out his good hand to rest gently on Rodney’s arm, his dislocated arm still hanging by his side, useless.
“What about the iris?” Rodney whispered, leaning into the touch.
“We gate to the Alpha site, there’s no iris there. They’ll dial home for us, okay? Okay Rodney?” he repeated, and squeezed the arm under his hand gently.
Rodney nodded. He looked like he was going to be sick. “How… which way?” Rodney asked, staring round at the dense rainforest around them, it was obvious what he was thinking. John was thinking it too – ‘if we don’t know where the fuck we are, how do we find our way home?’
“For now,” John answered. “We put distance between us and them. Water, food, and then we find the right direction. Deal?”
Rodney nodded, “Deal.”
Then they were off, marching through the forest, brushing branches and ferns out of their way. They were going home. If John kept repeating it, he might just believe it.
“They were going to hunt you?” Parrish asked quietly.
“They did hunt us,” John nodded, and shifted a little in the bed. “Can you…?” he asked, gesturing at his head.
“Want another pillow?” Parrish asked, standing up.
“No, just, hike it up a bit,” John answered, sitting up a little higher. “Thanks,” he muttered, when Parrish shifted the head of the bed up. It was easier to talk when he was more upright, even though it made his shoulder ache. He sighed, dropped his head back against the pillows, and regarded Parrish carefully.
“You…” he started, and then frowned. “I’m not supposed to ask, and you’re not supposed to tell,” he said, and watched as Parrish’s eyes went wide. “Yeah,” he murmured, the flush on the other man’s face was all the answer he needed. “You and him… me and McKay aren’t so… weren’t so different. Not… we didn’t…” he stopped and closed his eyes; he didn’t know why he was saying this, just knew he needed to get it out, tell someone. What did it matter now, anyway? “We would have. I think,” he managed in the end.
Parrish just nodded knowingly.
“What happened?” he asked, sitting back in his chair.
John looked down at the bandages holding his arm tight to his chest, considered the way the blankets were held up so as not to irritate his feet.
“He shot himself,” he answered quietly.
“Oh Lord,” Parrish whispered. “Couldn’t you stop him?”
“I… I didn’t see, I just heard…” John mumbled.
“Goodness,” Parrish breathed.
John nodded, swallowing hard. “Yeah… he…we ran, knowing they’d just be a couple of hours behind us. We knew they’d catch up quick, they’re hunters, and we’re not. I think we just… we thought if we could just find the Stargate…” he fiddled with the blanket over the lap, and heard soft footsteps approaching the bed. He didn’t need to look up to know it was Elizabeth. He didn’t mind her presence; she deserved to hear this too.
“It was fucking hard though. We went for water first, we found a stream; it was such a fucking relief to get something to drink. We were both sick though, probably the water, probably not having drunk anything for… how long were we there?” he asked, looking up.
“It’s six days now,” Elizabeth murmured, smiling gently at him.
“Jesus,” John rubbed his face. “Felt like weeks.”
He took a breath and started talking again, “We had to rest, by the stream, because we were both already exhausted. Then we took off again. We knew there was water near the Stargate from the preliminary surveys, so we figured we should follow the river upstream, see where it went… we thought that’d at least give us a guide, you know?” He looked up, and Parrish nodded gently at him.
“We did okay during the day, we followed the stream for a good few miles, still didn’t have a clue but… well, it seemed like a good idea,” he shrugged. “By dark, we knew they were following us.”
Rodney stumbled again and John grabbed for him, good arm going around his waist and holding on tight. “Come on, come on…” John whispered frantically, glancing behind them again and squinting into the gathering gloom. He knew it would be too dark to see soon, too dark to stumble through the undergrowth like this.
But they couldn’t stop; he wouldn’t stop; because he knew there was someone behind him, tracking their steps silently, stealthily. And he couldn’t let that happen, wouldn’t let that happen.
“John,” Rodney gasped suddenly, stumbling again. John pulled him harder and dragged him up a slope. He could hear water ahead of them, it sounded like a waterfall. There might be rocks; there might be hidey-holes. He ignored the agony in his shoulder and pulled Rodney harder, dragging him along.
He was looking over his shoulder when it happened. He felt his feet slide in wet mud he didn’t look back in time; they both went down, hard. John let out a startled shout as his feet went out from under him and he realised they were on a downwards slope now. He grabbed for Rodney, yelped as the other man’s weight pulled him down, and then they were tangled in a heap at the bottom of the slight slope and a pain above John’s eye made him think his head was going to explode
“Fuck,” John whispered, trying to sit up and feeling sick at the pain, blinking blood out of his eyes. “Fuck fuck, fuck!” he hissed, automatically reaching for the handgun he’d tucked in his shorts and panicking when he realised it was gone. He fumbled around him for a moment, and then stopped, looking at Rodney.
