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On Shaky Ground by Madison

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Dr. Rodney McKay knew that the mission was a bust from the moment they stepped through the gate and it irritated him that they had wasted any further time on the matter. Not that he didn't get a thrill out of a potential first contact situation, but there were times when he felt that his skills were being underutilized on these missions. Let the military types slog through soggy underbrush and struggle to maintain their footing along mud-slicked goat tracks. Call him when they found something interesting.


Of course, it wasn't like he hadn't already voiced those opinions earlier today, for all the good it did. The 'head' military type merely overruled him, again, saying they had better check it out since they were here—God knows they didn't want to have to come back. If Rodney had brought a laptop with him, he would have been tempted to tell Major John Sheppard and the others to go on without him; he'd wait by the Gate, thank you very much. The wry smile that Teyla gave him as they set out made him suspect that she could read his thoughts. Lt. Ford, on the other hand, seemed just as happy to go off into the jungle as not. Truth be known though, Rodney had been feeling a little cooped up back at the city himself, which was an odd realization to discover. Still, there wasn't really anything on this dirtball that was likely to hold the slightest bit of interest for him.


There should have been though. They had translated textual references to this planet back in Atlantis suggesting the people of this world had some fairly sophisticated technology and could potentially be an ally against the Wraith. Far too many of the cultures they had encountered so far in their Gate travels had been woefully inadequate in terms of self-defense. Of course, this had not stopped them from often exhibiting a fierce degree of hostility towards the first contact teams from Atlantis and even Stone Age weapon technology had a nasty way of being fatal.


It was frustrating beyond belief that the information they uncovered in the city was typically ten thousand years or so out of date. This world, which should have supported several good-sized cities, now appeared to be deserted—and for quite some time at that. They passed through one set of ruins that had to be thousands of years old, the architectural lines of the buildings blurred by centuries of rain and the destructive force of growing plants. It was cold here too. Cold and damp. Though it wasn't actually raining, the air was heavy with moisture as though rain was the usual state of things. Passing under heavy foliage tended to result in a sprinkling of icy water down the shirt collar. Every time it happened, Rodney flinched and cursed as though it had never happened before.


The decision had been made to climb to the top of a ridge that would provide better visibility across the plain in order to see if the original settlement had perhaps been abandoned for a second area described in the text. Which was why they were now making their way precariously across this rock face suitable only for mountain goats and yaks.


Upon discovering his scanner was no longer working properly, Rodney promptly lost any remaining interest in the whole deal. After all, the rest of the team could utilize the Mark I eyeball as easily as he could. He was troubled by the readings he had noted shortly before the scanner fritzed out though. Something about them had seemed off-kilter, but he could not say what they were. He had no good explanation for why the scanner stopped working either, and he didn't buy the Major's suggestion that maybe it had to do with some interference from the rock walls or the excessive moisture in the atmosphere affecting the wiring or, in the classic Sheppard form of circular reasoning, that it simply stopped working. "Things just do that sometimes, Rodney." Again he cast a vote for abandoning the mission and again he was overridden.


They were descending along an area where the path curved to skirt a ravine when they felt the first tremblings underfoot. The entire team froze for an instant. A handful of pebbles bounced down from above and off the edge into the ravine.


"Earthquake?" McKay frowned. "Maybe we should..."


He never got to finish the sentence. "Move!" Sheppard shouted. He grabbed Rodney by the arm and swung him forward in an arc, pushing him ahead on the path. "Everyone off the trail—NOW!"


Rodney needed no further urging. As he began to pelt down the trail he could hear behind him an ominous cracking sound. He shot a quick look over his shoulder to see a giant slab of rock shear away from the cliff face and begin falling in slow motion down onto the trail. He had to turn away from the sight to keep his footing—he had just a glimpse of Ford pulling Teyla backwards by the arm and scrambling up the way they had just come. Sheppard passed him as he nearly fell to his knees, hauling him up by his arm and commanding, "RUN."


