Part one is here
He had to assume that he was going to be betrayed. He had to assume that armed men would be hunting him. He had to be prepared for the possibility that the herb wasn't where their captor had said it would be, or that it didn't exist at all. He had to be ready to defend himself, to turn the tables on their captors.
He had to do anything, had to take any chance to at all, to save McKay. If he made good time… His foot caught on a stone, and the pain was excruciating, ripping a sobbing sound from his throat. He managed to stand, though, flailing his cuffed hands. His left palm was thick with blood, and he wiped it on his clothes, then pressed his hand against his side again, feeling blood well up between his fingers.
"If I make good time…" he muttered. "Good one, John."
He had no choice but to do this, though. Their captor was a game-player, and he wanted John to obey. As long as John did what he was told, the man wouldn't hurt McKay and further, but if John refused… No, no, he had to play the game. When the man said 'jump', he had no choice but to ask 'how high?' Defiance had its place, but sometimes you just had to submit. Sometimes you had no options, and pride… pride was nothing when a team-mate's life was at stake.
The lower slopes of the mountain, the tall man had said, gesturing upwards. The trees were dense, though, and he couldn't see beyond them, couldn't see which direction were the mountains and which direction were the plains. He had to keep going in a straight line and hope… No, he had to aim for the light, to the place where the trees were thinner; get to a vantage point; survey the terrain…
Something moved behind him, a twig cracking sharply. John plunged into the waist-high undergrowth and crouched down, but it was hard to balance with his hands cuffed, and he ended up on his knees, listing over to one side, breathing shallowly and fast.
The sound wasn't repeated. John looked over his shoulder, in case the enemy was trying to outflank him, but the undergrowth was too dense, his vision full of nothing but green and brown. Then a quiet sound made him startle, but it was only a bead of his own blood dripping onto a bed of shrivelled leaves.
Got to fix that, he thought, although there was little he could do, not with his hands bound and his body stripped of supplies. He pulled up his shirt, though, biting his lip to keep himself from crying out at the pain even of that movement. The entry wound was large, made with a slow, blunt bullet. Perhaps it hadn't penetrated far. Perhaps it had missed anything vital…
And perhaps he had to ignore it and keep going. How long before twilight? When they had come through the Gate, the sky had been a mass of grey, impossible to tell whether it was morning or afternoon. How long did McKay have? How long…?
He lowered his shirt. Nothing you can do about it now, John. He had nothing to wrap the wound with, and even if he did have, he couldn't pass a bandage around his body with his hands tied. With every minute that passed, he would grow weaker and weaker, so he had to get up now, he had to…
He faded into darkness for a while; didn't know how long had passed. Only seconds, perhaps – not long enough for him to fall over. He was still kneeling squarely, his head sagging.
"Get up." His lips shaped the words. Pain was a great weight pressing down on him, pinning his knees to the ground. "Get up, John."
He pulled himself up in the end by grasping hold of thorny tendrils of some trailing plant. The woodland still seemed empty. Need a weapon, he thought, as he struggled through the thick undergrowth, knowing that he had no choice but to stick to the path, no choice at all. Moving was easier there, but of course the enemy would know where he was.
The ground began to rise steadily. A gap in the trees showed a patch of sky, marbled with grey and faint blue. He couldn't see how high the sun was. But he saw a thick branch trailing from a tree, held on only by a torn piece of bark. He caught hold of it with both hands, and hung his weight on it, twisting it and pulling it until it was free.
Carrying it was hard. The chain between his wrists was only a few inches long, so where one hand went, the other one went, too. His left hand returned to his gunshot wound, a burning coal pressed against the fire. His right hand grasped the branch, holding it carefully across his body.
He turned in time to see the creature watching him, staring at him with dark-slitted eyes. It was large, almost as high as his waist, with shaggy fur, and pointed ears pressed flat across its back.
"Nice, uh, doggy," John said, although it was standing neatly on its toes, more like a cat than a dog. He waved his stick weakly, letting it see that he was armed, but refraining from making any overt threat.
The creature recoiled, hissing. Then it lowered its muzzle and snuffled at a drop of John's blood. A tongue flickered out, but then the creature grunted, snatching its head back. It vanished back down the path, moving on silent feet, its dark hide melting into the shadows of the undergrowth.
