The story starts here
Rodney knew that he was dying. The sky grew darker and darker, and when exactly did twilight start, anyway? Didn't poison spread faster when you were terrified, propelled through your veins by the beating of your heart? And he was terrified. Of course he was terrified. It wasn't a character failing, or anything, because who wouldn't be afraid? Even Sheppard or Ronon would be afraid in a situation like this.
It had started to rain several hours ago, and Rodney was shivering with cold. He could feel death creeping through his body, inch by agonising inch. He could barely feel his feet any more, or maybe that was just the tightness of the ropes around his ankles. His stomach clenched as though a knife were twisting in it. He kept on collapsing, his legs losing the ability to hold him up, but the ropes kept him upright. He was tied to a post, for crying out loud. He was tied to a goddamn post.
And where was Sheppard? Hours had passed, and where was Sheppard? He must have really gone. It had only been when long minutes had passed without anything happening that Rodney had realised quite how much he had expected Sheppard to come back with a cunning trick up his sleeve. Sheppard had taken out sixty Genii single-handed. It was a simple thing for Sheppard to run away into the woods and then double back and bring the fight to the enemy, killing them all with… with… with branches and twigs and… and an army of woodland creatures.
But nothing, nothing. And every second took Rodney closer to death, and every second made it more likely that… Admit it, Rodney. Sheppard's probably dead by now. There were few goons left in the clearing. The tall man had given them orders and sent them away somewhere. Rodney hadn't heard the sound of gunfire, but what if…? Oh, God, what if hearing was the first thing to go? Everything was muffled, and he had thought it was only because rain had been drowning out the other sounds, but what if this was the beginning of the end? Hearing went first, and then sight; then the lungs and then the heart, and then…
"Why are you doing this?" he shouted, but even his voice sounded weaker now. "Yes, yes, I know you've said – sick game, and all that – but I'm a very intelligent man. I can be useful to you."
The tall man was standing in the doorway of the largest tent, sheltered from the worst of the rain. "You want to save yourself?" He didn't look at Rodney, though, but gazed in the direction that Sheppard had gone so many hours ago.
"Yes," Rodney said, because, hello? unlike certain people, he wasn't an idiot. "Of course I do." He frowned. "Oh! Oh! I know where you're going with this. You're trying to trick me into saying that I'll let you kill Sheppard to save myself. I won't, you know. I would do it."
But it hurt, it hurt. And the worst of it was having to stay standing up. The worst of it was being tied to a post. The worst of it was being on display. The worst of it was not being able to do anything at all but wait for the poison to kill him or for Sheppard to come back, but Rodney always did expect the worst, didn't he, and there was no Sheppard here to tell him to look on the bright side, and it had been hours and still Sheppard hadn't come back, and Rodney couldn't feel his feet, and the rest would go soon, so very, very soon.
Sheppard had it easier, he thought. At least Sheppard was still on his feet, and able to actually do things.
"Listen," Rodney said, "you've proved your point. Sheppard's off being his usual ridiculously heroic self, and I'm here. Can't you…?" His voice cracked on a stab of pain. He clenched his stomach muscles, digging his fingers into the wood at his back. "Can't you untie me? I'm not going anywhere. Seriously, I… I'm not like Sheppard – haven't got his stupid, blind refusal to accept defeat. I haven't got his tolerance of pain, either – though, really, it's nothing to be proud of, because, hello? Pain? Nature's way of telling you that something's wrong? So I'll lie there inside a tent like a good boy, and won't try to go anywhere. What do you say?"
The tall man said nothing.
A wave of pain set Rodney writhing. He was breathless and spent by the time it had passed, sweat mingling with rain on his face.
It was hard to gather the strength to speak, and when he did manage to produce words, they were as faint as hope in the twilight. "How long have I got?" he asked.
The man looked at him at last. "As long as he gives you."
It was almost dark now, or maybe that was just his fading vision. John had always been one to cling desperately onto hope long after others had given up, but he knew his limits. He had very little time left before his body failed him utterly, and when that happened, no amount of willpower would keep him going.
But he would get back to McKay first. As long as McKay needed him, he would wring every last drop out strength out of his body. He would keep going, and only when McKay was safe – or dead, his mind whispered, or dead – would he let the inevitable happen.
He had gone back for more of the herb, retracing his steps. The way behind him now was strewn with scattered petals and blood, but tight handfuls of the plant were clenched in each fist, and he had stuffed his pockets full of it.
