The story starts here, or you can read the whole thing in a single file here
When Sheppard fell, Rodney almost forgot that he was dying of poison. He almost forgot the pain that still twisted periodically in his guts like a fiery knife. He tried to drag Sheppard to his feet, but Sheppard was a dead weight, slipping from his grip.
"Please," Rodney begged, "please get up." Words poured from him in a torrent, sometimes pleading, sometimes berating. In the end he was silent, rocking back on his heels in the unfriendly night of an enemy planet.
Sheppard's lips moved. "Go on," he said, little more than a breath.
"And leave you?" Rodney cried. "Oh no. Oh no, no, no. Don't go playing the martyr on me."
Sheppard blinked slowly, his eyes staying closed long enough for Rodney to start panicking, before opening again. "I can't make it, Rodney," he said. "I know my limits and I reached them a long time ago."
"Then if you reached them a long time ago but carried on, you can carry on now, right?" Rodney tugged at Sheppard's arm.
Sheppard just shook his head.
And Rodney understood – of course he did. Sheppard had been badly injured from the start. He'd kept on his feet in order to bring the antidote to Rodney, and then had kept going for as long as it took to get Rodney safely out of the camp. When Sheppard had someone else to save, he could perform impossible feats, but when it was just himself…
"And how's that supposed to make me feel?" Rodney's voice cracked on something that was close to a sob. "Get up. Please, get up. I… Oh! I know! I… I… I'm still poisoned. I might keel over any moment. I need you to stay on your feet. I… I need you, okay?"
Sheppard shook his head again, the movement barely perceptible. "You'll be faster without me."
"But I don't know the way!" Rodney protested. "And poisoned, here? And… God, Sheppard, what if they're following us? They'll find you…"
"Better than finding two of us." Sheppard's eyes fluttered open, and his voice was faint. "Rodney, please, go get help. Bring the others back. Ronon can kick the bad guys' ass."
Pain twisted in his stomach. "But I won't make it."
Sheppard was just a voice in the darkness now. "You have to try."
Rodney scraped at his face. "Like you're trying?"
"I'm not giving up," Sheppard whispered.
"Really?" Rodney laughed harshly. "Because from where I'm standing…"
"Not giving up." Sheppard's voice was a thread of straw in the wind. "Just… changing tactics."
"Which is a ridiculous thing to say." Rodney scraped at his face again. Were those tears? No, of course not, because he never cried. But he thought of sitting here in the darkness, watching Sheppard die, and then dying himself from the poison. He thought of the bad guys catching up with them, and Sheppard wasn't going to be any use now, and Rodney couldn't hold off half a dozen of them with just one antiquated gun. But the Gate was how many hours away, and he'd probably die of poison long before he reached it. If he was going to die anyway, then it was better to die here.
Sheppard's lips tightened in something that could almost, in some sick, heartbreaking way, be seen as a smile. "Stay positive, Rodney."
"Oh. Oh. Like you are?" But he scraped the heel of his hand over his eyes, because in the crazy place that was Sheppard World, he guessed that Sheppard was. If Sheppard believed that Rodney was doomed to die of the poison, then there was no point in sending him on. Sheppard was sending him away because he still thought that Rodney could be saved. "But I don't do optimism, Colonel," Rodney said, "and it does hurt, and I… I think my legs are going numb, and I haven't eaten or drunk anything for hours, and, you know, hypoglycaemia." But he found himself standing up. "I'm probably going to die long before I reach the Gate."
Sheppard said nothing, and his eyes were closed. Rodney crouched down and touched his throat. Still alive for now, but barely, the pulse fast and shallow, and the skin like ice. "So long, John," he murmured, and he thought that perhaps there was a slight twitching of the muscles around Sheppard's eyes, to show that he had heard, but perhaps it was just his imagination.
He stopped after a dozen steps, looking back, but Sheppard was already invisible in the darkness. I won't be able to find him again! he thought. He carried on, though, because Sheppard was going to die if Rodney stayed with him, but perhaps might have a chance if Rodney was able to get help in time.
Help? he thought, giving a desperate, hysterical laugh. It was fully dark now, and how the hell was he supposed to find the Gate? The stars were out, but you needed to know the constellations to be able to navigate by stars. He knew that they'd walked due south from the Gate before being captured, though, and that was a start. He could see the vague shape of the horizon, enough to know that he was going in roughly the right direction. As time passed and the stars moved, he might be able to work out where north was. The Gate was near a river, surrounded by tall silver trees. And it would be morning by then, maybe, with more light to see by. Oh, God, morning. Hours to go. Hours to go.
