The mist grew thicker with every step. Sheppard no longer had any idea where he was going. He had no idea where his team was, no idea where the Gate was, no idea where the bad guys were. For a while, he had been able to make out the lighter patch that indicated where the sun was, but now even that had gone, hidden by the never-ending grey.
A dark shape swooped down on him, becoming visible almost too late. He dropped to the ground, and felt the wind of its passing on the back of his neck. It squawked noisily. "Go away," he hissed, pulling himself up to his knees, his spread fingers sinking deeply into the mud. "Go find someone else to buzz."
It circled again, squawking. "You'll bring the bad guys," he told it. "Go. Go." He flapped his hand. Water trickled down the side of his neck, and even his eyes hurt from walking through the heart of a cloud.
At least the bad guys wouldn't be able to see where they were going, either. Not unless his black-winged nemesis kept on circling him, screaming out its raucous he's here! Not unless he was leaving tracks in the soft ground, leading them straight to him, X marks the spot.
And the bad guys had his gear – compass, flashlight, flares. The bad guys had coats to keep them from shivering. The bad guys knew the terrain. The bad guys had buddies and communication devices, and could cover more ground. The bad guys didn't have raw wrists and a twisted knee. The bad guys didn't have to contend with a head injury that made everything waver, that made thoughts sluggish, that made pain flare red and black whenever the terrain brought them down. The bad guys didn't… The bad guys weren't…
The bird circled again. Sheppard ducked down instinctively, bringing his arm up protectively over his head. A claw raked its way across the back of his hand, slashing a line of sharp pain. "Okay, okay, 'm going already," he told it. He pushed himself to his feet again, wiping blood and mud and water onto his sodden shirt. "Don't…" He didn't complete that, but walked on. The dark shape circled, but its screaming slowly changed its tune. After a few dozen steps, it fell silent.
Good, he thought. Good. This was bleak terrain, covered with short, hardy grass, struggling its way through the dark earth. There were rocky outcrops and scattered boulders, and occasional trees that were arched almost double with the prevailing wind. Not enough cover, he thought, then almost laughed, because the whole world was cover right now. The bad guys could be standing a dozen paces away from him, and he wouldn't be able to see them.
Something howled, and his head snapped round, sending a stab of pain through his skull, but he thought it was something far away. He wrapped his arm around his body in an attempt to conserve warmth, and limped on. At least it was quiet terrain, with no twigs to crack. At least…
Was that…? He froze, ready to defend himself, but the shape was nothing human. Jumpy as hell, John, he chided himself, as his heartbeat gradually slowed, though not to its former pace. It was a tree, branches stripped bare by the wind. He headed towards it, struggling over the uneven ground at its foot, and wrenched at one of its branches, twisting it and heaving at it until it tore free, leaving a white scar on the bark. Blood welled from the cut on the back of his hand, and fresh pain surged whenever he adjusted his grip, but at least he had a weapon.
Yeah, John, he thought. A stick against Wraith stunners and Genii firearms and bows and arrows and the scavenged weapons of a dozen worlds. Though it worked well enough for Teyla. But you are not me, he imagined her saying, and he pretended to be offended by that, and… No. No. Drifting. Teyla wasn't here. Ronon wasn't here. Rodney wasn't here. He was alone. Alone behind enemy lines. Got to get back to them. Got to…
At least they were safe, he reminded himself, as he had reminded himself a hundred times before. Safe. He'd been at the rear, covering their retreat, when the stunner had glanced across his shoulder and the club had impacted against the back of his head. He'd heard no sound of gunfire as he'd struggled to hold onto consciousness. When he'd awoken in the back of a lurching, open-topped vehicle, his team had not been lying bound beside him. Their faces hadn't been on the tattered sheet of paper, held triumphantly next to his face by a pair of dirt-stained hands, only his. He had that paper with him now, crumpled in his pocket, but he couldn't read the script. He had no idea how much money was being offered for his capture, and no idea who was offering it. From beginning to end, his captors had spoken not a word to him.
The bird screeched again. He started, instinctively making himself into a smaller target, then relaxed again. Quiet. Further away. Not here.
