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Acts of Enormity

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It would seem to me I remember
every single bloody, warm and horrible thing I know.

-- The Tragically Hip
"At the Hundredth Meridian" (Liner Notes Version)

"I was once almost struck by lightning." -- Rodney McKay, The Storm

***

The clouds have been rolling in all afternoon, dark and ominous, blocking the sun until by the time the bell rings it looks and feels like twilight. The horizon stretches out thick and black as far as he can see, heavy with ozone and violent promise. He can hear the distant, rolling booms of thunder long before the rain actually begins.

His dad would say it's going to be one hell of a storm.

He runs for it, but the rain starts before he's even a quarter of the way home--light, almost feathery drops that turn into a downpour, then into sluices of water so heavy it almost hurts when they hit. He's soaked to the skin in seconds; water squelches uncomfortably in his sneakers, pours down his back and over his eyes. He pulls up the hood of his sweatshirt, but has to push it off his head again a minute later because it's waterlogged and dripping in his eyes.

He veers off the sidewalk, still running, even though there's no point in trying to stay dry now. He just wants to get home, to get out of the cold and the wet and the thickly uncomfortable strikes of the rain. The thunder is so loud it's like someone's firing a gun next to his ear, and the lightning turns the black sky a brilliant blue in quick, terrifying succession, leaving spots racing behind his eyelids every time he closes them.

He's halfway across the park when something like a sledgehammer knocks him to the wet ground. He feels, for a second, like the thunder is right inside his body, like the storm itself is going to crush him or tear him apart.

He's on his side, blinking and gasping, feeling the mud seeping into his clothes. There are minute tremors in the ground like the aftershock of an earthquake. His skin prickles, and he can feel it in his fingertips, tingling.

The thunder's so close now. It's like a hammer in his skull.

He lies on the ground in the wet and the mud and blinks up at the tree, not twenty feet away from him. It's been split in half, blackened along the center like old firewood. It smolders a little, though the fire is quickly doused by the rain. Struck by lightning.

His chest hurts, where he hit the ground on his side.

The sky bursts in light, then he hears the thunder again, very, very near. It sounds like a growl, like the sky is angry.

He inhales water and he coughs. There's enough water on the ground that he'll drown, if he doesn't move.

The thunder growls again. Close and very loud.

***

"God damn it!" John had to shout to be heard over the thunder and rain. "Somebody remind me why we didn't bring the Jumper." He was far enough ahead of them that it was hard to make out his form in the twilight darkness, almost as if a ghost were talking to them.

"We couldn't land it, sir," Aiden answered miserably. Water poured off the brim of his black ball cap like a waterfall. He wiped his nose with his sleeve, then grimaced, showing a sudden flash of white teeth. "Because of the trees."

"Fucking trees," John said. "I don't think I've ever been this wet in my entire life."

"It is indeed unpleasant," Teyla put in patiently, though her voice was also raised so the men could hear her. The thunder rolled again as she spoke, and she had to pause until the crash of it faded. The space between the treetops glowed violet with the flash lightning. "But we shall be at the Stargate soon, then warm and dry in Atlantis."

The underlying 'so quit your damn complaining' was more than clear, but Teyla was far too diplomatic to actually say that.

Rodney didn't say anything at all. He was too busy watching the lightning, and counting.

If he remembered correctly--and he was sure he did--the fewer the seconds between the lightning strike and the sound of the thunder, the closer the storm was overhead. Right now he hadn't managed to get to five-one-thousand after the lightning turned the sky that bizarre shade of neon purple before hearing the ear-numbing boom. So the storm was pretty much right on top of them.

So far that hadn't been a problem, aside from the miserable unpleasantness of being waterlogged while lugging around waterlogged gear. But they were still in the middle of a forest, and though the trees were extremely tall and extremely large they were nonetheless essentially walking though a gauntlet of organic lightning conductors. And didn't everyone's mother tell them to never stand under a tree during a thunderstorm?

Well, Rodney's mother had, at least, but then she was prone to both worry and exaggeration.

All the same, they couldn't get to the Stargate fast enough, as far as Rodney was concerned. The idea of being warm and dry and safe behind Atlantis's enormous walls was incredibly appealing.

And he'd already almost been hit by lightning once in his life. He really, really didn't want to risk that again.

"Shit!" John swore, though it was too dark now for Rodney to see why. A second later, though, John had raised his P90 with the glowing scope-mounted flashlight. Rodney assumed he had tripped over something in the dark.

He raised his own P90 as well, switching the light on. He much preferred not having to carry it, but it was more convenient than having to go for the flashlight in his pack.

Beside him, Teyla, then Aiden did the same. It was strange, suddenly being able to see clearly again. The light looked very yellow between the lightning strikes, and cast long, thick shadows from the trees.

All of a sudden, Teyla stopped. With all the light it was easy to see the look of confusion on her face.

"I'm sensing something," she said. "Yet--"

She was cut off by the stuttering of weapons fire, and then the sound of John screaming.

***

"Rodney, dear. There are some men here who'd like to speak to you," his mother says. She has a wide, brittle smile.

He's just come home from school. It's barely 4:00 in the afternoon, even though he didn't take his usual shortcut through the park. He's upset, and didn't particularly want to get home.

Not that Rodney ever wants to get home, much. But this time is even worse.

He didn't win the science fair. He doesn't get to go to the regionals. Even though he had the best project--even though his teacher said he had the best project--in the whole class. He doesn't get to go.

Mrs. Anderson told him it would set a bad precedent. Grade six students aren't meant to make bombs for their science-fair projects. It's dangerous, even if it doesn't have any explosives or radioactive materials in it.

Rodney's so disappointed it still stings, like after you do the sissy tests or 'Indian sunburns' in the schoolyard. He really wanted his parents to be impressed at what he'd figured out all by himself. He wanted them to be proud of him.

Instead, he'll just get another A+. He always gets A pluses in school. It's like a joke, almost. Nobody even cares.

And now there are two strange men in dark suits, sitting in the kitchen of his house wanting to talk to him.

"Okay," Rodney says quietly. He takes his jacket off as slowly as possible, unties his sneakers glacially. Every so often he sneaks little looks at the men at the kitchen table. They don't look very nice and it makes him feel afraid.

They're drinking coffee that his mom made for them, and they try to chat and even smile, but his mom's so nervous she can barely even answer. She just hovers next to the sink and wrings her hands when she thinks no one's looking. Her smile's all teeth but there's nothing behind it. It's like a mask.

Rodney's mom is always nervous about everything, but the fact that she's so scared now only makes him feel more scared, too. He wants to go to his room and hide.

He walks the short distance from the front hall to the kitchen and Rodney's heart is hammering so hard when he finally reaches the table that he's sure the men can hear it. His mom asks him if he wants a glass of milk but he says no. He feels stupid drinking milk in front of men in suits drinking coffee. He feels humiliated that his mom even asked that.

"So," one of the men says. He's got dark gray hair at his temples and deep lines next to his eyes. He smiles like they're going to be great friends. "How was school?"

Rodney decides he hates him already. He kicks his heels against the legs of his chair.

"Crappy," Rodney says. He hears his mother's tiny gasp next to the sink and it almost makes him smile. "I didn't win the science fair."

"Sorry to hear that," the man says. His smile doesn't move but Rodney can tell that he's angry now, hearing bad words from a kid. Rodney wants to be pleased about that but he's still too scared. He just tries to look at the man blandly like he doesn't care, but he can't make himself stop kicking the chair. Rodney's dad hates it when he does nervous things like that.