"Don't like the taste of blood, huh?" John muttered. "Here's hoping you haven't gone to get Daddy Bear."
He carried on, focusing on the ground ahead of him, on keeping one foot in front of the other. Running hurt too much, jolting him so much with each step that soon he was almost sobbing. He blinked fiercely, pressed his left hand tighter into his side, and slowed to a walk, but he managed to run every now and then for a few dozen steps, when he thought he could bear it. He tried to avoid travelling in a straight line, tried to avoid giving his enemies a clear line of sight. There were too many trees, and he thought he was safe, but…
His legs gave way. He flailed instinctively for balance, but his bound hands betrayed him, and he landed with his full weight on his shoulder and chin. Pain exploded in his head. He clawed at the ground beneath him with desperate interlocking fingers, feeling shards of bark dig in behind his nails. He almost managed to push himself up, but…
Can't. I can't. Gotta sleep. Gotta…
He rolled onto his back; brought his cuffed bands up to scrape across his face, spreading earth and blood, wiping away sweat and tears. "Get up, John," he told himself. He imagined Ronon hurrying him along, and Teyla urging him to be strong. It was easier to keep going when there were others that you needed to get to safety. It was easier to keep the pain in when there were others who could see it.
He imagined McKay there beside him, dying of poison, needing John to save him. That gave him the strength to stand. Always easier, always easier when there was someone else.
He looked back; saw blood on the ground; remembered the creature that had sniffed at it. You're leaving a trail, he imagined McKay saying. Lead them right towards you, why don't you?
"Haven't got a choice, Rodney," he said. Speed was of the essence now, and he didn't have time to cover his tracks. He had to snatch at hope and keep hold of it, gripping it tight. Had to hope no-one was following him, had to hope nothing in the forest liked to eat humans, had to hope that the herb was there at the end of all this, had to…
Had to run.
The ground rose, and the trees thinned slightly, revealing a sky that was a dark mottled grey, perhaps heralding rain, or perhaps heralding night. He had to climb over rocky outcrops, steadying himself with his hands, or jabbing his branch into the ground. Because his hands were cuffed, every time he flailed for balance, his left hand was ripped away from his wound. And because he was alone, every time this happened, he moaned. The last time, steadying himself as he went under a fallen tree propped slant-wise across the path, he screamed hoarsely.
"It isn't doing any good, anyway," he told himself; too much blood had already seeped out through his fingers. It was psychological, really, having the hand there. But the air was cold against the wound after that. Every jolt and every movement hurt him more, without the hand to cushion it.
It grew darker still, and was that sound a falling twig or was it the first splash of rain? He had no idea what time it was; even his watch had been removed to make room for the handcuffs. His watch was set to the time of Atlantis, though – to a sunlit morning far away. How long could he keep going, he wondered. How long really?
"As long as I have to," he said, forcing it through gritted teeth.
Rain struck his cheek, and his body responded to it as if it was a word of permission, starting to shiver. Blood loss, he thought, not to mention whatever injuries he had sustained while unconscious. But there was nothing he could do about that now, just hope, and just keep going, just… keep… going.
Was McKay even still alive? "Stay positive," he reminded himself. Of course he was. McKay was alive, and the herb would be there, just where the tall man had said it would be, and John would bring it back and it would do its job, and…
Not yet, he thought, because of course it wasn't going to be as simple as that. A man like that wouldn't just let them go. But he'd think about that later. For now, all he could do was take things one step at a time. Get the herb back to McKay. No, just get the herb. No, reach that point up there, where a patch of bark was torn off a tree and the branches grew in a V shape. No, just make the next step. Just make this step. Just keep on your feet. Just stand.
And breathe. Breathe. The rain fell more heavily, and everything shimmered slightly. The trees thinned even further. He saw the mountain ahead of him, although he was too close to see its peak. Its lower slopes were bleak and brown. Red flowers, he thought; he was looking for red flowers. Too far away to see, though.
Something moved behind him. He whirled round, his heart pounding, but there was no-one there, just a small mammal disappearing into a hole in the ground. The space around the trees was still, but the undergrowth shivered with rain, and perhaps with other things. John had his stick. No good against a bullet, though. No good at all. John could hole up somewhere and prepare to defend himself against his enemies, or he could keep going and hope to find the herb. He couldn't do both.
