Fundamentals of Shipwreck Prevention
By Candle Beck
On planet MX2-349, the trees had curling purplish bark and leaves shaped like perfect snowmen, and it was distracting, niggling feeling in the back of Sheppard's mind that the background had turned animated. Halfway back to the village from the stargate, backpack jammed with bottles of Alka-Seltzer because that stuff was apparently better than gold out here, Sheppard was staring at the alien trees and not watching where he was going, and then the ground wheezed and cracked, gave out underneath him. And then he was falling.
Really fast, only time enough to think oh shit, and check the safety on his P-90, and then Sheppard's head smashed hard into a protruding bit of stone, and it was lights out.
From way far away, Rodney called his name.
Not his name.
Very high cliff, Rodney an ill-defined smudge against the sky, and Sheppard was down here on the rocks, spread out numb with broken pieces. Sheppard's eyes weren't working right, the colors fading in and out. Rodney, statue on a hill, calling down to him: "Colonel, report!"
Sheppard slipped sideways, and it became the desert, eggy sun and heat like a gigantic hand pressed down on him. The jagged rocks were gone and now he was lying atop a mutilated Pave Hawk helicopter. There was a crooked useless rotor growing out of Sheppard's leg where his foot used to be. Sheppard stared, knowing that it should hurt.
Rodney again, and that still wasn't Sheppard's name. Weird achey thing happened in Sheppard's chest, sand scratching under his clothes. He wasn't in the right place. He focused all his energies on Rodney's strident demand of a voice, followed it through visions of trash-can fires and ion storms, upland.
Sheppard blinked awake.
Pain, right away, great shuddering wave of pain that was localized in his right ankle with colonies at the left shoulder and the back of his head. Sheppard sucked on his teeth to keep from groaning, and felt gingerly for the misshapen lump on his skull. Nausea rolled through him slow.
Then he looked around, and put his hand on the slick mossy stone walls rising narrowly around him, shifted in the murky few inches of water. Sheppard carefully tipped his head back, squinting, and there was only a postage stamp worth of sky visible, because he'd fallen down a freakin' well.
"Fantastic," Sheppard muttered, and static came bursting to life in his ear.
"Thank you, was that so hard? Now, where are you, and please don't say kidnapped by hostile natives, because I'm not remotely in the mood."
"Ah, no. Not natives, no." Sheppard picked at a smear of lichen on his shoulder, breathing shallowly through his mouth because his leg was fucking killing him.
"Complete the thought, Colonel!" and the standard irritated burr in McKay's voice cleared some of the smog from Sheppard's head.
"Fell down a well," Sheppard grumbled.
"I fell! Down! A well!" Sheppard shouted back, and that was a bad idea, sent shrapnel tearing through his head, and he groaned again, his spine curling uncomfortably.
There was a pause, and then a rustle that might have been McKay laughing. It set Sheppard to anxious clattering on the inside, anger and hurt and self-pity all mixed up together, reddish tide, and then he was confused, not typically so beset.
"Don't laugh at me, Rodney," he said, hearing himself whine a bit and figuring he was owed.
Static, something like McKay breathing. Sheppard was trying to hold still, trying not to throw up.
"Are you hurt?" McKay asked, all business.
"Leg," Sheppard reported, ghostly image of warped metal where his foot was supposed to be. He could still feel it, monstrously heavy, rusting. He realized he was scared to look down and confirm that he was still flesh and blood, and that was kinda weird. "Also, uh. Head, maybe?"
"Why the hell didn't you say so? Where are you?"
Trying to remember, badly turned around by recent memories of deserts and cliffs, flashes of Rodney in stone on hilltops. Sheppard passed a hand over his eyes. He was shaking, never a good sign.
"Coming back from the gate," Sheppard said muzzily. "Somewhere. On the way back from the gate."
"All right, I'm on my way."
Wonderful, Sheppard wanted to tell him, looking forward to the time when he would no longer be sitting alone in three inches of stagnant water at the bottom of a well. (On an alien planet in a distant galaxy.) But his mouth didn't work the way it was supposed to, and then it was getting darker, too early for sunset but the trees were purple here so who could say if it was unnatural, and then Sheppard slumped, unconscious again.
This time it was the bottom of the ocean.
Strangest thing yet, because Sheppard was lying on top of a shipwrecked jumper, not moving. His eyes were open in the saltwater, hair floating in odd wings around his head, and he wasn't breathing, but he wasn't dying. Sheppard opened his mouth and no bubbles came out, no water came in.
Way way above, sunlight shot spears down, and Sheppard could see the faint blue hulk of Atlantis, just a shadow through a curtain but he knew it was there, he could feel it humming.
Everything about this was wrong, and Sheppard knew that. He didn't mind. He was just a little cold, that was all.
"Colonel Sheppard, come in," and Sheppard smiled, thinking that Rodney had come to rescue him.
Down here, Rodney, but when he tried to speak, he remembered that he wasn't breathing. No matter. Rodney would find him.
Spiky neon fish darted past, raffling silver waves of schools like sardines, and Sheppard reached up to feel them swimming between his fingers, clean wide-eyed and amazed.
Awake again, and that was too bad. Sheppard stilled after his initial agonizing jolt, hugging his arms to his chest and choking quietly. His right foot felt like it had been wrenched all the way around, like it was backwards and barely hanging by a thread. His skull was double-thick, heavy as cement and dense with pain. He was still at the bottom of a freakin' well.
"If you would do me the very great favor of not being dead, Colonel, I would really appreciate it. Hey! Wake up before I get a bucket of water from the river, which is probably infested with deadly brain-eating parasites, and throw it on you."
Sheppard shifted his shoulders, still stuck in the backpack straps like a straight-jacket, and got his head twisted around to gaze blearily up the shaft of the well.
The postage stamp sky was even smaller now, what with McKay's head and broad shoulders crowding into the space. Sheppard couldn't quite make out his face, the angle of the light all wrong, but he didn't need a face to recognize McKay.
"Hi," Sheppard said, forgoing a wave due to debilitating discomfort.
"Are you bleeding into your brain right now?" McKay demanded, echoey and insistent.
"I sure hope not," Sheppard replied, and tested the lump on his head, which was still enormous and tender and made him feel lopsided.