The sound behind them was deafening. Rocks were raining down from the weakened cliff face, taking with them trees that in turn split with a terrible shrieking sound. It felt like the whole world was coming apart and the trail wouldn't let them take a straight line out of the path of danger. When they reached the bottom of the descent and the trail leveled out, Rodney was tempted to stop for breath, but Sheppard was still moving fast so he followed, realizing that they needed to put more distance between themselves and the unstable mountainside. Behind him, the sounds of the rockslide were beginning to subside.


He had only an instant to register surprise when Sheppard suddenly threw his arms up in the air for balance...and disappeared. He was coming so hard on the Major's heels that there was no possibility of stopping. He saw the gaping hole in the ground only as he was already over top of it, trying in vain to twist aside and grab at the edge even as he began to fall. The moment of warning gave him a chance to scrabble at the vegetation that had been covering the opening, but it failed to bear his weight and he felt the sharp thorny brush slice through his hands as he went down. He landed feet first, but could not remain standing and wiped out. His shoulder slammed into the ground, but his head contacted the hard surface shortly afterwards, exploding in a burst of white light.


He didn't think he had lost consciousness, but the pain in his head and neck was so bad that he remained where he fell for several minutes, ineffectively willing it to stop. When he cautiously elevated himself to one elbow, he began to curse vehemently. They had fallen into a subterranean cavern of sorts. The drop from the forest floor had to be about 20 feet. Sunlight poured down into the pit from above, strands of vegetation hung down like bedraggled decorations from a day-old party. He rubbed the back of his neck and winced, pulling away a bloody hand and looking at it in disbelief. The palm was sliced through and embedded with plant material. The other hand, now lifted for inspection, was the same. Just wait until he got a hold of John. He could hear himself quoting, "'well, here's another fine mess you've gotten us into, Stan'." He turned his head to see where Sheppard had landed, only to feel his heart thud to a stop and then start beating again very rapidly. Sheppard was lying awkwardly several feet away from him. He wasn't moving.


Rodney crawled over to where the other man lay half in, half out of the light. With relief he noted that Sheppard was still breathing. His P-90 and a small pack containing the medical kit had fallen to one side. Rodney rooted around in the pack and pulled out some bandaging material to wrap loosely around his hands; he wouldn't be able to tell if Sheppard was bleeding anywhere if he left his own bloody fingerprints everywhere he touched. He dumped disinfectant over his palms first, gasping at the pain as he did so. In his head, he could hear Carson Beckett, in all earnestness, saying in his Scottish accent, "The solution to pollution is dilution." He would give anything if the good doctor were here right now.


He didn't see any obvious injuries; he carefully cradled John's head as he lifted it slightly to feel the back of his skull—no caved-in areas; that was good. Just the beginnings of a goose egg sized lump that probably matched the one on the back of his own head. Rodney could not find any evidence of bleeding either, nor anything obviously broken. He quickly completed his exam, noting the dampness of John's clothing. He had been sure that John would regain consciousness before he was finished and was increasingly worried when he did not. The Major appeared to have landed hard on his back—maybe he just had the wind knocked out of him. Yeah, that was probably what had happened. He gently straightened out John's legs, concerned about potentially making some injury worse, but unable to leave him lying there looking so...broken.


He reached for his headset with one hand in an attempt to contact the other team members, but the set snapped in two at his touch. Great. Just great. He carefully removed John's headset and placed it against his ear, but heard only static. Not good. Not good at all. He debated which was worse, moving John unnecessarily verses letting him remain in damp clothes and at risk of hypothermia. He compromised on removing John's vest and jacket, using them as a sort of pillow, while pulling out a space blanket from the kit and trying to tuck it tightly around the other man's body to conserve heat. Why the hell didn't he wake up?


Unable to sit still, he got up and explored what he could see of their surroundings. A good bit of vegetation, including some larger branches, had fallen through the opening with them. The opening itself was not all that large—scarcely 5 feet across. It was ironic to think that if they had just altered their path slightly, they would not be in this predicament. The cave extended into a largish open area, maybe 15 by 20 feet before narrowing again into several small passageways. Rodney panned the area with a flashlight several times before shutting it off to conserve the batteries.


He turned with a grin when he heard cursing behind him. Thank God. Serves him right. He moved back into the light and looked down at John, who still lay as though it hurt too much to move. "You okay?" He asked. They had played this scene out so many times before; he was already predicting the litany of usual injuries. If John said he had cracked some ribs, it was going to be all that Rodney could do to keep from laughing out loud.