Two steps later, he sucked in a breath. The bird screeched when people went through its territory. That meant that somebody was following him, only minutes behind. Ronon? he thought, flashing on an image of his friend crouched over his tracks, but, no, bad guys. Probably bad guys. Gotta find cover. No, there was no cover except the damn mist. There was… No. Rocks. A dark shape over to his right.
He slithered over to the rocks, feet sliding on the wet ground. The bird shrieked again, then was silent. Sheppard grabbed at the surface of the outcrop, his palm scraping on coarse rock. It was slick with water, and he dismissed almost instantly the thought of climbing it. Instead, he pressed himself into a narrow fissure, and concentrated on preparing himself for the arrival of his pursuer. Water ran into his eyes, and he scraped it off, the heel of his hand smearing blood onto his lips. Then he scraped again, sloughing away the cloudiness and bleariness of the head injury, forcing himself to focus.
Wait, he thought. Wait.
Something moved in the mist. He stiffened, hand tightening painfully on the branch, but then the dark shape dissolved into nothing, just currents of air. Then his head snapped round for a silent bird, huge and white. His breathing was taut and tight, but he forced himself to steady it. Any second now, he thought. Any… second… now…
It was just a vague impression of darkness at first, no more concrete than the swirling movements of the mist itself, but in slow increments it took on the shape of a man. It moved briskly, its eyes on the ground, and it was coming directly towards his inadequate hiding place.
It took a split-second to decide what to do, and once he had decided, there was no time for doubts. No chance of winning here unless he had surprise on his side. Surging out of his hiding place, he hurled himself at the man, swinging the branch with all his strength. But the man dodged at the last moment, and the branch hit him across the shoulders rather than on the head, though still hard, hard enough for the impact to jar all the way to Sheppard's skull. The man fell forward onto his knees, and Sheppard's feet slithered in the mud as he pulled the branch back, readying a blow on the back of the man's neck.
The man's leg lashed out. Sheppard jumped out of the way, feeling muscles scream in his side as he flailed for balance. The mist hid everything in the world apart from the two of them, but there was no focus now, his head pounding and his vision wavering, affording him only glimpses. The man twisting around and away, pushing himself up. A hand, streaked black with mud, grabbing the branch as he swung it. A voice crying out with the pain of it, even as the hand held on, wrenching the branch out of his grip, and Sheppard let it go, rather than fight it, and the sudden lack of resistance made his attacker falter; allowed Sheppard to duck underneath his guard and smash a punch into his jaw, one, then two.
The man's head snapped back. Sheppard hurled himself bodily at him, trusting in the treacherous ground and the surprise move to take the man off balance. Sure enough, the man fell backwards, and Sheppard fell with him, but he was ready for it, regaining control the moment he landed. The man still had the branch, but Sheppard grabbed it an inch away from where the man was holding it, snatched hold of the opposite end, and drove it towards the man's throat, pinning him down as the man fought to regain control of the branch, until blood was flowing into Sheppard's grip, making everything slippery.
But then the man was still. Sheppard blinked, and slumped back down to his haunches, crouching over the downed man, breathing hard. Slowly, ever so slowly, he loosened his clenched grip on the branch, the back of his hand cracking open again with the movement.
He looked; he really did. He looked over his left shoulder, and saw nothing; moved to look over his right…
Something slammed into his back, catching him as he was half way towards standing. He'd been stabbed before – hadn't realised until afterwards what had happened – but this time he was aware of every last miniscule movement of the blade going into his flesh. He felt it sink in, and he screamed; he couldn't help it. He tried desperately to stand, to turn around, to fight, but his feet slipped in the mud, and for a moment he hung there, held up only by the blade in his back.
But worse, far worse, was when it was pulled excruciatingly slowly out of him. A hand braced his shoulder, and then, no, worse even than that, an arm snaked around his body and held him still, and all the fires of Hell blazed in the middle of his back, and the ground was slick beneath him, and he tried to shout his defiance, or perhaps he just tried to beg – please. please. don't hurt me any more - but all that came out was a rasping sound, closer to a whimper.
At the very last moment, the blade twisted, his attacker deliberately rotating it in the wound. Sheppard felt a harsh breath of laughter against the back of his neck, and then the arm let him go, and he fell to his knees, and then further forward, his hand landing only inches from the slack hand of the man he had killed.