"You lost consciousness, you probably have a concussion."
Sheppard blinked, and lovely gold-red fireworks burst around McKay's head, making him look like a momentary king. Sheppard licked the backs of his teeth, swallowing hard.
"That's an affirmative, Doctor," Sheppard said, trying a regular careless grin but it slipped its fittings, ran out on him. "Get me out of here, huh?"
McKay nodded, and one hand raised to his ear.
"Ronan, Teyla, I've found Sheppard. I need you to meet me on the path to the gate, about a mile and a half from the village. You need to bring rope, I repeat, rope."
"Is the colonel all right?" Teyla asked, and a minor warm spot opened up in Sheppard's chest because it was always nice to hear that people might care if he died trapped at the bottom of a well.
"He'll be fine," McKay said dismissively, as if he hadn't been urgently quizzing Sheppard on the state of his brain only moments before. "Just hurry, and make sure Ronon comes with you."
McKay flicked off his radio and Sheppard followed suit, feeling like a dark mirror image. It hurt his neck to look up at McKay for too long, which was a shame. McKay was the only thing visible that Sheppard was interested in looking at.
"How do you manage to get yourself into these situations?" McKay asked, exasperated.
"Not my fault," Sheppard said in a slur, and let his head fall back against the slimy wall of the well. His eyelids felt like lead shields, bulkhead doors slamming shut.
"Hey. Hey! Stay awake down there."
A shiver ran through Sheppard, the chilly dank water sloshing briefly around him. He dug his teeth into the inside of his lip, almost hard enough to draw blood.
"I'm okay," Sheppard said, and his voice sounded like it had sand ground into it.
"Not if you don't stay awake," McKay snapped. "You've picked a terrible time to possibly slip into a coma, Colonel, try to keep that in mind."
Sheppard wanted to look at him, but craning his head back again seemed a task beyond Hercules. His neck throbbed just thinking about it.
"Don' worry 'bout me," Sheppard said, chin to his chest. "Get help."
"Oh, good idea, why didn't I think of that."
Sheppard didn't need to be able to see McKay to know what expression he was wearing, and he smiled hazily to himself. He kept forgetting to keep his eyes open, listening to McKay calling in to Atlantis.
"Elizabeth, we've run into a bit of a situation. What am I saying, 'we.'"
"What is it, Rodney?" Elizabeth asked.
"Well, Timmy's fallen down a well," McKay said. "But Lassie is on the way. And Teyla, too."
Thumbing clumsily at his radio, Sheppard came on the channel, hoarse to his own ears, "Could someone please tell Rodney that he's not funny?"
"Are you okay, John?" Weir asked.
"I'm cold," Sheppard said, and was surprised. He'd meant to say that he was fine.
"Well," and Weir sounded a bit surprised too. "We'll get you out of there as soon as we can."
"Again, with this 'we,'" McKay said, disgruntled.
"Do you need me to send Beckett through with a stretcher or will you be able to manage with your team?"
Then silence, buzzing electronic silence that expanded in Sheppard's head, weaving around the throb and sick-making sway. He forgot what Elizabeth had asked him. Listening to white noise, to nothing at all, and Sheppard was thinking of the distant gray room where he had waited in his dress blues to hear if they were ever going to let him fly again, the governmental fluorescent lights chirring endlessly overhead.
He heard it twice, echoing from above and shadowed a fraction of a second later in his earpiece, and it was like double-vision, the world separating into identical pieces before fusing back together.
Bracing himself, Sheppard took a deep breath and shoved, twisted against the pain shooting through him until he could get one arm free of the backpack strap and sit up a little bit. He was panting from the effort, vaguely aware of Rodney saying more things in his ear, way up above his head. Sheppard couldn't make out the words through the pound of his own heartbeat, but the gist was clear.
"'m all right," Sheppard mumbled, and availed himself of his new position to squint up at McKay without risking permanent neck damage. "I'll be all right. No stretcher."
"Of course, he has a head injury, so I don't know why we're taking his opinion into account," but McKay's tone was interestingly hushed, leeched of its sting. Sheppard wondered what he must look like to Rodney, pale face beseeching in the black-ink dark of the well, and he wished for an absurd moment that he could see McKay's eyes, see what it might be doing to him.
What a world, Sheppard thought nonsensically, in a daze.
"Report back once you get him out of the well," Weir instructed. "I'll have a medical team standing by in the gateroom."
"Affirmative. McKay out."
Another spell of radio silence, but Sheppard had McKay to distract him now, and he flipped his earpiece off. The sky behind McKay's head seemed a different color than Sheppard remembered, fiery red and gnashed with clouds.
"How long has it been?" Sheppard asked.
McKay's darkening silhouette checked his watch. "Thirty-four minutes since I started trying to raise you on the radio. Two and a half hours since you left to get the Alka-Seltzer. You can't have been down there for much more than an hour."
"Feels long. Longer." Sheppard moved his sticky tongue, counting his teeth.
"Yes, well, being at the bottom of a well with a broken leg will do that to a person's sense of relative time. Read more Einstein." A pause, and McKay tipped his head to the side. "Is your leg actually broken?"
"It's a helicopter," Sheppard told him through gauze. "Broken rotor, you know these old Hawks when they get shot down. Like tinfoil. Tinfoil."
Sheppard lifted a hand to his mouth, which felt swollen and unwieldy, certain words sticking like sand flies. He felt bizarrely betrayed.
"Colonel, hey, can I get a show of lucidity please? Not that your helicopter story isn't fascinating, but maybe save it for parties. Sheppard. Sheppard."
"I hear ya, Rodney, quit yammerin' at me," Sheppard mumbled, absently astounded at how quickly night fell on this planet, like the pop of a single lightbulb in a cellar, just suddenly all black.
"Open your eyes. Sheppard! No falling asleep, remember?"
"Eyes aren't closed," Sheppard said, and then blinked to find that Rodney was right. The world was still there. "Wow." Sheppard gazed up at McKay, thinking he must be magic.
"Seriously, you've got to stay awake if only to keep from giving me a heart attack. You don't want to give me a heart attack, do you?"
Sheppard thought about that for a second. "No."
"Good, good. Just keep talking. Ah. You were cataloguing your injuries."
