In Time of War
Rating: PG-13 (non-graphic violence and a war-zone setting)
Words: c. 14,700. Oops. Clearly I fail at maximum word limits.
Characters: Team, with focus on Sheppard and McKay
Spoilers: Up to and including Inquisition
Summary: They had never expected to end up in a war zone. Sheppard is captured, but rescuing him is only the beginning, because Sheppard is badly hurt and rapidly deteriorating, the Gate is inaccessible, and the enemy is everywhere, closing fast.
Note: Written for chokolaj in the sheppard_hc Secret Santa fic exchange. The prompt is quoted at the end. Huge thanks to valleya for beta reading. This is split into two parts for posting reasons, but was written as a single part, without any intentional chapter breaks.
The sirens were wailing again. As Rodney suppressed another fit of coughing, a new explosion sounded from somewhere not too far away. At least no-one screamed this time.
"It isn't safe here," he found himself saying. Oh, yes, state the obvious, Rodney! That was what came from accidentally blundering into the middle of a civil war. That was what came from deciding not to stay safely cowering in hiding, but to carry on, heading directly towards the place where the explosions were most frequent. That was what came from seeking out the meanest, most bloodthirsty faction in the whole godforsaken city, and aiming straight for their lair. Well, not really straight, because you couldn't really call a route straight when it involved terrifying twists and turns to shake off pursuit; when you had to roll behind ruins and cower under fallen pillars; when you even went underground through the stinking, crumbling drainage system, for crying out loud! But, still… "It's not safe," he said again, pressing his hand to his heaving chest.
Ronon spared him a quick, sharp glance. "You want to give up?" His face was stained with dirt and smoke, and there was a ragged graze on the back of his hand.
Rodney looked up at the small patch of fiery, smoke-stained sky. "No. No." He swallowed, tasting stone-dust and burnt things, and pushed himself up a little straighter. "No. Of course not."
But Ronon had already looked away, focusing on the expanse of open ground that lay ahead of them. "Do you need to rest, Rodney?" Teyla asked, more gentle than Ronon could be at a time like this.
Yes! his body screamed, because although he wasn't in bad condition, and he worked out - sometimes, at least – even though the ability to run ten miles without breaking a sweat was over-rated and most of those dumb grunts with their muscles and their toned bodies couldn't even count up to ten without using their fingers, and… Stop it! he thought. "No," he said, remembering Sheppard. "I'm good."
They had to rest for a while, though, because a patrol was passing in the shattered square; at least, that was how Rodney interpreted Ronon's urgent hand signals and the taut quiver of his shoulders. A toppled statue formed their hiding place, and when Rodney peered up, it looked as if he was being sheltered by a giant granite hand. The severed head was opposite him, staring at him with eyes of dead jet. The whole thing was covered with a straggly creeper, all blood-red stalks and sickly yellow leaves. Teyla had told him that it was called deathweed – the first thing to grow on the ruins of culled civilisations. Rodney had commented that the name could have been less depressing. Ronon had just looked at him, in a way that had made all Rodney's words shrivel up and die in his throat.
The siren stopped at the highest point of its wail. Rodney let out a breath. It was bad enough to be heading into almost certain death, of course, but that damn siren penetrated your brain and got everywhere, and you couldn't think properly. It made your hands tremble and your chest feel tight. It made you want to scream.
"It isn't clear yet," Ronon hissed, perhaps in response to something Teyla had asked.
Nothing to do but wait, then. Rodney tugged out the life-signs' detector, struggling to hold it still. There were far too many people ahead of them, behind the high walls of faction's headquarters. Every dot meant a man with a gun, eager to kill them.
Teyla watched him looking at the screen. "Can you--?"
"No," Rodney snapped. "I've already told you. I can't locate his subcutaneous transmitter, not using this. He might be there, but…"
"He's there." Ronon was all coiled muscle, his hand resting on stone folds of cloth.
But you don't know that, Rodney wanted to say. We might have gone through all this for nothing. The enemy might have taken Sheppard to another place entirely. They might have already killed him. Rodney and the others were risking everything on a wild guess.