“John,” Rodney was whispered, his face contorted in pain. “Oh God… it…”
John’s eyes tracked down and saw Rodney’s ankle, twisted at an excruciating angle. “Is it broken?” he breathed, reaching out his hand.
“Don’t fucking touch it!” Rodney yelped. “Of course it’s broken!” he hissed. John heard a twig snapping behind them and they shared another panicked look. “What are we going to do now?” Rodney whispered.
“He made me leave him,” John explained, watching the pitiful look in Elizabeth’s eyes and wishing she could disguise her feelings a little better. “He actually threatened me with the 9mm,” he said, and almost managed a smile at the memory. “I dragged him into a crevice in the rocks… we hid him as well as we could. I didn’t want to leave,” he insisted. “I really didn’t,” he whispered, licking his lips and tasting salt. He’d never cried over a fallen colleague before, not like this.
“I… I told him I’d get back to the Stargate - get help. I tried to make as much noise as possible on the route, tried to drag them into following me… so they wouldn’t find him. It worked. I thought I heard someone tracking me. But…” he took a deep breath. “I hadn’t gone far when I heard the shot. The… the sound of…” he stopped again, remembering.
He didn’t think he’d ever forget the sound of that gunshot as it echoed through the forest, startling birds from their roosts and causing John to crash to his knees in horror, his stomach clenching and threatening to double him over. He didn’t know how long he knelt like that; fingers digging into the loam, trying to catch his breath and imagining the way Rodney’s brains would be decorating the forest floor.
“I don’t know… I don’t know how I found the Stargate. I don’t remember. I know they stopped trailing me, I wouldn’t have found it before they found me if they hadn’t… I… fuck,” he whispered, closing his eyes tight again.
Elizabeth broke the silence; she laid a gentle hand on his ankle and rested it there for a moment.
“It’s okay John,” she murmured.
“It’s not, it’s really not,” he whispered, trying very hard to compose himself.
“You did…” Elizabeth stopped herself, and John looked up, she was listening to someone speak on the radio. John twitched, wanting to know what was going on. Instead he had to sit and watch as Elizabeth’s face got paler and paler.
“Elizabeth?” he asked, and she quieted him with one raised hand.
John turned to Parrish and shared a nervous look.
“That was Major Lorne,” Elizabeth told them, dropping her hand from the radio headset. “They’ve found a body.”
“Doctor McKay?” Parrish asked. John couldn’t speak - he just stared.
Elizabeth was shaking her head. “A native…” she gestured to her forehead. “He was shot,” she told them. “John… did you shoot him?”
John’s stomach churned, and he thought for a moment that he might be sick. “No,” he managed. “No, I… I lost my gun. I didn’t…”
“Then…?” Elizabeth questioned.
“Rodney,” John breathed.
“You think Rodney shot him?” Elizabeth asked, one fine eyebrow arching.
John sat up further in the bed, struggling with the blankets and the bandages on his arm. “He only had one bullet,” he managed, trying to tamp down the excitement, trying not to let it consume him before he knew what was really going on. “If he did shoot the native…” he continued, breathlessly.
“Then he didn’t shoot himself,” Parrish finished. John turned to look at him and saw the scientist’s eyes were wide with understanding.
“Oh God,” Elizabeth breathed. “We need to… God,” she said again, clicking her radio on. “Radek, dial into the planet again, get Major Lorne on the radio. Tell him Rodney might still be alive; he’s probably near the body. Yes, I’ll be right there. John,” she added, looking down at him. “We’re going to need a description of the place you left him.”
Rodney McKay was cold. He knew the sun was climbing outside, but he was too scared to leave his hiding place. He’d already had to move once, after… he didn’t want to think too much about that actually; suffice to say, it had been agony to drag a broken leg around the caves, and he didn’t much fancy doing it again.
Still, he was cold, and thirsty. God, he didn’t want to think about how hungry he was.
He shifted his thoughts to think about Sheppard instead; the haunted look on the man’s face when Rodney had waved the gun at him and threatened to shoot the Colonel if he didn’t leave. When that didn’t persuade him, Rodney had threatened to shoot himself; even getting so far as to hold the 9mm against his own temple, glaring furiously the whole time. One of them was going to get out of this alive, damn it.