"Was I?" Couldn't remember that. Sheppard didn't want to talk about it anyway, wasn't going to look at his leg no matter what Rodney said.
"Yes, and feel free to continue any time now. Hey, hey," and McKay's voice rose steeply because Sheppard's head was dipping forward, weakening sway. "Head up, soldier, I would have thought that was the first thing they'd teach you."
It was a force of will, but Sheppard managed to swing his head back, show McKay his face again.
"That's not the first thing," Sheppard said.
"Well. Maybe not. It still applies in this instance."
McKay against the darkling sky, the shape of him cut out so cleanly, and Sheppard's fingers formed into scissors on his leg, wanting to clip McKay out, fold him up in his pocket.
"Oh man," Sheppard said. "I feel really weird."
"Yes, yes, of course you do." McKay's hands fluttered briefly, sculpting frustration out of the air. "Don't think about it. Think about. Uh. Whatever it is you usually think about, in, in, in such situations as this."
"Never fell down a well before, jerk." Sheppard sniffed loudly, offended and wishing McKay was close enough to get the full impact of his glare.
"Ha. No. Naturally not this precise situation. But more the, the general atmosphere of peril and uh, what I can only assume is ongoing anguish. Which is hardly without precedent, hardly without precedent this month, even. No one would blame you for having developed a happy place as a coping mechanism. Go there, Sheppard. Go to your happy place."
Sheppard conjured up a vision of Atlantis, blue sea and silver city, and rubbed at his sore shoulder, digging his thumb in because he needed it, kept him grounded and awake. Rodney wanted him awake.
Maybe fifteen seconds passed. Sheppard chewed his lip and rolled his head on the slimy wall, watching his good foot twitch in sympathy for its brother, rippling the stale water.
"Not my name," Sheppard said, but there was no breath behind it and he was pretty sure McKay hadn't heard. Sheppard's head was getting worse, pressure building.
"You're supposed to talk, remember? Not slipping into a coma, not giving Rodney a heart attack, staying conscious until the so-called cavalry arrives, you remember all these things, surely."
"I remember not giving Rodney a heart attack," Sheppard said. He lifted his hand (still shaking), and squeezed one eye shut so he could trace a line around McKay's form.
"That's good, that's a good one to remember. Oh, and," McKay said, and then there was a pause, and then, "Catch."
McKay's jacket landed on his head. Sheppard's mouth was open a bit and the zipper clinked off his teeth hard enough he actually heard it echo.
Sheppard wrapped his hands in McKay's jacket, tough weave and long broken-in, stiff-paneled but the inside was soft.
"You told Elizabeth you were cold," McKay said, kinda hesitant but stubborn too.
"That was a long time ago," Sheppard replied, confused for a moment, thinking that it had been days, he'd been down here for days.
"Yes, well. I might have forgotten--briefly. Rather occupied with keeping you from dying of your head injury, if you hadn't noticed."
"I noticed." Sheppard wormed his hands into the sleeves of Rodney's jacket, drew it up to his chin. Smelled like him, too, and Sheppard was aware of his stomach turning over slowly, but he didn't know what to make of it. He was really tired, though not so much cold anymore.
"Where are they," McKay muttered, and Sheppard's eyes slipped closed, dreamily imagining McKay's face.
"I'm going to call Elizabeth, get her to send that team after all," McKay announced. "It's less than two miles to the gate, so if Teyla and Ronon got held up, the team might still beat them to us. What do you think, is that a good idea? Sheppard, yea or nay?"
Sheppard's eyes stayed closed. His head hurt badly enough that he figured he was probably blind anyway. It wouldn't be so bad. He liked the picture he'd built of McKay, his tense crooked mouth and searching blue eyes, and Sheppard wanted to keep it somewhere he'd be sure to see it, like a lamp hung up, a single fixed point now that the storms had come.
"Lighthouses, Rodney," Sheppard said.
"I. Beg your pardon?"
"To help with the ships. So nobody gets wrecked."
"Yes, I'm familiar with the concept of lighthouses. Also with that of non sequiturs, which is something we have in common, I see."
"Many things," Sheppard said, meaning to agree with him. "It'd be a good job for you, though."
"I'm kind of attached to my current job, but just for argument's sake, what the hell are you talking about?"
"Pay attention, will you."
If McKay were down here with him, Sheppard would clap hands onto his shoulders, hold him in place and get a solid bead on McKay's eyes because that always started him twitching and settling down. Sheppard flexed his hands against his chest, under Rodney's jacket. He licked his lips.
"Oh, do go on, I'm on the edge of my seat." McKay probably intended that to be scathing, but Sheppard was grinning, invisible and blind.
"Gonna build a tower for you on the farthest pier," Sheppard told him in all honesty. "And on top, a whole room made of glass."
"Just for me? Colonel, I'm touched," McKay said, bitter aftertaste that Sheppard didn't like the sound of. Sheppard opened his eyes, registering no immediate difference.
"Of course it's gonna be you," Sheppard said, impatient. "Obviously, do you think I'm gonna build a lighthouse for somebody else? Like that would even do any good."
There was a long pause, during which Sheppard walked his fingers along the damp algaeic stones of the wall, and glared upwards into the slowly solidifying dark. Rodney was almost impossible to pick out, only visible when he moved.
"Well. Thank you, I think."
"Haven't done it yet," Sheppard mumbled, and hugged his own chest. He was trembling under McKay's coat, soaked through to his shorts and socks. It felt like his blood was being gradually bleached from cold.
"For the thought, then," McKay said, sounding odd and fractured and Sheppard wanted to see him, he wanted to get the hell out of here.
"Rodney-" and God only knew what Sheppard was about to say there, something irrevocable and poorly considered no doubt, his voice already cracking on the first word, but then from beyond McKay in the aboveworld, a roar like circus lions all trained to go at once:
A small shower of grit and rocks fell on Sheppard as McKay presumably bolted to his feet. Sheppard swiped at his eyes with the side of his hand, tried to sit up more and his busted leg got jarred so bad he almost threw up. He went limp, breathing fast and rattly, thin sweat broken out all over his body.
Hard to think like that, hard to keep things in linear order, and Sheppard flickered for a moment, his mind guttering, splicing together dreams and memories and making no sense of anything. It was all a mess, cliffs and ocean floors and bottomless tunnels and blue eyes and for some reason jetpacks. Something had hold of Sheppard's ankles, subterranean monster hauling him down but he couldn't go, Rodney didn't want to him to go.