"What else can we do?" Teyla said quietly.
Rodney closed his eyes for a moment. "Yes, yes, I know."
The man Ronon had captured had eventually screamed out the name of the faction that had taken Sheppard. The girl they had come across in the sewers had falteringly confirmed that they were going in the right direction. 'They take people they don't like to the old town hall,' she had said, 'and kill them dead.' Then, as they had moved on, their feet splashing in the filth, and Rodney with his hand pressed to his mouth to keep himself from throwing up, she had screeched it again: 'Dead!' It had echoed in the tunnels. It still did.
"Sheppard would do the same for us," Ronon said. With his face streaked like that, he looked almost feral, more dangerous than the men they were going up against. It was comforting, Rodney told himself - really, it was. But he tightened his grip on the life-signs' detector, remembering how their captive had screamed, and how his blood had glistened on Ronon's knife.
"I know." Rodney's voice rasped, catching on the words. He jabbed the detector into his pocket, and drew out his gun. "You don't have to labour the point. I'm here, aren't I?"
Here, he thought, and Dead! wailed the girl from the sewers. Going back to Atlantis was out of the question, with far more enemies surrounding the Gate than even Ronon could deal with. Their captive had confirmed that it would be a swift execution, delayed only if Sheppard's captors decided they wanted to indulge in a nice, friendly bout of hideous torture first. Every minute counted. Every minute of ducking down beneath the wreckage, hardly daring to breathe for a slow count of a hundred. Every minute spent helping people who were screaming, pleading, begging for help. Every minute getting lost underground. Every minute having to double back on yourself because wreckage made your path impenetrable. Every minute.
Every… damn… minute.
The siren started up again. "No," Rodney moaned, because it was too much. Stupid to care, of course. Stupid to feel… God, and there was that damn deathweed, and the polluted sky, and the freaky headless statue. There was Sheppard, dying, and Rodney was used to fixing things. He did his stuff, shouted at Sheppard for interrupting him, and that was it - crisis averted, end of story, until the next crazy adventure came along. He wasn't made for breaking people out of brutal alien prisons. He wasn't made for going in guns blazing, covering the flank, aiming at two o'clock, and go, go, go!
"They've gone," Ronon said.
But he would do it, Rodney thought. Of course he would. He pushed himself upwards, peeking over the statue's shoulder. The square was vast, with several hundred yards to cross without any real cover. Earlier, they had waded through the detritus of everyday life – discarded shoes, a coat and even a doll. Here there was nothing but stone – an expanse of grey, splashed with the red and yellow of deathweed. Even the flags on the enemy stronghold were grey, and hung limply in the absence of any wind.
Ronon nodded at him, and Rodney thought that there was a message there, but he couldn't read it; it made him think of Roman gladiators: we who are about to die…He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again. Ronon spoke first, though, merely saying, "Let's go."
And that was when the enemy stronghold exploded.
It was never meant to be this way.
"Why can't the B-team do it?" Rodney had complained, strapping on his weapons in the armoury. "I've on the verge of making a very important breakthrough that will revolutionise… What?" he had demanded, catching the tail-end of a smile passing between his team-mates. "Haven't you got things you'd rather be doing? Marines to beat the crap out of? Golf balls to pointlessly hit into the ocean? Babies to do, uh, baby things with? I just don't see why it always has to be us, that's all."
"Because it's an expression of the seriousness of our intention to help them," Sheppard explained as they headed towards the Gate. "Woolsey sends them his brightest and his best. Of course," he added, "maybe he just wants to get rid of us for a couple of days." He said 'us' in a way that clearly implied 'you,' but Rodney decided to rise above such childish provocation.
"I cannot recall you complaining when they welcomed us with a banquet last time, Rodney," Teyla reminded him treacherously.
"There were dancing girls." Ronon grinned.
"And dancing boys," Teyla added. "Some of them were quite pretty."