Rodney was glad it was the Colonel; glad the other man had left him. Because if Rodney had had to watch the other man suffer anymore… he knew he couldn’t take that. Life’s a bitch, and then you die. Rodney nodded morosely, toying with the belt still tied tight around the top of his thigh. He never thought it would end like this; an explosion he could cope with, quick and painless would be good. But slow, cold and alone - quietly starving and bleeding to death? Rodney hadn’t ever considered that, not really, not after he met John.
He turned his head a little, stupidly trying to get comfortable on the hard cave floor, and looked at his feet, his ankle still twisted awfully.
“I should have offered him my boots,” he murmured, closing his eyes.
“Dex, get up the side of the falls there, search any caves you find. Ramirez, go with him. Chapman and Lucas, I want you back to the jumper, clear as much of a path as you can on your way. Then come right back with a litter,” Lorne ordered, as he stood over the body of the native. McKay was obviously getting to be a good shot, there was a bullet hole right between his eyes; brains decorating the forest floor.
“But Sir. Wouldn’t it be better to stay,” Chapman asked, frowning. “I mean, what if you don’t find him?”
“We will, Sergeant,” Lorne insisted, thinking about Teyla and Dex, that they’d already found where McKay had been holed up before, where the Colonel had left him. “He won’t have gone far, he’s got a broken ankle remember. We’ll need to get him out quick when we do find him, and that’s why you need to go fetch the litter. Bring as much of the med kit from the jumper back with you as you can. Okay?”
Chapman nodded, gestured for Lucas to follow him, and disappeared back into the undergrowth. They weren’t really very far from the village. Unfortunately Sheppard’s idea to follow the stream had actually led them back towards the encampment, and circled over the North side of it; still he’d obviously found the Stargate in the end.
“Right,” Lorne said, taking a breath and risking a glare at the big native who was still crouched over the body of his friend. “Right,” he said again. “Teyla, with me. You others fan out. Cooper, you…” he gestured at the natives, and Cooper took the hint and raised his P90.
“Excellent, good,” Lorne nodded, as his men moved out again. Teyla padded over to search the cave again, to see if there were blood trails to follow, though it was hard in the muddy ground. “Come on gang,” he said, louder, and trying to sound cheerful. “We’ve got a scientist to find!”
“Oh, come on!” John shouted, struggling to stand up from the bed. Carson was holding him down with one hand; it was pathetic.
“Again, no,” Carson shouted back, glaring angrily.
John managed to get his feet firmly on the floor, pushed up, and the head rush nearly crippled him.
“Now son,” Carson murmured, patting the back of his head gently as he tried to get his breath back. “You’ve a concussion, you’re still dehydrated and you’re on muscle relaxants. There isn’t anything to argue about; you can’t stand up right now.”
John dropped his chin onto his chest and watched his breath ruffle the edges of one of the bandages strapping his arm up. He felt weak and shivery, but no less determined. “Please,” he murmured. “I just want… I need to be there. Please.”
“No,” Carson answered softly, pushing him around and back onto the bed with an ease that made John feel sick. “They’ve got the gate open, and an open channel. Major Lorne will let us know as soon as… well, he’ll let us know.”
“But…” John protested, looking up and trying his patented ‘please’ look on the doctor.
“No,” Carson repeated, as he sorted John’s covers out and untangled his IV line. “As soon as they bring Rodney back, I’m going to need to devote all my attention to him. I don’t need to be worrying about you, all right?”
John swallowed and nodded ever so slightly.
“Don’t make this about you, Colonel. Not right now,” Carson said, patting him on the leg as he turned to leave.
John sighed and closed his eyes, wishing he had a radio, just so he could know what was going on.
“Major Lorne!” Teyla yelled, and he knew she’d found McKay. He crawled out of the cave he was investigating, hurried over some fallen rocks and grazed his hand as he took a tumble.
“Coming!” he shouted in answer, tapping his radio as he ran the short distance to the cave Teyla had gone into. “Chapman. Report. ETA?” he got out, gasping as he sweated in the dense rainforest heat.
The radio crackled for a moment and he paused outside the cave entrance, knowing it wouldn’t work once he entered.
“Just …ing… On our way back… Major.”
“Good. Excellent. Double time it,” he snapped out, and then stepped into the darkness of the cave. It was higher up than the first one, same side of the river, but higher up the falls. There was a smooth sort of path to it though, and Lorne supposed it was pretty obvious a hidey-hole from down below.