John lay with his eyes closed, neck and shoulders tense, arms bent slightly at the elbows as though he had just tried to sit up. "No."


"No? What do you mean, 'no'?" Alarm made Rodney's voice rise in pitch. He hurried over and knelt beside his friend, conscious of the sharp shale and gravel beneath his knees. "Can you be a little more specific than that?"


John opened his eyes and half-attempted to sit up again, but fell back as before. "I don't seem to be able to move my legs." His voice was deceptively light in tone.


Rodney felt the blood drain from his face as effectively as though someone had punched a hole in his heart. He placed a hand on John's ankle and worked his fingers up between pants leg and the top of his boot until he felt skin. He tentatively asked, "Can you feel this?"


Eyes closed again, John answered, "No."


"This?" Rodney dug in with his fingers, pinching flesh in a desperate attempt to get a different response.


"No." John's reply was almost a sigh.


"Well, crap." Rodney was thinking hard. He shifted his weight off his protesting knees and sat down abruptly beside John. He left his hand resting in its place.


"My reaction was somewhat stronger than that." John said mildly. His expression seemed slightly unfocused. "What's our situation?"

The temptation to boil over into blistering sarcasm was overwhelming. Our situation? We're totally fucked, that's our situation! Suddenly the military term 'snafu' made complete sense to him. He shifted instead into Rodney rapid-speak mode. "Okay-okay-okay." He repeated the word again and again, as if saying it would make it so. "We fell into an underground cavern. Communications are out. The status of Teyla and Ford are unknown. No one knows our whereabouts, but if the others are okay, then they will be looking for us. It could take them a while to get to this area though, depending on the rock-fall. If they are unable to help us, a search party from Atlantis will be sent out. There is enough material here to start a fire; in addition to providing warmth, the smoke might help someone locate us. I haven't finished exploring the cave, but there appears to be other sections besides the one we landed in—there may be a way out, other than the way we got in." He got up to move around the fringes of the lighted opening, gathering up dried moss, twigs and branches to start a fire as he spoke. He couldn't look at John.


"Could be worse." John spoke almost conversationally.


Rodney didn't trust him in this mood. Alarm bells were going off in his head. He dug out the matches in the waterproof case and struck viciously at them over the tinder, wasting several before it finally caught. For several minutes, he concentrated on getting the fire going, carefully breaking pieces of wood and positioning them so as best to catch the flame. "If I can devise some way of marking the passageways that does not involve using my own blood, then I'll go and look for a way back to the surface."


John seemed to be watching him through half-shut eyes that glittered in the developing firelight. "Good plan." A faint smile made a brief appearance on his face, before it was suddenly wiped away. "Leave me a weapon when you go."


It sounded like a casual request, and certainly a reasonable one under the circumstances. But Rodney had been ordered before to do the same for Brendan Gall under similar conditions, that time with disastrous consequences. It was this moment he had been dreading since he first realized he would have to go for help. Swinging to his feet, with two swift steps he closed the gap between the fire and where John lay unmoving. He crouched down beside him.


"Let me make myself perfectly clear on this matter." The intensity of the emotion in his voice shocked him; he sounded hoarse and his voice shook slightly. "I can't do this alone. I can't get through this alone. Do you understand me? I need you to be here when I get back."


"Do I look like I am going anywhere, Rodney?" The lazy drawl and half-smile were in place but Rodney didn't trust him one bit. He reached out and gripped John by the shoulder.


"John." His voice was anguished and a part of him could not believe he was not hiding behind biting sarcasm for once. "I can't... I can't go through that again...not...please, just promise me...?"


A slight movement caught the attention of both men and Rodney released his hold on John, pulling out his handgun so quickly that he found himself wondering just when that had become so natural. At the edge of the beam of sunlight, a small gray beast stood observing them, yellow eyes gleaming in the reflected glow. Rodney raised his hand to fire, but John caught his arm urgently and said, "Ricochet."


Everyone froze. The animal, which appeared to be some sort of canine, suddenly melted its ears into a half-mast position and crouched ingratiatingly, wagging its tail.