"And there were holes in the ceiling of the banqueting hall," Rodney grumbled, "and the drink tasted of dust."
"Which is why we're helping them." Sheppard spoke with exaggerated patience. "Culled by the Wraith, city in ruins, in need of our expert help and advice…"
"Oh, yes, good idea!" Rodney exclaimed. "Call in Colonel Oh-goody-it's-an-even-bigger-bomb and Specialist Big-gun-go-boom when you want advice on rebuilding an entire civilisation from the ashes."
"Play nice, Rodney," Sheppard said, but turned more serious as they stood waiting for the Gate to be dialled. "They've been through a lot."
The place always reminded Rodney a little of Sateda. As they emerged from the Gate on the far side, the smell of smoke and ruin made his next complaint dry up completely. The city had possessed just enough technology to resist the Wraith, and had paid a terrible price for it. Even two years after the culling, most survivors still squatted in makeshift huts in the wreckage of their stone houses.
"Something's different." Sheppard stiffened into instant alertness the moment the wormhole winked out behind them.
"Something's wrong." Ronon's hand went to his gun.
It appeared that they were expected, but it was not the usual spokesman who stepped forward. The welcoming party wasn't actually going as far as to point guns at them, but their expressions were unfriendly, and Rodney didn't recognise a single face. Not that he was good at faces, of course. After six visits, he still couldn't remember the name of the leader. Caron? Karen? A girl's name, anyway, for an earnest, elderly man. Rodney had never liked him.
"You're the people from Atlantis?" The spokesman was tall and young, with the pinched look of someone who never got enough to eat.
"That's us." Sheppard nodded, and Rodney saw how his hand moved ever so slightly at his side, signalling to the rest of them to do nothing for now, but to remain watchful. Rodney eyed the DHD. Half a dozen men surrounded it, one of them leaning on the DHD itself. When he saw Rodney looking at him, he smiled a slow and predatory smile.
Uh… Rodney swallowed hard. "Sheppard," he whispered, "I think…" But Sheppard nodded again, as if to say I know. Afterwards, of course, Rodney would wonder again and again if they could have prevented what had happened, if they had made a play for the DHD right then.
A woman stepped forward and whispered a few words to the spokesman, pointing a finger at Sheppard. That's the one, Rodney imagined her saying. He wondered if he should point it out to Sheppard, but even now, even after all the crazy things that had happened to them, part of his mind seemed to persist in thinking that he was a research scientist in a nice, safe lab, and that other human beings wouldn't really want to try to kill him.
"You're Sheppard?" the spokesman asked. He smiled, though, so perhaps it was all okay, after all; perhaps it was all a silly misunderstanding.
"Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard." Sheppard gave a self-deprecating smile. "Yeah, that'll be me."
The man's smile vanished like the sun behind clouds. "You woke the Wraith, and you consort with them even now. You created the monster that killed countless innocents across the known worlds. We heard about the charges laid against you at the tribunal."
"Which found us innocent," Sheppard pointed out. His tone was light, but Rodney could see his sudden tension.
"Doubtless because of bribery and corruption." The man flapped his hand in a way that conveyed that nothing Sheppard said would be good enough. "And now you bring your poison here."
"We bring aid," Teyla said firmly.
"We don't want aid from the likes of you," the man spat. "You might have fooled Charon and his band of traitors, but things are different now. Charon's dead, and all his sympathisers have been brought to justice."
It wasn't fair. He didn't end with a 'and so will you!' and even a 'seize him!' He didn't give them enough warning, not enough to save Sheppard. Sheppard fell to a plundered Wraith stunner, fired by somebody out of sight. Ronon lunged for him, tried to catch him, but there were too many guns; everywhere there were guns.
People had surrounded them; Rodney remembered that, at least. He remembered the sight of Ronon firing again and again, and he remembered Teyla grabbing his arm. He remembered the sight of enemy after enemy falling, and Ronon reaching out with his left hand, his mouth open and bellowing. He remembered hands on Sheppard's shoulders, pulling him up. He remembered screaming himself – "we have to go back for him! We can't…!" – but there had been an enormous explosion, and the next thing he had known, the three of them had been pressed together in a tiny hole beneath a tangle of wooden beams, bodies heaving, breath rasping, and Sheppard had been gone.
