The story starts here
John remembered too much of the past. The closer he came to slipping away completely into the darkness, the harder he had to concentrate on keeping his grip on the present reality.
He remembered telling Teyla he would do anything to save any one of his team. He remembered refusing to let McKay sacrifice himself to save his sister. He still dreamt about that, sometimes, waking up to find himself staring at his hands, thinking himself a murderer. But Henry Wallace hadn't been entirely blameless. Wallace, like John, had vowed to do anything that he could to save someone close to him. And Wallace had known, just as John would have known, when he had gone too far. John hadn't killed him; had just made things clear to him, and let Wallace decide. Wallace had made the only choice than an essentially good man could have made under the circumstances. Wallace had made the choice that John himself would have made, had the positions been reversed.
It was so wrapped up in so many things: right, wrong, pain… And people that he cared for, when he had never thought that would care for anyone again. And he was a commander, and that meant making choices that sometimes resulted in people dying and others living, when a different choice would have had a different outcome.
"How far will you go to save him?" the tall man asked.
John was on his knees, perhaps unable ever to stand again. The prisoner's eyes were wide with terror, but he was gagged and couldn't speak. John tried not to look at his eyes, but he couldn't look at McKay, either. The past was more real…
But it couldn't be. This moment was now. And, really, he didn't have to think about it too hard. "I can't," he said, as he had said once before, but this time barely any sound came out. He doubted that McKay had heard him.
He dared to look up, and McKay's face was frozen in a mask of horror, too far gone even for his usual flood of words. His lips were moving incessantly, a litany of noes. What was he asking for? That John should save him, or that John should not?
John shook his head. "I can't." It was still silent. I would do anything, he had said, but it wasn't true. He hadn't saved Elizabeth. He hadn't let McKay use the nanites to heal her because he'd known that she wouldn't have wanted them to risk such a dangerous treatment. He'd left her behind when she'd ordered him to. When the only price was himself, then he would do anything for his team. When the price was others…
"I can't," he said, finally finding the voice for it.
"This is too far?" The tall man opened his hands, and John could only watch as the herbs blew into the fire, burning away to nothing. The air filled with the sweet scent of hope turned to ashes. "Then you've killed Doctor McKay."
"No!" McKay screamed. "No!"
John closed his eyes, but, no, he couldn't hide, not from this. He looked at McKay, but what words could convey the apology necessary for condemning a friend?
"I can't," Rodney heard Sheppard say, and he didn't know what it meant, not at first, not until their captor let the last of the antidote blow away into the fire.
"No!" Rodney screamed. "No!" He watched it burn away, turning into thick, sweet smoke, and the pain redoubled, as if he was dying right now.
Sheppard had betrayed him. No, no, of course Sheppard hadn't betrayed him. Rodney was an arrogant man, and sometimes he didn't consider the feelings of others, but he couldn't expect Sheppard to say yes to such a stark choice. He didn't want Sheppard to say yes. He didn't want to live the rest of his life knowing that someone had been murdered in cold blood to keep him alive. But that's what had happened with Henry Wallace, wasn't it? And countless people had died over the years in situations that meant that if they hadn't died, Rodney might have died instead. He'd lived with that. He didn't even know this person's name. Their captor would probably kill him anyway, so it didn't really make any difference if Sheppard had…
God, he was going to die! He was going to die, and Sheppard always saved him - except for all those times when he was the one saving Sheppard, of course. Sheppard had saved someone else instead of him. Sheppard had…
It's right, he thought. It's right. Rodney would have done the same, wouldn't he? Would Rodney have been able to say the word that would lead to an innocent person being slaughtered, even if it did save Sheppard?
They hadn't, had they? When Sheppard was in the hands of Kolya, they hadn't said that word. They'd just stood by and watched as a Wraith had drained the life from him, and it wasn't because of anything that they had done, that Sheppard was still alive at the end of it.
But it hurt. Oh, God, it hurt, and he was going to die, his last chance burning away to ashes, and Sheppard… Sheppard was nearer the fire now, illuminated by the flames, and it was suddenly impossible to hide from the fact that Sheppard probably had even less time than Rodney had. So at least he wouldn't have to live with the knowledge that he'd killed a man, Rodney thought, then hated the fact that he had thought it. It was still wrong. It wouldn't become magically right just because Sheppard was dead and not able to feel guilty about it.
Sheppard looked at him, raising his head with a visible effort. I'm sorry, his eyes said.