The man next to him shifts in his chair, but he doesn't say anything. He doesn't smile, either.

"That's actually what we want to talk to you about," the first, gray-templed man says. "We'd really like it if you could tell us why you decided to build a model of a nuclear weapon for your sixth grade science fair."

Rodney's eyes go wide. He thinks about sliding off the chair and just running--slipping out the front door and running far, far away.

He's in so much trouble.

There's a sudden, terrible flash of lightning right outside the window. It's followed by a crash of thunder, close enough that the house shakes.

The eyes of the men glow yellow, just for a second, in the light.

***

The four of them are out on the balcony. It's early evening and the sun is about to set. John and Rodney are sitting on the couch with Teyla in between them. Aiden's perched on one of the arms.

Rodney isn't sure when it became a tradition to do this, but almost every evening the three of them end up here, joining the major. They watch the sunset and talk and then make sure John goes inside before it gets too cold.

They won't be able to do this for much longer, Rodney knows. That's a good thing, of course--an excellent thing. John's almost strong enough to be put on light duties. He'll have better things to do than lounge on the balcony all day, reading War and Peace and playing with Aiden's Game Boy. He'll even be able to fly.

Rodney's looking forward to having John leading his team again, to having everything back to normal again. But he knows he'll miss this, these sunsets, all the same.

"Sorry, Ford," John says. He grins. "But there are no elephants in Denmark."

Aiden's mouth drops open. "How did you do that?"

John shrugs, loose and easy. "Told you--I'm psychic."

Rodney smirks, shaking his head. "That is such complete and utter bullshit, Sheppard," he says. He turns to Aiden, who's now looking between him and John and obviously confused. "It's a parlor trick," Rodney explains. "The first word that pops into anyone's mind when they're asked to name an animal starting with 'E' is 'elephant.' It's the same with the country. I'll bet you don't even know another animal with a name starting with 'E'."

John reaches one long leg in front of Teyla's to nudge Rodney in the shin with his bare foot, though there's no malice behind it. "Way to spoil my caché, genius," he says, but he's still smiling. He leans back against the couch, spreading one arm out along the backrest. He pokes Rodney in the ear. "I'll bet you don't even know another country that starts with 'D'."

"Dominican Republic," Rodney says instantly.

John chuckles. "And I'll bet you would have used that one, too, wouldn't you?"

"Of course," Rodney says. "I know the game."

"What is an elephant?" Teyla asks.

Rodney leans forward so he can look around Teyla, as John starts to explain.

"Well," Johns says, "it's a very large animal. It's gray. With a trunk. Long nose," he elaborates when Teyla looks perplexed. He makes a pulling gesture at his face. "And tusks. Like, giant pointy teeth."

"I see," Teyla says dubiously. It's obvious she has no idea.

"I can't believe how bad you are at that," Rodney says. And he really can't--it's not like the major lacks for imagination.

"Emu," Aiden says, out of nowhere.

John, Rodney and Teyla all turn to look at him.

Aiden's grinning. "Emu. It's another animal starting with 'E'."

John throws his head back and laughs, long and loud.

Rodney watches John laugh, and he can't help smiling, can't help laughing with him. He is so incredibly happy that John is there, that John is with him, and whole and healthy and safe and alive.

Teyla's smiling too, but then it fades, replaced by a look of concern.

"I'm sensing something," she says, just as the rain begins to fall.

***

Something hit him in the chest, driving the butt of his P90 back against his ribcage. Rodney's finger tightened on the trigger automatically and he knew he'd shot whatever it was point-blank even as he fell.

He landed hard on his back in the mud, felt his pack creak underneath him. He knew he probably should be in pain but his adrenaline was flooding up and he didn't feel anything. He rolled onto his side, shoving desperately at the dead thing that had slammed into him. Trying to disentangle its legs from his arms, from his gun.

He didn't know what had happened to Aiden and Teyla, but he could still hear John screaming. But that was okay. As long as he was making noise he was still alive.

The dead thing finally slid off his P90 and Rodney was able to roll up onto his knees, raise his gun and use the flashlight to see.

Something was running at him.

He had time to register big dog in his brain and then terror and reflexes took over and he pulled the trigger again, sending a river of bullets into the creature's body. It made a single, sharp yowl of pain and then fell over dead, skidding to a stop in the wet earth, trailing water.

Rodney lurched to his feet, following the sound of John's voice. It felt like hours had gone by already; like John had been screaming for hours with no one to help him.

He saw him, finally, in the wake of another purple snap of lightning. John was on his back, struggling on the ground with one arm raised above his head. His other hand groped futilely for the grip of his P90.

One of the dogs was dragging him away. John's forearm was in the dog's mouth.

Rodney swung his P90 up and emptied the last of his magazine into the dog. It shrieked and let John's hand drop before it crashed onto its side. Rodney could see John's blood on its teeth, saw the brief animal-glow of its eyes in his P90's flashlight as it died.

"John!" Rodney ran over to him, grabbed him by the front of his soaked jacket and hauled him upright. John staggered and nearly fell into him. His face was very white.

"Go!" Rodney shouted at him. He gave him a little push in the direction of the gate. They were still a good twenty minute walk away from it. "Go! Go, run!"

John ran, fighting for traction in the wet earth. Rodney glanced behind him, looking for Aiden and Teyla. But he couldn't see them, not even the lights from their guns.

He took off after John, trying to reload his P90 as he moved, but only fumbling it with now-shaking hands. The new magazine dropped and bounced off his boot but he had no time to pick it up. He couldn't hear anything over the thunder and the lash of the rain. Only the small yellow beam from his P90's light and the purple lightning kept him from being totally blind.

Rodney was sure there were dogs all around them, following them, but he couldn't see their dark pelts in the shadows, couldn't hear them over the storm.

He had to get to John before they did.

Even hurt, John could run incredibly fast. Rodney couldn't catch up with him, could only even see him because of the glow from the flashlight on his P90, leading Rodney on like a beacon.

Until it stopped, dropped out of sight suddenly like it had never even existed.

Rodney ran faster. His lungs were acid, his heart a painful, throbbing weight. His mind was full of teeth and blood and John being dragged off to die.

It wasn't until Rodney nearly fell over him--the major on his hands and knees in the ankle-high water--that Rodney realized John had run the wrong way.

***

The corridors in this part of the base are deserted since almost everyone is at the impromptu party in the mess, celebrating it not being the end of the world.

The guest quarters he never used are the last ones on the right. Rodney's overnight bag is on the bed--he was only ever in the room long enough to leave it behind.

Rodney's been wearing the same clothes for three days. He hasn't slept in at least that long. He's so tired he's just about swaying on his feet, giddy from exhaustion and the adrenaline crash now that the threat's over. He can't remember the last time he ate anything, either. Maybe when the sergeant with the buzz cut and glasses brought him a coffee and a doughnut. He can't remember if he ate the doughnut.

Very bad combination, all of that. Rodney thinks he's probably lucky he hasn't passed out yet.

He needs a shower, desperately, and to brush his teeth. And then to fall into bed for the few hours of sleep he can get before they ship him back to Siberia.