It took pretty much everything Sheppard had, but he got his eyes open again. Still dark. Still in the well.
Then, like a miracle, a finger of white light slashed across McKay's face before skewing off wildly for a second and then beaming down at Sheppard. The light filled the well like a nuclear explosion.
"All right down there, Sheppard?" Ronon asked.
"Oh just peachy," Sheppard answered, knowing what was expected of him.
"Yes, yes, he's still very much alive, which is entirely thanks to me by the way, but let's focus our efforts on getting him out of the well, shall we? Here, I've used the excessive wait time to plan out a rudimentary pulley system using that tree that should make this--hey, what are you doing?"
Ronon was dropping the rope unceremoniously into the well, where it became the latest thing to smack Sheppard in the head. There was already a double-slipknot tied into the rope, and Sheppard cinched it around his chest and under his arms, clumsy with stiffness and cold and pain, wrapped his forearm several times in coarse rope before calling to give Ronon the go.
Getting hauled out of the well took maybe thirty seconds all told, but they were extremely trying. Sheppard was a gasping shuddering wreck by the time Ronon and Rodney grabbed hold of his belt and dragged him onto flat ground, mindful of his leg but there was only so much they could realistically do. Sheppard writhed in the shaggy yellow grass for a moment, biting sharply at the air.
McKay's hands fumbled, jerking the rope loose and palming uncertainly over his shoulders, his dirty hair. Sheppard opened his eyes to see McKay looking directly at him, kinda stunned and very blue, and Sheppard managed about a half a smile, hey buddy, before graying out again.
And then they were in open space. Rodney was floating beside him, not breathing. Over to the right was the Daedalus, but it was swiss cheese now, huge jagged-edged holes in the hull big enough to fly a puddlejumper through, and Sheppard knew in the way of dreams that nobody was alive there anymore.
Sheppard wasn't frightened, though. He reached out, closed his hand around Rodney's wrist, and they revolved in glacial arcs around the same center point.
Not so bad out there in the void. In the distance there was a yellow sun almost exactly like the one they'd left behind. McKay looked young and quiet and happy, drifting along without lines on his face. Sheppard thought maybe he understood this one, maybe it made sense, and he wanted to tell Rodney, see, don't even need air, but then back in the real world, Ronon stumbled over a humpbacked root and Sheppard came to with a start, a pained grunt.
It took a moment for him to get his bearings, make sense of the bunching planes of warmth all around him, the rhythmic rock of his body back and forth. It was with swift-dawning horror that he realized Ronon was carrying him in his arms, as one might carry a bride, or a small child, and Sheppard said faintly, appalled, "Oh god," and squeezed his eyes shut, willfully loosing his grip on awareness and diving back into the sheltering black.
Sheppard woke up the next time in the infirmary.
Painkillers had happened, as extrapolated from the muffled fog encasing him. His right foot and lower leg were bound in a soft black walking cast, hiked up in a sling so that Sheppard's body made a long obtuse angle. He felt like he'd been flayed and then stitched back together.
For awhile, staring at the ceiling was the extent of Sheppard's activity. It wasn't a bad ceiling, all told. The Ancients sure did have a flair for moldings.
It was nice not being in the well anymore. Sheppard carefully stretched out both his arms, just because he could. Someone had put him in dry scrubs. His hair felt clean and damp.
"Awake, are we?"
That would be Beckett. Sheppard rolled his head on the pillow, setting off a minor underwater earthquake in his equilibrium, but after a second the spinning stopped. Beckett stood beside his bed, hands in the pockets of his white coat.
Sheppard affixed something close to a normal smirk. "Didn't I request a room with an ocean view?"
"You'll have to make do, lad," Beckett told him, and came fussing over Sheppard, shining a penlight in his eyes and making him follow his finger and checking his hearing. Sheppard tolerated it with a half-assed scowl, wrung dry and exhausted.
Eventually Beckett finished his inspection, and straightened up, flicking Sheppard's blanket like a mechanic snicking the hood shut.
"You're about as well as can be expected considering how you spent your afternoon. That ankle'll be out of commission for at least four weeks, and don't let me catch you sneaking around to spar with Teyla in the meanwhile. The concussion doesn't seem to have done any real harm, but that's your third this year already; you're certainly not doing your brain any favors in the long run."
Sheppard lifted one shoulder. "Life in the Pegasus Galaxy, Doc, what can I say."
"Say you'll be more careful," Beckett implored with that earnest village-veterinarian look on his face, eyebrows high.
Sheppard sketched a messy X on his chest, trying to look sincere. "Cross my heart."
Beckett huffed a sigh like he didn't believe him, but left it there, picking up Sheppard's ever-thickening medical chart, pen clicking in his hand. Sheppard waited until Beckett was done making his notes, not wanting to interrupt and sabotage things from the outset.
"So, how 'bout getting me sprung from this joint?" Sheppard said with a particular tilt to his head that other people seemed to find charming.
"I'd rather not, frankly," Beckett said sternly. "You'll be feeling the effects of the concussion most severely for the next few hours, and I'd prefer you be near at hand if things take a southerly turn."
"Aw, that's not gonna happen." Sheppard blinked widely, very trustworthy kind of guy. "You said so yourself, I deal with this all the time. Totally used to it by now, and anyway, I'm just gonna go back to my quarters, I don't think my head's gonna cave in between here and there."
Beckett rolled his eyes extravagantly, but he was fiddling with the sling holding up Sheppard's leg in a way that meant he was basically won over.
"You should have someone keeping an eye on you tonight," Beckett said with a dire motherish tone.
Sheppard opened his mouth to enumerate the sundry reasons he did not need someone keeping an eye on him, but just then Rodney came in.
Typical Rodney expression of irritation and concern, his forehead knotted and his mouth tightening as he came over to Sheppard and Beckett. McKay's jacket was a sacrifice at the bottom of the well, and Sheppard found himself running his eyes over McKay's shoulders, the strong lines of his arms. Sheppard blinked, bemused.
"Not that I'd ever argue that luck is a quantifiable force in the universe, but yours has got to be running pretty damn low, Colonel."