The pain was less and less, but feeling was growing dimmer. Rodney wanted to die at peace with the world, but how could you do that when you were dying for such a pointless reason? He tried to tell Sheppard that he understood, but he didn't know if he did, not really, because it was impossible not to be selfish, it was impossible not to want to live.
Sheppard's eyes slid shut, and then he fell slowly sideways. He hit the ground and lay still, and in the merciless light of the fire, he looked already dead.
"Sheppard!" Rodney screamed, and he knew that they were doomed – had known it for hours, really – but that didn't stop the stab of pure grief and terror that lanced through his heart when Sheppard went down. "You've killed him!" he shouted. "You… you… sadistic freak!"
"I hope not," the tall man said. "The game isn't yet over." He waved his hand in dismissal, and two of his men dragged the other prisoner away, but Rodney didn't bother watching. He strained at the ropes, but the pain was nothing, nothing compared to this.
The tall man took a step towards Sheppard. "Unconscious, are we?" He nodded a signal to one of his goons, but Rodney couldn't see what happened in response. Then the tall man suddenly and sharply kicked Sheppard in the stomach, once, then twice, then a third time.
Sheppard didn't react at all. Rodney, though, was screaming, shouting words that he had no memory of saying, screaming until he was hoarse. Then a stab of pure agony stole his words from him, and all he could do was watch in silent horror as the tall man crouched down to touch Sheppard's throat, to confirm what Rodney already knew: that John Sheppard was dead.
He closed his eyes, unable to watch. And so it was that he missed the moment when Sheppard lashed out and grabbed the tall man's gun. By the time Rodney had snapped his eyes open, Sheppard had the tall man on the ground beneath him, and was holding the gun in both hands, the muzzle pressed at the man's head.
Rodney's mouth dropped open. "I will kill you," Sheppard said, and it was the voice that had threatened Kolya, not the voice of a dying man. "Yes, I know that your men probably have guns trained on me right now, but I don't think they could kill me in time, do you? After all, it only takes a tiny movement…" His finger tightened on the trigger.
The tall man looked different, younger, scared. "You won't get away with this."
"Really?" The gun didn't waver. "I'm an optimistic guy, and I'll take my chances." Sheppard jerked his chin towards Rodney, though the gun remained completely still. "Get someone to untie him." When no-one moved, Sheppard jabbed the gun harder against the man's head. "Do it!" he commanded.
Nothing happened for a very long time. Rodney counted the rhythms of his own rapid breathing: in and out; in and out. How could Sheppard do this? How? Any moment now… It was foolish to hope. It was ridiculous to feel this stupid burst of happiness at the thought that once again they had been plucked to safety from almost certain doom. Everything was still teetering on the brink.
"Do it," Sheppard said quietly.
"Do what he says," the tall man said at last.
Rodney stiffened as someone walked towards him, taking shape out of the shadows beyond the fire. He heard the sound of a knife being drawn out of a sheath. "Uh…" He cleared his throat. "He said cut me free. I know it must be tempting to… No, don't mind me – putting ideas into your head. Cut me free, yes, yes." He couldn't see what was happening. He felt the movement of a knife sawing through ropes, and he screamed when the blade nicked his hand, then had to apologise to Sheppard, saying, "Sorry, sorry, I'm good, I'm okay," when Sheppard looked at him desperately, briefly losing his focus on the man he was holding prisoner.
At length he was free, and Rodney sank to the ground in screaming relief, easing agonised muscles, and curling at last, at long last, around the pain in his stomach.
"McKay needs a gun," Sheppard said quietly, still in that deadly tone, and, "Yes, yes," Rodney said, forcing himself to his feet, struggling to push past his pain and be a useful participant in Sheppard's latest insane escape attempt.
The tall man croaked an order, and Rodney felt a gun being pressed into his hand. He almost dropped it, his fingers stiff from lack of circulation, but he forced his hand to grip it. He swallowed hard. Who shall I aim it at? Ah yes, the tall man, the leader. Then Sheppard would be able to climb off him. Then they might actually be able to get the hell out of here.
The gun was faltering in his hands, but he managed to keep it steady. "I'll, uh, shoot you," he said. "I'm ready and willing to do so. If anyone makes any sudden moves, I'll shoot."
"You heard the man," Sheppard said. In a sudden swift movement, he brought the gun up and then down again, smashing it hard over the man's temple. The man's eyes closed, and his head lolled to one side. Rodney moistened his lips, and shifted his aim to the man nearest to him.