But instead of doing any of that Rodney just sits on the edge of the bed. What he wants to do is pull his legs up to his chest, wrap his arms around them and rock back and forth the way he did when he was a child. But he's thirty-three years old and the world's not going to blow up after all, so he doesn't.

Rodney wants to feel happy about that, he really does, but all he can think of is what a failure he is. The biggest role he played was almost killing Samantha Carter with a stupid idea she'd told him wasn't going to work in the first place. In the end, his finest moment was writing one ten-line program to alter the X-302's safety protocols so the hyperdrive would start. And that was it, the entirely of his input.

Oh--except for the part where he confessed to Carter that he liked piano and had a miserable childhood. What a selfish waste of her time that was. Like she even gave a damn.

Rodney knows just how pathetic it is to be feeling this way, but he can't help it. This was the single most important contribution to anything he could've ever made in his entire life, and in the end he did nothing at all.

He might as well have stayed in Russia with the Naquadah generators, for all the good he did. He's never felt so stupid, so completely and utterly useless.

"Some genius," Rodney whispers aloud. His voice is harsh with fatigue and contempt. "Some scientist." He's staring dully at the tacky art print on the wall. He's so tired he can't even figure out what the picture's meant to be.

But then, he's never understood art, has he? He's never figured out the art of anything.

Maybe it's the uncomfortable bed he's on, maybe it's the circumstances or the featureless room, but he suddenly remembers being twelve and sitting on the floor of his parents' bedroom with his back against their bed. Holding the bottle of his mother's Valium in his hands.

I might as well have taken them all, Rodney thinks. I should have just taken all of them. It wouldn't have made a fucking bit of difference.

He's never made a significant contribution to anything.

It's an astonishingly bleak epiphany, startlingly so. He sits there, stunned in the wake of this terrible understanding. It's even hard to breathe.

Hard to breathe. And his chest hurts. And he's lying--

***

Rodney was lying in water with a shallow, swift current running all around him. His chest hurt. His head hurt too, like being stabbed in the eye. And he was terribly cold. His fingertips tingled, going numb like an aftershock of electricity. But he was almost certain he hadn't been hit by lightning.

There was a weight on his chest. He didn't know what it was.

Rodney inhaled water and coughed. And there was something about that--something about water, and blood, and teeth, and drowning. Something he had to remember.

He had to get up. He had to get up and keep going. He was sure of that much; the urgency of it beat at him like the thrum of pain from his chest and head. He had to stand, and walk, and get to the Stargate. He couldn't stay here. If he stayed here John would die.

John. Where was John?

Rodney opened his eyes. He was cold, lying on his back in water. Water that was deep enough to almost cover his nose and mouth. And it was rising, because of the rain.

The sky glowed purple with lightning.

With a lot of effort he lifted his head. It was very hard to move, and it hurt. It hurt, and it was so hard to breathe.

Something was pressing down on his chest, keeping him semi-submerged in the water. Something that growled, like the thunder.

He saw a flash of yellow: the reflected glow of animal eyes.

***

"John!" Rodney skidded to a stop, sliding on the waterlogged ground. He had to brace himself against the tree John was kneeling next to so he wouldn't careen into the major's head.

He wanted desperately to catch his breath, but there was no time.

The sky lit up with another arc of purple lightning, and he saw something moving out of the corner of his eye: black and low to the ground, heading right for John.

Rodney raised his P90 automatically, then remembered there weren't any rounds in it. John's P90 was dragging in the mud but it was too late to go for it. Too late for Rodney to draw his sidearm...

John looked up in time to see the dog running at him.

"Here, boy," John said, and he raised his arms like it was a Labrador retriever bounding up to him, instead of a 60-kilo monster about to rip his throat out.

Rodney unclipped his P90 and grabbed it around the barrel like a club as it dropped. He swung it down with all his strength, aiming at the dog's shoulder.

The dog ignored Rodney entirely--which was interesting, some distant, observing part of him noted--until the gun butt slammed into it and knocked it onto its side. The flashlight broke in a pathetic pop of yellow.

The creature let out a very dog-like yelp and rolled, sending up waves from the water and moving too far away for Rodney to hit it with his makeshift club again.

But it had given him enough time to drop the P90 and go for his sidearm. He fired but missed since he could barely see now with one light broken and the other buried in mud. But he still heard the dog cry out and scramble away.

Maybe they were finally learning that the Bang! Bang! noise meant something bad, though all Rodney cared about was the fact that the dog was gone.

Rodney shoved his sidearm back into its holster and grabbed John's collar, using it to haul him to his feet against the tree trunk. Rodney just held him there for a minute, sucking in huge lungfulls of air and encouraging his pounding heart to calm down. When he finally had enough air to speak he tried to contact Teyla and Aiden over the radio, but there was nothing but static when he clicked it on. Maybe it was because of electrical interference from the storm. Or maybe they were too far away. Like back in Atlantis, since he was sure they'd managed to actually run in the direction of the Gate. Maybe even now they were mounting a rescue. It was a cheering thought.

Less cheering was the thought that maybe they couldn't answer because they'd been torn apart by vicious animals. Rodney did his best to put that one out of his mind.

John swayed drunkenly and Rodney had to press him to the trunk so he wouldn't slide down into the water again. "Why'd you hit the dog?" John asked. "That was mean."

Rodney looked at him. John's face was very pale against the darkness. "I think you're going into shock," Rodney said. That was very, very bad. He had to find somewhere safe away from the dogs, where John could lie down and keep warm. Rodney threw John's nearer arm over his shoulder and grabbed his wrist. John's hand was icy cold and he cried out in pain.

"Sorry," Rodney said quickly. He'd forgotten the dog had bitten John's left arm.

He wrapped his other arm around John's middle, taking a handful of the waist of John's pants. John's P90 swung awkwardly between them.

Rodney looked around frantically, trying to find some kind of shelter, somewhere to hide and take care of John. He didn't think he'd be able to pull John up into one of the trees...

He thought he heard more growling, but it might just have been the unceasing rain.

There. He squinted through another lightning strike. There--it looked like one of the ancient, colossal trees was dead, the trunk hollowed out to make a kind of shallow cave. He half-dragged John towards it, trying not to trip on the major's feet. John stumbled along beside him.

"Where're we going?" John asked. He sounded drunk now, too. His words were beginning to slur.

Rodney really hoped there was no dogs--or anything worse--inside the tree. It was almost impossible to see anything with the light on the remaining P90 still mostly mud-covered and pointing straight at the ground.

Rodney had to duck to go through the opening, and as soon as he bent his body John tripped and his weight pulled both of them to their knees. Only Rodney's grip on John kept the other man from smacking face-first into the back wall.

"Sorry," Rodney muttered. He had to physically manhandle John to get him lying more-or-less comfortably on the earthen floor. It was slightly dryer in here but musty and incredibly humid, though already warmer than it had been outside. Hopefully they weren't breathing in any deadly allergens or spores or whatever.

John was strangely docile, allowing Rodney to move him. "I feel weird," John said. He laughed but it sounded weak and raspy.

Rodney grabbed John's P90, wiping the flashlight lens clean on his soaking sleeve. He leaned the gun against one of John's legs, angling the light so that it illuminated the small shelter. He knew that was probably a bad idea but they didn't have a choice. He had to be able to see. He unclipped his backpack, dug around in it and pulled out the first-aid kit and the canteen and a couple of his protein bars. Then he lifted John's feet and shoved the backpack underneath them. You always had to elevate the feet of a shock victim.

