Author: Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)
Summary: While visiting a place from Ronon's past, Sheppard and Ronon are attacked by snipers, but there's something there that's more dangerous and deadly than any human enemy.
The story starts here
The pain was dull and distant, but John had a vague impression that it ought to be far worse. He saw a dusty floor and his own hand on it, covered with pale dirt. When he rolled over, he saw thick smears of blood beneath him. Fragments of stone and dust were raining down on him. He coughed, and the pain from that, at least, was sharp.
What happened? He had to struggle to produce the thought. A stronger urge told him just to lie there. Distant voices whispered wordlessly at him, telling him that everything was okay, and that everything would always be okay, as long as he just lay still.
Memory was hazy. Ronon, he thought. Ronon had been there. John struggled to sit up, and found himself at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs. Light was faint, coming through cracks from above.
Pillars, he thought. They fell on us. He and Ronon had been standing on the edge of a pit, looking down at these stairs. They must have fallen in. Pillars and beams and large stone slabs sealed the top of the pit like a lid. Then came the sound of a distant explosion. Stone shifted harshly above him, and the quality of the light changed as some gaps became bigger and others sealed up.
"Huh," he said, moistening dusty lips, but all the other things that he might have said or done retreated from him. Sharp things rained onto his face. By the time he thought to bring his hand up, both eyes were screwed tight. He blinked fiercely behind his shielding hand, his eyes watering. Grains of dust trickled down between his shoulder blades when he moved.
Stone grated against stone. People were shouting, their voices harsh and urgent. He lowered his hand, and peered upwards, still blinking hard. It won't last like that for long, he thought, dragging the words out with difficulty. It's going to collapse in on us.
Where was Ronon? That thought was even harder to drag out, but he squeezed his hand into a fist, as if that could hold onto it. Perhaps it could. He turned his head, and Ronon was behind him, lying face down with his right arm outstretched. John reached out to touch him, but his arm didn't want to obey. Pain stabbed his shoulder. "Shot," he said. There was something strange about his voice, as if it shouldn't belong to him. "I was shot." But he didn't think it was bad. Nothing to worry about, came the thought, loud and clear, flooding his mind. His fist slowly unclenched. There's no need to worry about anything.
The voices came nearer. "Look what you've done," someone said.
"You said you wanted to blast your way through," another voice said, then there was the sound of stone giving way, and someone cursed.
"It's not safe," the first voice said. "If they're under that, they're dead already."
"I'd rather finish them. Melling's dead up there."
There was a loud crash, drowning out the sound of shouted curses. The voices didn't come again. John was suddenly very aware of his breathing, but there was too much dust in the air. He coughed, and then came the rhythmical sound of stones shifting, as if someone was walking towards him over a field of rubble, or maybe a large pile of fallen masonry was getting ready to collapse.
Nothing to worry about, he thought. The sound ceased.
Very slowly, John clenched his fist until it started to tremble. On impulse, he moved his fist, pressing it against the place where he'd been shot. Pain surged over him like a boiling wave, and his hand was soon wet with blood.
Ronon hadn't moved. John reached out that blood-stained hand, relaxing the fist just enough to push Ronon's hair out of the way. Ronon was unconscious, bleeding from a gash just above the hair line on the side of his head. Above them, the masonry shifted more than ever, and the fine rain of dust became a torrent. It stirred memories of being trapped under Michael's compound. He'd been so afraid then, so scared that he would die slowly, buried alive by the wreckage, and that Ronon would die with him because he'd refused to leave. Dying with a gun in his hand, fighting Michael's hybrids, had been better, a hundred times better.
"Of course there's something to worry about," he muttered angrily. Pain was still fierce in his shoulder, and it kept him focused as he looked around. They were at the bottom of a short slight of stairs, and just ahead of them was a door, just like the doors of Atlantis. John pushed himself to his feet, fighting dizziness, fighting worse things that wanted to keep him from thinking about their situation. He clapped a blood-stained hand on the control panel to the right of the door, and the door opened. A large piece of masonry crashed down onto a higher step, and rolled down the stairs. John almost didn't think to step out of its way, and almost didn't manage it when he tried.