Sheppard was gone.
And now, hours later, smoke was billowing from the place they had traced Sheppard to. Another explosion sounded, even louder than the first, and Ronon vaulted over the statue, heading towards the devastation. "No!" Rodney shouted, screaming to be heard over the noise of falling masonry. "Don't! We don't know…" The noise drowned his voice, and the smoke choked it. Don't know if it's safe, he thought. Don't know if Sheppard was even in there.
He tugged out the life-signs detector, struggling to keep hold of it as he coughed. There were far fewer dots on the screen than there had been only minutes before. All dead, he thought, and if Sheppard really was in there… He showed the screen mutely to Teyla. She nodded, and then she waited for him. Recovering his breath, pressing his hand to his chest, Rodney did the only thing that he could do, and began to move towards the site of the explosion.
"He probably wasn't in there, after all," he found himself saying, even as Sheppard spoke in his mind, telling him to stay positive, because Sheppard always did pluck last-minute miracles out of the jaws of certain doom. "You know what he's like with bombs. He--" He broke off, coughing. "--probably caused the explosion himself. He…" He trailed off, unable to muster the words any more. A fist had clenched itself around his heart, squeezing tighter and tighter with every second that passed.
The life-signs detector lurched with every step, its screen covered with a light film of dust. He scraped at it. "There's still a few people alive. I don't think--" He yelped as his ankle turned over on a stone; recovered himself; carried on, wincing. "--don't think it… took out… the whole building. Maybe just a… wall."
But Teyla was ahead of him now, scrambling over shards of stone. Ronon was even further ahead. Separated, Rodney thought. Picked off one by one. His breath heaving, he struggled to catch up. Ahead of him, dust surged upwards and outwards in an enormous choking cloud. Ronon had already vanished into it, and Teyla was fading.
"It's a trap," he gasped. "A trap." His voice sounded unnaturally loud, and he realised that the masonry had finally stopped falling. Even the damn siren was finally silent. He swallowed. "Sheppard?" Something shifted with a trickle of small stones. "Sheppard?" He tried it again, then choked on dust, doubling over to try to catch his breath.
When he looked up again, the dust was beginning to clear. Ronon and Teyla were shadows on either side of the jagged hole where the wall had once been. And someone was coming out, climbing over the wreckage, walking towards them.
Rodney gripped the life-signs detector and looked at that triangle of dots, as if he needed to see it on screen before it could really be true. Then he jammed it into his pocket, and lurched forward. Every moment, he saw a little more. Ronon had his gun out. Teyla was reaching forward. And the other figure – Sheppard, it's Sheppard, please let it be Sheppard – was approaching slowly, gradually taking shape out of the wall of smoke.
"Sheppard," Rodney breathed, and he slipped, going down on one knee, and scraped the heel of his hand against a slab of rough stone. He pushed himself up again, and he ran forward, and it was, it was, it was. God! he thought. Sheppard! He scraped his hand over his stinging eyes.
Sheppard wasn't wearing his vest, and his boots and his socks were gone. He had a primitive revolver in one hand and a curved knife in the other, but his wrists were a mess and his arms looked limp, the weapons dangling from them as if he'd forgotten they were there. Despite his bare feet, he was walking forward steadily, and even when Ronon and Teyla reached for him, he kept on walking. Teyla's hand slid off him, but Ronon tried again, his hand closing round Sheppard's upper arm. Even then Sheppard tried to carry on walking, and swayed around Ronon in a quarter circle, until finally he stopped.
"Sheppard," Rodney gasped. "God, Sheppard, are you…?" But Rodney was still too far away. He heard Teyla ask much the same question; heard Sheppard mumble that yes, yes he was.
"No, you're not." Ronon was still gripping Sheppard's arm.