What time was it on Atlantis? How long before they were overdue? He didn't believe in premonitions, but he found himself hoping desperately that Ronon or Teyla had been hit with sudden worry about them, enough to send a party through. Or maybe something terrible had happened on Atlantis, and they needed Rodney's expertise instantly, enough to come through and look for him.
Yes, he thought, yes, imagining how he would fall into the arms of the rescue party – nice, welcome grunts, every one of them – and how he would order them to take him to the infirmary right now, and how he would tell them that Sheppard was back there along the trail and how they had to get to him now, please go now, don't waste any more time, because I think… I don't think he's got much time left.
And, "Look what you've done to me, Colonel," he said, because here he was, clinging to hope, being an optimist. They were doomed, of course. Rodney was poisoned, and Sheppard was almost dead from a gunshot wound and God alone knew what internal injuries from the beating he had received. Best to sit down and wait. Best to stay together… because it was a horrible thing to die alone – even though people had never been that important to him, and the worst thing about dying alone should have been the 'dying' part, not the 'alone' bit, but somehow… wasn't.
He thought of Sheppard dying in the darkness. Had the bad guys found him yet? I shouldn't have left him, he thought, but at the same time, he thought, Yes, yes I should, and both of them were true, and both of them were wrong, and he didn't know what to think, but he knew only that he hurt, that his eyes were stinging – and, yes, they are tears, and what're you going to do about it, eh? – and that he had to carry on, because if there was even the faintest chance, like one chance in a million, that he could save Sheppard that way, then…
He tripped over something and fell to his knees. "Who am I kidding?" he said. "I'm screwed. Poisoned, remember?"
But he pushed himself up and carried on walking, one hand pressed against the pain in his stomach, the other one holding the gun. The stars moved above him, turning in an arc. One hour had passed, he thought, and almost two, though only if the stars moved at the same speed as stars on Earth, and how likely was that? In terms of his own, subjective time, it felt like an eternity. Sheppard had to be dead by now, and why was Rodney still here, still defying the inevitable?
He didn't know. God help him, he didn't know, but he carried on, and soon… No, not soon, but an eternity later, a lifetime later, he stood stupefied in the darkness, looking up at the silver puddlejumper that circled him in the darkness.
He had no words; couldn't even berate them for taking so long. He fell to his knees, and Teyla knelt beside him, prizing the gun from his hand with strong fingers. "Poison," he told her, his voice catching in his throat. "I've been poisoned." The pain surged sharp and gleeful, stealing his strength away. He curled inwards, but still gripped the gun, refusing to yield it. "I need…"
"You are safe, Rodney," Teyla told him, wrapped her arm around his shaking shoulders.
Was he crying? Oh no, please no. Rodney dropped the gun at last, and lashed out with his arm, his hand finding Ronon's sleeve. "Sheppard," he said. "I had to leave him. You understand that? I had to leave him. He's back there. It's bad. It's really bad."
"We'll find him," Ronon said, and, really, that was all Rodney needed to hear. He closed his eyes, and wasn't aware of anything much, not for a very long time.
John was floating on the ocean, in a warm place beneath the sun. Slowly, ever so slowly, he woke, emerging from the water, his eyes fluttering open to see a green ceiling mottled with light. The infirmary, he thought. Yes, of course. He couldn't remember what had happened, but he did remember lying in the darkness, convinced that he was going to die.
Guess I'm not dead, he thought, but he didn't try to say it aloud. He tried to swallow, but his throat was raw. He twitched his hand, fingers curling into the sheet, and suddenly remembered everything.
McKay! A rhythmical beeping grew suddenly faster. He heard urgent movement from the side of his bed, and turned his head to see McKay snatching his tablet back almost slipping onto the floor. "Wasn't asleep," McKay said. He looked rumpled, his eyes rimmed with shadow. "Unlike certain people. Four days, Colonel."
Four days? The beeping remained fast. He tried to speak, but his raw throat wouldn't let him produce a sound. Poison? He shaped it with his lips and with a hoarse breath.
"All gone," McKay said, "although it's left a residual weakness and I'm still in pain, of course, and I intend to stay in the infirmary for several more days, because you can never be too careful, and, you know, delayed reaction and relapse. I…" He chewed his lip, looking down at his hands. "The herb wasn't the antidote, you know, although I understand that it tastes excellent in soup, or so Teyla says. It…" He looked up again. "The poison wasn't fatal. Oh, it hurt like hell – and that part was real – Jennifer says so – and not psychosomatic, no matter what some people might say – and it would have led to some serious health complications if I'd stayed out there much longer, but it wasn't… it wouldn't have actually, uh, killed me."
John closed his eyes. He thought of red petals blowing away in the wind. He remembered every hard-fought step…
"So it was all for nothing." John opened his eyes to see McKay gripping his tablet with white-knuckled hands. "You didn't have to…"
"Yes," John managed, his a whisper. "Yes, I did."