He'd had to take a basic first-aid course before being allowed to go to Atlantis; he'd paid very close attention in case he'd ever have to use any of it on himself.

Once he had John's feet elevated Rodney picked up John's wounded arm. "This is going to hurt," he said, and he pushed up the sleeve.

John whimpered like a puppy but didn't make any other sound, except for his rasping breathing.

The wound wasn't deep, just a series of teeth puncture wounds. The skin had torn around them when the dog had dragged John along the ground. There wasn't too much bleeding, though, which Rodney thought was a good sign. The teeth marks would probably scar, but Rodney hoped there wouldn't be any permanent nerve or tendon damage. "I've got to clean this," he said. "God knows what kind of infection you've already got--"

Rodney froze, his hands still cradling John's forearm.

The last time John had been pale, and confused, and breathing strangely, he'd almost died. From an infection.

John couldn't have another infection. He couldn't have a fever again. There was just no way. The universe couldn't be that cruel.

Well, of course it could. Even to John.

Rodney let go of John and snatched up his first-aid kit. There were antibiotics in there, and heavy-duty antiseptics...He found the package of the thick, orange-colored antiseptic and ripped it open, wincing at the strong chemical smell. He pulled out the wadded-up pad of the stuff and wiped it liberally over the bites on John's arm. John moaned and tried to yank his arm away but there was no strength in it and Rodney held on to him easily. When all the wounds were covered with a rime of the antiseptic Rodney dropped it, turning on his knees to grab the bandages in the first-aid kit and the powdered antibiotics.

And came face-to-face with a dog.

It actually looked more catlike, in the light, except that its muzzle was longer and it didn't have recognizable ears. Its face was white, completely hairless. It had two little divot-things on either side of its nose, like extra nostrils.

Just like the Wraith did.

And Teyla, Rodney remembered--Teyla had been able to sense them.

It snarled, taking a step forward. Rodney eased his right hand back, groping for the P90 propped up against John's thigh. He tried very, very hard not to blink, not to move his head at all. All of the dog-cat-thing's pointed teeth were at the exact same level as his eyes.

John's foot twitched, slid off the backpack with a thump.

The creature swung its head to the side, nostrils flaring as it inhaled. Ignoring Rodney.

Rodney yanked up the P90, shoved it into the dog's neck and fired.

There was an extremely gross explosion of blood and gore before the animal dropped in its tracks. Its legs ground uselessly at the muddy earth before going still.

"Fuck," Rodney breathed, staring at the corpse. He hadn't even heard it come in.

He didn't want to touch the thing, let alone pick it up, but the last thing he wanted was some Wraith-dog-cat-thing bleeding god-only-knew-what into their shelter. Besides, it was lying on John's legs. And it stank.

He grabbed one of its massive forelegs, dragging it only as far as the entrance to the hollow tree. He left it just outside, where hopefully it would serve as a warning to all its Wraith-cat-dog brethren.

Rodney dropped to his knees as soon as he was inside the shelter again. God, he just wanted to curl up into a little ball in the corner and quietly freak out. He was a scientist, not an action hero. John should be the one shooting demon cats and worrying about how the hell they were ever going to get out of this. Not the other way around.

He didn't want to be the one who was terrified all the time.

"Okay," he said, panting. "Where were we? Ah, right. Bandages." And checking for fever. Bandages could wait.

Rodney maneuvered himself the short distance to reach John's head, remembering the last time how terrible touching him had been, like John had a furnace inside his skull. Rodney braced himself to feel that again, wondering if he should risk dragging John back outside, into the cooler rain...

John was unconscious. His skin was clammy and cool. And Rodney finally remembered that John's arm hadn't been hot either, when he was putting the antiseptic on it. In fact, John's hand had been freezing cold.

Not fever, then. Shock. That was one of the symptoms of shock, the skin being clammy and cold. Just like Rodney had figured outside because John had been so pale and confused. Rodney didn't think John had bled enough to go into shock, but he didn't know. He didn't know. All they'd taught him was that he had to make sure John kept breathing, and keep him warm.

Except...Didn't you breathe faster from shock? So why was John breathing so slowly? And that sound. It was hard to hear above the rain, but when John breathed it rasped. In and out.

Rodney's eyes went wide. He pressed two fingers to John's throat, feeling for his pulse. It was weak, and slow.

Not fever. Not shock. Not shock at all.

Rodney picked up the P90 again then shone the flashlight directly into John's face. He used his thumb to gently lift up one of John's eyelids. His pupil was huge: a black circle like an eclipse against the thin green ring of the iris. It didn't shrink, even with the light shining right into it.

Rodney moved his hand back, pulled the light away. "You've been drugged," he said, astonished. The dogs' saliva, or something in their mouths. It was acting like a narcotic. Like Valium.

Like a Valium overdose, to be exact. Rodney should have noticed it earlier. He should have recognized the symptoms.

He shoved the P90 aside, picking up fistfuls of John's waterlogged and muddy jacket. He levered John up until he could prop him against the wall. And then he shook him.

"Wake up!" he shouted at him. "John! Wake the fuck up! Now!"

John murmured something, but didn't so much as blink. His head hung forward. He was completely limp, like a rag doll.

"John!" Rodney tried to pull John up to his feet, but the major was a dead weight and Rodney couldn't hold him. Rodney wasn't even sure he could still hear him breathing over the lashing of the rain. Or over the sound of his own heart, thudding like panic in his ears.

How could he have missed this earlier? How could he have not seen the symptoms? How could he have been so fucking stupid? He'd been worried about shock and let John lie down. It was the absolute worst thing you could do.

"God damn it! John!" Rodney hesitated, then pulled John's head up by his hair and slapped him. He winced at the noise but John showed no reaction at all.

Rodney sat back on his heels, trying to think through the thunder of his panic. When someone had overdosed on Valium you had to keep them awake, get their metabolism up to burn the drug out of their system...

Epinephrine. Epinephrine might do that.

Rodney reached into one of the pockets of his vest and yanked out his allergy kit. He fumbled with it like he had with the P90's magazine, because his hands were shaking. He dropped the kit once before he was able to take out the Epi Pen.

He stabbed it down on John's thigh, feeling absurdly guilty about it. He'd had this done to him, or done it to himself, enough times in his life to know what happened next wasn't going to be pleasant.

Provided it worked. Provided it didn't somehow make things worse. Maybe it would react badly with the poison...

John's head rolled up, smacking against the wood behind him. He inhaled sharply and opened his eyes.

***

"Daddy?"

His father's voice woke him up, carrying harsh and loud down the hallway to his room. He sounds angry. Rodney wonders if his parents are fighting again. But they don't normally do that this late at night.

The bedroom light is on and his father is standing in the middle of the room. He's wearing pajama pants but no shirt. Rodney has never seen his father without a shirt before. The strangeness of it is frightening.

His father is holding his mother, clasped tightly to him. One of his large arms is around her waist, the other around her back and holding up her head. And he's shaking her, and yelling. Yelling at her to wake up.

His dad stops yelling all of a sudden when Rodney's mommy moans. Her voice is soft and rasping, and she's breathing really slow. Her eyes are only a little bit open, like she's mostly asleep, and she just hangs there limp in daddy's arms, kind of flopping back and forth. Her face is as white as the carpet.

His mommy's bottle of Valium is open, spilled on the rug. The blue color of the pills is very easy to see against the white carpet under the light. Rodney can only count ten pills, and he can count very high.