Focused on that, he only dimly saw Sheppard push himself to his feet. "We'll be going now," Sheppard said. "Now, you can come after us and risk being shot down, or you can just let us go. Which one is it going to be?"
Sheppard began to edge backwards away from the fire, the gun still trained on the circle of watching men. Swallowing hard, trying not to sob at the pain of returning circulation, Rodney followed him. No-one shot them dead. After the day Rodney had endured, that seemed like a very good ending indeed.
"Well," said Sheppard, "thanks for the hospitality, guys," and then they were out of the circle of light, edging backwards into the dark wood, and it was quite ridiculous, really, that Rodney wanted to smile, because he was still dying of poison, and Atlantis was still far away.
But he was smiling, and it was stupid, but he was.
They were still many hours from the Gate. Many hours even at a normal walking pace, and far more when struggling along like this. Far more? No, John wasn't making it, of course. He couldn't do it. It was only possible to keep going so far, and he was already way beyond that point now.
But no-one seemed to be following them, and that was good. There was still some light left in the sky, visible now that they were away from the brightness of the fire. It was no longer raining, and the clouds were clearing from the left. He hoped for moonlight, but, no, that was Earth he was thinking of. Lots of planets didn't have moons. He was dying on a planet in another galaxy, and it felt crazy, ridiculous, as if the last five years hadn't really happened; as if he was the same person he had been years ago, trying to save a friend in Afghanistan, or trying to make his way home after he'd crashed his first motorbike in the woods.
"Sheppard," McKay hissed, and John shook his head and dragged himself back from the drifting place of scattered thoughts. "How did you…? I thought you were dead."
It had been the hardest thing he had ever had to do, not to react when the tall man had kicked him so near to the site of his wound. Even now, he wanted to sob at the memory of it. Hardest? No, hardest was leaving Elizabeth behind, was losing Ford, was coming back with Holland's body and the knowledge that he had failed. Hardest was making the choice just minutes before, choosing a stranger over McKay.
He blinked; forced himself to come back again. "That's what I wanted him to think, of course."
They were moving slowly, painfully slowly. John's feet caught on stones in the darkness. McKay grabbed his shoulder, muttered "Oh God, John," and kept his arm there. His other hand held the gun. John still gripped his gun in both hands pressed to his stomach.
"You could have made him take your handcuffs off." McKay said it reproachfully, as if John's failure to do so was an enormous affront to him.
"Couldn't." John shook his head. "Too much time getting the key. Didn't want them that close to me, unlocking them."
"I could have done it," McKay said.
"Couldn't do that and--" His foot caught a rise in the ground. He gasped, the sound closer to a groan. "--and cover them," he managed to finish.
They struggled on in silence for a while. Birds moved in the trees above them, hooting in a way that reminded him suddenly, intensely of his childhood. It would be morning before they reached the Gate. No, who was he kidding? It would be morning before…
"I'm still dying of poison," McKay said. "It hurts like hell. Well, actually, it doesn't hurt quite as much as it used to, but that… that's a bad sign, right? He said I had until twilight, and this? This is way beyond twilight, by any definition of the word. So while I appreciate the heroic rescue attempt, it isn't much good if I'm, well, dead."
Oh. Yes. His thoughts were things picked out by a searchlight in the darkness, with only one thing visible at once. He gripped the gun tighter, focusing on muscles, on tendons, of anything that would anchor him in the here and now. "In my pocket," he said. "More herb."
"But it has to be boiled," McKay protested.
"Might still work." Another step; two, then three. "You need to--"
"Reach into your pocket? I hate to break it to you, colonel, but--"
"McKay." He had no idea what his tone was, no idea what his expression was, but McKay stopped as if stricken.
"Oh. Yes. Of course. I…" His hand left John's shoulder; John concentrated on staying on his feet. "What happens on a godforsaken hellhole of an alien planet stays on a godforsaken hellhole…" John felt McKay reach into his pocket. Even that small amount of contact hurt enough for him to press his lips together and concentrate on not making a sound.
The smell was sweet and rich and familiar, bringing memories of lying on a mountainside, of blinking down at the small red flowers, unable to comprehend that the first part of his battle was won.