"Aw, it's just a puppy. Put your gun down, Rodney."


"You say that now," Rodney snarled, suddenly forgetting the previous conversation, "but wait until it sprouts horns and 10 inch fangs. It's probably a baby werewolf." Not liking the tone of his voice, the young animal turned and abruptly disappeared into the darkness.


He was surprised to hear Sheppard chuckle. "At least you are probably right about there being another way out. And all the more reason to leave me a gun." He looked up at Rodney then, hazel eyes clear and expression open. "It will be alright. I promise. Go on."


"Right." Rodney tried to sound like there was never any doubt of that fact. He laid a handgun within reach and watched as John checked the safety and then placed it beside him. He delayed moving off immediately, slowly checking and then re-checking his equipment, his canteen, his flashlight, and his own handgun. He added more fuel to the fire. "Water?" He offered suddenly.


"Yes." John answered after the briefest of pauses. "Help me up." He started to push himself up from his elbows, the blanket sliding down his chest.


Immediately, Rodney regretted the suggestion. "Are you sure that's such a good idea? Maybe you shouldn't be moving around." He hurried over, knelt and slid one arm around behind John's shoulders to help him into a sitting position rather than watch him continue to struggle on his own. John's shirt was a little damper than he thought it was previously and he could feel the heat of his body through the fabric.


"I'm thirsty. Unless you can think of a way to give me some water without drowning me, I have to sit up." He drank deeply from the proffered canteen, spilling some and leaning back into Rodney's support to wipe his face with the back of one forearm before handing the canteen back to Rodney. "Now go." He shifted his weight forward again and waved off any attempt at further assistance. "Sometime today, Rodney."


Rodney could not think of a single stinging comment to make in return. This fact alone was deeply disturbing to him. He crossed around to the other side of the clearing and after briefly scouting the two passages that led away, he picked the one on the right at random and entered it without looking back. The darkness was almost a palpable force and the coldness seeped into his bones through his clothing. The passageway wasn't too bad at first, but the thin beam of light from the flashlight was no match for the Stygian blackness. After his first encounter with an unexpectedly low ceiling, he knew exactly why miners wore hard hats with headlamps attached. The corridor was unpleasantly tight in some places as well; once he had to remove his gear to squeeze through and he was horridly conscious of the tremendous amount of stone surrounding him on all sides. He tried not to think about John. Time lost all meaning. He went to check his watch and discovered that it had been smashed in the fall. He wondered belatedly if Teyla and Ford were all right. Part of him was forced to acknowledge that they may not have escaped the rock fall; running uphill was much harder than running downhill after all. He hoped they were okay and then, with a twinge of guilt, hoped fervently they were searching for the two of them. He felt ashamed that this was the first time he had given either of them any thought. He had no time to think before now, he justified to himself. And now, he had too much time to think, period.


The path opened out into an area smaller than the place that they had fallen into. He could hear the trickle of water and the play of the flashlight's beam caught the flow of a small stream as it ran down the rock face and collected in a small, deep pool. There was a faint glow in the water; he could see the movement of some sort of phosphorescent fish that disappeared when he shone the beam down upon it. The paw prints of several animals rimmed the edge of the pool: tiny mouse-like feet, something small with cloven hooves and the five-toed pad of a predator. His beam caught the crevasse where these creatures likely entered—it was far too narrow for him to continue that way. He sighed and reversed direction.


Moving slowly down the corridor, one hand on the moist, slightly slimy wall, he was taken aback when his hand fell into empty air. He had found a side passage he had not noted on the way in, missed in the all-encompassing darkness. He hesitated. If he continued straight on, he would return back to where he left John. If he left the main path, could he keep from becoming hopelessly lost? Stepping into the passage, one hand still on the entrance, he saw some more phosphorescent light and realized the walls up ahead were glowing with fungi. He cautiously worked his way into the passage further until he reached the fungi, but the area appeared to be a dead-end, and he turned around quickly, angry for wasting time. In his haste he lost his balance on the loose footing and stumbled, placing a hand firmly into a glowing mass next to him, feeling its sap ooze up between his fingers.