He frowned, pressing his lips together. "Ronon." He crouched down, shaking Ronon's shoulder. Above him, not so far away, someone screamed, their scream ending in an enormous crash. There was so much dust on Ronon's body that he looked as if he was turning into stone. "Ronon." John swallowed. Nothing to worry about, his mind tried to tell him. Ronon stirred weakly. "Buddy," John said, focusing on the pain in his shoulder and his memories of Michael's compound. "You need to help me with this."
Ronon pushed himself up onto hands and knees. His head was sagging, but his hand was already instinctively groping for his gun. John tugged at him one-handed. "It's going to collapse on us. Come on."
But the door was already beginning to close automatically. Stone grated above them, the noise growing louder and louder until it was as if the entire building was roaring.
John heaved at Ronon with both hands, and Ronon came, looking above them with a face that was suddenly more scared than John had ever seen him. The door closed on their bodies when they were half way through, and Ronon bellowed, struggling to open it, but John just touched it, and thought, Open, open, but nothing happened. Then Ronon was dragging them forward, hauling them through the narrowing gap, but John was drifting, fading. His hand tingled where it had touched the door. Nothing to worry about, he thought, as he saw his bloody palm print on the silver door. Nothing.
Their feet slid free, and the door hissed shut. The noise on the other side was like the world ending, but John just lay there as his eyes slid shut.
Ronon's head was throbbing, and the roar of the building collapsing on the far side of the door drove spikes of agony into his skull. Vision was blurry, but he dimly saw that they were on another flight of stairs, this one lining the perimeter of a large room. There was only a fragile handrail, and the steps themselves overhung the drop onto the floor below.
Sheppard lay slumped on his side, his face close to the edge. Things were still falling on the far side of the door. "Hey, Sheppard," Ronon said. "We need to get away from here."
Sheppard eyes fluttered open, and he nodded. He pushed himself up with one arm and moved until he was sitting on the top step. He leant slowly to the right, as if he was meaning to lean against the wall, except that this was the side with no wall, only a drop big enough to kill him.
"Whoa, buddy." Ronon grabbed him, pulling him away. Instead, Sheppard sagged towards him, his head leaning sideways as if it was seeking Ronon's shoulder. Ronon tightened his grip. There was no more noise outside the door. Ronon's didn't dare try to open it again, in case the weight of masonry came surging through.
The light was faint, seeming to glow from the walls in ambient silver-blue. Ronon knew without asking what this place was. The fortress had been built over thousands of years, each generation adding their own touch, but it was older than anyone had known. Beneath the oldest fortress built by Satedan hands was a fortress built by the Ancestors. It seemed fitting, really.
"Sheppard," he said, and Sheppard responded to his name, at least. He let Ronon raise him to his feet, and let himself be led down the steps. The light followed them, brightening as they passed, then fading behind them. Sheppard reacted to that, turning his face towards the light. He almost fell several times, and Ronon found his own vision blurring, waves of dizziness radiating outwards from his head. "Concentrate on walking," he rasped, "or you'll kill us both." He thought Sheppard's steps were steadier after that. At any rate, they reached the bottom unscathed.
By then, the top of the room had faded into near-darkness. It was a tall square hall, with stairs lining three sides of it. The lower walls were decorated with a leaf-like frieze, with specks like sparkling diamonds. Sheppard was sagging in his arms, though, and that took priority. Ronon lowered him gently to the ground, placing his back against the wall. He fought the urge to sink to his knees himself, to bury his head in his hands and hope for oblivion to find him.
Sheppard made a faint sound. "Nothing…" he began, then it faded into a frown.
There had only ever been one possible course of action in a dangerous situation, and that was to focus on the things that he was capable of doing. "We need to look at your wound again, buddy," Ronon said, for he had felt the wetness of blood as he had helped Sheppard down the stairs.
"It's nothing," Sheppard said. "It's only a--" He broke up, chuckling. "I sound like that Monty Python movie. Nothing… nothing to worry about, though."
"You know that's not true." The pain in Ronon's head was fading, pushed away to those places where he put things that he couldn't do anything about. "Here, let me."