Laughter came again. Sheppard's fingers curled into the mud, and his vision sheeted red, as if the mist itself were bleeding. He sensed rather than heard his attacker raise the knife again, this time for a fatal blow, and he flailed and found the blood-stained branch – he had no memory of dropping it – and he whirled around, and he struck and he struck and he struck again, and the knife scraped along it, sheering off bark, and he struck again, and rose up, screaming, shouting words – what words? – and the blade sliced open the palm of his injured hand, but he held on and pulled, and then had the knife himself, and… and blows on his side, on his jaw, at his throat, until he couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe, and flailed out with his last conscious thought…
Then mud beneath his knees; no, beneath his hands; no, against his face – a few blades of blood-stained grass against the nothingness of the mist. He blinked; blinked again. Got to… Got to fight. His back was a gaping hole of agony, but he slapped his hand down and pushed hard, managing to raise himself up onto all fours. He saw two men lying still, then – two men – and his head hung low, vision swaying and lurching as he struggled to raise himself the rest of the way, and then to move away – one step, two steps… staggering; almost falling… his hand pressed to his body… lurching like something weak, like something broken.
Got to… he thought. Got to… carry on. Get to… Gate. Ronon… Ronon'll find me.
But he fell again, perhaps after a minute, perhaps after an eternity of struggling to put one foot in front of the other. This time he pushed himself up with both hands, and the mud was driven into the gouge on his palm, and the pain was a little thing, really, compared with the pain in his back, but he had to bite his lips until they bled before he could be sure he wouldn't scream again.
Infection, he thought. Got to… And then it merged into one, constant as the blood-drenched mist. Gottagottagotta… Clean it, he wrenched out. His blood-caked hand lurched in front of him as he walked, red and black. He could feel warm blood drenching his back, his shirt plastered warmly to his body, but he couldn't reach the wound. He strained towards it, twisting his arm up behind his back, but the pain was too great and he almost passed out.
Perhaps it was nothing; just a scratch. Perhaps… He slipped, almost fell again, but caught himself, pain ripping through his back at the sudden movement. Perhaps it was a gaping hole. He couldn't see it – God, he couldn't see it. Couldn't see how bad it was. Just had to imagine. Had to imagine. No, he told himself. Accurately assess. Judge. Ev-al-u-ate.
He didn't know where the Gate was. He didn't know where home was. He didn't know where his team was. Two bad guys down, but there had been more, far more, shouting after him as he escaped into the mist. Got to… He bit his lip harder. Got to prepare himself for further attack – no, please, not more. I can't. – and ready himself to fight…
Pretend, he thought, as he caught his hands shaking. Pretend Rodney was there. Pretend there was someone new, someone under his command, someone… - Holland, behind enemy lines – someone who couldn't take care of themselves, someone who needed him to stay strong. "I'll get you home, Holland," he murmured, as the mist swirled like figures walking alongside him. Holland was not here, of course, but…
God, but he was just so cold. He was walking through a wall of condensed water, and the blood… blood was flowing out of him. Risk of shock, he thought, and the gottas were back – got to stop the bleeding – but he still couldn't reach, and breathing was getting harder, as if a weight was settling on his chest, pressing harder by the minute.
Should… stop, a part of his brain suggested – please, please stop. He carried on, counting steps – left before right; left before right – and forced that part to be silent. "Assess… the situation… rationally," he said out loud. Couldn't give into pain; had never given into pain. He had no idea where the Gate was, and there was every chance that he was walking further and further away from it. There was every chance that he was walking ever further away from Ronon and the others, who were searching for him. If he sat and waited…
A creature howled, closer than before. He turned towards it, but his reaction this time was sluggish; he recognised that and tried dispassionately to downgrade his estimation of his ability to defend himself if more bad guys came.
If he sat and waited, the cold might slow his bleeding. He could find a defensible position, clutch his branch and his knife, and wait for enemies to take shape in the mist.
His path started to go downwards. His feet found a stony track, perhaps one made by animals. He tried to walk in a straight line, but sometimes his steps betrayed him, and he wove off the track and into the longer grass. "Guess you're not stopping, then, huh, John?" he said, as his feet carried on, and on, and on; as the mist turned red; as he started to shake with the cold, every tremor opening up a line of fire across his back, as if someone was striking him with a whip, again and again and again.
