(Part one is here.)
And then, slowly, an after-image formed on his retinas. A shape. A figure. An outline against the light, imprinted on his eyes now and forever. Not a monster shape at all, but…
"Sheppard?" His voice cracked. "Oh God… Sheppard!"
Oh, thank God. Thank God. "I thought…" He scrambled to his knees, dragging his wounded ankle over the rubble. "I thought I'd shot you."
"You did shoot me, Rodney."
Oh. Oh. "Three shots. I shot you three times. You're going to die, and then I…"
" Only once. It is you, Rodney. You did well to hit with one. You should be proud."
"Only once? Oh, so that's okay, then." Rodney's throat felt dry. The gun was still in his hand, he realised – empty now, but laughing coldly and quietly about what it had made him do. He dropped it with a cry of revulsion.
Sheppard said nothing. There was no sense of direction in the dark. Sounds bounced off the walls, echoed, and came back again from confusing places. Rodney shuffled forward on his knees, but he had no idea which way to go. Stones crunched under his kneecaps. "Ow," he grumbled. "Ow."
"Ow," Sheppard said softly, as if in agreement.
Rodney swallowed. He tasted dust. And was that iron? Was that the iron of someone else's spraying blood? I could have… I might have… "You could have called out, Colonel. Shoot if I hear something, you said. So it's your fault, really."
Nothing. One. Two. Three… His groping hand found a wall, a jutting corner. The water dripped, unchanged, oblivious.
"I did call out. You must have been asleep."
He let out a shaky breath. His right hand trembled, and he drew it back, curling it against his chest. He could still feel the shape of the gun in his empty hand. It ached, and he wanted to scrape the ache away.
Small sounds came from the darkness. He heard rustling. Breathing, but it was not regular. How badly did I…? He could not shape the words. "What are you doing?"
"Just…" Small stones scraped as Sheppard shifted. "Nothing. We should go. Can you walk?"
Rodney slumped back against the wall. "Can I walk? Firstly, Lieutenant-Colonel Missing-The-Obvious, I have a broken ankle. Secondly, I have a head injury. I'm probably concussed. I don't know much about the voodoo that Carson insists on calling a science, but I know that falling asleep on a head injury is not a good sign. Thirdly, I've had nothing to eat for hours, and not very long ago, some mumbo-jumbo hide-wearing native was trying to…"
"Rodney," Sheppard interrupted firmly. "You shot me."
"You shot me first!" Rodney retorted.
"No, I didn't," Sheppard protested.
Was the man an idiot? "Not today." He remembered something else, and hurled it forth triumphantly. "Twice. You've shot me twice."
"The first time doesn't count. You had a shield on. You asked me to do it." Sheppard sucked in a breath, then let it out slowly. "And it was only in the leg." He was clearly aiming for casual chuckle, doubtless accompanied by a shrug. It was not successful.
Rodney's hand was still pressed against his chest. He could feel his heart beating beneath it, faster than was healthy. Each beat made his head throb with dull pain. "Your tone of voice is not reassuring, Colonel," Rodney managed. How badly are you…? He brought his hand up to his head. "Are you…?"
"I'm fine, Rodney," Sheppard said firmly.
"Again with the not reassuring." Could he stand, he wondered. Could he carry Sheppard out of here, if he had to? "I know you stoic military types. Saw your leg off with a rusty pen-knife, and you'd still say it was just a scratch."
Sheppard said nothing. Only the echoing sounds of movement told Rodney that he was not alone again, that all of this had not been a dream. What was the man doing? Pulling the bullet out with his teeth? Oh. Oh God. The bullet… There was a bullet…
"I'm… not fine," Sheppard said at last, "but good enough. We need to get out of here."
"Why?" Rodney's head snapped up. "Did you find something? Is the mon… the indigenous… denizen coming back? Oh! With all its friends and relations this time. And I'm crippled and you're 'not fine.' I knew it! We're going to die. Killed horribly if we stay out there, and killed horribly if we stay inside. Burnt alive, or eaten. That's not a fair choice to expect a man to make."
"I didn't find your 'monster', no," Sheppard said. "I found… evidence of it, and… other things. I went back to the entrance. They're still there, waiting for us to come out. That's a no-go. Some of them were talking about coming in after all, despite the ghosts or the monsters or whatever other superstitious taboo they have about this place. Hence wanting to leave."
The darkness could play cruel tricks on a poor, dying man. Rodney's eyes seemed to demand images, so his brain obligingly provided them. The sheep were balking at jumping the fence, although the field on the far side was sweet and lovely, and guarded by farmers as big as Ronon. Something dreadful was bearing down on the them. The sheepdog stood between the sheep and the danger, its legs planted firmly in the dying grass. But blood stained its flank, and… And you can go away, he told it firmly. He pressed his fingers into his eyes. Stay awake. Stay awake.
"And your ankle isn't broken, just twisted."
That dragged him awake. "It so is broken."
Sheppard made a sound that could have been a chuckle, could have been a whimper. "What are you, Rodney? Five?"
"It's your fault when I get gangrene," Rodney grumbled, but he struggled to stand. From his knees, he got one leg up, foot on the ground, knee bent. His head throbbed mercilessly. One hand was splayed on the ground beside him; the other was braced against the wall. The next bit would be agony, he knew. He would have to put weight on his broken ankle.
