The rest of the night was miserable. He talked to himself – no, he talked to Sheppard, mostly, though Sheppard never responded. It was hours before he realised that he could see the faint outlines of trees, as the sky outside the woods turned into not quite darkness.
Morning. Ronon had said he would be back by dawn. Rodney tried the radio again, but there was no answer. He stood up and walked several paces away, staring into the mass of trees as if help could be willed to arrive just by looking for it, but there was nothing.
Light crept in slowly and steadily. The fire faded, no longer the only source of light in the darkness, and Rodney shivered as it did so. Sheppard, when he dared look at him, looked worse in the grey light of dawn than he had looked in the rosy light of flames, but Rodney told himself firmly that it was just an optical illusion.
"Sheppard," he told him. "Now would be a good time to wake up." Sheppard moaned a little, but gave no further sign of obeying him. "Figures." Rodney looked down at his own anxious hands. "You never did like following orders. Why should you start now?"
Soon there was enough light to see the pawprints around the edge of their camp. "Wolves," he said, "or bears. Prowling in the night. Watching us. Licking their lips." They had come this close to being eaten, and he hadn't known. But there was nothing he could do about it now, not with Sheppard lying so still. You couldn't panic properly when you had someone you had to look after.
Water, he thought, running his tongue over his dry lips. He was desperately thirsty, but Sheppard had to be worse off. He had to get water. He'd told Sheppard he'd get water when it was light; as good as promised him so. He had to…
Ronon would be back at dawn. Ronon. A puddlejumper. Lovely vats of water and food on demand. Warmth. Fresh clothes. Other people to take care of Sheppard, while Rodney paced around and told them to do their job better.
He sat down. Sheppard looked quite uncomfortable on the ground, and was that…? Rodney touched the edge of the nearest bandage, then snatched his fingers away, fighting disgust at what he had been about to do. He couldn't take them off, anyway, because he had nothing to replace them with. At least when he had water, he could wash them, and if the skin really was swollen and reddened and heading towards a full-blown infection, then at least he might be able to do something about it.
"And so we're back to the water again." He stood up. It was fully light now, and still no Ronon. He could sit and wait and wait for someone else to come, or he could do something about it. "No choice," he said. "Sheppard." He pitched his voice louder, as if talking to an elderly great-aunt. "I'm getting water. Don't do anything stupid while I've gone, like… well, like dying."
Sheppard did not stir. Crouching, Rodney scratched an arrow in the dirt, showing Sheppard where he had gone. A few steps away from the camp, he stopped and went to rub it out again, in case Sheppard took it as an indication that he should follow. "Which is just the sort of thing you would do."
Rodney headed away from the camp; glanced back after a dozen yards to see Sheppard still lying there; walked a bit further; glanced back to see only trees. His gun was slippery in his hand, and the air was biting cold away from the fire. He had no idea which way to go, but headed towards the place where the light was strongest, and soon found himself back at the edge of the cliff, at the small strip of clear land between the woodland and certain doom.
"What now?" He went as near to the edge of the cliff as he dared, and looked in both directions. To the left, the cliff grew steadily higher, but the land fell slowly away to the right. "Go downhill to get water," he said, as he started to walk that way.
The cliff edge undulated, with great bites taken out of it, as if by many rock falls. "You awake yet, Sheppard?" Rodney wondered into the radio. "Ronon? Can you hear me?" There was no answer from either of them. About a mile ahead of him, the cliff swept inland – "not that it's ocean down there, but it feels like one. Probably some ancient sea, dried up in…" He stopped himself, and carried on walking, his view of what was ahead of him obscured by nearby trees.
He must have walked for over half an hour when he saw the river. It was down below, far below, but it was wide, shining silver in the early morning sun. "And if there's a river down there," he said, snapping his fingers, "there must be a river up here."