Harder to stand. Harder to walk. "Holland," he whispered, because there was something about the featureless mist that was very like the desert – a cold, wet, grey desert, but you couldn't see a damn thing, just sand. Six years ago today, it had been. "I knew no-one was coming," Holland had said, just before he died. "I knew they wouldn't authorise a rescue mission." Sheppard had been too busy raging, then, determined to drag Holland back into life, but afterwards… Afterwards…
He stopped on a stone, which gave way, rolling free from the mud. He made no sound as he fell heavily onto his side, but as he tried to move, he heard a sound that he didn't initially recognise as his own: a faint whimper, catching on every rasping breath. He tasted mud on his lips, but when he coughed, he blacked out for a moment, recovering consciousness to see his hand half-buried by black earth, only the knife-blade and the back of his hand protruding. There was nothing beyond it but mist.
"Not… not giving up on you, Holland," he said; recognised the words as nonsensical, but said them anyway. He pushed himself to his knees, and swung around, knife in hand, checking the wilderness for bad guys who were trying to kill the man he was trying to protect. The mist swirled into the shape of a dozen men, but he scraped the heel of his hand across his eyes, blinked, and reduced them to nothing, just floating patches of cloud which he still saw, even when he closed his eyes.
When he stood, though, a man walked beside him, made out of mist and shade. "Not gonna let you die," he told Holland. It gave him the strength to put one foot in front of the other. "Keep you alive until… till Ronon finds us. Or Atlantis. Gate. Home."
The mist said nothing. He passed a tree like a looming sentinel, then another, then another – an avenue of disapproving brass, watching him pass. A branch clawed at him; he caught hold of it, using it to keep himself from falling.
He had just reached the last tree when he heard a sound behind him. He whirled round, and the pain was everything, now, but it was also nothing at all. Knife in his hand, he waited, and the figures emerged from the mist, and still they didn't say anything, just looked at him with faces made blank by the fog, and raised their guns.
"How about we talk about this, guys?" His voice was a million miles away from the way he was feeling; almost strong.
Still nothing, still nothing, not even dignifying him as human. And all he had was a knife, clutched in a hand that could barely grip, and although he could never give up, never give up, you had to be able to accurately assess the limits of his body, or you were a liability to those who depended on you, and he knew that he didn't have a hope in hell of successfully taking them down, didn't even have a hope of trying to evade their bullets.
But he tried, though, standing with his weight spread solidly on his two feet, gripping the knife in front of him. "Let's say it was all a misunderstanding," he managed to say; even managed to quirk a smile.
The first man's answering smile was cold, a dark cleft in the fog. It was the second man who fell first, though, taken down by a burst of red. The other man was taken before he could finish turning round, but his finger twitched as he fell, the bullet thudding into a tree.
"Hey, buddy," Sheppard rasped. "Thanks." He felt the strength flowing from him like water, but he clutched the knife tight enough for his whole arm to start quaking, and managed to stay on his feet. You found me, he wanted to say, and he wanted to turn to the patterned mist behind him, and say, See, Holland, I told you he'd find us, and even though he knew that he was heading rapidly into delirium, he couldn't quite bring himself to unthink such things. Kept you alive for long enough, he thought, and now it's time to…
"You look like crap," Ronon said.
"Yeah." It was a barely voiced exhalation. "Feel worse. How…" The tremors tried to take even that word. "How d'you find me?"
"Blind man could have found you," Ronon said, but his hands were moving to Sheppard's shoulder, turning him around so he could see his back. The hands there were gentle.
"Yeah." He focused on the words through the red haze that wanted to claim him. "Sorry 'bout that."
"Helped me find you." Ronon's voice came from behind him, and those hands, those gentle hands, were doing something to the fabric at his back. "This is bad, Sheppard."
"I know." And the weight on his chest was heavier, dragging his head down, and Ronon was there, too, helping him down to his knees, and, "Stay with me, buddy," Ronon said, his voice round to the front again, and Sheppard murmured, "'m not going anywhere," but his forehead was somehow pressed to Ronon's shoulder, the words almost lost there.