Mommy's taken too many again.

Rodney turns around and runs down the hallway before daddy sees him. He goes down the stairs to the kitchen, being very careful to hold on to the banister so he won't fall.

He has to climb on a chair to reach the phone on the wall.

The woman who speaks to him at 911 is nice. She says there will be an ambulance at his house right away. She tells him he's very brave.

But Rodney doesn't feel brave. All he feels is scared. He wasn't supposed to call 911. His father told him not to, last time. No one's supposed to know.

He should go back to bed, pretend he's asleep when the firefighters and police and the ambulance come. Maybe that way his daddy won't be so mad.

He should do that. That's the smart thing to do, and he's meant to be really smart. But he just stands there instead, underneath the phone in his footie pajamas, wringing his hands.

Upstairs, his father has started shouting again. Rodney's scared that his mother can't stay awake. She could, last time. He remembered hearing that from his bedroom: his mommy talking, telling daddy to leave her alone. Last time she was even able to walk around. He knows that because his father made her walk up and down the stairs with him all night, and the stairs creak really loudly if you're not careful how you walk on them.

She told Rodney that she takes the blue pills called Valium to help her sleep. So she must have taken even more now than last time, since she can't even wake up anymore. Maybe this time she's taken so many she'll die. Rodney doesn't want his mommy to die.

He can hear the sirens of the fire trucks down the street, and that makes him feel a little better. The fire trucks always come first, and then the ambulance. So the ambulance will be here very soon, and then mommy will be all right.

Rodney hears creaking on the stairs, and when he peeks around the doorway to look down the hall he can see his father. Daddy must have heard the sirens too. He looks really, really mad.

Rodney backs up until his shoulders hit against the sink. His daddy is coming to get him.

The wooden floor of the hallway creaks too, when his daddy walks on it. It's very loud. Like thunder.

***

Get up!

There was something on his chest, weighing him down, pressing him into the water. He could feel water sliding against his lips, running into his mouth every time he breathed. He could feel it at his temples, lapping at his half-closed eyes.

Rodney's ribs ached. His head was dark agony. His hands and feet were nearly numb and the electric tingling was spreading up his legs and arms.

When he turned his head he could barely make out two Wraith-dogs: pacing back and forth and kicking up sprays of water. Rain streamed over their white muzzles, the only parts of them truly visible in the darkness between the lightning. When the lightning struck their coats looked dull red and their eyes glowed. Yellow, like a flashlight.

Get up! McKay! Get up or you'll die!

It was funny--it sounded almost like John, shouting at him in his head. But John wasn't there. John was...

Where was he?

His stumbling heart convulsed with a tiny thrill of fear. Rodney couldn't remember. He'd brought John somewhere, and it was raining and he was trying to help him...

It was so hard to think. And he hurt, and was so tired and cold. He could just stay here, close his eyes. Just sleep for a little while.

Something warm as blood touched his face. He heard something growl.

Rodney opened his eyes. There was a Wraith-dog standing over him, its front paws like bricks on his chest. He thought he could feel the nail-stabs of its cat-like claws.

The creature had its muzzle right in his face, the knife-blade teeth directly over his eyes. It began sniffing him, almost decorously, as if deciding which part to tear off first.

The surge of adrenaline was like a lightning bolt in his brain. Rodney grabbed his sidearm and yanked it out of the holster. He could barely feel it in his hand, was almost too weak to hold it, but he didn't have to move it far.

The gunshot was very loud, even against the rain. The dog's head snapped sideways and its body toppled after, keeling over onto its side.

The other two Wraith-creatures made frightened noises and raced away. They had obviously learned what the noise meant.

Get up!

Rodney rolled ponderously onto his left side, still holding the gun. He tried to reholster it but his hand was shaking so badly he dropped it. He groped for it in the muddy water but he couldn't feel anything with his fingers anymore.

He didn't have his P90 either. He didn't know what had happened to it.

He barely managed to catch himself when he rolled on his front, to keep from falling face-first into the water. His arms trembled violently.

It took a great deal of effort to push himself up to his hands and knees. He swayed, his shuddering arms barely holding him. Rodney didn't think his legs were going to work. It was terrible just trying to raise his head.

But he had to get up. The dogs would come back soon.

There was something muddy and jagged with plant life very near to him, rising up out of the water. Rodney blinked at it for a long time, not understanding what he was seeing. He finally realized what it was, the memory trickling down like water into his brain.

The side of the ravine. He could use that to get upright. Find his way back.

Rodney had to crawl to get there, and the short distance left him exhausted. He leaned against the solid surface for a while, panting. His head and chest were a roaring wave of pain. He licked his lips and tasted mud.

He pulled against one of the stubby trees with both hands, using it as a kind of lever so he could finally get his feet under him. His head spun dangerously when he stood, and if he hadn't been holding onto something he would have fallen.

Rodney tilted his head back slowly, hoping he wouldn't pass out, squinting up into the pelting rain. He could only see the top of the ravine during the lightning flashes. It looked impossibly high.

There was no way he could climb it. Not like this. He could barely move.

He let out a single, gasping sob of frustration. He had to climb it. He had no choice. John was up there. He had to get to him--

There was a noise, a growl, behind him. Rodney turned.

He'd forgotten about the other two dogs.

And now one of them leaped for him. Its massive jaws closed around Rodney's arm, pulling him off his precarious balance. The second one slammed into Rodney's side, sending him sprawling into the water and mud.

***

"Rodney?" John was staring at him, looking like he'd been startled out of sleep. He started to pant. "What--?"

"You were poisoned," Rodney said. He felt almost giddy with relief, watching as a bit of color leaked back into John's face. "The dog bite poisoned you. I had to inject you with my Epi Pen, to speed your heart up."

John just blinked at him. "What?"

"Never mind," Rodney said. He stood, picking John up by the front of his jacket. He could feel little stabs of pain deep in his biceps and along his shoulders as he pulled John to his feet. If they got out of this alive he was going to be unbelievably sore from hauling the major around.

John made some inarticulate protest, which Rodney ignored. He stood nearly chest-to-chest with John, using his weight to hold the other man steady against the tree.

"Can you stand?" Rodney asked him. When John didn't answer right away he gave him a little shake. "God damn it! Can you stand?"

"Yes! Yes, I can stand!" John's voice was still far too weak but his obvious annoyance was gratifying--anything that meant his adrenaline was up. He gave a shaky little laugh. "I feel really weird."

"I know," Rodney said. "It's the epinephrine."

"Epinephrine." John repeated. Rodney could practically see the word chugging its way through his mind. John's pupils were still huge. "You gave me your epinephrine?"

"Yes," Rodney said. "I had to get your heart rate up. You--"

"Don't you need it?" John said. He looked horribly concerned.

Rodney opened his mouth, then shut it again. He smiled a little. "No," he said. "Not right now. I'm okay."

"Good," John said. "That's good." He closed his eyes, still panting. "I'm floating..."

"John!" Rodney gave him another little shake. "Look at me," he ordered when John opened his eyes. "This is extremely important. You have to pay attention."

It was clear John was struggling to concentrate, but he nodded. "Okay."

"All right," Rodney said. He backed up a step, his hands still closed around John's jacket and pressing him against the wood. "Can you stand if I let you go?"

"Sure," John said. His eyebrows knit in confusion. "Why are you holding me up?"

