by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)
Spoilers: References to episodes up to and including Remnants. More detailed spoilers for Miller's Crossing.
Genre: H/C, angst, drama.
Characters: Sheppard and McKay. Both get hurt, but Sheppard gets the worst of it.
Summary: "How far would you go, Colonel Sheppard?" asked the tall man. "How far will you go to save him?"
Note: I came back from the Chevron 7.2 con with a bit of block when it came to writing fanfic. Rather than easing myself into it gently, I decided to take the plunge by writing something very self-indulgent. I jokingly called it "gratuitous whump story.doc" while writing it, though it isn't actually all that gratuitous, really; there's lots of character stuff here, too, and some serious issues are addressed. Self-indulgent it most definitely is, though, full of some of my favourite things. But sometimes, I think, self-indulgent is just what an author needs before grappling with the next complex epic.
"How far would you go?" asked the tall man, his face as cold and hard as bone.
John strained against the hands that held him. His head pounded, and blood flowed thickly down the side of his face. "I'll kill you!" he spat.
"I think not." The tall man's smile was like a thin crack in a skull.
John's hands were bound in front of him with iron bands, separated only by a few inches of dark-stained chain. Two men held him up, strong fingers grating against the bones of his upper arms. They'd stripped him of his vest and weapons, and from the fierce, deep pain that came with every breath, John knew that they had kicked him while he had been out. It must have been bad, he thought. McKay had been screaming his name when John had been wrenched back to consciousness, and had sagged against the post with a 'thank God!' when John had opened his eyes.
John blinked, focusing through the fog of pain. "I'll kill you," he swore, quietly this time, a promise.
The tall man shook his head. "Oh no." He said it mildly, almost regretfully, but then his expression darkened. "You killed one of my men, Colonel Sheppard. I don't like people who do that, not as a rule. But since you did it to save Doctor McKay…" He grasped John's chin, fingers digging in deeply. John refused to look at him, but stared past him, at McKay straining against his post. "How far would you go, Colonel Sheppard?" His breath was a warm whisper on John's cheek. "How far will you go to save him?" When the man stepped back, his fingertips were red with blood.
"As far as I have to," John vowed, still speaking to McKay, his eyes never leaving him.
"We'll see," said the tall man, wiping blood from his hands.
Rodney was tied to a post, like a martyr bound to a stake; all that was missing were the flames. He couldn't move, and they'd bruised him when they'd dragged him here, and the ropes were digging into him, hurting him, making his hands throb… and, oh God, you could suffer serious damage from things like that, couldn't you? Your hands went purple, then black, and doctors with their knives and voodoo had to cut them off… but it was better than being shot dead, wasn't it? He'd been so certain that he was about to die, but then Sheppard…
God, Sheppard! Sheppard had fought desperately, shouting to Rodney to run, to get out of there, but the bad guys had brought him down with a blow to the head, and had then simply whaled on him, until Rodney had been hoarse with screaming at them to stop, just stop, because they were killing him, for God's sake, brainless cavemen that they were. Then their leader had come striding up and called his goons off, and Rodney had been hustled towards this post – and he couldn't have escaped, could he, because that would have meant leaving Sheppard – and Sheppard had been thrown down beside him, with two goons ready to grab him when he woke, and the tall man standing over him with a smile on his lips but eyes like cold stones.
"How far will you go to save him?" the man was asking Sheppard now, his voice barely audible.
Save him? Rodney thought. Save who? Oh, God, the man was talking about him. He pulled at the ropes, his heart pounding in his chest.
"As far as I have to." Sheppard was looking at him steadily. Rodney kept forgetting just how scary Sheppard could be when he wanted to be, when he showed you what lay beneath the shrugs and the jokes, when you suddenly remembered that he had once killed over sixty Genii in the space of a few hours.
The tall man stepped back, and there was blood on his hands, thick smears of it, from touching Sheppard's face. "We'll see."
The man turned his back on Sheppard, and walked towards Rodney. Rodney clenched and unclenched his swollen hands, feeling his tendons press against the metal. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry; tried again; moistened his lips. He opened his mouth to speak, but only a faint sound came out.
The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a bottle of something dark. "No…" Rodney managed to shape breath into sound. "No, please, I… You don't want to kill me. You--" The man pressed his hand over Rodney's mouth. It smelled of blood and earth, and Rodney tried to get away, but there was a wooden post at the back of his head, and he could feel splinters of wood against his desperately grasping fingers. He could hear his own desperate breathing amplified against the man's hand.
Sheppard was shouting something, calling Rodney's name, his voice cracking into pieces when his captors struck him; going harsh, almost like a scream, then changing tone and going low and deadly. "If you hurt him, I swear--" But it was cut off, and the tall man moved, and Rodney couldn't see Sheppard any more, couldn't see what they were doing to him.