"It's probably riddled with germs," McKay grumbled. "Bugs. It isn't clean. And sometimes… sometimes part of a plant is medicinal but the rest of it is deadly poison. Like rhubarb. The leaves are poisonous, you know, and…" He looked at John, his eyes wide and desperate. "What if it isn't the antidote? What if the whole thing was part of his sick game? What if this is poisonous as well? What if… God! What if the other thing wasn't fatal, but this is?"
John let out a breath. He remembered the red flowers scattering in the wind, and empty hands smeared with green.
"I can't." McKay's hands were shaking. "I can't. You're not supposed to eat strange plants, and… and better the devil you know, you know? And it doesn't hurt as badly as it used to, and… and if I find that I can't go on, I'll try it then, okay? But not yet. Not yet."
Flowers like drops of blood in the wind. John closed his eyes for a moment, as the world whirled around him. "Then we'd better carry on," he said.
Rodney's hand found his shoulder again, then snaked across John's back until he was almost clinging to him. "But it does hurt," McKay said. "Poisoned man here." John made a sound; he had no idea what it was. "But you…" McKay rasped. "God, John…"
"Good," he said. "I'm good."
"Which is the lie of the century," McKay said, "but what else can we expect from you?"
They walked on. John had no idea how he was still on his feet, or why he was still trying. He let himself drift, although he told his brain to react to any sudden movement, to any sign of pursuit. The gun twitched at every unexpected sound. Once he found himself torn free of McKay's grip, aiming the gun two-handed at the path behind them, but he had no memory of hearing the sound that had provoked it. "Sorry," he mumbled, when he saw McKay looking at him. "Jumpy as hell."
"For good reason," McKay said, "given that we're probably being hunted down even as we speak. Do you think they really let us go?"
He had no idea. The ability to think was fast being engulfed in the fierce blazing sun of pain. But this was important. Had to… Had to… "I don't know." He managed to shape words. It could still be part of the game. Let your prisoner think they'd escaped, watch them struggle along, and then snatch them back just as they thought they were free. "But we don't have a choice, do we?"
"No." McKay shook his head. "Not really."
The next part of it was very slow coming. It pulsed in John's mind through a long eternity of trying to stay on his feet. But you did. He heard it in the rustle of the trees. Sometimes reality receded like a wave, and he imagined Kolya smashing him in the face, hurling that truth at him. He'd been given a choice, and he'd chosen not to save McKay.
And then McKay was hauling at his arms, saying, "Oh no, oh no, not now, please, oh God, please don't do this to me, please get up, please don't die on me."
John blinked. McKay's face was just a smear in the darkness above him. "I fell?" John whispered, as his mind saw red petals swept away by the wind.
"Yes, very observant, you fell and I couldn't wake you for, oh, minutes, and can you get up again, please, because we're a very long way away from Atlantis and the nice soft beds in the infirmary, and I have no intention of carrying you, and I don't know if you've forgotten, but ticking time bomb in my veins?"
There were too many words there. He was still in the clearing, forced to make a choice. "I couldn't," he told McKay, and tried to grasp his arm, but his cuffed hands together were too heavy for him to lift.
"What's with the past tense," McKay snapped. "Get up. That's a good, uh, colonel."
"I couldn't do it," John said. He saw stars above him – strange ones that he didn't recognise. "I'm sorry, Rodney. I couldn't let them kill him."
"Oh. That." The pale smear that was McKay turned away for a moment. "Of course you couldn't," McKay's voice said briskly, "because you had a plan, and you're one of those annoyingly optimistic and stubborn people who never will accept an outcome that leaves one person dead if you can come up with a crazy, impossible plan that might get everyone out alive."
John tried to shake his head, tried to say something else, but McKay stopped him, trampling all over him with words. "You knew you had some of the herb left. You knew you could get him to lower his guard. You had tricks up your sleeve. It was a bluff, so let's talk no more about it. Get on your feet."
"But…" He moistened dry lips, unable to say anything more.
McKay grabbed him by both shoulders. "We not talking about it any more, do you hear? It was part of your plan – cunning plan, crazy suicidal plan, etcetera etcetera – and here we are with vengeful bad guys on our tail, so get up."
John struggled to his feet, but there was nothing to keep him going. McKay had the antidote. McKay could go faster if John wasn't here, slowing him down. McKay was still poisoned, but there was nothing more than John could do about that. McKay's best chance came from getting as fast as possible back to Atlantis.
The next time he fell, he knew that there was no way on earth that he was getting up again. His eyes closed, and the wave crashed over him.
On to part five