Teyla was kneeling over a figure huddling against the far wall, and it took him a moment to realise it was McKay. The man was covered in red mud and dust, but even through it Lorne could see the beard growth on the other man’s face, the sunken look to his cheeks, the bruises on his chest.
“He alive?” Lorne murmured, barely raising his voice.
Teyla turned to look at him, and there were tears in her eyes. She nodded, one hand still pressed to McKay’s carotid artery. “He lives,” she confirmed, moving her hand and pressing it against McKay’s cheek as she looked back.
“Right then,” Lorne answered, pulling himself together and getting his emergency blanket out of his pack. “Let’s get him warm and get some dressings on him.”
Elizabeth brought the news.
“Alive?” John croaked, wishing to God she’d stop grinning; it made him edgy.
“Alive,” she nodded. “Lorne’s bringing him in now, they’ve got to get him to the jumper, then he’ll be home John. He’ll be home,” she told him, eyes shining bright.
“Yeah,” John nodded, feeling a little sick. He’d been so sure. He was so convinced Rodney would want to end it… that he’d talked himself into believing he’d done just that. Just hearing that gunshot had made him honestly believe that Rodney was dead. If he’d just… God, if he’d given Rodney the benefit of the doubt, they could have found him sooner.
Patches of dark and light flickered over his face and woke him up. He couldn’t focus on the bodies moving above him, what with the swaying of the litter and the oxygen mask over his face. There was a soft blanket tucked around him, surrounded by one of the bright orange emergency blankets, it tickled his face and he turned his head away from it.
The litter stopped moving.
“Hey,” a voice murmured, and Rodney looked up into the worried eyes of Nick Lorne. “Stay with us Doc, we’re on the way home. Okay?”
Rodney nodded a little, but couldn’t help it when his eyes drifted shut again. He fell asleep with the feel of Lorne’s hand pressing on his shoulder, fingers digging just a little too tight.
“You’ll be fine Doc; can’t say we don’t look after our scientists,” Lorne murmured.
John lifted his head in shock as the med team burst into the infirmary. He knew they were on their way, but hadn’t heard any claxons suggesting the arrival. He stared as the gurney with the litter on it was rolled into the assessment bay, and felt sick as he saw one limp red-stained arm fall from under the blankets; fingers dangling like they had from the altar, still wrapped in strips of John’s shirt.
“Rodney,” he whispered, dropping his head back, too weary to hold it up.
“Jesus, he’s a mess,” Carson breathed, pulling back the blankets over Rodney’s chest and inspecting the bruising there. He glanced down at the field splint on his ankle and back up to Major Lorne to raise an eyebrow.
The Major shrugged but looked a little contrite, “Best I could do,” he answered to Carson’s silent question. “He was conscious a little on the trip back to the village, and again in the jumper but hasn’t said anything. Think he’ll be all right?” he asked as he stepped back and let Nurse Callahan get to Rodney, she was wielding scissors.
“It’s too early to tell,” Carson told him. “I doubt he’s anything too horrible like internal bleeding, or he’d already be dead,” he murmured, pressing lightly on one of the bruises on Rodney’s stomach as Nurse Callahan neatly removed Rodney’s trousers. “But he’s suffered exposure, and he’s got God only knows how many broken bones… We’ll see,” he answered, looking up at Lorne. “You did well son, thank you.”
Lorne nodded, smiled a little, and backed off, leaving Carson to his work.
“Come on now, I want two IVs in straight away; warm saline please, and squeeze in that first unit of blood. Nurse, let’s get these boots off and have a look at that ankle. Doctor Ramathan, how are his vitals?”
“SATs are coming up a little,” Ramathan answered, adjusting the canula under Rodney’s nose and making sure the blood pressure cuff was secure on his arm.
“Excellent, good. I want him to have some morphine straight away. Thank you,” he murmured, holding his hand out for the syringe Nurse Callahan was handing him. He injected it into the saline IV bag and adjusted the flow, making sure it trickled in fast. “Right then team, let’s get our favourite scientist fixed up.”
Rodney was in surgery, and John was getting nervous. Half the base had poked their heads around the infirmary doors during the afternoon: partly to find out how Rodney was doing, partly to eyeball John. Eventually Nurse Callahan had snapped, stormed out of the office and threatened anyone who wasn’t actually damaged, with permanent disfigurement if they didn’t leave her infirmary ‘right now’.
The quiet was nice, but John was feeling twitchy without anyone to talk to, and no news.