"I've found him," Ronon said, and Sheppard tried to stir again, before realising that Ronon wasn't talking to him. "He's hurt bad." He couldn't hear the response – "Rodney?" his lips murmured into Ronon's shoulder. "Teyla?" – but Ronon listened to it for a while. "That's bad," he said at last. "Go back to the Gate. We'll meet you there." Ronon's voice changed a little as he switched the radio off. "They're at the camp," he said. "Enemy's between them and us, but the way to the Gate's clear."
If only he could breathe easily. "Bleeding," he said, raising his head. "Got to stop…"
"I know that." And then Sheppard heard the sound of a knife cutting fabric, and there was cold rain on his back. How bad is it? he wanted to ask. What does it look like? But there was nothing between silence and screaming, and so he bit his lip and kept all words inside as Ronon did something to his back, and pressed a bandage onto the wound. Perhaps he lost a few minutes towards the end of that. The next thing he knew, Ronon was carefully wrapping his coat around Sheppard's shoulders. "Need to keep warm," Ronon said.
"I know that," Sheppard said, but perhaps he was just echoing Ronon's words, because everything he saw and heard seemed to have an echo, repeating in his mind long after it had gone away. "How…" He cleared his throat. The swirl of mist that was Holland watched him. "How far?"
"Not far," Ronon said, and that could mean anything, and he didn't quite have the courage to ask.
Setting his jaw, he stood up, not waiting for Ronon for raise him up. But one more thing needed to be said. "I'm not sure… If… if it comes to a fight, I don't think I can…"
"Won't need to." Ronon said it as if it was undeniable truth, impossible to doubt.
They started forward again, and sometimes Sheppard stumbled, but Ronon was there to catch him, grabbing his upper arm just firmly enough to keep him from falling. The coat slipped, and as he snatched for it, blood smeared over it. "Sorry," he murmured, trying to find something joking to say, but ending up just with that. "Sorry."
Ronon ignored him. The mist, if anything, grew thicker, or maybe it was just his own vision fading, because Ronon caught him once, and there were clouds even between him and Ronon's chest. "Didn't know," he confessed, "if I was going… right direction."
He heard a quiet breath of laughter. Wrong one, then, he thought, but Ronon had found him. Alone behind enemy lines, but there had never been any possibility of being left there. It should feel bad, scary even, that his team would always risk their lives in order to bring him back, and it did, but it also felt… Good, Holland said, mist swirling with a whisper of sound. "Good," Sheppard said, and perhaps it was a weakness, perhaps it was wrong, but…
"Sheppard!" A hand sharp on his face.
He blinked. "Did I…?" No words now. Breathing was becoming almost impossible. It must have been almost night, because the mist was turning black. His back, though, was a blaze of excruciating fire, and his head was throbbing, and his hand was useless, dirt deeply engrained in the two deep cuts, front and back.
He focused on his feet. "Stop," Ronon said. "Hold onto that." Fingers wrapped his good hand around a branch, and he clung onto that, dangling from it, anchoring himself on it, as Ronon fired his weapon once, then twice, and Sheppard lunged blindly at his belt, wondering if he still had his knife, and let go of the branch to stand beside Ronon, to fight alongside him, to stop them getting Holland, to keep going, to stay alive.
"I told you to stay." One minute Ronon wasn't there, and then he was. Then he wasn't again. There and not there. Flickering in and out of existence.
"Not… giving… up." The part of him that was talking didn't feel as if it was part of the rest of him.
"Course not," Ronon said, and they walked a few more steps together.
"It's not giving up, though," Ronon said, perhaps a minute later, or perhaps much later than that; it was almost fully dark by then. "Still a long way to go."
"You said…" One step. Two steps. Three, and four. "Not… far."
"I lied." Ronon was so close to him that it was as if he wanted his own strength to leach through his skin and shore Sheppard up. "It's not giving up," Ronon said. "Sometimes there's no choice about carrying on alone, but when you've got someone with you, it's stupid not to lean on them. Stupid to half kill yourself because of pride."
"Got to…" he began, but he lost track of the words after that, and had no idea if he said more.
"Everyone's safe," Ronon said quietly.
It shouldn't have been enough. He always kept going. First in, and last out. Dragging Holland through the hellhole of Afghanistan. Walking out of the infirmary on the Daedalus and going to save Teyla. He went back for others, but it terrified him to think that they might go back for him. He couldn't live with the weight of their deaths, with the weight of leaving them to suffer all alone.