Rodney reached them, and stood there, struggling to breathe. There was blood on Sheppard's shirt, he saw, and a jagged hole in the fabric at his shoulder. "We… we came to rescue you," Rodney found himself saying, "from… in there." It sounded limp.
Sheppard's eyes drifted over him, flickered slightly as if with recognition, then carried on. "There's nothing there," he said. "Not any more." He pulled himself free from Ronon's grip, but Rodney saw how Ronon's fingers tightened for a moment, as if reluctant to let him go. Sheppard swayed a little, but didn't fall.
"How badly are you hurt, John?" Teyla asked.
Sheppard frowned, as if struggling to remember something. "Just a scratch," he said at last. "Bullet grazed me."
"Good." Rodney let out a breath. "Then let's get out here."
Sheppard blinked, and frowned again. "Good idea. There's…" His voice faltered for a moment. "…nothing there." His eyes didn't seem entirely in focus, but they appeared to be looking at something over Rodney's shoulder. Rodney twisted round, his heart hammering, but couldn't see anything out of the ordinary for this hellish city.
He turned back in time to see Ronon and Teyla exchanging concerned looks. A thick bead of blood dripped from the curved knife that was trailing from Sheppard's left hand.
Rodney opened his mouth to say something, but Sheppard spoke first. "I'm good." He appeared to give himself an internal shake, for his eyes cleared, and he even smiled. "It's the explosion," he said. "Ears are ringing." He took a step forward, but Rodney gasped, whatever he had been about to say freezing in his throat. There was blood where Sheppard had been standing, smeared on the jagged stones. Blood. Rubble. And Sheppard had bare feet. Sheppard had walked all that way with bare feet.
"Feet," Rodney croaked instead. "Sheppard, your feet."
Sheppard looked down at them, breathed in, held it, then breathed out again. "Yeah," he said quietly.
John remembered waking up in a cage. He remembered struggling to break free from the thick fuzziness of a stun blast, and feeling the familiar tingle of pins and needles throughout his body. Shouldn't be familiar. Even thoughts were sluggish. What sort of crazy world do we live in if…?
He took the last step then, emerging from the fog. He sat up, and almost fell again when he realised that his hands were shackled behind his back. The cage was moving, he realised, and--
A sudden jolt sent him flying sideways, smashing his shoulder into the bars. "I guess the road needs resurfacing," he muttered. The next jolt rattled his teeth; almost made him bite his tongue.
The cold of the bars helped anchor his thoughts. Leaning against them, bracing himself with his fingers on the floor behind him, he studied his prison. The cage was about seven feet square, and it sat on a flat sort of trailer, hitched to a primitive truck that looked like something cobbled together in the aftermath of an apocalypse. Black smoke billowed out of its exhaust, and its engine screamed, struggling to lurch along at barely ten miles an hour. It was--
Another jolt hurled him forward, and he struggled to stay upright, gripping onto the bar with only his fingertips. The road, such as it was, was pitted with holes and strewn with debris. But he couldn't see any other cages, and that was good. His attackers had been particularly interested in him, so he could only hope that the others had gotten away.
He slid himself forward, where the smoke from the exhaust filled his lungs. He tried to breathe shallowly as he pushed his shoulder experimentally against the cage door. A rusty metal padlock locked it on the outside. Then the truck hit something solid, crashing to a halt. John was thrown forward, struggled to recover his balance, and landed heavily on his back, his shackled hands crushed beneath him.
A door opened, and he saw someone walk round to the front of the truck; heard someone curse. "Have you guys heard of seatbelts?" John shouted, as pain throbbed through his hands.
Another door opened. "Hey." Sheppard smiled at the unfamiliar face that approached him. "I think your suspension's busted."
He saw the Wraith stunner, had time to think Oh, shit, and that was all…
…until the next awakening.