"A simple offer of a drink," the tall man said, "from a host to his guest." He removed his hand from Rodney's mouth, and Rodney sucked in a great gasp of air. When the man pulled out the stopper, the smell was foul, like decaying vegetation and dead things.
"No," Rodney begged. "No, please," and he couldn't see Sheppard, couldn't hear Sheppard, but could see a glimpse of him – an arm, a shoulder – and then… God! Sheppard was supposed to stop this – he always had done, and always would – and he was only pretending to be out of the picture, was only pretending to be defeated, was biding his time and waiting for the right moment to strike, sinking a knife into their captor's back, then quirking a crooked smile and suggesting that they get outta here, back to Atlantis, back home.
But then the tall man grabbed Rodney's face again, fingers digging painfully into his cheeks. "Open your mouth," he said quietly, as if it meant nothing at all. "I could do it another way. It would hurt so very much more."
Sheppard! Rodney thought. His brain was gibbering, I'm so screwed. I'm so screwed, and the man's fingers were digging deeper, and Rodney swallowed, or perhaps took a breath to speak, and the man was in, driving the bottle in between Rodney's teeth, flooding his mouth with foul liquid.
Rodney didn't mean to swallow, really he didn't, but the man squeezed his throat and pressed his mouth shut, and Rodney strained and strained at the ropes, but his mouth was burning, and he felt the burning seeping down his throat, and then he was choking, coughing into the man's hand, and the burning fire spread down to his stomach, and it hurt, it hurt.
"A powerful poison," the tall man said. He stepped away from Rodney, turning his back on him. The bottle fell to the ground, trailing a pool of dark red. "There is no cure, I'm afraid."
"I'll kill you!" Sheppard rasped, and even through the pain and the terror and the crashing despair, Rodney sagged a little with relief to hear him still able to talk.
"No cure, did I say?" Rodney saw the tall man spread his hands. "There is one – a simple herb, quite plentiful on the lower slopes of the mountain. Doctor McKay has… hmm…?" He looked up at the clouded sky. "Until twilight, perhaps, when the first stars come out? A fit man could be there and back in less time than that."
Rodney's lips were blazing. He twisted against the post, desperate to curl into the pain in his stomach. His heartbeat raced in his ears, and was that sweat dripping down onto his lips, or blood?
"Could you do that, Colonel Sheppard?" the tall man asked, his hand moving slowly down towards his belt.
Please, Rodney thought. Please. I don't want to die. Please…
The tall man pulled out his gun, raised it and fired. The noise filled the clearing, sending birds flapping up from the trees, dark wings against the sky. Sheppard made hardly any sound at all, just a low gasp, barely audible over the sound of screaming birds, the hammering of Rodney's heart.
"Will you?" the man said, lowering the smoking gun. "You have until twilight, Colonel Sheppard."
John had been shot before. Sometimes you barely noticed the pain at first, feeling it only like a solid blow with a fist. The tall man lowered his hand. McKay was thrashing against the post, but the man was in the way, and John couldn't see Rodney's face. Poison, he thought, as the pain spread slowly, and then seemed to erupt simultaneously throughout his whole body. McKay. Got to…
Hands pulled him back, and he realised that he'd been trying to curl inwards, clenching himself around the pain. He spread his hands, spasming them, desperate to clasp them against the wound.
McKay, he thought. Gotta… save…
"Until twilight," the tall man said again. John saw his smile only faintly through a shimmering that could have been unshed tears.
"Sheppard," McKay shouted, his voice cracked. "John. God, John, are you…?"
"Good," John managed. It wasn't just a lie; wasn't just old habit putting lies onto his lips. If he said it, it became true. McKay said they were screwed, and John said that they should stay positive. If he said it… if he refused to contemplate anything else… "I'm good," he said, because he couldn't be anything else. McKay needed…. McKay…
The tall man stepped aside. John's eyes met McKay's, drenched with pain. Dark liquid stained McKay's chin and chest, and his face was shiny with sweat.
The tall man tilted his head to one side, like someone observing an interesting experiment. "The sooner you start, Colonel Sheppard…"
Darkness swirled around him, threatening to swallow him whole. John focused on McKay, on his ropes, on his terrified face, on the way he was writhing against the post, consumed with the agony of poison.
It was a trick, he thought. It was a trap. There was no antidote. They wouldn't let him go. They'd make him watch McKay die. But hands were hauling him up, fingers digging like knives into his upper arms, and the pain of the movement almost caused the darkness to crash over him like a wave. His feet slipped, and it was like being torn in half.
But he pressed his lips together, and managed to stand. "I'll kill you," he vowed. That, too, was something to focus on. Pain was nothing. Pain was… no, not nothing, but something to push aside. You locked it away; let yourself do what you needed to do.