"Long story," Rodney said. He took another step back, then slowly relaxed his arms.

John swayed, but he didn't fall. "Whoa," he said. "Dizzy."

"No kidding," Rodney said curtly. He glanced behind them, suddenly worried another Wraith-whatever-thing had sneaked in while he was pinning John to the wall. But there was nothing there and he exhaled silently in relief.

"All right." He looked at John for a moment, thinking furiously. "I need to take off your jacket."

"Okay..." John said softly. He was still panting but he'd begun listing a little to the side, his eyes only half open.

Rodney grabbed him by the shoulders and slammed him back against the wall. "You have to stay awake, John!" he said. "No sleeping! Got it?"

John nodded vaguely. "Sure."

Rodney stripped John's vest and jacket off, moving as quickly as possible while making sure John didn't lose his balance. John hissed in pain when Rodney pulled the sleeve over his bitten arm, but other than that he was quiet.

Rodney threw the jacket against the far wall of the shelter, made sure John wouldn't move if he let go of him, then scooped up the bandages from the first aid kit he hadn't been able to use earlier. He wrapped John's forearm as best he could, and if he was a little rougher than he normally would have been, well, being in pain was going to help John stay alive. Rodney just tried not to feel guilty every time he made John cry out or try to pull away from him.

He thought about making John take his shirt off as well, especially considering how warm it was in the shelter now, with their combined body heat. But he decided that would be too difficult and he didn't want John to get cold later.

Rodney turned around, looking for the orange antiseptic he'd discarded earlier. He found it next to one of the shelter's walls where he'd tossed it and now he scooped it up, grimacing a little at the texture and the smell. Then he went back to John and began rubbing it into the cloth of his shirt, trying to get enough on his fingers to rub on John's face, into his hair.

"Hey!" John protested weakly. He tried to bat at Rodney's hands. He almost succeeded a few times, which Rodney took to be a good sign. "Don't do that." He made a face. "It smells."

"Good," Rodney said. He spread more down John's chest, under both of his arms. The odor reminded him of the Detol his mother would use on his cuts when he was a child. "It's meant to. I'm trying to disguise your scent."

John looked affronted. "I don't smell."

"It's not for you," Rodney snapped. "It's for the animals that attacked you. I think they're attracted to our scent because of the ATA gene."

John seemed to have a very hard time with that one. "The ATA gene smells?"

"Close enough," Rodney said. "The dog-things attacked me and you, and then when we were together they only went for you, probably because you smell more like an Ancient, or something. I think they might have been made by the Wraith, specifically to attack Ancients."

John considered that. "Oh."

"So I'm trying to disguise your scent," Rodney said. "So the dogs won't know you're here and come after you."

John made his concerned face again. "What about you?"

Well, that was the thing, wasn't it? Rodney wiped his hands on the hem of John's shirt. "I'm going to get help."

"Help," John repeated. Then his eyes widened, showing his big, round pupils. "Where are Ford and Teyla? What happened to them?"

"They're okay," Rodney lied quickly. He put his hand on John's chest when it looked like the major was going to try to move. "They're back in Atlantis." At least, he hoped to hell they were back in Atlantis. "We got separated." Because you ran the wrong way, he added mentally. "I went with you."

"Okay," John said. "Where're we going?"

"You're staying here," Rodney said. "Where it's safe." God, he hoped that was true.

"If it's safe, why aren't you staying, too?" John asked.

"Because you've been poisoned," Rodney said, trying very, very hard for patience. John was like a little kid. "I have to get help. I can't carry you to the gate--it's too far."

John shook his head. He put his hand clumsily on Rodney's wrist, holding Rodney's palm against his chest. "Don't go," he said. "Don't leave. You'll get hurt."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Rodney snarled. He tried to pull his hand back but John swayed forward when he did, so Rodney was forced to stay still. "I'll be fine," he said, hoping he sounded the least bit convincing.

"I can walk," John said. And to prove it he shuffled one foot about two centimeters forward and nearly did a faceplant into the dirt. "Whoa." John threw his free arm out to steady himself, nearly smacking Rodney in the face.

Rodney ducked then shoved John back against the tree. "You can't," he ground at him. "Look," he said when John tried to speak, "I'll be back as soon as I can, okay? You'll be safe here. You won't be alone for long."

"You'll get hurt," John said miserably. "I can't protect you."

Rodney let out a small, incredulous bark of laughter. He had both hands on John's chest now, one of them with John's fingers around his wrist. Rodney moved the other one to rest it against the curve where John's neck met his shoulder. "John," he said seriously. "Now it's my turn to protect you."

John looked at him a long moment, then nodded. "Come back," he said.

Rodney smiled. "I promise."

He only realized a second later that he'd started rubbing John's shoulder. He pulled his hand back. "Okay," he said briskly. He gently pried John's fingers off his left wrist, making sure John didn't fall. Once his hand was free he took John's sidearm from its holster, cocked it, and pressed it into John's hand. He glanced at the P90, wondering if he should give that to John instead, then decided that if John could even hold it firing it would surely knock him over.

John looked down at the handgun, blinking stupidly.

"Look at me," Rodney said. He tapped John's cheek with his fingers when John didn't immediately respond. "Look at me! Good, okay," he said when John finally did.

"Here's what you have to do," Rodney said. "You have to stay here. Right here. Do not leave this shelter. Do you understand me? Don't leave." He waited for John's slow nod. "Good." He took a breath. "You are to remain standing, John. Don't sit down, don't lie down, just stand here like this. Don't move."

"I'm tired," John said.

"I don't care!" Rodney took John's head in both his hands, staring directly into his darkened eyes. "If you don't stay standing, you will die. Do you understand me, Major? You will die. You have to stay awake, John. No matter what happens, you have to stay awake! All right?"

"Yes, sir," John said softly.

"Good." Rodney reluctantly let go of him and stepped back. "If anything that's not me, Aiden or Teyla comes in here, you shoot them with the gun, okay? You understand?" Dear lord, it was like talking to a retarded puppy.

John nodded solemnly. "I shoot anything that's not you."

"Or Aiden or Teyla."

"Or Aiden or Teyla."

"Great," Rodney said. He just hoped he hadn't inadvertently doomed a Marine. Rodney would have to warn them. He shucked off his own vest and jacket, letting them fall to the dirt floor. He looked longingly at the protein bars he'd left by the wall, then picked up John's jacket and put it on. He took John's vest too, though just to get the extra magazine for the P90 before dropping it again. He made sure both the P90 and his sidearm were loaded, then put the M9 back into his holster and hefted the P90. The last thing he did was find the flashlight in his backpack. He turned it on and left it where it would illuminate as much of the shelter as possible. He hated leaving John alone and lit up like a beacon, but somehow the idea of leaving him alone in the dark was far worse.

"Don't sit down," he said. He really hoped those weren't going to be his last words.

"Come back," John said. He didn't seem to notice that Rodney was wearing his jacket.

Yeah, they were just two fucking poets, weren't they? "I'll be back soon."

Rodney tried not to look back, he really did. But John was just standing there, holding the gun uselessly at his side. And he seemed so lost and forlorn that Rodney hesitated, and then put down the P90 and went to him so that they were standing face-to-face again.

"I promise I'll come back," Rodney said. And then he kissed him.