Ten minutes later, his path started to go seriously downhill. "Or else I can go down there," he added. "That works, too." Except that then he would have to walk up the hill again afterwards. Every step down meant a step up later. "An unnecessary step," he berated the hill. "It's most unfair."
The ground at the base of the cliff had seemed to be miles below, but he reached it within an hour. The ground became dry and rocky, and the trees surged forward to engulf the cliff in its last hundred yards of dwindling life. There was mud, too, but there, ahead of him, water! He could hear it! Water! He stumbled forward, clambering over rocks, exclaiming out loud at the patches of wet mud that kept trying to grab his feet. The bank was steep – "and it would be just my luck to fall in now, and be swept to my death" – but there were roots and branches to hold onto – "Ow! That was a thorn!" He touched the water with his fingers at first, and gasped at the shocking cold of it. Then he dared lean further forward, and cupped his hand, filling it with water.
It was entirely delicious. He could feel its coldness racing through his body, and it was as if every parched fibre of his body was crying out eagerly, grasping at it. He drank some more, then some more, letting it drip down his chin, letting it splash down his chest.
It was only when he was sated that he realised that he had nothing to carry it back to Sheppard in.
"No," he groaned. "Oh no no no no no. Stupid, McKay. You're stupid." He looked around, but there was nothing. He found a plant with tiny, spear-like leaves, and there were plenty of rocks and pebbles. The muddy earth showed no inclination to be made into a clay vessel, and there were no gourds to hollow out. He almost slipped into the river while searching. Then he sat on a rock and stared miserably at the water, flowing so close to him, and yet so impossibly, unavoidably useless.
"Sheppard." He tried him again on the radio. "You awake?" He swallowed; his stomach felt bloated with water. "Sheppard?"
Weren't you supposed to feel icy certainty when the end was nigh? Wasn't a strange sort of calm supposed to descend over you? He felt none of that. He was cold, though, bitterly cold, right through to the heart. What could he do? What could he do? He could create a bridge between galaxies and he could destroy planets, but he couldn't bring a cup of water back to Sheppard without something to hold it in.
"So I'll have to bring him here," he said. "It's the only way." He couldn't carry him, of course, but perhaps he could support him, if Sheppard recovered consciousness enough to stagger. He could build a travois, binding branches together with torn-up bits of clothing. Or rope! They still had the rope, uncoiled and forgotten at the top of the cliff.
Clothed in resolution, he stood up and began to move away from the river, then stopped and pulled off his ragged jacket. "It isn't really keeping me warm, anyway," he said, as he soaked it in the water. He pulled it out dripping, and heaped it up in his cupped hands.
His hands were quickly numb with cold. Water dripped between the webbing of his fingers, dribbling down his wrists and bare forearms. He was horribly cold at first, but as his path started to climb, he was covered with a veneer of almost-too-hotness. He was breathing heavily, his leg muscles burning. His shoulders hurt worse, struggling to keep his cupped hands steady in front of him.
Food, he thought. It's not just water. I need food. Roots and berries and things. He wasn't going to try to kill something, not after seeing what had happened to Sheppard. "At least, not something big, with teeth. Maybe a very small rabbit."
He tried Sheppard again on the radio, his voice cracking with exertion; tried Ronon, too, and got nothing.
He wanted to flop down to his knees when he reached the top, but he carried on, hurrying through the trees. Sheppard was not where he remembered him being. There was no camp, either – no footprints, no blood. Left or right? He called Sheppard's name, as a tiny, sluggish drop of water ran down the back of his hand. He went left, but knew that every step could result in him going further and further from where Sheppard was lying; that water was drying away to nothing; that now he was no longer climbing, the sweat was drying on his body, and he was very cold indeed, hands shaking around his burden.
"Sheppard." He tried his name again. "Sheppard." Then, "Smoke!" he gasped. "Follow the smoke." He sniffed the air, turning in a full circle, smelling dirt and resin and blood and smoke and unimaginable things. The smoke had thinned, seeping into everything around him, but it seemed a little stronger in one direction, so he followed it.