But it was almost dark. Until twilight, the tall man had said. The ground was levelling out, and the trees were thick. He was almost there, he thought. Almost there, and he thought of homecomings in the past, of going last through the Gate, and sinking down stiffly onto the steps only when he knew that everyone else was safely back. He thought of the lights and the warmth of home; of familiar faces greeting him by name. He thought of surrendering himself to the care of the doctors; of closing the door to his room and sitting on the bed, knowing that at long last, his face could hold any expression that he liked, because he was unobserved.
Home, he thought. The final steps. A goal. But this was no ending, just the start of a fresh battle. What happens after had felt like something impossibly far ahead, but it was soon going to become now. He needed to… needed to…
"Need a plan," he murmured, but his lips were cracked, and for a stupid moment he thought that somebody else was talking, and not him. He swung his head from side to side, stiffly, sluggishly, and blinked into the darkness. His vision swam. He was nothing but a small bubble of thought floating in a sea of pain.
But his fists gripped the herb, and the enemy was ahead. Got to think. Got to plan.
What if McKay was de--? No, couldn't think that. He had to base the plan around McKay still being alive. How many enemies were there? He'd seen at least half a dozen, and most of them had guns. They were on home territory. They had probably been watching him the whole way, and knew exactly where he was. They knew he wouldn't dare risk losing the herb. And that meant…
"It means that your cards suck, John," he murmured to himself. His voice still sounded strange, not like something that belonged to him. His thoughts were flying away from him, and he had to focus hard to keep hold of them. He had no memory at all of passing the river. He had a deep gash on his elbow, but he had no memory of getting it; probably from falling, but he couldn't remember which fall. And time lurched, the sky jumping from pale grey to dark grey to darker yet… and a gunshot wound shouldn't cause confusion like this, should it? But of course he had the head injury, too, almost forgotten on the far side of pain, and...
"Plan," he said. "M--McKay," and even alone as he was, whispering the words, he faltered over the sound.
No, it was because he was alone. It was harder to be strong when you were on your own. For hours, all he'd had to do was keep on his feet, and nothing else had really mattered. There was more at stake now.
Faint, beyond the trees, he thought he saw a smear of flickering light. Almost there, he thought. Almost home.
Two more steps, the light growing closer. No, of course not home. "Stupid, John, you know that." Couldn't rest, not yet. Had to… what? Yes, fight. Hope the tall man kept his promise to save McKay's life, but be ready if he didn't. Ready for what? He'd cross that bridge when he came to it; play it by ear; make it up as he went along. It was about seeing openings, and going for them…
You know he's going to kill you, right? His thoughts spoke in his head in a voice that sounded like McKay's.
"Yes, Rodney," he said, but maybe there were guards – guards in the wood. Maybe he could creep up and ambush a solitary one and then take his gun. Then he could take the others out one by one, and could rescue McKay, or else force the tall man at gunpoint to give the antidote and then let McKay go free…
He went to take another step, and his legs betrayed him, his foot refusing to leave the ground. He fell to his knees, head sagging.
Yeah, good one, John, he thought. No way you'll be doing that, not in your current condition. Sometimes, maybe, it was best to trust. Sometimes, perhaps, you had no choice but to trust. You had to surrender yourself and walk up to the enemy, and just hope that things turned out right, because the alternative…?
No, because there was no alternative.
"At last," said the tall man, rising to his feet.
The rain had eased off. A fire had been lit, and its flames were enough to show Rodney the sight of Sheppard emerging from the trees. "Sheppard!" He couldn't keep himself from calling his name, and he saw Sheppard look at him hungrily; saw the subtle alteration that swept across Sheppard's body, reflecting his relief at seeing Rodney still alive.
But beyond that, though… Rodney's heart was pounding. Sheppard had come back for him, and that felt good, really it felt good. But Sheppard had come back, walking alone and unarmed into a nest of blood-thirsty villains. Sheppard was supposed to be out there, taking the enemy down.
"You have it?" the tall man said.
Sheppard stopped just outside the brightest circle of light. He was standing upright, though, so the gunshot wound must have been a glancing one. He was okay – Sheppard was, like, indestructible, after all – and he had the herb, leaves visible in his cuffed hands.
"Then why are you stopping?" Rodney found himself shouting. "Let me have it. Dying here."
"It has to be boiled," the tall man said, "for its potency to come out."
Other shapes moved beyond the fire. Sheppard was turned so that Rodney saw half his face in intense brightness, and the other half not at all. "I did what you wanted," Sheppard said, and there was something not quite right about his voice. "The game's over."
"It is?" Their captor was closer to the fire, and Rodney could see how he arched one eyebrow as he smiled.