It was always easy to judge things in hindsight, but at the time, knowing what he'd known, he'd been right to try. Hell, he'd been right to try, period. He'd always known that he was embroiled in a game of bluff. If he hadn't done what the tall man had demanded, the man would have found another way, a worse way, of hurting McKay, and would have kept on hurting him until John had obeyed.
"I wasn't very aware of things when they found you," McKay said, "because, well, it was a real poison, even if…" He swallowed, biting his lip again. "The bad guys were watching you, but Ronon and the others took care of them and freed all their prisoners – there were more of them, you know, and not just that one guy. You were still alive, but your heart stopped when they moved you. They kept you alive all the way, and then Jennifer… Like I said, I was busy being poisoned, but I… It… It was two days before they could be sure that you were going to be okay. You'd lost a ridiculous amount of blood, and there was the mild concussion thing going, and the internal bruising, and… well… I really thought you were going to die this time."
There were too many things there that he didn't want to think about. "But I didn't die."
"But you nearly…"
"But I didn't," he said firmly, mustering sound at last. End of story. Push it away. Forget it. "Neither of us did."
So Sheppard was going to make a full recovery, and Rodney was going to get better, too – although he still had twinges of pain sometimes, and he thought his fingertips had changed colour, just like they did with… was it cyanide? Arsenic? Something, anyway, and you couldn't be too careful… and so Rodney stayed in the infirmary, working there and sleeping there, and spent altogether too much time glancing over at Sheppard, who slept for the most part, only slowly getting his strength back.
"I left him," Rodney confessed once, unexpectedly, to Ronon.
Ronon clapped him on the shoulder. "You did what you had to do."
"But you didn't leave him," Rodney said, "when you were trapped in Michael's compound." Neither of them had spoken much about it, but Rodney knew that Sheppard had told Ronon to leave, and that Ronon had refused.
"Different circumstances," Ronon said.
But the guilt was easier to bear, really. Because then were the times when Rodney lay awake at night remembering how Sheppard had refused to sacrifice a stranger to save his life. It was because Sheppard had a plan, of course, and now everyone was safe because of it, and that was it, the happy ending, no need to worry about it again.
No need at all, he thought, eyes wide open in the darkness. No need at all.
"I left you," McKay blurted out one morning. John was strong enough to be allowed to sit in a wheelchair and be wheeled out into the fresh air.
"Because I told you to," John said. "Rodney, you had to do it, and we're both still alive because you did it."
"We're only alive because Atlantis tried to make contact with us earlier than we'd arranged, and couldn't get an answer." McKay leant on the railing, his body hunched inwards. "They'd have found us anyway, because of our subcutaneous transmitters."
"But if they hadn't decided to come after us…" John looked at the blue sky of home. "Ronon says you were only four miles from the Gate when they found you. If they hadn't come, you would still have made it. It was the right thing to do."
McKay's shoulders relaxed just a little. The breeze stirred John's hair, the fresh air driving away with stuffiness of too long confined to a bed.
Other things stood between them, though. John had chosen not to save McKay. Yes, the whole offer had probably been a trick, with their captor likely to kill both of them no matter what John said. Yes, he'd managed to take control afterwards and save McKay's life. But the choice had been made. The choice had been made, and McKay knew it.
"We're both still alive," McKay said, turning to face John, and John wondered suddenly if he'd spoken aloud, or if more things were showing on his face than he would have liked. "It ended well. You did what you had to do at the time."
I can't, he remembered saying, once to save McKay, once to condemn him.
"It wasn't right of him to make you choose," McKay said angrily.
John managed half a smile. "That was kind of the point, Rodney. Manipulative criminal mastermind?"
"He said he was going to break you. He went after you personally because you killed one of his men – although apparently he has links on many other worlds, and we're investigating the possibility that he already knew you, and already had a grudge." McKay leant back against the railing, his hands clasped miserably in front of him. "It was a game for him, and… listen to me, we can't let it bother us. He stacked the deck. He set it up so there was no good choice for you, but you wouldn't let it end like that. You tricked him, and here we are."
"Here we are," he echoed. It felt like a cold place. McKay was offering him a way out. McKay was telling him that the choice hadn't meant anything, but it had. John had meant it when he had said it, and McKay knew that. John had claimed that he would do anything to protect his people, but he wouldn't. There were lines that he wouldn't cross, and he'd always known it – of course he'd known it – but he had seldom had to face it quite so starkly before.