But the fire had burnt down to almost nothing when he found it, and Sheppard was shaking and trembling beside its embers. It was all Rodney could do to keep hold of the damp cloth; he could feel his hand desperate to twitch and flail in panic and misery. He knelt with deliberate, quivering steadiness. "Sheppard. I've got water – well, sort of. You need to drink. Sheppard."
Sheppard's eyelids opened a slit, then closed again. Perhaps if he just did it… But he needed more than two hands again – one to support Sheppard's head, and two to twist the damp fabric and release the precious drops of water. "Wake up, Sheppard," he found himself saying. "Please. Seriously, this isn't like you. Sleeping on the job." Sheppard was like Ronon: he just went on and on. Sometimes you found out about injuries once he was back on Atlantis, but he never ducked out and abandoned you like this.
Sheppard opened his eyes again. "Rodney?"
Rodney's shoulders sagged with relief. "Yes. Yes. Thank God. Listen. You need to drink."
"Yes." He held the crumpled jacket above Sheppard's face, and twisted it. Although it was quite obviously still very wet, only a few drops came out. At least half of the water ran down Sheppard's chin, but Sheppard's tongue came out belatedly and caught the last smear. Rodney tried again, this time producing a very small spoonful. Sheppard moved towards it yearningly, his hand curling into the ground.
When he had wrung every last drop of water out of the jacket, Rodney slumped back onto his heels. "More." Sheppard ran the tip of his tongue over his lips. "Thirsty."
"I know." He scraped his damp hand over his brow. "I've got to take you to the river. If you can't bring the mountain to… Drag you there – do I look like a husky? Though at least --" He gave a brittle laugh. "-- I won't die of cold while I'm making like a dog or a… a… horse. And it'll be safer down there, unless there are… sea monsters, and… and horrible water-borne diseases. Flash floods. Maybe fish to eat?" But that made him think piercingly of Carson. "At least there'll be water to drink, and I can clean your injuries."
"Water." Sheppard's voice was a fragile little thread of a thing.
"Yes, yes, I know. Aren't you listening?" He scraped his hand over his brow again. "A travois. I need wood. Huh. Where can I find that round here, I wonder? Rope. A knife. I've never made one before, but how difficult can it be? Perhaps this survival business isn't so bad after all."
It was as if Sheppard quite deliberately wanted to make a lie of his words. Sheppard's eyes snapped open, and he grabbed at Rodney's wrist, though he failed to catch hold of it. "Thought you were dead," he said.
Rodney frowned. "I'm not dead."
"Dead. Everyone dead. Wraith."
Rodney looked over his shoulder, as if by some miracle someone had appeared to help him with this. There was no-one there, of course. "There aren't any Wraith," he said, turning back. "No Wraith. Wraith all gone."
"Dead," Sheppard said. His voice was chillingly matter-of-fact. "Twenty-three. Not supposed to leave people behind."
"You didn't," Rodney assured him. God, he felt so useless! He could stop a flying city from falling apart, but he had no idea what to say to one delirious man. Sheppard never needed comfort. He never made Rodney feel as if he was failing somehow by not saying the right thing or doing the right thing. They had just slotted in together, because Sheppard had needed nothing from Rodney that Rodney was not able to give.
Sheppard's eyes were wide open, seeing nothing. "Littered across two galaxies, dead and dust."
"You're sick," Rodney said desperately. "You're… I don't know what you are. Concussed. Feverish. Both. I don't know… It's not real."
But of course it was real. Fever made Sheppard speak of such things, but the feelings must have been there all along, even if he never said anything. Sheppard needed nothing from Rodney that Rodney was not able to give? Maybe he did. Maybe it was just that Rodney wasn't willing to give it, so told himself it wasn't needed.
Sheppard had shored Rodney up after the thing with Elizabeth – "It was my call, Rodney" – and Rodney had accepted that comfort, and never thought to give any back.