The bandage was soaked through, filthy with dust. Ronon made to remove it, then cursed aloud, knowing without even looking that the first aid kit and the rest of the contents of the pack was gone. Their clothes were deeply ingrained with dust, and he couldn't make any sort of sterile bandage out of them. He had no choice but to leave the sodden bandage in place.
"This is bad, Sheppard," he said. Sheppard looked at him, blinking slowly, and a faint smile danced across his lips. "Listen, Sheppard." Ronon grabbed him firmly by the uninjured shoulder. "This is bad. Do you understand me?"
The tip of Sheppard's tongue came out, moistening his lips, leaving behind a streak of colour when the dust came off. "Not really," he said. "Part of me does, but…" He moistened his lips again. "I need to get out of here. You need to help me." He frowned. His right hand would have come up to his wound, if Ronon hadn't stopped it, gripping the wrist in his own hand. "You… you okay, buddy?" Sheppard asked.
"Good enough," Ronon said.
Sheppard's hand was struggling to escape, the fingers curling inwards as if Sheppard was trying to make a fist. "It's worse now. I think it's in here with us. It's closer. Stronger. Help me."
Ronon let Sheppard go, and Sheppard's hand fell back to his side. Anger was threatening to take him over again. He wanted to shake Sheppard, to tell him to snap out of it. They should have been working together side by side, despite Sheppard's injury - two comrades, in it together, just like they had always been. If Ronon had been trapped in this situation alone, it would have been more bearable. He knew how to deal with things alone.
He forced the anger down again. "How can I help you?"
Sheppard smiled, lost again. "'m fine. I don't need help."
Ronon scraped his hand across his face. Think. Think. His thoughts were sluggish, his vision blurry with the effects of the head injury. By the sound of it, half the fortress was now blocking the way they'd come in, but a place like this was bound to have more than one entrance. The priority was to find a way out. No-one from Atlantis was going to check on them for at least two days, and Sheppard…
He looked at the blood-stained bandage. Sheppard quite possibly didn't have two days. A wound like that was serious. Added to that, they had no food or water, and Ronon had received a head injury bad enough to knock him out.
"Listen," he said. He took hold of Sheppard's good shoulder, trying to force Sheppard to look at him. "I need to know what's wrong with you. I need to know if it's going to get worse, and if so, how quickly." Sheppard just blinked. Ronon gave him a sharp shake. "I need to know how much I can rely on you."
"I don't…" The furrow was back between Sheppard's eyes. "I don't know." He looked for a moment almost terrified.
You could ask questions, or you could act. McKay was the one with the questions, always wanting to understand, but Ronon preferred to act. Something had happened to Sheppard, and Ronon had no way of knowing what it was. Perhaps it was some sort of virus, or perhaps an enemy with a powerful mind was working on him. The Second Childhood could change someone, but so could the influence of a Wraith. And sometimes people just cracked, losing their mind under pressure. Not Sheppard, he thought fiercely. Never Sheppard.
But it didn't matter. No, it mattered, but it wasn't the thing that Ronon was in a position to do anything about. He had to find a way out, so that the people who knew what questions to ask could fix Sheppard.
"We need to check this place out," he said. Sheppard just looked at him with blank eyes. When Ronon touched his face, the skin felt cold, and he could see the rapid fluttering of Sheppard's heart. The gunshot wound could kill him on its own, quite apart from anything else.
"Stay here," Ronon said. He took off his coat, then gently laid Sheppard down, using the coat as a pillow. If shock really was going to be a problem, he needed to elevate the legs, but there was nothing to do that with; the room was completely bare of furnishings. Then Ronon raised Sheppard up and moved him bodily to the bottom of the stairs, laying him down again with his feet on the bottom step. The effort made his vision flare red, and he had to lunge for the support of the wall to keep himself from falling.
Throughout it all, Sheppard just looked at him with blank eyes. He saw Ronon sag against the wall, but didn't say anything, didn't ask him how he was.
Recovering himself, Ronon began to walk away. "I'll be back soon," he said. Sheppard didn't ask him where he was going, and didn't insist on struggling to his feet and coming with him. Something twisted inside Ronon like an icy knife. He'd never thought of himself as a man who hid from an obvious truth, but perhaps a small part of him had persisted in pretending that Sheppard wasn't too far gone.