For the briefest of moments, he was horrified. Life in the Pegasus galaxy had taught all of them the hard way that nothing was as it seemed. What if this stuff was like some kind of poisonous jellyfish fungi? He hurriedly pulled his hand out and wiped it across his shirt. He was startled to see that his bandaged hand was now glowing faintly, as was his shirt in streaks where he had smeared the goo. Oh-ho. He felt himself grin for the first time since arriving on this god-forsaken rock. Now we're in business. Holding the flashlight in his teeth, he scrabbled around in his pack for something he could empty and store the goo inside. Deciding instead that he could just carry it, he tucked the light under one arm and he reached for the now dripping fungi. Abruptly, he hesitated. All those times they had joked about alien life forms came back to haunt him. What if...?


Embarrassed at himself for even thinking this way, he found himself speaking aloud to the cave. "Look, I really need a way to mark my progress so I don't get lost. I need to get out. I need to get help. I'm just going to borrow a little of this stuff here, and I honestly mean no disrespect, so if you don't mind...?" The cave didn't answer, so Rodney took that as tacit approval. Marking the entrance of the fungus room with an X, Rodney happily approved his work as it glowed in the dark. He set off once more, mentally creating a system for identifying dead-ends, turns, places that he wanted to come back to later ... he liberally painted the walls of this corridor, if for nothing else than the fact that there was water and the fungus.


The fire had almost died by the time he returned to where he had started out. The sun had gone behind clouds, the air smelled of rain. John had dragged himself closer to the fire; he was clutching the blanket to his chest. He lay partially on his side, twisting to face the embers but with his hips still turned towards the ceiling. Concerned at the position that he had placed himself in, Rodney came over, dropping his gear alongside. He watched for a long moment, satisfied himself that John was indeed still breathing and reached down to touch him. Wincing at the pressure in his head as he bent over, he mentally kicked himself for shaking John's leg, realizing too late that it would do little good.


"Hey." He tried not to sound as concerned as he actually felt. "Which way do you want to lie?"


The voice that reached his ears sounded blurry with fatigue and cold. "Whichever is w-warmest."


Alarmed, Rodney reached down to touch John's face. He was cold—too cold. Damn. He knew the caverns were like a refrigerator down here, but he had been moving and concentrating on finding a way out and he had forgotten about the cold. He should have thought of that before he left but he had been so worried about other things ... he quickly went about building up the fire, noting at this rate, they would soon be out of fuel. Cautiously, he slid one hand under John's hips and rotated him as carefully as possible so that he was lying on his side towards the fire. The pants were fairly waterproof and had held up well to the trek through the water-soaked foliage today. The shirt was still damp and now cold to the touch as well. Rodney took out a knife and slit John's shirt up the back, peeling it off as best he could against the grip John had on the blanket in front of him. He was shivering violently but at least he was shivering. Rodney knew that once you got too cold to shiver you were really in trouble.


"Let me have this a moment." Rodney pulled the blanket away and slid John's left arm out of the remnants of the t-shirt, reaching across him and rolling him slightly to free the right arm as well. The fire leapt up as it caught a larger branch. The sparse light gleamed where it caught the chain of John's dog tags and illuminated the line of his neck and shoulders; for an instant Rodney caught his breath. Struggling not to get sidetracked by feelings he had scarcely acknowledged before now, he pulled the blanket back up while he took off his own damp vest, jacket and shirt. The jacket he left to use as his own pillow, the rest of the items he draped over some rocks close to the flames. Shivering himself, he returned to John's side and eased himself down to the cavern floor. Wishing he had something to place between him and the tiny shards of rock, he gritted his teeth and inched himself in under the blanket behind John. Reaching down with one hand, he lifted John's left leg by the pants and insinuated his own between John's. Curving his body to fit next to John as closely as possible, he tried to pull the blanket around the two of them to trap as much heat as he could. He bunched the jacket up under his head and slid his right arm between John's neck and shoulder to wrap it around his chest, nearly jumping out of his skin when he felt the cold metallic touch of the dog tags as they fell across his arm. He began to drape his left arm around John's body as well, but he seemed to have a little trouble figuring out where it should go.