He should have known it wouldn’t last long.
“Sir?” a quiet voice asked, and he swung his head to see Lorne walking over, looking equal parts nervous and pleased to see John sitting upright.
“Major,” John answered, nodding his head. “I owe you thanks, I hear. Good job bringing McKay back,” he managed, keeping one eye on Lorne and the other on the infirmary office, willing Carson to appear.
“Thank you, Sir. I hope he’ll be all right.”
“Me too,” John answered distractedly.
“Sir,” Lorne started, moving to sit down in the chair by John’s bed. “Sir… I…”
He sounded worried; John frowned and looked down at the Major. “Something wrong?” he asked softly, chest constricting a little at the thought of Rodney.
Lorne lifted his head and tipped his chin up in such a McKay-like gesture that it made John’s heart stutter in his chest. “I really hope not Sir,” Lorne answered, voice entirely smooth again as he maintained eye contact.
John blinked, remembering his earlier conversation with Parrish. Then he tipped his head back against the pillows and sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… I just wanted… It’s none of my business Nick. Honestly, I’m not going to cause you any trouble. And if I did, well…” he opened his eyes and smiled down at Lorne. “You’ve got something on me too, right?”
“Sir?” Lorne asked, eyes widening. “You and… Sir?” Lorne repeated again.
“Don’t ask me, Nick,” John warned quietly. “And don’t tell me…” he added in a murmur. “Then there won’t be anything to be worried about, will there?”
Lorne nodded, exhaled a breath and leaned back in the chair. “Thank you… John,” he smiled when John nodded. “Do you mind if I…” he gestured down at the chair he was already sitting in.
“Not at all,” John smiled gratefully. “I’d be glad of the company.”
Rodney woke up to the weird, floaty feel of morphine and sighed gratefully. He’d never been so glad to be under the care of voodoo worshippers before; especially not when they brought out the good drugs. He let his eyes open slowly, allowing them to adjust to the subdued lights in the infirmary, after the darkness of the forest and the cave. He tilted his head a little and took in the machines at his bedside; nice to know he was alive.
He tried to stretch a little, and felt the heavy plaster on his leg, felt the cast on his left hand and the bandages on his right; he’d known that hand wasn’t as bad, thank God.
Rodney stretched his hand out a little, feeling for the edge of the bed, wondering if there was a call button there, and stopped when he ran into soft hair and a hard head. He tilted his hand in that direction and stared. John Sheppard was asleep with his head on Rodney’s bed, right by his hip.
It hadn’t been a hallucination brought on by dehydration then. Rodney smiled, grateful.
“John,” he whispered. “John…” he said again, stretching out one unbroken finger and stroking John’s hair softly. The texture under his finger changed as John turned his head, hair to ear to soft, stubbly cheek. “John,” he breathed again, closing his eyes; grateful the other man was there, that he really had evaded their captors. He felt a hand come up and rest on his stomach, gripping the covers there in a tight bunch.
“Don’t ever do that to me again, please,” John whispered, breath ghosting over Rodney’s fingertips. “Please don’t Rodney… I… Jesus,” he murmured, turning his head and pressing his face into the sheets. “It isn’t meant to be like this, this isn’t how my life was supposed to turn out…” he muttered, barely audible.
“What… you… leggy blonde… two point four kids…” Rodney mumbled, stumbling over his own tongue and the heavy meds.
John laughed, low and pleased. “Good to have you back Rodney,” he whispered.
Rodney relaxed; eyes closed, and twisted his hand to brush fingertips over John’s face. The soft promising press of lips made him smile.
“Good to be back.”
Things really went downhill from there. They were all right when they were both in the infirmary. They shared smiles and looks when they thought no one was looking; John got better quickly, and Rodney’s bones healed well. Everything seemed like it was going to be fine.
Then it wasn’t.
John got discharged; he still had to wear a support for his arm, and had strict instructions to report back for physiotherapy, but he was relieved. He was back on light duty, which was really an excuse to do paperwork, and people smiled at him in the halls.
Then he saw Parrish frowning at him one day and realised he hadn’t been to visit Rodney for a week. He closed his eyes and sighed, sitting in the mess in the midst of crowds of people; all he could see in his mind’s eye was Rodney. Rodney on the altar; Rodney pointing a gun at John and screaming at him to leave; the little smile he had that John was sure no one else had ever seen. He felt his stomach churn a little, and resolved to go see Rodney that afternoon.
But he didn’t.