It wasn't a tentative kiss. There was no request in it, no hope for what might happen afterwards. This was Rodney pouring into this moment all his fear for John, all his desire, the totality of his knowledge that his life would be dark and miserable and empty without John in it. Just cold black nothing.

Hadn't Rodney told him once that John was like light?

He'd meant to keep it a secret, how he felt. Rodney didn't want to have to deal with John's response, his certain rejection. Rodney was too much of a coward.

But none of that mattered now. This might be Rodney's last chance, ever. This might be a kiss goodbye.

And then John kissed him back.

Rodney gasped, inhaling John's breath. He almost pulled away, but John had somehow managed to get his hands around the back of Rodney's head and moving was impossible. John made a soft sound in his throat and widened his lips, inviting in Rodney's tongue, pushing his own into Rodney's mouth.

Rodney gripped John's shoulders, sliding his tongue over John's. John smelled like sweat and the antiseptic and his mouth tasted stale, but his hands were in Rodney's hair and he was making those little noises. And they were so close together that Rodney could feel the nudge of John's erection next to his, like a thick knot of heat, and it was amazing. It was like light flooding into him.

Rodney pulled back, finally, ignoring John's murmur of protest. He had to gently pull John's hands away from his head because John didn't want to let him go.

John's eyes were heavy-lidded and very black in the glow of the flashlight.

"Don't go," he said.

"I'll come back," Rodney said. He was holding John's hands against his chest; he kissed the backs of each of them before he let go. Then made sure John was still more-or-less steady on his feet.

"Stay right here. Stay standing." Rodney said. He picked up John's handgun from where John had dropped it and gave it to him, making sure John was holding it properly. Then Rodney backed away, the distance between them growing like loss.

He grabbed the P90 in a death-grip, then took a deep breath and went out into the night.

It was still raining; John's damp jacket was soaked again in seconds. The water sent icy trails down Rodney's neck, combed rivers through his hair. The sky thundered like drums, glowed purple over and over and over again with the endless lightning.

Rodney tried the radio one more time. But there was nothing.

And then he oriented himself towards the gate, and started to run.

***

He's in his parents' bedroom, sitting with his back against the side of their bed and facing the wall. He's got his mother's bottle of Valium in his hands.

He's twelve years old and his life is over. His piano teacher told him that he's a 'fine, clinical player' today. Which means he's nothing. Which means his dream is nothing. He's never going to get out of here. He's never going to get to play for an audience. No one is ever going to listen to him playing and think he's doing something beautiful. No one is ever going to listen to him play at all.

So he's nothing. Nothing and nothing and nothing.

He wants to die.

But Rodney hasn't opened the bottle yet. He's just sitting there with his legs splayed out, facing the window and holding the bottle in his cupped hands. All those pretty blue pills. He's small for his age--he wouldn't have to take that many.

But he hasn't opened the bottle. He isn't sure why. He knows exactly how it would kill him, how long it would take. He's done research; he's really good at using the library. It wouldn't hurt or anything. He'd just get relaxed and fall asleep and stop breathing. His lips might go blue, but that wouldn't be so bad. The undertaker could take care of it. His parents wouldn't have to be ashamed to have an open casket at his funeral, if that's what they wanted.

Maybe it's that he's so numb he can't even do anything. It's like being dead, maybe--he's staring out the window, at the rain and the cars in the street and the people walking fast because of the rain, and it's like he's only ever looking, not a part of any of it. Like he's not even there.

They all have whole lives that have nothing to do with him. And he doesn't even have a life at all.

Maybe he doesn't have to take the little blue pills because he's already dead.

He's still sitting there holding the bottle when his mom comes in. Her hair is wet from the rain.

***

Rodney had hoped that wearing John's jacket might lead the Wraith-animals away from the shelter and John. He was a little surprised to find out it actually seemed to be working.

He hadn't gotten more than maybe twenty meters away before he'd heard the first growls, loud even through the thunder. Maybe they were unhappy he'd killed so many of their friends.

He ran for the Gate, running for his life, hoping to hell that whatever was left of the pack chasing him didn't go back for John. Hoping that this wasn't a coincidence; that they wouldn't have just gone for him anyway. After all two of them had attacked him before. He tried not to think about that. He just kept running.

He suddenly realized he hadn't left any extra clips for John's handgun with him. Why hadn't he thought of that? If the dogs went back (and they could be at the shelter now, Rodney had no way of knowing), John would be attacked and he'd need to defend himself. And he wouldn't be able to reload his gun.

No, no, no, no, no, no... The simple denial repeated in his brain, keeping time with his footfalls and his frantic heartbeat. That couldn't happen. John wasn't going to die because Rodney was too stupid to leave his vest where he could reach it. That wasn't going to be how it ended. It wasn't. It couldn't be...

No, no, no, no, no, no...

Rodney never was much of a runner. His legs felt like lead and his heart was quivering in his chest, so heavy it hurt. He was getting a stitch in his side. He wanted to slow down. He had to slow down.

But he couldn't. He had to lead the dogs away from John. If he slowed down he would die. Then John would die, too.

No...

He ran. He ran faster than he'd ever even thought he could. Faster than when he'd had to tell the children that the shield was up again, so they wouldn't sacrifice his team to their stupid religion. Faster than when they'd gone to find the Wraith hive ship, only to be ambushed. Faster than when the Wraith had attacked while they were on the archeological dig, and he and Corrigan had to carry John back to the gate. It still wasn't fast enough.

The first one sprang up and snapped at his wrist, though its teeth only closed on the sleeve of John's jacket. All the same, Rodney was twisted around by the sudden weight, pulled off balance, though his momentum was enough for him to rip free of the creature's jaws.

But that put him directly in the path of the second Wraith-dog, which leaped at him. Rodney raised his forearm automatically, trying to fire the P90, and the dog's mouth closed around his arm as the thing hit him. Rodney had just enough time to feel the knife-stabs of its teeth as he went stumbling back--

And fell. Within the space of one step the ground disappeared, and suddenly he was falling.

He tumbled with the dog, hitting too fast and too many times to really feel it, each new impact eclipsed by another almost before he could register the pain. The world was a blur of darkness and purple light, the rush of wind and rain, and the scrape of branches whipping by his hands and eyes. And he hit and tumbled and fell, hit and tumbled and fell, over and over and over again...

***

He's crouched under the console of one of the grounding stations, the one that was damaged during the fight between John and Kolya's men. If he doesn't fix it then he can't disable it, and Atlantis won't be able to use the lightning to power enough of the shields to keep the city safe. The walls will collapse around them and they'll all die.

But he can't do it. He can't figure out the connections. None of it makes any sense to him. It shouldn't be like this--he should know what he's looking at. He should understand this. He's one of Earth's foremost experts on Ancient technology, and this is a simple machine.

But he doesn't. It's like he's back on the fog world, where he realized that it couldn't be real because none of the immutable laws of physics actually worked. Only this is much, much worse. Because he'd recognized the problem then--he'd seen where the universe veered wildly from what he knew was the truth. But he knows that this is real: him, the balcony, and the grounding station, except that he can't understand it at all. And he only has minutes to figure it out, because the rain is already deluging down like the end of the world, and he can hear the thunder and see the lightning overhead, and soon the winds will be strong enough to tear the city apart...

Breathe, someone says. It sounds like Aiden.

Rodney turns his head, listening. But it's impossible to hear through the rain, the interminable cracks of thunder. The sky blazes purple overhead.