Ronon knew Sheppard, and they worked well together. This was like being with a stranger, or worse than a stranger, because the stranger was still Sheppard. He thought of Tyre and the others, twisted by the enzyme into becoming something they had always despised. He thought of what he himself had done, the memories red and hazy, warped into images of nightmare. For days, he had hated Sheppard ferociously. He had almost lost himself afterwards, until Sheppard had found him out on the furthest pier, had sat down beside him, and said, 'It wasn't you, buddy.'
'But it was,' Ronon had said, unable to look at Sheppard.
'No.' He had sensed rather than seen Sheppard shake his head. 'It wasn't you. Believe me, Ronon, I know.'
Ronon hadn't replied, but if he had replied, it would have been to tell Sheppard that he didn't understand anything at all.
'I know what it's like to have to find a way to live after you've… done things,' Sheppard had said quietly. He had shifted position, clearly uncomfortable. 'When I was a bug, remember? The way I see it, it's not much different. I…' His voice had faded then, but Ronon had taken the way out that was being offered, and had understood, too, what Sheppard hadn't said out loud. So that was another thing he had in common with Sheppard: they both feared what lay within.
He scraped at his face, finding it sticky with blood. The head injury was confusing him, bringing the memory. It wasn't relevant. Sheppard wasn't himself, but he was placid, not raging. Ronon wouldn't have to fight him.
Fighting him would have been easier, he thought.
He reached the far side of the room, where there was a small door in the corner. The light hadn't followed him, he realised, and each step had taken him further into the shadows. When he touched the control panel at the side of the door, nothing happened. Ronon shot it, the light from his weapon sending a spike of pain into his head, but it stayed shut. Above him, there was a low crashing boom. The floor shook, and he heard the sound of dust trickling onto the floor in the middle of the room.
Ronon threw himself at the door, smashing into it with his shoulder, trying to prize it apart with his fingers. A nail snapped, sending a stab of pain through his hand, and soon his fingertips were slipping in blood. Roaring, he hurled himself at the door again, then stood a step back, almost falling as his head throbbed and his vision blurred. Calm down, Chewie, he imagined Sheppard saying. He wiped his hand across his face again, surprised to find it trembling. Taking a deep breath, he fired his weapon at the door again and again, but whatever material it was made of, it wasn't something that his gun could blast its way through.
Of course, he realised, the thieves had uncovered the door at the top of the stairs, but there was no evidence of them getting any further. They'd probably gone offworld to get explosives to blast their way through, and had been on the way back when they'd seen Sheppard and Ronon on the walls and had thought their find had been poached from them. This place had been built by the Ancestors, and only Sheppard was able to open the doors.
If they were going to get out, he would have to drag Sheppard to his feet again and force him to come along, losing blood all the way.
But he felt something that could almost have been relief as he returned to Sheppard's side. He'd been years on his own, and for the first year or two on Atlantis, he'd sometimes thought that he would prefer to be on his own again. When the team split up, he'd always preferred to be the one who hunted Wraith by himself. He had more chance of success that way than with a team-mate less experienced than himself.
When had that changed, he wondered. He remembered Sheppard saying 'Leave no man behind,' standing grim in the Gate Room, about to go out on a rescue mission for someone or other; Ronon couldn't remember who.
"Hey, Sheppard." Ronon knelt down beside him, touching his face. It was colder than ever. "You need to come. Doors won't open without you."
Sheppard shook his head - a tiny movement, barely there at all. "Why d'we need to go? It's safe here."
"No," Ronon said. "No, it isn't, and you'd realise that if you were properly yourself. Come on."
At least Sheppard's placidity meant that he didn't struggle. He let Ronon raise him up, and he walked when Ronon tugged him. It was as if he had lost all will of his own. It was as bad in its way as seeing McKay lose his intelligence. Sheppard had a will stronger than most people Ronon had ever known, and he never, ever gave up. "You're a stubborn son of a bitch," Ronon said, perhaps hoping to goad Sheppard into becoming himself again, "and you never follow orders. Yet here you are letting me lead you along like a puppy on a leash."