And then Sheppard was there, standing over him; even without eyes, Rodney knew that beyond doubt. "Want a hand?" Rodney grunted something unintelligible that was intended as a yes. Sheppard grabbed his shoulder, then felt down his arm until he gripped his wrist. "Give me your other hand." Fragile and shaky, Rodney did. "Pull yourself up," Sheppard said, "on three."
Rodney did. Sheppard hauled him up, but the weight still fell on his injured ankle. It was not as much as it would have been, but it was enough. He cried out, then cried out again. "Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!"
"You okay?" Sheppard stayed beside him, hand on shoulder. Rodney groped in the other direction, until he had found the wall and was leaning against it. His head throbbed, and he felt liquid trickling down his brow.
I am not fine, he remembered Sheppard saying, strain evident in his voice even though he was trying to hide it, but good enough. Rodney raised his head. "Yes. Well enough."
"I'll go first," Sheppard said. "Keep your left hand on the wall. I'll let you know if I'm going to stop, or if there's an open doorway."
Rodney's right hand opened and closed uselessly. He could still feel the after-touch of the treacherous gun… pistol… whatever it was. At least the sheep were gone; that was something. He was alone in the darkness with Sheppard's voice. No, not even that. Sheppard was silent again, although Rodney could hear soft scrapings and clatterings. "Colonel?" His voice was pathetically small, lost in the maze of dead chambers. "Sheppard?" He swallowed hard. "John?"
"Take this." Sheppard pressed the gun into his hand.
Rodney squawked. Blood surged in his head so fiercely that for a moment he was sure he was going to fai… to pass out. He curled his fingertips into the wall. "You should have it. You can shoot things."
"So can you, it seems." Sheppard sounded as if he was smiling wryly. "This one's yours, the one you emptied into me. I've still got mine. I've got two rounds left."
"A whole two rounds. Now I'm comforted." He closed his fingers as loosely as possible around the empty pistol. It was the smoking gun. He was the fugitive still clutching the murder weapon. He cleared his throat. "What's the point, if…?"
"I'm not letting any more weapons fall into their hands," Sheppard said grimly. "And the enemy won't know it's empty."
"The enemy's a mon… a mindless beast," Rodney reminded him. "I doubt it's going to recognise a gun, empty or not."
"Just do it, Rodney." Sheppard sounded weary.
Rodney subsided. They had yet to walk a single step, for all Sheppard's dire warnings about rampaging natives and the need to get out of here immediately if they didn't want to get slaughtered. Maybe Sheppard couldn't… Rodney breathed in, and out again. Maybe he should say something. Or perhaps they should just stay here, swaying gently against the wall. Walking would hurt his ankle terribly.
"Do you actually know where we're going, Colonel?" he asked, instead of anything else that he could have said.
"Of course I do," Sheppard retorted. Then Rodney heard the sound of his careful sigh. "I haven't found the back door, but I know where to start looking."
"Helpful. Really helpful." Something tickled his hair. Just dust, he told himself. It was absolutely not a spider. "How did you work that out? Were there sign-posts? A trail of breadcrumbs?"
Sheppard did not answer.
"Colonel?" Something was fluttering in his stomach. "Were there bones arranged to read 'in case of emergency, your exits are here, here, and here'?"
"Believe me, Rodney," Sheppard said, in little more than a whisper, "you don't want to know."
"Oh. Oh. This is just marvellous." Rodney threw his right hand up, almost dropping the gun. "'You don't want to know,' he says. Were you asleep at officer school the day they taught you how to inspire confidence in your men? Now I'm imagining a whole pack of monsters, and screaming corpses gasping out the truth with their last breath."
"It was the smell," Sheppard admitted. "That monster of yours stinks…"
"It's not mine," Rodney corrected him. "And it's not a monster. I know I called it a monster when it nearly ate me, but I was taken by surprise. Besides, I thought you didn't let anyone else name things."
"It stinks," Sheppard said firmly, with the air of one losing patience. "The passageways between here and the entrance don't stink; the passageways in the other direction do."
"Oh." Rodney frowned. The sheep were back, pale and ghost-like, faint white patches on the fringes of his pitch-black vision. "And this means…?"
"They don't use that entrance."
The sheep seemed to understand. The sheepdog barked once, then vanished into the night. He saw a stream of monsters, surging out of a gateway into a blood-stained sunset. "Or that they like the dark," Rodney said. "That they live underground and never go out. Which one is more likely? Do you know anything about natural history? No, I thought not. While I…"
"Don't know anything, either," Sheppard said. His voice was strangely flat. "I, on the other hand, have at least been hunted before, and had to survive. We try it my way. Don't tell me I'm wrong until we're dead."
Rodney rolled his eyes. It was the wrong thing to do. Pain stabbed through his head, and his stomach lurched sickeningly. "Yes," he muttered, when he could speak again. "You were definitely asleep that day."
"Let's go," Sheppard said, still in that dull voice, that not-Sheppard voice.
Into tunnels that smelled of monster. Straight into the monster's lair. But he could hear that Sheppard was moving, so Rodney followed. There was nothing else he could do.
End of part two
On to next part
See? I can end on non-cliffhangers, too. :-) (Or semi-non-cliffhangers, anyway.)