There was no contest, of course. But with every step, the rain grew heavier, and shivering felt like being torn apart. His vision swam, and he didn't need to touch his throat to know how fast and shallowly his heart was beating. Faintly at first, he heard a rushing sound. He stopped with both hands against a tree trunk, his head sagging. Rain fell upon the back of his neck like fingers of ice.
You can't take a rest now, he imagined McKay protesting, his face twisted with the agony of poison. Get a move on, Colonel. And then a glimpse of McKay dead, surrounded by red flowers that had been brought too late. But he didn't normally do that, did he – didn't think about the worst case scenario; didn't even let himself imagine it.
He carried on, but the rushing sound grew louder. "Oh," he said out loud, quite stupidly, when he realised that it was a river. It came racing down from the higher slopes of the mountain, and he must have been moving diagonally across the slope to come to it. It didn't look deep, but it was fast. It was littered with fallen boulders, but they were shining with wetness. Healthy and without handcuffs, he could probably cross it. In his current condition… Not a chance, he imagined McKay saying. Ronon just looked at him, fondly disapproving of his lack of skills. Teyla pointed out that he needed to drink, that he needed to clean his wound.
As he struggled down to the water's edge, his foot slipped. He kept his balance, but only just. A blaze of red sheeted in his vision, and he found himself sprawled on his back across boulders, his right leg in water up to the knee. It was like being plunged into ice, and the current pulled at him, trying to take his leg. He pulled it in, and clawed at the rocks, moaning, sobbing as he managed to sit up again. He crouched, but that hurt too much, and his balance was non-existent and the water too close. With his hands cuffed, the only way he could scoop up water was to use both hands, and that left nothing to hold himself up with. The bank was too steep, too rocky to anchor himself on.
He stuck out the tip of his tongue, catching water from the sky. There was no point in washing his wound, anyway, he told himself. The priority was to get the blood clotting. Infection was a risk, of course, but infection wouldn't kick in until after twilight. It wouldn't stop him from doing what he had to do. It… doesn't matter, he thought, although it did, of course; it just didn't matter now.
Should he try to cross the river? No, he thought, it was best not to try, because he knew his limits, and knew that this, at least, was something that he couldn't reliably do. There was the same amount of mountain on this side of the river as on the far side. The herb probably grew…
Something moved. His head snapped up, and he saw a man appear on the far bank, standing on a rocky outcrop, a gun in his hand. John froze. Nothing he could do. Nothing he could do. His only weapon was a branch, and he was fully exposed, and with his hands bound, merely climbing up the bank again would take minutes. He could throw himself down, perhaps, or throw himself into the water. Yes, yes… He braced himself. Let the water take him, clamber out somewhere downstream, and try again. Get up and try again; always try again.
The man raised his gun, then lowered it; turned his back, and dropped down out of sight.
They're playing with you, Ronon said. Ronon knew what it was to be hunted. They've probably been watching you all along.
"I know that, buddy," John said, because he wasn't stupid, but he couldn't give up, he couldn't give up. How far would you go? the tall man had asked, and it was a stupid question, really – a stupid question. He'd go as far as he had to – always had done, and always would. He'd gone after Holland. He'd volunteered to take the nuke into the hive ship. Giving up was not an option. Abandoning a team mate was not an option.
John clambered up the rocks again, and managed to reach the solid ground without falling. The riverbank was too exposed, he thought. Exposed was good when it meant that you could see your enemies, but when your enemies had guns and you didn't, you needed cover. He left the river behind, though the trees were thinner here, and he knew that if they wanted to shoot him, there was nothing he could do but hope that their aim was bad. Which really isn't very comforting, McKay said, but Ronon smiled grimly, and reminded John that he'd survived for seven years with the odds stacked against him.
He imagined Ronon going ahead of him, showing him the path. Teyla was concerned about him. He tried to tell her that he was good; tried to tell her that he had to do it, because McKay… Then he stumbled, and the fire and the darkness stole his team-mates away from him. Not here; he knew that they weren't here. "Crazy, huh, for imagining you guys." He seemed to have fallen. Stones dug into his knee. Things swirled in his vision, but when he blinked, they weren't there.