McKay raised one hand to his face, pressing it over his mouth as he sighed. "I was terrified, you know?" he said. "I didn't want to die. And part of me… Yes, part of me wanted you to let them kill that man so I could live. Happy now?" His sudden harshness faded. "But I wouldn't have wanted it, not really. Remember Gall? Peter Grodin? People die for us, and usually it happens in ways that… that allow us tell ourselves that it wasn't quite so clear-cut as that: them for us. But when the choice was as stark as that…? I don't think I could have lived with myself afterwards. I don't think I could have… liked you again, if you had…"
McKay's voice faded away into memories of Henry Wallace, whose shadow had stood between them for weeks.
John hadn't meant to speak about it, really he hadn't. "I once told Teyla that I'd do anything for any one of you," he said. "I thought it was true." Had thought it was true, had known it was true, had based a whole hallucination around it, as he'd refused to betray Atlantis in the face of Kolya's torture. It was behind so many things.
It was a lie.
"Well, of course it's true." McKay frowned at him as if he was stupid. "Seriously, Sheppard, the things that you do… It… it's scary. You nearly killed yourself to get an antidote that didn't exist. The number of times you've almost died for everyone here…Don't you dare start this 'I'm not worthy, I don't do enough' crap, because you do – far more than we want you to do, actually."
John started to protest, but knew suddenly that if he opened his mouth to speak, more would come out than he was willing to say.
McKay, less cowardly, was speaking freely. "You're the military commander of Atlantis, Sheppard. You've got other responsibilities. That's why…" He stopped, pressed his lips together, and continued in a different tone. "You were right about Elizabeth, when I wanted to save her with the nanites. You hated seeing her like that, too, but you knew that she wouldn't have wanted us to go that far, and that it was too big a risk, and…" He blinked rapidly, almost as if he was fighting tears. "So it's the same thing, really, and you lived with that, and… No, sorry, not helping. I know. I'm not good at these things."
John closed his eyes, feeling the air cold on his face. When it came to things that he could do himself, then nothing was too much, and that remained true. But there were things that he wouldn't do, and he knew that, really, didn't he? He'd always known that. Some things were just wrong, even if they did save lives. Sometimes you just had to shake your head, and sadly, regretfully, say I can't. You didn't have to like it, but you had to do it.
How far will you go? the tall man had asked, and John had answered As far as I have to, but his answer had been wrong. Not as far as he had to, but as far as he could. He would pay any price himself, but when the cost involved other people, he would make the choice that allowed him still to look at himself in the mirror at the end of the day.
I'd do anything, he had said, but a man who would do literally anything for his friends was a dangerous man. There had to be limits; there had to be. I'd do anything for you couldn't be allowed to mean I'll do anything for you, and to Hell with the rest. That was the mistake that Wallace had made. That was the mistake that Wallace had sacrificed himself to atone for.
"And, well…" McKay said, "I know it's an uncharacteristically optimistic thing for me to say, but we're both still alive and that peasant didn't get horribly slaughtered, and isn't that the most important thing?"
Perhaps he was right. John was an expert at pushing aside the might-have-beens and focusing only on the happy ending. McKay was alive, he was alive, and he had made the right choice but been spared the consequences of it. Look to the future, and carry on. Make the right choice when it happened, and don't dwell on all the hundreds of things that had so nearly gone wrong. That's what his life was all about.
That's what Atlantis was all about.
"Yes," he said, and he managed a smile; it really didn't take much effort at all. "I guess it is."
They were both silent for a while, looking out at the city, but the air was cold, and whether he liked it or not, John was still far from healed. "Want to go inside and play chess?" he asked.
"I've had quite enough of games for one week, thank you very much," McKay said.
John raised his eyebrow. "Scared I'll beat you, huh?"
"What?" McKay frowned. "Of course not. Just you wait. I'll get the board." He grabbed John's wheelchair, and began to push him back inside, but then he faltered. "This means we're good, right?"
John almost gave the expected answer, then stopped. He pressed his lips together for a moment. McKay had far more cause than he did to consider their friendship tainted by what had happened. "Do you think we're good?"
"Oh. Yes. Of course. I…" McKay bit his lip.
John smiled, and this time it took no effort at all. "Then we're good," he said, as McKay pushed him back into the warmth and the light of Atlantis. We're good.
Note: Thanks to all who've read and reviewed. I hope you enjoyed my "gratuitous whump story.doc." Of course, I knew right from the start that there would be lots of character issues in it, too, so it's not entirely gratuitous, but the heroic staggering and the lack of actual, well… plot, apart from the whump, makes me put it firmly in the category of "ridiculously self-indulgent stories", rather than "real stories."
It was fun to write, though.
Oh, and I'm still writing on my old computer. New one came yesterday, all files copied over… and new computer refused utterly to boot up today.
Link to the entire story in a single file