"I didn't…" Sheppard moaned. "I tried…"
Then he started to shake, and, God! was he crying? No, not crying, not that, but shaking all over, his eyes wide and staring. Rodney grabbed him, all reluctance vanished in the urgency of the situation, and tried to pull him up, tried to pull him close, tried to hold him still. Even in the cold of a dying fire, his skin felt warm. "Sheppard," he called. "Sheppard. John. Stop it. Please stop it. Please stop."
He had no idea how long it lasted – it felt like an eternity. When Sheppard finally stopped shaking, Rodney let out a breath, then gasped it in again, in sudden panic. What if he'd stopped because he'd…? He fumbled at Sheppard's throat, and found a pulse, but it was fast and weak and erratic.
"He isn't going to survive," he said, but he got up wearily and ran his hands through his hair. Branches, he thought. Wood. "Three and a half more days of this. I've got to drag him to the water, but what if he dies on the way? What if I'm dragging just bones?"
It was not a nice thought. He collected branches to get the fire going again, checked on Sheppard – still unresponsive – and started to collect wood for a travois. He worked until his hands were bleeding and his face was stinging from scratches and scrapes. He worked until he was dripping with sweat, although the heart of him was still icy cold. He worked until he was dizzy with hunger, and thirsty again, despite everything he had drunk.
He almost did not hear the voice at first, or if he did, he didn't register it. His hand came up, as if swatting away an imaginary fly. The voice came again – dreams, he thought; dreams of rescue.
The third time he answered it, in time to see the dark shape of a jumper passing over him, beyond the treetops. "Yes," he said. "Yes, it's McKay. Come quickly. Please come quickly."
And then, or so he was told later, he fainted.
"What happened to you?" he demanded.
Ronon was sitting opposite him on the bench. Rodney had been banished there after waking up - "we know our job, Doctor McKay. Please let us do it." They were only minutes away from Atlantis. Rodney couldn't see Sheppard's face.
"You said dawn," he said furiously. "You were late, and now Sheppard…"
"Fell," Ronon said. His arm was wrapped in a sling.
"And nearly drowned on top of that," said a young doctor Rodney didn't know. "He shouldn't be here." He had the weary look of someone who had fought that battle and lost.
But, "You were late," he said again, knowing that he was being unreasonable, but still too close to the awfulness to be anything else. If Sheppard died… If Sheppard died…
"But still in time," the doctor said, falsely cheerful. Rodney decided that he did not like him.
Normally things seemed better with a bit of food in you. Things seemed better when you had some proper sleep in a proper bed, and when you were showered, and when you had visited the labs to make sure no-one had blown up anything they shouldn't in your absence.
Rodney could not get warm. He sat in his quarters and shivered. Things felt a bit better when he was pacing up and down the infirmary, telling the doctors to take better care of Sheppard. They felt even better when people tried to order him out; you couldn't be cold when you were blazing with anger.
Sheppard alternated between periods of deadly stillness and freaky shaking, all without regaining consciousness. "He's picked up a nice little infection," a doctor said, a stupid doctor. "Nice?" Rodney echoed. They told him that he himself was clear of it before he even thought to ask. "Nice?" he echoed again. They also said that Sheppard had a bad concussion, but he'd already known that, hadn't he? A double whammy, two in one. Sheppard was never one to do things by halves.
They said the outlook was good.
In the night, they said, Sheppard had started talking, caught somewhere between sleep and waking, between delirium and reason. Rodney had not been there for that. Ronon had, but he wasn't telling. Ronon glowered over Sheppard's bed like an over-protective guard dog, and was slow to lower his hackles even when Rodney arrived. Rodney had a sudden, irrational, pathetic urge to snarl back.
But when Sheppard woke up properly, two days later, it was Rodney who was at his side, not Ronon. He had to stand back while the doctors did their thing, but after that there was just the two of them, and silence.