John reached up and slid his hand down the length of Rodney's forearm, a movement that Rodney found almost painfully sensuous, and pulled Rodney's arm up across his own chest. He leaned back into Rodney with a sigh like he was pulling on a down comforter. He was like ice—but Rodney allowed himself to be folded around John's body, closing his arms around him. After a moment, John said indistinctly, "Jeez, McKay. Anybody ever tell you that you put out heat like a furnace?"


Rodney snorted, noting as he did so that his breath ruffled the back of John's typically disheveled hair. "The residual energy created by a great mind at work." As he gently tightened his grip, he could feel John move slightly in his arms with silent amusement and another shuddering shiver.


"That's what I've always liked about you, Rodney. Your self-deprecating nature."


Rodney went very, very still. No! No use of the past tense! Past tenses used in the present mean the anticipation of untimely endings. And he was NOT going to go there! For the second time today, he was at a loss for words. Newsflash: Rodney McKay is speechless ... he raced through all his options: withering sarcasm, a lightening fast change of subject ... or maybe ... maybe the truth about the way he really felt for once. Oh yeah, right. The man is seriously injured and borderline suicidal and you want to tell him how you feel? And what exactly are you going to tell him? That you would rather argue with him than talk to anyone else? That you would rather just be with him than with anyone else? That meaningful conversations don't really begin until he enters the room? That three quarters of all the snarky things you say these days are aimed solely at getting a reaction from him? That he is the only thing that can effectively distract you from your work—and that you don't mind? The impossibility of the situation made him want to grind his teeth. Like he could possibly tell John how he felt. He couldn't even tell himself how he felt until just now. How would John react to the fumbling confessions of a caustic and arrogant physicist, a male caustic and arrogant physicist for crying out loud? John could have anyone he wanted. The guy who could break the hearts of half the women in the Pegasus galaxy simply by smiling at them? Besides, John was his best friend. He wasn't supposed to even have these kinds of feelings for his best friend.


A tiny part of his brain suggested that maybe an injured John was different. That if the injuries were permanent, he might somehow be more...accessible. A wave of self-loathing swept over him; he felt literally nauseated. You always were a selfish bastard, McKay. He closed his eyes tightly against the physical pain in his head and the wound in his heart. Of course he would rather have John whole, healthy and with someone else, than crippled and dependent on him.


When he opened his mouth to finally reply, he realized that John had become boneless in his arms and his breathing was slow and steady. He must have fallen asleep. Exhaustion and relief swept over Rodney in a sudden tsunami. He wished he had thought to take some Tylenol before lying down. He knew he couldn't, he shouldn't, lie here long—just until John warmed up some. Then he needed to go back and work on getting them out of here. But for just a few minutes, it couldn't hurt to close his eyes.


It was the feel of eyes upon him that woke him up. Wincing at the vise-like grip that encircled his forehead, he lifted his head slightly to peer into the deepening gloom. The light above had nearly faded entirely, the fire almost dead. The space blanket crackled as he shifted position. John did not stir. Scanning the cave over John's shoulder, Rodney made out the form of the gangly pup from earlier in the day. He shifted more of his weight to his right elbow, ignoring the pins and needles that signified the return of blood flow to that arm. He reached behind him to feel the comforting grip of the handgun within easy reach.


"If you try to hurt us, I will kill you." Rodney assured the beast. The creature flicked an ear at him and sneezed. Then the wolf-like cub bowed in an elaborate stretch, yawning widely and returning to a standing position to stretch out each hind leg behind him. It seemed to Rodney that the animal was going out of its way to appear as non-threatening as possible. Time in the Pegasus galaxy was certainly honing his powers of observation beyond the things he normally found important. He tensed warily as the adolescent canid walked over between John and the last of the fire and curled up alongside his body.


"I bet he's been feeding you while I was gone." The cub looked up at the sound of Rodney's voice and laid his chin on top of John's thigh, blanket rustling slightly. It thumped its tail a few times. "I bet you have fleas." Rodney said sourly, before lying back down again. His head was pounding. He closed his eyes.

Everything will be all right.