Sheppard slung a grin across his face. "How do you figure? Lucky enough to get rescued out of a well, wasn't I?"
"Luckless enough to fall in in the first place," McKay retorted. "Although in your case that's probably better explained by garden-variety stupidity."
"You're mean," Sheppard said mildly.
McKay exhaled through his mouth, and glared at him. Sheppard smiled back, thinking in patches and swaths that he had once been smashed on rocks while McKay stood on top of a cliff, calling down to him.
"McKay can keep an eye on me," Sheppard told Beckett, and then realized that that was a great idea. "He doesn't mind."
"Excuse me, but what are you signing me up for?"
Beckett sighed with loud exasperation that was mostly for show. "Just wake him up every few hours, make sure he stays lucid. Any more nausea or vision troubles, you bring him right back, too quick. Understood?"
McKay blustered, big-eyed, but Sheppard was already sitting up, carefully lifting his casted leg up by the thigh and allowing Beckett to slide the sling away. The walking cast made of black fabric and shiny plastic made Sheppard feel futuristic and ominous, like he was turning into a cyborg, and something in the back of his mind reminded him, no a helicopter.
He rode in a wheelchair to his quarters, crutches a gate across his body, a cow-catcher shunting people to the sides of the corridor. McKay was the one steering, carrying on a characteristically aggrieved monologue above Sheppard that came and went in his ears like hearing other people's conversations on a crossed telephone line, and other stuff that used to happen a long time ago.
Sheppard was twenty feet deep now, at least. Painkillers and head injury and all, freezing cold seawater overflowing his internal ballasts. He wanted McKay to let go of the wheelchair handles and take firm hold of his shoulders instead, drive them forward like that.
So much weirdness today, Sheppard lamented distantly.
McKay got them into Sheppard's quarters and provided Sheppard the stiff arm he needed as a leverage point to make the move from the wheelchair to the bed. Sheppard hefted his cyborg leg up onto the narrow mattress, and then flopped back, head thumping into the pillow. His good foot was still on the floor.
McKay commandeered Sheppard's wheelchair immediately, rolling slightly back and forth like he'd rock on his heels if he were standing. Sheppard watched him through narrow eyes, thinking how it was strange that the painkillers made everything in the room so blurry and Rodney still came in bell-clear.
"You don't really have to keep an eye on me, you know. Gonna be fine," Sheppard told him, and realized halfway through that he was reading from a script.
McKay only snorted. "Please. As if you have any measurable sense of self-preservation. Allow me to remind you of that time I found you taking a nap at the bottom of a well with a broken ankle."
"On an alien planet in a distant galaxy," Sheppard finished, the secret code of their lives, just to see McKay stop short and almost smile.
"Yes. Exactly. So yes, I intend to stay, and yes, I intend to keep an eye on you. Your options are to deal with it, or to shut up and deal with it. Questions?"
McKay wheeled a little closer, as if trying to loom and intimidate, but it didn't work out very well for him. Johnny Cash on the wall was particularly amused at the attempt. Sheppard could feel the dozy grin on his own face, half-lidded and unthreatened.
"It's funny," Sheppard said. "Every place I went today, you were there too."
"Everywhere except the bottom of the well, yes."
"Missing the point, McKay," and Sheppard could feel the edges encroaching on him, the walls boxing in around them but it was okay because he had McKay with him this time, wasn't like being buried alive anymore.
"Yes, well, that's a natural side effect of you not making any sense." McKay sounded uncertain, and Sheppard wanted to see him but his eyes were slipping closed again.
"Shipwrecked on the rocks," Sheppard mumbled. His tongue felt like it was made out of cotton. "And when the helicopter crashed. On, on the ocean floor, and then in space and it didn't even matter that we couldn't breathe-"
"What are you talking about? Sheppard? Hey, Sheppard," and McKay's hand was on his shoulder and that was good, big and warm and sturdy, and Sheppard tried to latch on to the feel of it, take it with him as he sank back down, but this world didn't work like that and he had to go alone.
This was more like a normal dream.
He was playing chess in the mess hall with Rodney, and the pieces were carved out of diamond and ruby, and they were moving by themselves. The rooks had horse hoofs that clattered like bursts of faraway machine gun fire.
"There are protocols in place," McKay told him. "They have names for people like you."
"Queen to bishop six, checkmate," Sheppard said, and thought that that was someone else's line.
"It doesn't mean anything if you cheat," McKay said, standard outrage and his blazing eyes could power the whole city.
The pawns had turned into tiny droning helicopters, and Sheppard's swampy subconscious substituted locusts, holes in white membranous wings making them fly jerkily, doomed. They were everywhere and everywhere, like static, like snow, and only Rodney was solid and unmoving.
"The crashing isn't the hard part," Sheppard told McKay, sure that it meant something very important, a benediction kind of thing and McKay would understand because McKay knew everything about everything, McKay would be able to explain it better.
The knights pulled out their sidearms and began to shoot the pawns tailspinning out of the sky. Sheppard was still breathlessly hanging on Rodney's response when he woke up.
Someone was shaking his shoulder, saying things that weren't his name.
Sheppard had to peel his eyelids open, like an envelope before the glue dried, and he was looking at his plain government-issued alarm clock with its institutional green numbers showing 01:27. He turned his head and there was Rodney, leaning over him all questioning eyebrows and slanted mouth.
"Can I help you?" Sheppard asked shortly, ill-tempered and numb from interrupted sleep.
"Still alive, no coma, just checking," McKay said, sitting back. He was still in the damn wheelchair, the hand that had been on Sheppard's shoulder falling to pluck at the spokes like they were guitar strings.
"What're you even doing?"
"Keeping an eye on you, as I believe we've covered in some depth." McKay's eyes darted, meteor shower sense to it. "Is this actual memory loss, or are you just being grouchy?"
"Not grouchy," and Sheppard forgot about his leg and tried to move, and then he had to hold every muscle perfectly taut, lower lip caught between his teeth until agony released him.
When he could think properly and feel other things again, he noticed that Rodney's hand was back on his shoulder. Sheppard didn't say anything about it.
"Sit up, you can have another pill now," McKay said. He curled his hand under Sheppard's neck and that was weird, definitely weird, McKay's rough fingers pushing his hairline against the grain. Goosebumps flickered wildly across Sheppard's skin, little shudder but he was mostly able to cover it.