"I nearly killed you," Rodney blurted out.
Sheppard seemed slow to process this. He ran his tongue over his lips, and frowned, the gears visibly creaking in his mind.
"I didn't know how to take care of you," Rodney said. "If they hadn't showed up… Four days, Sheppard. I couldn't have taken care of you for four days. I barely managed one night."
Sheppard made an incoherent sound.
"I was making a travois to take you down to the river," Rodney explained, "but I don't know if you would have lasted. There was no food. There were no clean bandages." The bite on Sheppard's shoulder was covered with a thick dressing, and Rodney never wanted to see what was beneath it; never even wanted to imagine it.
"Huh," Sheppard said, and fell asleep.
"I'm a highly skilled individual," Rodney was saying. "My intelligence is genius level, as you know. I have many skills in engineering and physics. I can play the piano. I can act. I can touch my nose with my tongue. So I can't keep my head under pressure, but I get results. Atlantis is crumbling around me, and I stay at my station and manage to save everyone's asses. So, really, there are lots of things I can do."
Sheppard did not reply.
"Everyone's allowed to have gaps in their skill set. When you're a team, you all have different, complementary strengths. That's the whole point. It doesn't bother me that Ronon can fight better than I can, just like it shouldn't bother him – but it probably does, really – that I'm so much cleverer than him." He let out a breath; looked at his folded hands. "I didn't know how to take care of you. I should have known by now. We've been through enough."
Rodney raised his head. Sheppard was looking at him through bleary slits of eyes. "But I didn't. If that jumper hadn't come, you'd be dead by now."
"Made fire," Sheppard said. "Got water. Kept me warm. Made bandages." His eyes opened further, and he smiled, looking almost like a ghost of the real Sheppard. "You did okay, Rodney."
"Just okay?" Rodney never did just okay. Everything he did was exceptional… Well, except for those things that didn't matter. But this was life. This was Sheppard's life. This mattered. This wasn't nothing.
"If they hadn't come," Sheppard said quietly, "you'd have managed."
"But I didn't get the chance to prove that, did I?" Rodney burst out. "I'll never know."
"You're wishing we weren't rescued?"
"No!" Rodney cried. "Of course not. No." When that voice had come over the radio, it had felt marvellous – like a lost child hearing his mother's voice. But at the same time… He had been plucked from the brink. He had not been forced to prove how far he would go to keep Sheppard alive. He had not been forced to forage for food, and to take that terrible leap of faith that was testing a strange new fungus before offering it to Sheppard. He had not had to look beneath those bandages. He hadn't had to breathe life into Sheppard's body, and face the choice of carrying on or giving up.
"You did well, Rodney."
They felt like hollow words at first, but Sheppard grew slowly better. Ronon looked at him without rancour, and the two of them and Teyla shared a table in the mess hall, just as they had done when they were all a team. Rodney found out what had caused the jumper to fail, and had corrected the latent fault in the other jumpers, and in that, at least, he was in his element.
In the middle of the night, he woke up to the memory of racing into the woods after Sheppard had failed to respond on the radio. He had raced knowingly into danger, and it had never occurred to him not to. Yes, part of him had been tempted to leap for safety out of the jumper, but a larger part of him had known that this was inconceivable.
"The way I see it," he told the darkness, "there were certain things that I didn't know, but I passed the moral test."
It felt stupid in the morning, when he was fully awake, but perhaps not so stupid as all that.
But then there was Sheppard.
Sheppard was sitting up in bed now, a little pale and still weak, but more or less his normal self. Watching him, Rodney remembered how Sheppard had moaned his apologies, the things he had said about the dead on Midway, and how, delirious, he had been haunted by those who had died.
All of that was still there. This Sheppard – the Sheppard who sat in the bed and deflected all questions about his wellbeing – would never talk about it, but that didn't mean that it had gone away. There in the woods, Rodney had had no idea what to say to make things better. He had just wanted Sheppard to stop talking about such things, such uncomfortable things.