"I believe," said the tall man, "that all the cards are in my hands." He snapped his fingers, and three men appeared from a dark hide tent. All three had guns, and when the tall man gestured with his fingers, they all turned the guns on McKay. "You can stay here being stubborn and defiant, but every moment that passes brings Doctor McKay closer to death."
"I can feel it," McKay said. "I can feel it burning. It hurts." Then something flickered over his face, and he pressed his lips together, then raised his head. "But…"
"Give him the antidote!" John screamed. He could feel the pain fading, pushed away inside him.
The tall man smiled. "The way is open, Colonel Sheppard. I give you my promise that nobody will interfere with you along the way. It's a small herb, with leaves like a spear and flowers like drops of blood."
"Get it," John commanded, spitting out each sound. Fingers dug into his arms. Even with the hands holding him up, the pain threatened to down him, billowing out from the place where he had pushed it.
"How far will you go?" the man said quietly, with a curious smile.
The hands released him, and John lurched forward, bringing up his cuffed hands like a club. But a gun fired, and McKay yelped, and the sudden surge of ice in John's heart made the pain feel like nothing.
"Rodney," John rasped, his voice fragmenting, dust and ashes on the breeze.
"Still here," Rodney said. "It… The bullet didn't hit me. It--"
"But next time..." The tall man turned to John, and there were no smiles on his face now. "Next time it will. So are you going, John? Are you going?"
John took one step, and then another. His hands were cuffed, but one of them found the wound at his side, and he almost screamed at the pain of touching it, but kept the hand there, his lips pressed together in a line. He felt blood well against his fingers, warm at his waist.
"John," McKay said, "don't," but his eyes said something different. It hurts, his eyes said, and please, I don't want to die, and he was in John's team, and he was John's friend, and I'll do anything, John had said once, meaning it utterly, for any one of you, and this…? This was nothing much at all, just pushing past pain, and he'd done that before, had survived that before.
He tried to smile. "So long, McKay," he said, then remembered when he had said those words before; saw from McKay's widening eyes that he, too, remembered. He tried to fix it, tried to say something better, but the ground lurched beneath him, and it was all he could do just to stand.
"Twilight," the tall man said, flanked by more men than John could ever hope to take on.
And so John did the only thing that he could.
He started to run.
Rodney could feel the poison racing through his veins. He strained at the ropes, screaming at their captor, throwing every insult he knew at him, hating him, hating him for doing this to them, for torturing them like this.
"Why are you doing this?" he screamed, when the insults had run out, leaving him spent.
The tall man ignored him; he was gazing at the place where Sheppard had vanished into the trees. The wood seemed to have swallowed Sheppard utterly. There were no flashes of movement, and no rustling of the undergrowth. Then a bird flapped up from surprisingly far away, shouting in alarm.
He's going to save me, said that small, fragile, optimistic part of himself – the part that had watched Sheppard pluck success from the jaws of certain doom so many times before. But normally Rodney had his own part to play, too – racing against the clock to do the impossible, performing feats of intellect that nobody else in two galaxies was capable of. And Sheppard had never seemed so hurt before, not since the thing with the iratus bug, and then all he'd had to do was sprawl on the floor of the jumper, not run for hours, for miles, with an actual bullet inside him.
"Why are you doing this?" Rodney demanded. "Do you want me to work for you? That's the normal deal. You only had to ask. Though, of course, I'd have said no, on account of you being a… a… brutal, primitive bandit leader, hell-bent on domination, and…" He ran out of breath, his words disappearing into a rasping gasp. Oh, God, what if his airway was becoming constricted? What if…? His hands were claws, struggling to escape the ropes. He heaved in a breath, hearing it whistle in his throat.
"Why am I doing it?" the tall man said, turning slowly. "Why, because I can."
Rodney's breath was shuddering, his heart stuttering. "Then you need to get a new hobby, because I don't know if you've noticed, but twenty-first century? Big scary Wraith out there that we should be fighting instead?" It left him panting, dizzy with breathlessness.
The tall man walked towards him, and Rodney felt the post pressing against the back of his head. "Colonel Sheppard killed one of my men," the tall man said, his eyes grey and cold. "I could have shot him dead on the spot, but any fool can kill a man. I could have killed him by slow, excruciating inches, but you take the measure of a man when you meet him on the field of battle, Doctor McKay, and you know when mere pain will not suffice."
"You're sick," Rodney gasped. "Sick."
The tall man's smile was a crack in winter ice. "Any fool can cause pain, but to break a formidable man, to push him to his limits… That, Doctor McKay, requires a master." His finger brushed across Rodney's cheek, and Rodney was frozen, unable to move, completely devoid of words. "And I am your master," the man said, stepping back, "both yours and his."
On to part two