"John," he heard, "John," and everything was fuzzy, but with an undercurrent of pain beneath it. That was because of the stunner. No, he thought. No. He wasn't in the cage any more. It wasn't even the second awakening, back in the courtyard. It was all over, finished and done. There was no need to remember it any more. Ronon was on one side and Teyla on the other, and Rodney was fluttering anxiously beside them, babbling about approaching life signs. He was being pulled down behind good cover, and there was… God! Dark eyes. Dark staring eyes, and… No, no, a statue. A headless statue – fallen kings; civilisations lost in the dust. Something from school days: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. No, something after that, or before that, about endless deserts, and people lost to dust.
Stupid, he thought. Stupid, John. Just a statue. His gaze lurched in a circle, and settled on Teyla. "I'm good," he said. "I'm good."
What was the old saying? For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe... well, lots of things were lost, but it culminated in a kingdom. They were stuck here, pinned in their inadequate hiding place, because Sheppard didn't have any shoes. The damn siren had started up again, and Rodney could hear people shouting. Someone was screaming, their voice wailing and bubbling, pleading for help.
He thought Sheppard was listening to it, too. Sheppard was sitting with his back against the statue's chest, and his hair was so sprinkled with dust that it looked grey, like someone fed on by the Wraith. Rodney could see how rapid and shallow his breathing was.
The screaming stopped, fading away into nothing. Sheppard closed his eyes. "We're too close," Rodney found himself whispering. "We won't be able to…" He gestured weakly with his hand, not entirely sure what he had been trying to say, knowing just that he hated staying here, and that he wanted to be back on Atlantis.
"John needs shoes," Teyla said. Sheppard didn't respond to his name. "The safest route is through the tunnels."
Tunnels. Drains. The relics of a sewer system that was no longer working, where you had to splash through foul water up to your ankles. It was doubtless riddled with disease. Rodney had probably already gone down with something hideous. But Sheppard… Rodney looked at his feet again. You seemed so different when your feet were bare – no longer like Colonel Sheppard, who had a solution to everything, but like a vulnerable human body that could be broken and damaged so easily. Rodney didn't think he had ever seen Sheppard's bare feet before.
Sheppard opened his eyes. "I can walk."
"Don't be ridiculous," Rodney said. "Have you seen your feet? We're not talking a stroll on silver sands. There's broken glass and sharp stones everywhere. Yes, yes, I know people can walk over hot coals if they go fast enough, but that's a result of the specific thermodynamic properties of the two bodies, and not…" He trailed off. Sheppard's feet were a mess, and the worst thing, the scariest thing of all, was that he hadn't really seemed to notice. "You just can't," Rodney said, "and I can't carry you, and Ronon said he would, but we're also likely to get shot at, and… well, he can't shoot back if his hands are full of… well, you."
Sheppard frowned, his eyes tracking slowly from side to side. "Where's Ronon?"
"Gone to find you some shoes," Rodney reminded him. "There's lots of, uh, stuff lying around in the ruins."
Sheppard gave half a smile. "Dead man's shoes, huh?" The smile vanished.
"Yeah." Rodney pressed his lips together.
Teyla moved closer to Sheppard. "I need to examine your wound, John."
"It's just a scratch." Sheppard pushed himself up so he was sitting a little straighter. "Listen, I… I just needed a moment. I'm good. What's our status? How far is to the Gate, and how much resistance are we likely to encounter?"
Everything felt a little bit better when Sheppard was talking like that, but all Teyla said was, "I would prefer to determine for myself if it is 'just a scratch.'" She touched Sheppard's side, froze for a moment, then showed Rodney the results of that brief touch. Even though it had been a long way from the site of the injury, her fingers were covered with blood.
An explosion sounded, and Rodney found himself making himself smaller, drawing his head down into his shoulders, even though the sound was far away. He pulled out the life-signs detector, but they were still alone – three dots almost on top of each other. Ronon's dot was no longer there. Rodney looked at Sheppard's blood staining the deathweed, and suddenly, incongruously, found himself desperate for a drink of water.
"…foolish," Teyla was saying, "to continue with wounds untreated. It endangers us all."
"Yeah," Sheppard said at last, his voice quiet. He let Teyla unbutton his shirt and pull it off his left shoulder. His eyes were open all the time, dark and glittering, looking at something that wasn't there.