Perhaps that was his true failure. It wasn't that he had failed to take anything to carry the water back in. It wasn't that he had been unable to make a fire until Sheppard had shown him. It wasn't the fact that his bandages had almost killed Sheppard. They were one-off mistakes, but the inability to act properly around friends who were hurting… That just went on and on. Jeannie called him on it. Carson had too, at times. But Sheppard didn't care. Sheppard didn't want that sort of behaviour. Sheppard expected nothing. Anything Rodney was able to say was probably far more than Sheppard wanted to hear, anyway.
Maybe he had been wrong all along. Maybe he had been right at first, but when you had known somebody for four years, their expectations changed. Maybe Sheppard wanted…
He started badly. "About… you know… the things you said." His hand was moving in circles, struggling to catch the right words.
"I was delirious." Sheppard's voice brooked no argument.
"I'm good, Rodney." There was no fever in Sheppard's eyes now, but there was the same intensity as he had shown when sick.
Rodney knew the lie. He opened his mouth to say something, but, "Don't," Sheppard said, just that.
They had said things; they had both said things. None of that would ever entirely be forgotten, but it would never be spoken about. Rodney shifted position in his chair, and could almost feel the cloak of normality settle on his shoulders. Perhaps he was a coward for not pushing it, but it seemed to be what Sheppard wanted. Perhaps, in a way, they were both cowards, and that's why they worked together so well, because they both knew when not to push. "So what sort of animal bit you, anyway?"
Sheppard played with the edge of his blanket, and did not answer.
"A bear?" Rodney asked. "A lion?" He remembered the pawprints in the mud, certainly not lion-sized. "A badger? A rabbit with nasty sharp pointy teeth?"
"It certainly had teeth."
"A rabbit!" Rodney crowed. "Colonel John Sheppard was mauled by a rabbit!"
"It wasn't a rabbit," Sheppard protested. "It was much bigger and it --"
"A rabbit," Rodney said, somewhat shrilly, because sometimes normality had to be given a helping hand. Sometimes you had to grasp it with both hands and hold onto it.
Sheppard settled down on his pillow. "If you say so, Meredith."
"Very funny." Rodney heard people approaching, and turned round to see Ronon and Teyla. Without asking, they took up places at the bedside as if they belonged there. Rodney bristled a little – no chance now to talk about things, even if he wanted to – then relaxed. They were still a team in the ways that mattered. Teyla wasn't going off-world with them for now, but here she was, when it mattered. Everything was going to be normal again. It already was.
"Sheppard was just telling me how he was nearly killed by a rabbit," Rodney told the others.
"And Rodney was about to tell everyone how he heroically salvaged a bag of lollipops and teddy bears," Sheppard said quite calmly.
Rodney tried for various retorts, before settling on "Ronon fell in a river!"
Ronon just looked at him in response. Teyla, he saw, rolled her eyes.
Normal, he thought, and there was nothing wrong with that. But it was a normal in which Teyla was about to become a mother; in which Ronon and Sheppard and Teyla shared things that Rodney could never share; in which Sheppard just occasionally showed that he was less laidback that he appeared, but Rodney knew not to question him about it. It was a different normal every day, as this galaxy changed them.
And tomorrow, he thought, might change them even more, but they still had this.
Note: Thanks for reading! This story came from several vague ideas coalescing into a single story. I wanted to write something in which Sheppard was helpless and forced to depend on his team; I wanted to write something exploring Rodney's growth and courage – how he might still go into panic-stricken rants, but he does what's needed; and I wanted to explore the dynamics of the Teyla-less team in late season four. As all these ideas were floating in my head, I came across half a page of scrawled notes I'd made some months previously, about a jumper resting half on and half off a cliff. I don't think I really properly explored any of my original ideas, but, hey, it was fun to write, anyway.
Oh, and for the record, it wasn't really a rabbit. ;-)