Sitting upright, closer to fully awake, Sheppard's bad ankle felt rotted through like a felled tree trunk, dull deadening throb. All things being equal, he'd rather have the broken helicopter rotor back. Rodney could probably fix him if he were a broken helicopter.
McKay passed him a chalky white pill and the glass of water that lived on the bedside table, and Sheppard took his pill, drank the rest of the water because he was thirsty.
McKay watched him, studying look. "You seem to be clearer now."
"Yeah." Sheppard rubbed carefully through his hair, finding the lump and it was the same size, which was encouraging. At least his brain probably wasn't swelling. "Few hours sleep will do that."
"Seven thousand five hundred and sixty-one," McKay said like an accusation.
"Well. Hm. Good then."
McKay sat back, steepling his fingers against his chin in a way that made him look more like a mad scientist than Sheppard thought he was aware. Sheppard gazed back at him, one hand slipped absently inside his scrub top to rub heat on his sore shoulder.
"Is your plan to just sit in the wheelchair watching me sleep until it's time for the next pill? Because, you know. Creepy."
Eyebrows hunching, McKay's mouth twisted up into an interesting shape and Sheppard thought that was weird--he never usually noticed McKay's mouth. But then he remembered, today was the day of weird, and if he was still alive he figured he should probably just keep going with it.
"Hardly, Colonel," McKay said, and waved a hand at Sheppard's desk where an unfamiliar laptop was whirring and glowing in its reassuringly home-like way. "I'm probably accomplishing more while baby-sitting than my staff gets done during working hours."
"Lousy troops, lousy general," Sheppard shrugged, and then allowed himself one brief sharp grin as Rodney got all huffy and riled.
"See if I wake you up in time for your next pill," McKay muttered. "See if I don't turn all the clocks back two hours and just let you suffer."
"Ooh, I'm shaking," Sheppard said, wiggling his hands. "It doesn't work as a threat if I know it's something you would never actually do, you know."
"Maybe you don't know me as well as you think you do," McKay said, probably aiming for superior and mysterious but he missed wide.
"Doubtful." Sheppard grinned again, reached out to poke McKay's shoulder. "You're Rodney. What else is there to know?"
It was supposed to be a joking kind of thing, little bit of banter before the pill kicked in, but something happened in the time between him saying it and Rodney hearing it, something happened to the space separating them. All at once Rodney leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth.
Sheppard kissed him back, a default reaction that proceeded without thought, and then, with dizzying speed, the universe narrowed down. McKay's hand pressed flat to Sheppard's throat, his cheek, the bony edge of his shoulder. He caught Sheppard's lower lip between his teeth and sucked on it, making heat spiral crazily through his body. Sheppard gasped, breaking away from McKay's mouth.
"What?" Sheppard said, and he was actually breathless, hardly even recognized his own voice. He said it again, just to be sure, "What?"
McKay's hand slid off Sheppard's neck, leaving a cold place. McKay flushed, too dim to really see but Sheppard could tell from how he pulled his shoulders up, tugging at his own ear.
"Sorry, sorry," McKay said, terrified or miserable and Sheppard didn't know which there was more of, which was worse. "That was a misread of the situation, I think we can all agree."
Visibly remembering that he was sitting in a wheelchair, McKay retreated smoothly, putting a few feet of space between them. For several years now, Sheppard had lived millions of light-years from Earth, but that distance didn't feel like anything compared to Rodney, three feet away.
"Wait a minute, just wait for a second," Sheppard said, pressing a hand to his forehead. He felt shaky, blown open. He needed to get this straight. Without thinking about it, he touched fingertips to his lips and watched McKay's eyes go wide.
"Obviously my timing could have been better," McKay said. Sheppard registered the rising tone of panic in his voice, the flit of McKay's hands grasping futilely at the air. "Obviously that's not the kind of thing you want to spring on a guy after he's spent the day with a concussion. And then the Vicodin, of course. It's really not like me to forget to take compromising factors into consideration. Poor showing all around. Emotional turmoil, do you see where it gets a person? The damage it does? The fundamentals of the scientific method go right out the window, it's horrific-"
"Rodney, Rodney," and Sheppard was leaning forward, reaching out, tapping at McKay's kneecap. "Breathing's a good idea, remember?"
McKay stared at Sheppard's hand on his knee until Sheppard pulled back, self-conscious. Immediately, McKay's eyes shot up to his, locking Sheppard in place.
"This, this is why," McKay said, flapping a hand indistinctly between them. "I mean, how many years of semi-veiled flirting does it usually take before your victims snap?"
McKay glared. "Conquests, bedpost notches, wild oats. Whatever."
"Bedpost notches, what the hell century are we living in in your mind?"
"Look!" and McKay actually stomped his foot in emphasis, which made a stupid little grin start twitching on Sheppard's mouth. "Maybe you don't mean anything by it when you're being charming, but people still . . . get charmed."
McKay rubbed an awkward hand over his face, shoulders curled, shell-like. Sheppard gave him a long once-over because it seemed like the moment for it. Never really devoted this particular type of scrutiny to another man, never really saw the need, but now the idea had been presented to him with incredible specificity, stuck firmly in his head as he took in Rodney's broad chest and shoulders, heavy muscles in his legs, the appealing comfortable features of his face even all strung up with anxiety, his supergenius blue eyes. Sheppard thought about kissing Rodney again, and a quiet shivering excited thing made itself known low in his stomach, and he thought that maybe he would be okay with that.
"So if everything's going to be ruined now," McKay said, fast and hoarse, "at least let the record show that it wasn't entirely my fault, because when you were stuck in a well and had a head injury, you wanted to build me a lighthouse. Which I think counts."
Sheppard only stared for a moment, not thinking about the ocean floor or deep space or the jagged killing rocks waiting for him somewhere in the future. That stuff was very far away now, and Sheppard didn't feel confused anymore.
He smiled, deliberate and slow, and watched as a breath caught in McKay's lungs, his chest hitching.
"Counts for what, exactly?" Sheppard asked.
McKay eyed him like he might be citric. His throat dipped as he swallowed hard, bracing himself.