It wasn't just a scratch. Of course it wasn't just a scratch. The bullet had struck him full on the shoulder, just below the collarbone, and when Teyla pulled Sheppard gently forward, there was no exit wound visible on the back; of course there was no exit wound. "You have lost a lot of blood," Teyla said quietly. Her palms were smeared in it from fingertip to wrist.
"I knew I'd been hit." Sheppard's eyes found hers. "I didn't know… I couldn't afford to stop, you know?"
"I know." Teyla's voice was gentle. She touched Sheppard's throat, taking his pulse, and then there were blood smears there, too, and it was only then, seeing the contrast of red and white, that Rodney realised that Sheppard's pallor was not entirely caused by the dust. "Your pulse is too fast," Teyla said, "and you feel cold." She turned to Rodney, as if she expected him to do something, to react in a certain way.
All he could think was we're screwed. We're so screwed. The bullet was still in the wound. That meant that… Well, he wasn't sure what it meant, just that it was bad, and when bad things happened when you were stuck in a war zone with no access to the Gate, then your regular sort of bad became a whole new level of bad, and Sheppard was probably going to die, and then…
"Bandages, Rodney?" Teyla said sharply. "We can stop the bleeding, at least." She turned back to Sheppard. "Do you have full feeling in your left hand?"
Sheppard looked down at his hand; it was still clutching the blood-stained knife, Rodney saw, and from the expression that flickered over Sheppard's face, he was suddenly sure that Sheppard had entirely forgotten about it, too. "Uh…" Sheppard managed, and that, really, was answer enough.
Screwed, Rodney thought. So screwed. But he fumbled for the bandages, and passed them over to Teyla. But she didn't take them, crouching there suddenly alert. "Someone is…" The tension eased. "Ronon."
"How did you know…?" Rodney began, and he reached for his gun, and he held it there, tight in his trembling hands, until Ronon slid down into the space beside him.
"Got boots." Ronon's eyes narrowed as he looked at Sheppard. "That's not a scratch."
Sheppard gave a one-shouldered shrug. "You'd have called it a scratch."
Ronon gave a quick grin, acknowledging the truth of that. He touched Sheppard's shoulder fearlessly and without asking permission. "You'll be okay," he said, "as long as we're not out here too long. Doc'll fix that when we get back." He dropped the boots beside Sheppard's right hand.
Dead man's shoes, Rodney thought. Sheppard would be walking in a dead man's shoes.
Luckily, though, Rodney was a rational scientist and didn't believe in portents. No, he didn't believe in them at all.
John was struggling to focus. Everything lurched crazily, as if he had had a few too many beers the night before. The ground was tilting and swaying beneath him, and he saw a protruding piece of stonework approaching, tried to avoid it, yet somehow managed to walk straight into it. It slammed into his right shoulder, sending red spears of pain through his body from the left. Everything surged white. If only he could get enough air!
"Sheppard needs to stop." Rodney's voice sounded as if it was coming from the other end of a tunnel.
"No." He managed to raise a hand, fending them off. "I'm good." Stopping was bad. It hadn't hurt much until they'd made him stop. Now every step felt as if he was walking on coals, and he wanted to curl in on himself in misery, except that that meant stopping, and stopping was bad.
"You'll… uh… be okay," Rodney said. "Uh…"
It helped. He started walking – one step, then two; one foot in front of the other – and reminded himself where the revolver was, in case they were attacked.
"What happened?" Rodney asked.
He remembered the second stun blast. Waking from that had been sudden, the pain ripping him out of the lethargy. He'd flailed desperately, not knowing where he was or what had happened; knowing only that it hurt, and that the more he struggled, the more it hurt. His arms were on fire, and his shoulders…
His left foot found the ground, and then his right foot, and the pain eased, and became a different sort of pain. He was standing up in an enclosed courtyard, he realised, with his hands shackled in front of him, just above head height. It wasn't too bad, standing. Unconscious, though, he must have hung there, most of his weight dangling from his wrists.