He turns back to the grounding station. He has to fix it.

C'mon! Breathe! Come on, Rodney!

Rodney stands, looking around. But there's no one there. Just the dark and the rain.

I shouldn't be here, he thinks suddenly. He isn't sure why.

"This isn't real, either," John says. And he's right there, safe and sound and standing against the balcony railing, heedless of the rain. "This is a dream you kept having, after the hurricane. None of this ever happened."

Aiden--is that Aiden? His voice sounds distant, muffled--is still calling Rodney's name, telling him to breathe. Rodney doesn't understand that. "I can't get the grounding station to work," he says to John. "The shields won't function properly and the city will be destroyed. We're going to die."

"That never happened," John says. "It's just a dream."

Rodney takes a step towards John. It's surprisingly difficult. His body feels heavy, like something's pressing on his chest. "This is a dream?" It doesn't feel like a dream.

"Yes," John says. He smiles, holding out his hand. "Come on, Rodney," he says. His voice is gentle and cajoling. "You have to wake up now. They need you to wake up."

"They do?" Rodney asks. "Who does?" He takes another step, and then gasps because it hurts--his lungs, his head, his entire body. He feels so weak, and the rain is so cold...

"Your friends," John says. His hand is still extended, quietly beckoning. "You need to start breathing, Rodney."

Rodney hesitates. He glances back at the grounding station. Nothing hurt over there. "But I have to fix it."

"No you don't," John says. "You don't have to fix that. You know what you have to do." He still has his hand out, still waiting.

"You promised you'd come back," John says.

Rodney's eyes go wide. He'd forgotten that. And John's all alone in the hollowed-out tree, waiting for him.

"John," Rodney says. And he goes to him, reaches for John's hand--

***

And he was lying on his back half-in- and half-out of the water, and he was gasping and choking and coughing water out of his lungs. And he was weak and cold and in so much pain and shaking, and staring up at Sergeant Markham and Lieutenant Ford, and Aiden had his hands clenched together on Rodney's chest, and they both looked so relieved he wanted to ask them what was wrong, but then he remembered his promise, and so, "John! Where's John?" is what he said instead, and Aiden looked startled, but said that he was all right, that they found him, that Teyla and Bates were with him and he was going to be fine, and then Aiden said something else, something about Rodney scaring him, but Rodney was too tired to listen, and his eyes closed and he didn't really hear the rest...

***

He had been dreaming about the forest, trying to find John in the rain. He was sure he remembered exactly where the shelter was, but the forest kept shifting and he couldn't see it. And in the dream he knew with terrible certainty that John was dying, but Rodney couldn't help him; he couldn't find him anywhere.

Rodney woke up to quiet darkness. For a long moment he didn't know where he was.

"It's okay," someone said. "You're back on Atlantis, in the infirmary. You're safe. Go back to sleep."

John? Was that John?

Rodney rolled his head with an effort, turning towards the voice. And it was John. His face was shadowed, but Rodney could still see that John was smiling down at him.

"You all right?" Rodney asked him. He was a little shocked at how thin and weak his voice was. His throat hurt.

John's smile widened. "Yeah," he said. "I'm fine. Thanks to you."

Rodney blinked at him. It was very hard to think about much of anything, but he knew that couldn't be right. He'd left him alone in a tree without enough ammunition. And he'd broken his promise--he never went back for him, never even made it to the gate.

He had to tell John that, make him understand. "I left you," Rodney said. "No bullets..."

John chuckled, which struck Rodney as very strange.

"It's a good thing I couldn't reload--I nearly blew Bates' head off as it was."

Rodney tried to process that. "Why?"

John gently squeezed Rodney's wrist. Rodney hadn't known John was holding it. The feeling in his arms was strangely muted. "You told me to shoot anything that wasn't you, Teyla or Aiden, remember? I was still mostly stoned. I kind of took it literally. Luckily I couldn't aim worth shit." He laughed. "You had me so convinced I'd die if I lay down that Carson had to start his treatment with me standing against the wall. I think he just waited until I passed out."

"Oh." That was the best Rodney could manage for a bit. He just lay there quietly breathing, looking up at John.

"Dogs," he said at last. The dogs were important.

"Yeah, the dogs," John said. There was something in his voice that Rodney couldn't understand, but his grip on Rodney's wrist tightened a little. "You were right about them being like the Wraith. When Markham and Ford found you, you were face-down in the mud, with one of those things standing on your back, sucking the life out of you. The doc told me that their saliva has some kind of enzyme that acts like a narcotic, so you can't get away from them."

Rodney nodded. It took a lot of work to do it. "Valium."

"That's what Carson said," John said. He sounded surprised. "How did you know that?"

Rodney wanted to tell him: about his mother, and her pills, and how he'd thought about killing himself with them once. But he couldn't. Even thinking about talking that much exhausted him. "I know," he said. He hoped John would understand.

John nodded slowly. "Sure," he said, but Rodney didn't know what he meant. John moved his hand from Rodney's wrist, slid it down to his palm. His fingers closed around Rodney's, strong and warm.

"You nearly died back there," he said. "You got cracked ribs, a concussion when you fell down the ravine." He hesitated, his mouth contorting like he was in pain. "You did die, actually. You weren't breathing when Aiden found you, with that fucking animal on your back, leeching the life out of you." His voice had gone flat, sounding strange and wrong. He gestured at Rodney's chest with his free hand. "You've got claw marks on your front, too."

Rodney remembered that, the numbness in his arms and legs, the weight of something pinning him down, how much it hurt. "I know," he said.

"Yeah," John gave a tiny smirk. "Yeah, I guess you would." He ran his hand through his hair, a movement of shadow on shadow in the dark. "You saved my life back there," he said. "By keeping me standing, and that thing with the antiseptic. After you left they didn't come near me." He swallowed; Rodney could just make out the movement of John's throat. "They must've been chasing you."

"John," Rodney said. He tried to grip John's hand in return, but he had no strength at all and he couldn't. "I'm sorry."

John's head cocked a little to the side. "Sorry? What are you sorry for?"

Rodney took a breath, and he felt the first twinge of pain in his chest. "I promised," he said. "But I didn't..."

"Jesus Christ, Rodney." John said. His voice had dropped to a whisper, and for a second his hand holding Rodney's closed uncomfortably tight. "You fucking died, you idiot. Of course you came back." John inhaled, and it sounded wet and shaking. "You scared me to death, when they brought you in here. You looked dead. I couldn't even tell you were still breathing."

"I'm sorry." Rodney didn't know what else to say.

"Stop fucking apologizing," John said. And John leaned in and kissed him.

It was a little like before, in the shelter, but there was a roughness in the way John moved his lips over Rodney's, almost desperation. Rodney tried to kiss him back, but he was so weak he could really only lie there, feeling John's lips crush his, John's tongue push against his own. John didn't make any noises this time.

Then John pulled back, standing abruptly. He let go of Rodney's hand.

Rodney could hear John breathing, rough and very loud.

"I'm sorry," John said. "That...I shouldn't have done that."

"John?" Rodney looked up at him. He tried to reach for him, but his arm wouldn't move. "What?" He didn't understand.

"I can't," John said. "I can't do this. I'm sorry."

And he turned around and walked away.

Rodney watched him leave, then stared at the space where John had been.

The kiss in the tree shelter hadn't been a kiss goodbye. This one was.

John had just kissed Rodney goodbye.

 

END