"Well," McKay said in an uncharacteristic hedging tone. "I admit I don't have a complete understanding of how the lighthouse metaphor functions vis-à-vis your potential romantic attachment as regards yours truly, so I can't really-"
"Actually, you know what? Shut up for a second."
It was a bad angle, Sheppard stranded on the bed with a broken ankle, but he was able to just snag the edge of the wheelchair and swing McKay closer, close enough to get a hand on his chest and then grappling at the collar of his shirt, yanking him in. Sheppard covered McKay's mouth with his own, all slanted and off-kilter, lacking any kind of grace but that was all right; he wasn't really the graceful type.
Rodney made a broken-off noise, tipped his head to the side and parted his lips, clever tongue slicking in and everything got deeper and hotter and better, so much better that Sheppard lost track of things for awhile.
Eventually McKay pulled away, fairly panting. He had his fingers sunk into Sheppard's hair, and they were both on the bed now, Sheppard all twisted around. His hand was inside McKay's shirt, Sheppard realized hazily, dragging his fingertips across the clean smooth skin of McKay's back.
"Colonel-" McKay started to say, but nothing that started with that could lead to anything he wanted to hear, and so Sheppard kissed him again. And it was incredibly good again, and Sheppard dove in headlong, elated.
Another few minutes lost, and then Rodney said, muffled against Sheppard's throat, "Hang on hang on," and forcibly pulled them apart. Sheppard made an instinctive sound of protest, because he'd really been enjoying the application of his first hickey in about two decades.
Rodney had both hands on Sheppard's shoulders, holding him back. Rodney's lips looked blurry--swollen, Sheppard realized like a sock to the gut. Rodney's eyes were hugely aglow, almost deranged but in a good way.
"All right, let's just, let's slow down for a second here," Rodney said, and his desperately unsteady voice was doing nothing to keep Sheppard calm.
"Don't be stupid, why would we do that?" Sheppard asked, and stroked firm lines of heat over the curve of Rodney's shoulder, watching to see him twitch. He wanted to get Rodney naked, put his mouth and hands a dozen different places. Sheppard could hardly get his head around all the things they were gonna do.
"Because you have a concussion and, and the Vicodin, and the well, and you, you, you've never wanted to do this before," and Rodney's hands tightened for an instant on Sheppard's shoulders before taking them away, scooting back on the bed so they weren't touching anymore. McKay looked vaguely aghast, still breathing a bit hard.
Sheppard stared at him, his blood buzzing, the palms of his hands aching to get back where they'd been. "I don't think it's the concussion, Rodney."
"Maybe not." McKay's fingers twitched towards Sheppard. "Shouldn't, shouldn't theorize without sufficient data, though. Shouldn't act in advance of the facts. That's just. Amateur hour."
Sheppard stared for a few seconds longer. McKay's nervous fingers typed nonsense on his leg, lines thin on his forehead, dark-eyed with want and doubt, almost jittering with it, and Sheppard sighed, shifted back on the bed.
"Fine, whatever," he said, and lay down. Vertigo sent him reeling, but closing his eyes helped. "Wake me up as soon you've determined that I'm in my right mind again."
The thin mattress wheezed as McKay turned to look at him, his knee against Sheppard's hip. Sheppard drew a picture of him in his head, imagining McKay's scrunched conflicted expression. He rubbed his fingertips against his thumb, wanting the shape of McKay's mouth instead.
"It's just. Important to be sure," McKay said, whispered really, falling away to almost nothing at the end.
Sheppard cracked one eye open and caught Rodney staring at him as if he were dry land after months at sea.
"I know, McKay," Sheppard told him, and then showed a little smile that affected McKay like sunlight, eyes brightening, head lifting, and the thought crossed his doped drowsing mind that maybe Rodney was the same as Atlantis, a home well-hidden on the other side of the universe, just waiting for Sheppard to come along and turn on the lights.
The lighthouse, at long last.
It was just as Sheppard planned it, tall white tower with a glass room on top, flooded gold. Sheppard could see the fans of light spreading out, washing over the farthest pier and making the metal gleam as sharp as knives. It was nighttime but he could see everything.
Sheppard was on the pier, and then in a blink he was inside the lighthouse, going up the tight helixed stairs that were too narrow for his feet; his heels stuck out over the edge. There was a door made of cracking wood, splinters of expensive light eking through. Opening it only took a thought.
Rodney stood before the wall of glass, his spooky black outline thrown up on the powdered-milk moon. Sheppard came to stand beside him, walking through light so bright and thick he had to brush it away from his face.
Rodney glanced at him, smiled. He lifted his hand to the glass, fingernails tapping, and said, "Look, the ships."
They were coming in to Atlantis from all sides. Aircraft carriers and PT boats and pirate ships, catamarans and drekars and faerings and rafts lashed together out of palm trees felled on desert islands, incomplete patchwork sails. Flags flying red and yellow and as purple as the snowman trees, the sea crowded and cleaved and wild with froth.
"Watch," Rodney said, hushed. "Are you watching?"
Sheppard nodded, rapt, gone totally still inside. Rodney took his hand away from the glass, leaving a hollow outline traced by fog, and through it Sheppard could see the ships breaking the perimeter of their city's light, and carefully veering away.
In the morning, Sheppard woke up on his own.
Dawn colored the windows. Johnny Cash kept his eternal watch on the wall, usually looking a bit disappointed when Sheppard peered at him from such a low angle, but not so much today. Sheppard's leg throbbed along with his heartbeat, not the kind of thing that might kill him anymore, just bad static, radio interference.
On the bedside table, there was McKay's canteen (plainly labeled with a strip of white tape and big blocky germophobe lettering) and a medicine bottle of white pills. At the foot of Sheppard's bed, McKay was asleep in the wheelchair, conked out with his legs crossed and propped on the bed and his hands folded on his stomach. He was snoring pretty loudly.
Sheppard took a pill, and then watched Rodney until he felt it starting to take effect, his busted leg swaddled up and taken away to the other side of the room. Rodney was dreaming, Sheppard could tell. Little flinches in his fingers and eyelids like a dog sleeping, chasing rabbits.
They'd have to do something about the snoring, Sheppard thought distantly. He went to take a drink of water and realized that he was grinning, messy lunkhead grin that made him look about half his actual IQ. Have to work on controlling that, too.