He clambered to his feet, took several drunken steps, then set his jaw and managed to walk more steadily. The ground continued to climb, and soon he was panting, his heart racing as it struggled to supply him with enough blood. He could feel the sweat clammy on his face, but he was still cold, cold all the way through, shivering with it. The trees thinned away to nothing, and then he was out on the open mountainside, climbing through grass and stone.
And now there was nothing between him and the rain. When was twilight? It was so hard to tell, so hard to see. Everything was fading away into shadow. His vision was turning one uniform grey. It might have been hours since he had left the clearing. Everything was fading, fading…; no colour in the world, nothing at all. Everything was leeched away, but he focused on his feet, on his breathing. One more step. One more step…
The next time he fell, the darkness almost took him. He bit his lip, teeth digging in until they drew blood, using the pain as an anchor to keep him from drowning in the dark. He rolled himself onto his back, his clasped hands pressed against his stomach. Then onto his side, fingers clawing at the ground…
A sweet smell filled his nostrils, and he choked on it, coughing until his vision was streaked with red. The smell grew stronger, and there, caught between his fingers, was a small red flower.
His mind was slow to realise what it was. Got to carry on, he thought. "Get up, John," he urged himself, his voice sounding fragile and not like his own. He coughed on the scent, as spear-like leaves were crushed in his grip.
Keep going. His mind came to a halt, stopped on the edge of a cliff, not sure where to go. Everything had been about keeping going. Leaves like a spear and flowers like drops of blood. He blinked down at it, and had no idea what to think. A small sound escaped his lips; it sounded like "oh." He'd aimed only for this goal, and his brain didn't seem to know how to process the next step.
McKay was screaming in desperation, telling him to come back, to come back now. Ronon clasped him on the shoulder, but told him that he was being slow and stupid. Teyla was telling him that he had to get back, but was worried that he wouldn't make it. He had to retrace every step, and he was weaker, far weaker, than when he had started. He had to do it all over again, and he didn't know if he could.
"No choice about it, John," he told himself, as he gathered up handfuls of the herb, ripping it up by the roots, choking on the rich scent. How much was enough? He picked even more, until he had a double handful, almost more than he could grip. Hold on, he thought. Don't let it go. This is what McKay needed to save his life.
When he had as much as he could carry, he pushed himself to his feet again, and started off down the hillside. He had to leave the branch behind, and walking was harder with such precious things held in his hands. It should have been easier to go downhill, but his feet kept on sliding on the stones and the rain made it hard to see.
Bring the antidote to Rodney, he thought. Bring the antidote to Rodney. It became the only thing. He was dimly aware that he was as cold as ice. His whole body was a mass of pain now, but that was easier to ignore than when the pain was focused in one spot. He floated on ice, on fire, on darkness. He watched the herbs in his hands, and far beyond them, his feet.
It grew darker, and he blinked upwards and saw that he was back below the tree-line again. How far away was McKay? He blinked again. The water on his face felt warm, warmer than his skin.
He had no memory of falling. He had no memory of anything at all, except for opening his eyes to look up at a darkening sky, and finding himself stiff with pain and cold. He raised his head, but the pain made him lower it again, but he knew, he already knew: his hands were empty, and the herb had gone. When he rolled over onto his side, he saw a few sprigs of it, red flowers scattered on the damp ground like blood, but then the breeze took even those few stalks, and there was nothing left at all.
On to part three
Note: For a story that was started as a purely self-indulgent piece of gratuitous whump, this section was actually something of a challenge. I realised when writing it how unusual it was for me to write such a long scene with only one character present. I think of myself as an internal writer, with a lot of emphasis on how people think and feel, but it seems that I do actually rely on character interaction and dialogue to drive a scene forward. I also tend to write a Shep whump through other people's eyes, rather than through his own. The whole part, then, was something new for me, and I'm rather nervous about it as a result.
I do hope to post part three tomorrow after work, but I'm getting a new computer tomorrow, to replace my current one that is so on its last legs that every day it still works is something of a miracle. My priority tomorrow will be to get everything set up on the new computer, but I'll post as soon as I can.
Oh, and I haven't forgotten McKay. He'll return to the story next scene.
And for those not familiar with my favourite term... This...? This is heroic staggering. ;-)