"Everyone's safe," Ronon said, "but you."
He might have said more. Sheppard heard the rest of it, anyway. 'Stop playing the hero, and let him carry you already.' That was Rodney, his voice as high and angry as it always got when he was worried sick. 'We are all safe, John,' Teyla said, her face grave. 'Let us take care of you.'
Last, though, was the fading patch of mist that had never really been Holland. 'You did everything that you could, and that's enough. That meant everything.'
Sheppard tried one more step, then another, then stopped. With the last sliver of strength available to him, he turned towards Ronon. "I need you to help me, Ronon," he said. "I can't…"
"I know, buddy."
It did not feel like a defeat.
It was four days before he woke up again. They told him he had endured surgery for a deep knife wound that by rights should have killed him. The mud in his hand injury had caused complications, so that the first days of his waking were jagged with bright lights and confusion, and not really like waking at all. By the time he awoke properly, his throat felt as if it had been scraped raw, and he still couldn't like properly on his back, but had to curl on his side like a baby.
But every one of those jagged memories contained at least one of his team.
On his second day of lucidity, Rodney told him far too much about the bounty note they had pulled from his pocket – "soaked in blood, it was, and quite disgusting" – and their progress – "or lack of progress, really, because, well, Lorne seems to think it's a military matter" – in working out just who had been prepared to offer so much money for him. "Though, really," Rodney complained, "I'm a much greater threat, because, you know, genius?"
"Jealous?" Sheppard asked, and Rodney's expression froze, and he mumbled, "No. Of course not. No."
"Was it bad?" Sheppard found himself asking Teyla later, unable to get Rodney's stricken expression from his mind.
Teyla seemed to consider her answer, then decide on honesty. "There was a time," she said, "when the doctors thought you were unlikely to survive."
She said more, too, though more of it with silence than in words. He slept for a while, and woke to find Ronon sitting at his bedside, looking uncomfortable on a chair too small for him. "You okay, buddy?" Sheppard asked, for Ronon's eyes looked bruised, as if he hadn't slept enough recently.
"You stopped breathing just before we reached the Gate." The words sounded as if they had been ripped from Ronon's throat.
"Uh…" He swallowed. "Sorry, I guess."
"I thought…" Ronon looked up, and he was always honest about these things – far more so than Sheppard was ever able to be. "Thought I'd reached you too late. Thought I should have carried you right from the start."
Pain still throbbed in his back with every breath, but it was muted now, weakened by time and drugs. And if he had died, Sheppard thought, Ronon would have lived with this guilt forever. Tried, and failed. Went back for a comrade, and failed to save him.
But I'm still alive. That was what he would normally have said. He would have shrugged, and would firmly have dismissed concerns. Could have gone wrong, but didn't. Could have gone to hell in a handbasket, but once again they had managed to claw back a last-minute miracle. Push all the might-have-beens aside, to come out only in the darkest places of the night.
Instead, "It was enough," he said, because it had been. He had never doubted that his team would come for him, and when Ronon had indeed come, everything had felt right. In the end, he had laid aside the learnt habits of a lifetime – all those things that he had always thought were necessary - and simply surrendered himself to Ronon's care, trusting Ronon utterly to keep him safe. His final moment of lucidity had been almost happy.
Then he thought of Holland, six years dead. Holland had never expected anyone to come for him, but he had died knowing that someone was doing their damnedest to keep him alive. Holland had thanked him at the end, and that memory had always been painful rather than anything else, because Sheppard had failed him, he had failed. But perhaps he had not. No, he thought, perhaps he had not.
"I wouldn't have made it," he said now, quite honestly, not even faltering much over the words. "Not alone." Alone, he would have kept going, and, alone, he would have died. He wouldn't have stopped, because he was stubborn that way, but in the end his body would simply have given out.
It hadn't felt like a defeat when he had asked Ronon to help him. Now, in some crazy, ridiculous, shameful, miraculous way, it felt almost like a victory.
But, "Thank you," was all he said, and Ronon said nothing, but perhaps he understood all those things that Sheppard couldn't manage to say, because his posture eased, and he smiled.
And Sheppard thought of Holland, and for the first time ever, the memory almost made him smile, too.