Isn't too bad, John? he thought. Your sense of priorities is seriously warped. He was a prisoner. His arms were screaming from being held in the same position, and he could see that his wrists were bleeding, rivulets of blood trickling down his bare forearms. Somebody had stripped him of his vest, his boots and his socks, and all his weapons were gone. He swallowed hard, moistening suddenly dry lips. Somebody had stripped him while he lay unconscious. It was stupid to feel so violated when it was just your boots, but that's how it is, John, and you need to forget about it and concentrate on getting the hell out of here.
"Who are you?"
He turned around as much as he could, feeling the pull of pain on his shoulders. His wrists were shackled to a hook attached to a low beam, he realised. The beam ran the entire width of the courtyard, with identical hooks driven in every six feet or so. All but one were empty. Two hooks away, a young man of little more than eighteen was standing, his wrists chained up in the same way.
John gave him a wry smile. "I guess we're room-mates."
"We're going to die." The young man strained at his shackles, tugging them harder and harder, faster and faster. "I don't want to die! I didn't do anything!"
"Hey," John urged him. "Hey! We're not going to die. We'll find a way out of here, you hear me."
The young man didn't seem to be listening to him. He threw himself forward, deliberately letting his whole weight dangle from his shackles, desperately trying to tear himself free. Fresh blood snaked down his arms. There were other bloodstains, too, John saw, some red and some brown, under every empty hook. No, he thought, quite deliberately looking away from the blood. It wouldn't come to that; it wouldn't.
"Hey," John insisted. The bad guys didn't seem to be around, and that had to mean something, right? "Stop it!" he shouted, snapping it as a command.
The young man's face was streaked with tears. "I don't want to die." His eyes bored into John's, pleading for help and understanding. "I didn't do anything. I can't help who my father is."
"We'll get out of here," John promised him.
The young man looked at him with desperate hope in his eyes, then suddenly recoiled. "You're Sheppard," he gasped. "I remember you with my father. You're in league with the Wraith. You brought the Wraith. You did this."
"No." Pain throbbed down from John's wrists, even to his chest. "That's not true. I didn't--"
"You brought the Wraith," the young man sobbed. "That's what they said. They took my father away, and they… I didn't see him killed, but they… they kill everybody. They said… said you'd betrayed us, and that Father… Father was condoning it, that he invited you in. He wouldn't… he said he wouldn't, and then they… they…"
"It's not true," John insisted. He felt cold all over, and the pain was barbs in his throat. "That's not true. Listen… Listen! We need to work together. We need to--"
"I don't want to die!" the young man screamed. "Please! Please! I don't want to die!"
John tried to reach towards him, the shackles digging into his wrists. "Be quiet!" he hissed, but the door was already opening. Half a dozen men trooped into the courtyard, all of them armed. A siren started wailing, and an explosion sounded not too far away, but the men kept walking forward. John had been like that once – so used to the sounds of war that he no longer startled at sudden noises, feeling only a cold, dull clenching of the chest as he wondered if any of his buddies had died today.
"Don't kill me," the young man begged them. "Please don't kill me. Kill him."
"Oh, we will." The leading man gave a cold smile. "We kill all traitors. But this one… Even though we're engaged in righteous warfare, there's still a little time for fun, eh, lads?"
"No," John gasped, thinking they meant to go for the boy, but they changed direction at the last minute, surrounding him.
He fought – oh, God, he had fought. He'd kicked at them, using his body as a weapon, swinging his whole weight from his wrists, but his feet had been bare, and there had been too many of them, far too many of them. The first blow had landed across his stomach, the wooden club driving all the air from his lungs. The second one had struck the side of his head, and his memory was hazy after that. He thought he knew what had happened next, but perhaps it was just a dream.
"What happened?" he echoed, focusing on Rodney, and on Ronon and Teyla ahead of them, because whether true or a dream, it was over, and there was no point thinking about it any more. "Got captured. Escaped. You know; the usual."
on to second part