Rodney didn’t either. He didn’t send messages demanding John come visit him in the infirmary, he didn’t send nasty emails (and John knew he’d smuggled at least one laptop in there). He didn’t yell when John slunk into the infirmary for his physiotherapy appointments, he merely turned onto his side very deliberately and stared at the wall the whole time.
John felt ashamed, embarrassed, and terribly hurt in equal measures. He stopped going to the mess when there were people there, he found himself loitering outside the infirmary when Rodney was getting bandages changed, or casts inspected. Once, at four am, he went and sat next to Rodney’s bed and watched the scientist sleep with his mouth turned down and eyes screwed shut. John’s chest hurt when he thought about the pain Rodney was still in.
But they didn’t speak, they didn’t talk about anything, and the distance and the silence had both of them coming to conclusions of their own.
Things came to a head; of course they did, six weeks after they got back. The day Rodney was released from the infirmary properly in fact (because of course there had been escape attempts, which may or may not have involved Zelenka), which surprised no one, least of all John.
He was lying on his bed, thinking (which meant dozing) when he heard a crash in the corridor outside his room and got up to see what it was.
McKay was in a heap on the floor (and when had he become McKay again? John really didn’t want to think on that), crutches sticking out at all angles, a couple of chocolate bars melting slowly in one sweaty hand.
He scowled, but didn’t say anything, when John helped him up and led him into the bedroom.
He didn’t say anything when he set the chocolate bars down on John’s bedside table like some sort of peace offering. John wanted to tell him it wasn’t necessary, that McKay didn’t need to make peace with him; but he knew it wasn’t really true, and that McKay wouldn’t really believe him.
John didn’t say anything when he gently pulled McKay’s crutches away and leaned them against the desk, and McKay didn’t say anything when he pulled John closer, flush against his body, and hugged him hard.
Neither of them said anything at all when they kissed. There were no whispered declarations, no apologies, only the sweet sound of wet kisses and hands clutching at scratchy uniforms.
Neither of them said a thing when McKay pushed John away and then climbed onto the bed, settling onto his back carefully and resting his still-plastered ankle on the mattress. John said nothing when he joined him, kissed his open mouth, and clawed at his clothes.
They didn’t say anything when they came, one after the other, they just held on a little tighter, and kissed a little harder.
When all was said and done, they were two men, naked and lying together in a bed that was barely big enough for one of them. John listened to his own heart thumping in his temples, to Rodney’s heart thumping in his chest, and waited for the inevitable.
“Well, this is… odd,” Rodney murmured against John’s hair, one hand still tracing patterns on his back. “And also, you know… illegal.”
John let out a breath, relieved that Rodney hadn’t just shot out of the bed, cast or no cast. “I really don’t give a shit anymore,” he answered. “And it isn’t odd, not to me,” he breathed against Rodney’s chest, shifting a little closer and settling his hand on Rodney’s hipbone, stroking softly. “To me, this feels… right.”
Rodney chuckled, and John felt it all the way through his body as the sound vibrated against his ear. He smiled, thankful that he was being given the chance to hear that noise again, and pinched Rodney’s hip.
“Come on Rodney, try and tell me you don’t…” he trailed off, unsure what to say, unsure what he really meant.
“What?” Rodney asked quietly after a tense moment. “Love you?” he whispered, and the sound was almost lost as he moved the hand in John’s hair and pulled his head up to look him in the eye.
John went, and felt something in his gut clench at the look on Rodney’s face. It was the same feeling he’d got when he heard that gunshot, when he saw Rodney’s arm drop out from under those blankets, when he was sitting in the mess amongst all those people and only able to see Rodney, and when the man himself finally came to find John; only now, he recognised it for what it was. It was fear. All consuming fear that Rodney was dead, that Rodney hated him, that Rodney was going to hit him or run away.
He shrugged; no one could ever accuse John Sheppard of not playing it cool.
“I don’t know, feel the same. Feel… something…” He trailed off again as Rodney brought his hand up and traced his fingers very gently down John’s cheek, ghosted them over his lips, and then moved back to cup his face. John’s heart almost stopped at the look on the other man’s face, at the emotion in his eyes.
“I don’t,” Rodney whispered, almost breathed it against John’s lips, as his hand curved round to cup the back of his head; his touch contradicted his words.
John breathed again, felt the ache in his gut unclench, and somehow it didn’t move to his heart. He’d heard all he needed to know in Rodney’s voice, and the feeling dissipated altogether when Rodney pressed swollen lips against his own.
“Liar,” John whispered, and smiled into the kiss.