Sheppard sat up, reached down to give McKay's feet a hardy shake. McKay came awake like he'd had water (deadly brain-eating parasite water) thrown on him, jerking his legs off the bed and bolting upright. Their eyes met with a crack that by all rights should have been audible.
"Sheppard," McKay said on a breath. He looked honest-to-god astounded for a moment, starry-eyed gazing at Sheppard, and then McKay shook himself and tightened his mouth, packed that other look away.
"How's the head? And the leg, of course."
"Better. Good," Sheppard said, and smiled at him. McKay's face stammered, his gaze dodging away as a flush crawled up his neck.
"Good, that's good. Ah. And you slept well, I presume?"
The cool little smile on Sheppard's face diverted abruptly back into that stupid lunkhead grin, and Sheppard couldn't even regret it. Sheppard was thinking in straight lines again, and he was still unreasonably happy to have McKay here with him.
"It wasn't the concussion, in case you were wondering," Sheppard said, drawling it out.
McKay leaned forward a bit, his eyes scanning, shielded. Sheppard sat still for it, looking openly back at McKay with his hands turned up on his knees. McKay always needed to see for himself.
"What was it then?" McKay asked. "What changed?"
Sheppard thought about that, and licked his lips, and shrugged. "I fell down a well."
"That, that's not an answer, what does that have to do with anything," and Rodney's forehead scrunched up as his eyes flared and his mouth slanted with argument, and Sheppard was crazy about him, all at once or always or forever, whatever: he was stone gone.
Not as careful of his leg as he should have been, Sheppard canted dangerously off the bed, grabbed McKay's knee and dragged him closer and then right out of the wheelchair, laughing at McKay's look of unguarded surprise. Sheppard wrenched both hands in McKay's shirt and kissed him. McKay was in the middle of talking and Sheppard was in the middle of laughing, so it was weird at first, toothy and imprecise, and then McKay's hands came up to his face and they started to get it right.
Sheppard leaned back and McKay followed him down, humming and murmuring against Sheppard's lips, making out with inaudible commentary. Sheppard's back hit the bed, and McKay guided his jaw, tipping Sheppard's mouth the way he wanted it and then kissing the hell out of him.
After that, it kinda came apart at the seams for Sheppard. McKay pressed him into the bed, chest to chest, stomach to stomach, one big hand wrapped as a band of heat around Sheppard's right thigh to keep him from jarring his bad ankle. McKay kissed him so intently, licking against his tongue, thumbing his cheekbone, learning his sounds and shifts and gasps. Sheppard felt skittery and fascinating, like he was worth being memorized.
McKay pushed the scrub top up until it caught under Sheppard's arms, and then stroked his hands down Sheppard's bare torso, fingertips catching over his nipples and ribs and Sheppard heard himself moan out loud, saw McKay's eyes go heavy-dark and his mouth curl in response.
Sheppard couldn't keep still, no matter that McKay kept hissing at him and palming worriedly at his bad leg. McKay's other hand rubbed hot circles low on Sheppard's stomach, and Sheppard was panting, writhing and trying not to and that only made it worse. By the time McKay slipped his hand into Sheppard's pants and took hold of his cock, Sheppard could only arch his back and grind his hips up and groan mindlessly, eyes screwed shut. He hadn't gotten off on just a handjob from another person in about fifteen years, but goddamn if McKay didn't have him right fucking there.
Then McKay's free hand alit on Sheppard's face, clumsy and pulling at his chin, brushing across his eyelids. Sheppard clutched at the sheets and tuned in to hear McKay mumbling fast and raspy, "c'mon lemme see, open your eyes, c'mon John."
Sheppard's eyelids snapped open, and Rodney grinned madly at him, wicked thumb rubbing hard just under the head of his dick, slick and uneven and rough. Sounds came out of Sheppard but none of them were words. Rodney's gaze flicked from his face to his own hand working inside Sheppard's scrub pants, over and over again. Rodney was watching him, mouth cocked open in awe, as if Sheppard were a brand-new phenomenon, like Rodney would get to name him and everything.
Somehow, watching Rodney watching him was exactly as much as Sheppard needed. He grabbed hold of McKay's wrist and held him still, grinding against his hand a few more times, chasing the pleasure up and up and then like jumping out of a plane, Sheppard came hard all over them both.
White noise and joy, long long seconds in suspension, riding the sensation all the way down, and Sheppard regained awareness some time later to McKay breathing raggedly into his collarbone, and jerking off against his hip.
Sheppard got his body working again, slid his hands into McKay's shirt and up his sweat-damp back. Sheppard was feeling pretty much amazing, ridiculously affected by the warm solid bulk of McKay in his arms, nosing at his face until Rodney turned and kissed him exactly how Sheppard wanted.
Afterwards, after McKay came in his shorts while moaning into Sheppard's mouth and thrusting against his stomach like they were still in middle school, after Sheppard mocked him gleefully for awhile and Rodney almost smothered him with the pillow, after Rodney pulled the scrub top off him and used it to clean them both, afterwards:
McKay sat up, his short hair smashed to the side in an appealing fashion and his pants still unzipped. There was hardly room for both of them on Sheppard's little bed, and McKay put one foot on the floor, set two fingers against the inside of Sheppard's elbow like he was looking for an unorthodox pulse. Sheppard gazed placidly up at him, not sure what Rodney was doing but generally all right with it.
"I'm going to expect a lighthouse out of you at some point, you realize this," McKay said, lidded eyes watching his own fingers tapping and tracing over the hollow place on Sheppard's arm.
Sheppard grinned, sleepy and itchy and greatly pleased with how his life was shaping up. "Naturally."
McKay glanced up, softer look even as a smirk crooked his mouth.
"I don't know why either of us is pretending that you even know how to build a lighthouse, and never mind the fact that we have absolutely no use for one."
"Because that stuff's not important," Sheppard told him. "And even if I can't do it, I'm still gonna."
He turned his arm ever so carefully, just to feel McKay's fingers move. McKay sketched infinity symbols on Sheppard's skin, rolling his eyes and smiling in a downward direction.
"You never make any sense," Rodney complained, and there was something seriously wrong with at least one of them, because when Sheppard replied carelessly, "It's why you love me," McKay didn't even bother to argue the point.