"Of course it will." He murmured into the back of John's neck. What else could he say? He would somehow make it right. Someone had apparently turned on a laptop—the blue glow of the screen filled the room. With a start he realized that couldn't be possible and tried to sit up—only to have the muscles of his neck seize at the effort. Grimacing with pain, he again forced himself up on one elbow, easing his arm out from under John's body.


The wolf-cub was now sitting next to the ashes of the fire, staring down at him. A diffuse blue light radiated from its body. We have been watching you.


"Really." Rodney found that he was amazingly embarrassed. He shifted his weight up on one hand, easing his other arm out from the warmth of the blanket.

We learned long ago that nothing good ever comes from the circle of water. We changed, we adapted, we protect ourselves. When your people arrived, we knew we could not let you communicate with others of your kind.


Uh-oh. Here comes the part where the cute puppy morphs into the werewolf after all. He wondered if he could still reach the gun in time.

You are different. You were frightened, yet you showed us respect and mercy. You have compassion and care deeply for each other. Even now, the others that came with you are searching for you, despite their own exhaustion and injury.


The blue light intensified as the animal stood up and again walked over towards them. Rodney found himself rolling forward, one arm protectively across the top of John's sleeping body. The wolfling merely wagged its tail briefly and touched John's shoulder with its nose. It turned and left without another sound. Rodney let out the breath he did not know he had been holding. He pushed off the floor with his left hand and collapsed back onto his right elbow, sagging down to the hard gravel. The pain in his neck was so intense that he felt that he almost couldn't breathe for a moment. The dying fire suddenly re-ignited and burst into a merry little blue flame.


John shifted beside him, rolling onto his back and then muttering a curse. He reached underneath of his spine and pulled out a rock, chucking it across the cave where it clattered on the floor. He had lifted his pelvis to do so, bumping up against Rodney in the act. Rodney could feel him stiffen suddenly, and then cautiously against the sharp gravel, rotate towards him. He met John's eyes and saw them widen—and knew that he had a similar bug-eyed expression of his own.


"You can move." It was little more than a whisper.


"Uh, yeah." John disentangled his legs from Rodney's and craned his head over his shoulder to try and flick off the small stones embedded in his skin. He winced, sat up slowly, and turned back to face Rodney. Inexplicably, he chuckled. "What the hell have you been up to, Rodney? You have this glow-in-the-dark stuff all over you."


Hmmn. Good question. It would appear that his hands had wandered some in his sleep. He wondered what John's reaction would be when he realized that he had it all over himself too. It was even in his hair, which created an odd effect in the dimness of the cave. He studiously ignored the phosphorescent trail that traced the line of hair down John's chest and abdomen. He shut his eyes.


"Rodney?" John's voice sounded concerned. "You're awfully quiet. Are you okay?"


"No."


"No?" Now John's voice rose slightly in pitch. "What do you mean 'no'?'


"My head hurts. My neck hurts. My hands hurt. And I have been hallucinating." Rodney knew he sounded petulant, but he didn't care.


John's fingers were suddenly prying open his eyelids. "Stop that." Rodney growled irritably.


"I'm just trying to see if your pupils match. Where does your neck hurt?" Warm fingers touched the taut muscles on the side of his neck and he hissed, feebly trying to swat them away.


"Ow, damnit! Yes, there."


"Your neck is in spasm." John's fingers held a trigger point that made Rodney take in his breath sharply. "On a scale of one to ten, how bad does it hurt?"


"Five." Rodney ground out, making it sound more like a seven.


He could hear the amusement in John's voice as he said, "Breathe into it. Let it go. Tell me when it goes down to a three." Rodney could feel the rigid muscles start to relax slightly with each breath. Feebly, he held up three fingers and felt John's fingers start to move into the planes of his neck, following the attachments of the muscles. He stifled a groan. He wanted to ooze into the floor of the cavern. "Tell me about the hallucinations." John's voice was calm.


Rodney kept his eyes shut. "Well, first of all, you couldn't walk. We lost all communications. And then there was this wolf..." he broke off abruptly with a hiss as John hit another painful area. The skillful fingers stilled briefly and then began rhythmically moving again.


"Well." John said quietly. "I couldn't walk, at first. We don't have communications. And there was a wolf."