Ronon had his arm around Sheppard's body, and he could feel the way he exhaled in a faint laugh. Once again, he fought the urge to shake Sheppard. Pull yourself together, he wanted to say. I can't bear seeing you like this. There was a special horror in seeing people you loved change beyond recognition. It made this underground chamber feel vast, the darkness at its ceiling pressing down with all the weight of the masonry above it.
The light followed Sheppard, recognising the blood of the Ancestors that flowed in his veins. When they reached the door, Ronon took Sheppard's hand in his and pressed it against the control panel. The door opened stutteringly, perhaps damaged by Ronon's attempts to shoot his way through.
There was less light on the other side, but enough to show the passageway that sloped steadily downhill. Ronon led Sheppard a little way down the hill, glancing into side-chambers as he did so. None of these doors were shut, but all the rooms were completely empty, except for stone slabs that could have been beds.
"Look like cells," Sheppard murmured. It was the first hint that he was still aware of his surroundings.
"It doesn't matter what they are," Ronon said harshly. "The important thing's getting out."
A dozen steps later, Sheppard's legs gave way. Ronon struggled to catch him, just managing to hold him up. "Feel sleepy," Sheppard said. "Can't feel anything much. It's nice."
"Don't talk like that," Ronon shouted. He picked Sheppard up fully in his arms, and Sheppard didn't struggle, didn't make a joke to hide his embarrassment. Ronon took Sheppard into one of the cells, and laid him down on a stone slab. Sheppard's skin was icy cold, and the whole right side of his shirt was soaked with blood.
Ronon didn't want to leave him, but sometimes you had no choice in the matter. "I'll be back soon," he said, and then he smiled. "Probably as soon as I need you to open a door." Sheppard said nothing. "Do you know who I am?" Ronon asked on sudden impulse, remembering his grandfather under the influence of the Second Childhood.
Sheppard seemed to have to think about it for a while. "You're Ronon," he said at last. "It's nice here. It's Sateda, right?"
Ronon squeezed Sheppard's hand, his vision blurring. "I'll be back as soon as I can, buddy. I'm not leaving you, you hear me? I'm just finding us a way out."
The passageway continued to slope downwards. The lights didn't switch on as Ronon walked, and the flashlight had been lost in the initial collapse of the fortress, and soon he had to feel his way with his hands. As a small child, he had been afraid of the dark, and of the things that could lurk in it, but his grandfather had cured him of that, teaching him that darkness could be his friend. Some of the bravest of men still hated to walk forward unless they could see where their feet were going to land, but Ronon had no such fear.
Some of the worst things, he now knew, lived in the light.
You lost track of time in the darkness, though. Ronon explored every side chamber, working his way to the end of the passage. It ended in a wall without any door. None of the side rooms contained anything at all, but when he was in the rooms nearest the end of the passage, he thought he could hear a distant humming, perhaps coming from beneath his feet. He crouched and touched the floor, but felt nothing unusual. It was hard to stand up again, his vision lurching and his stomach churning with sudden nausea.
He headed back to where he had left Sheppard. "I can't find a way out," he admitted.
Sheppard frowned vaguely at him.
"The Ancestors must have emptied it out before they left it," Ronon said, "and sealed it up."
Sheppard's frown deepened. "Not empty," he said. "It's here." His hand tried to rise to his brow, but was too weak, and fell back down again.
"What?" Ronon grabbed him. He remembered the sight of the parasite cut out from McKay's brain. "What's here?" Then he felt blood smear against his hand, realised how close he was to gripping Sheppard's wounded shoulder, and let him go again, placing his head gently down against the slab. The cold silver-blue light made Sheppard's blood look almost black.
"Nothing." Sheppard shook his head minutely. "Nothing to worry about." His eyes closed, and he let out a slow, whistling breath. It was so long before he breathed in again, that Ronon had already felt the cold stab of grief that came with the death of a friend.
Death wasn't days away, he realised, but was close enough to touch. Melena had told him how much of healing was tied up with the power of the mind, and Ronon himself had seen people die from injuries that shouldn't have killed them, just because they gave up.
Sheppard had lost his willpower and his desire to fight, and with a serious injury like this, that could make the difference between life and death.
On to chapter three