Sheppard stood completely still. The other shapes beyond the fire became men who were holding Sheppard pinned at the centre of a broad circle of guns, the gun-barrels like spokes. When the tall man stepped forward, Sheppard stiffened slightly. When the man reached for Sheppard's hands, Rodney saw how Sheppard's fists tightened, gripping the herb as if he didn't want to give it up – no, as if he didn't know how to give it up.
"Give it to me," the man said quietly, but there was an edge to his voice that was cold, like a command. "We will do what needs to be done."
Sheppard yielded it, but he stood for a while afterwards with his hands still raised, fists grasping nothing. Then, slowly, he lowered his hands, then brought them up against, pressing them against his side.
"Please," Rodney found himself begging, though he didn't know who he was begging for – himself, or Sheppard. The pain was less now, but that only meant that death was nearer.
The man moved away, going towards one of the tents. Sheppard met Rodney's eyes for the first time, looking at him across a distance of twenty paces, part of him still lost in the deep shadow. "You okay?" Sheppard asked.
"Of course I'm not okay," Rodney told him. "I'm tied up, poisoned, and you… What took you so long?"
Sheppard didn't answer, not even to make a sharp, sarcastic remark, and that, more than anything else, made the cold knife twist even deeper in Rodney's heart. "Are you…?" he began, but Sheppard looked at him in a sudden desperate way that commanded him – no, that begged him – not to say anything else.
"You could have tried to kill them," Rodney said instead, "or - I don't know – gone to get help, instead of strolling back into the lion's den."
Sheppard shook his head minutely. "That wasn't an option." He blinked; seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment. "Anything," he said, at last, his right hand twitching, the chain pulling against the left.
"Anything?" Rodney frowned. "You're talking nonsense, Sheppard – even more nonsense than normal."
The tall man paused in the door of his tent. "But we have a problem, of course," he said. A sprig of herb fell from his hand and blew sluggishly towards the fire. Rodney watched it desperately. Sheppard, he saw, was watching it in just the same way. "You killed one of my men," the tall man said. "I am an old-fashioned sort of man, I'm afraid, and in my eyes, that means that someone has to die."
"That's barbaric," Rodney spat. "That 'an eye for an eye' crap? They attacked us first. It wasn't anything personal. We--"
The tall man held his hand up. Several more sprigs of the herb escaped. Sheppard's lips parted, then pressed together again. He's badly hurt, Rodney realised, though he had no idea why that simple movement should finally tell him something that he should have realised all along. Of course Sheppard was hurt; Rodney had seen him beaten and had seen him shot. Sheppard was probably standing there with his last scrap of energy, still on his feet despite injuries that would have sent any sensible man running to the infirmary hours ago. He was stupid like that – quite infuriating, because then it made you feel bad for being normal and human, with a sensible idea of limits, and…
"Someone has to die," the man said slowly. He looked at Sheppard, and Rodney knew suddenly that he was forgotten, that it had always been Sheppard for this man, with Rodney being nothing more than the tool. And Sheppard was going to volunteer to die in his place. Sheppard did things like that, with his I can't, and his so long, Rodney, and it was horrible, and it was selfish, really, because of the way it made you feel, and it wasn't fair of him to do that, it really wasn't fair.
Rodney found that he was screaming: "No!" and "Sheppard!" and "Don't, John!" over and over
Sheppard said nothing, though, and Rodney couldn't see his face; couldn't see anything through the pain and the darkness and the screaming.
"Someone… has… to… die," the tall man said, spitting out each word. Rodney was slow to notice what was happening, and was it unforgivable of him, that his first reaction was relief? One of the tall man's goons was dragging a stranger out of one of the tents towards the fire, and he threw him down at the tall man's feet. The tall man gestured at him with a casual hand. "I could tug on the heartstrings," he said, "by telling you that he has a newborn baby daughter or a sweetheart back home, but to be honest, I have no idea. He was in the wrong place when we needed someone, and here he is. Will you let us kill him, Colonel Sheppard, to save Doctor McKay?"
Sheppard said nothing.
The tall men spread his hand just a little, letting half a dozen sprigs of herb blow into the fire. "Or will you let him live, and let Doctor McKay die?" the tall man said. He stepped forward and touched Sheppard on the cheek. Sheppard recoiled, but it was as if even a touch that light could bring him down, because he tumbled onto his knees, looking upwards, breathing fast.
"You know the game by now, Colonel Sheppard," the tall man said. "How far will you go to save him?"
On to part four
Note: My new computer's been delayed until (hopefully) tomorrow, so what I said yesterday about a possible delay to my update schedule now applies to tomorrow, instead. I'll get the next part posted some time tomorrow evening, though.