"Did it glow like the Hound of the Baskervilles? Did it talk to you?" Rodney opened one eye and glared up at him.


"Umm, I guess I missed that part." He ran his hand up Rodney's neck and into the back of his hair. It made him want to arch up against John like a cat and he had to refrain from purring. He couldn't help the sharp intake of breath, which he hoped would be mistaken for pain. John's fingers were gentle as they probed the knot on the back of his head, but he flinched anyway. "Pretty good sized lump there." John sat back on his heels, looking around briefly and then pulling on the crumpled jacket that he had been sleeping on. He gave a little shiver and looked at Rodney in a clinical sort of way, sliding the blanket back up over his shoulders where he lay.


"Can you say subdural hematoma?" John asked suddenly.


"Can I say 'subdural hematoma'? What kind of dumb-ass question is that?"


"Well," the famous Sheppard grin was just visible in the firelight. "I figure if you can say it, than you don't have one."


"Oh, thank you very much, Dr. Sheppard! I feel so much better now."


"Would it make you feel better if I asked you to solve some esoteric scientific conundrum?"


"Do you think you could possibly pose one challenging enough to be a true diagnostic test?"


Sheppard snorted. "That's the Rodney I know and love." The words hung in the air for a moment. Rodney struggled to roll over and sit up without triggering the neck spasms again. He felt like a turtle on its back as he waved an arm in the air seeking purchase somewhere. Sheppard caught it and helped him up while saying, "Do you think that's such a good idea?"


"I'm cold and my shoulder hurts. I'm sitting up." He was dizzy for a moment and sat unprotesting as John began removing gravel off the side of his arm. He swayed slightly until he felt John catch him by the shoulders.


"When was the last time you ate anything?" Sheppard sounded annoyed. He tucked the blanket, tent-like around Rodney's shoulders. After a pause, he prompted again. "Rodney?"


Rodney realized there had been a question in there somewhere and tried to answer. "I don't know. I don't remember. I've been busy." He said self-importantly.


"Yes, I'd say you have." The amusement was back again and like a flash, gone.


John stood up carefully and on unsteady legs moved over to the pack, digging out a power bar before collecting Rodney's shirt from the rock where it lay drying. He slid the shirt over Rodney's head, threading his arms through the sleeves and pulling it down over his abdomen, before opening the wrapper of the power bar and placing it resolutely in Rodney's hand. The shirt was a little clammy still, but better than nothing. Sheppard shook out the other jacket and helped Rodney into that too before kneeling back down beside him.


"Rodney." His tone required that Rodney open his eyes once more and look at him. "I just wanted ... to, well, thank you."


The problem with being a very verbal person was that sometimes you just had too many choices of what to say. A thousand options flicked through synapses, each rejected in turn, before he settled on a simple, "You're welcome." To his utter and complete astonishment, John leaned in and took his face in both hands as he placed a light kiss on his mouth. He sat back, obviously gauging Rodney's reaction, with a self-conscious half smile as he did so.


Rodney knew he could not keep from revealing his emotions on his face—he was never very good at that sort of thing. He wondered now just what it was John saw as he felt a sudden rush of confusion, hope and improbable joy. For the third time that day, he was totally speechless.


A sudden squawk from the abandoned headset caught their attention and they both scrambled to dig it out of the blanket. Sheppard reached it first, slapped it on and answered briefly the questions Rodney knew were being asked. He leaned back against a large rock and closed his eyes as the one-sided conversation played around him, figuring out from John's responses that Teyla and Ford had been found, were reasonably okay and that help was on the way for them.


When he opened his eyes, John was frowning at the remains of his T-shirt, holding up the fragments in one hand. Rodney watched as he shed his jacket and settled on putting the shirt on anyway, easing it on gingerly and trying to tie the ends together in the back. He couldn't help but admire the play of firelight over his musculature and wondered when it was that this person had become so important to him? John was fishing around for the other end of the shirt when he took in a sharp breath and put a hand on his side.


"What is it?" Rodney tried to keep his voice calm.


"Nothing. I think I cracked some ribs, that's all."


Rodney couldn't help it. He began to laugh.


~Finish part one~