He sucked at arranging team-building experiences; Sheppard was willing to admit that to himself.
There was nothing like a nice jungle covered world with hundred-degree-plus temperatures and eighty percent humidity to make a man – or a woman – long for a chilly ice planet. Add in a twenty-five percent higher gravity than they enjoyed on Atlantis and even Ronon was complaining about being tired.
Sheppard sighed and tilted the last of the water out of the bottle and down his throat. He was digging around in the knapsack for another when uncharacteristically heavy footsteps heralded Teyla's arrival.
"Rodney says he is almost finished packing," she said before collapsing onto the rock beside Sheppard without her usual grace. She shoved sweat dampened bangs off of her forehead and accepted the bottle he handed her. "Thank you."
"Sorry to spoil your day off."
"I would have spent the day helping my people with the planting," she said with a shrug, pulling out a bandana and dabbing at the beads of perspiration on her face.
Sheppard grimaced. Teyla was spending every spare moment she could grab on New Athos. It had been nearly three months since the expedition returned to Atlantis and she still hadn't moved all of her stuff back to her quarters in the City.
When the expedition had first returned to Atlantis everyone had been busy putting things back in place, orienting people new to the City, just getting things back to 'normal'. Sheppard was as busy as anyone and it had been several weeks before he had time to notice things were not as they had been with his team. McKay was fine, or at least the same as always: busier than three normal people and oblivious to anything that did not interest him.
But Teyla and Ronon were rarely to be found in the City when their duties didn't require them to be there. Teyla spent every free moment she had on New Athos; obviously the Athosians were still settling into their new world. And Ronon was disappearing to the Satedan settlement. Sheppard had tried – without actually coming out and asking a direct question – to get him to talk about what he did while there, but he always managed to avoid giving an answer.
Sheppard wasn't a man given to too much personal introspection. Growing up with his father had taught him to be self-reliant, self-contained. It hadn't helped his marriage, but it had served him well in his chosen profession, especially when he had moved into Special Operations. He knew that the last few years had changed him, but he didn't spend time wondering if it was a good thing or not.
But now... Not for the first time he cursed the fact that he was god-awful at the whole relationship thing. He had people in his life that he was closer to than any blood relative or (to his embarrassment) his wife. And he was afraid that two of them were in the process of leaving. He told himself that they had ties to Atlantis, besides himself, that they wouldn't want to break; that they would still be a part of his life even if they no longer lived within the City, were no longer on his team. But it would be different and he was finding that he was maybe more of a creature of habit than he had thought.
He wished that he could bring himself to just ask. How bad could the answer truly be?
He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "This'll teach me to trust 10,000-year-old travel brochures. I haven't seen one of the promised picturesque waterfalls." You are such a chickenshit he jeered at himself.
Teyla smiled politely at his poor attempt at humor. "I know that Rodney has been upset about being allowed to keep only one of the ZPMs the Ancestors left. It must have been most frustrating to finally have sufficient power to run all of the City's systems and then to lose it."
"That's putting it mildly," Sheppard said with a crooked smile. "Frankly, as the guy in charge of security for the City, I have to agree with him. But Earth needs them too." He picked up a stick to shag into the sparse undergrowth and then dropped it with a curse when it sprouted feet and wiggled in his grasp. Wiping his hands on his pants he made a mental note not to pick up anything else until he was sure it wasn't alive. "McKay was determined to have this planet moved up on the mission schedule. Brought it up at every senior staff meeting. Sent a ton of emails. He began accosting Elizabeth about it whenever he saw her in a corridor and she was getting irritated. So I told him we could do a quick scout on our day off."
Because they had defaulted on so many trade agreements when Helia and her crew kicked them out of Atlantis the majority of the offworld missions being scheduled were to make amends and – hopefully – negotiate new agreements. And there were a dozen other scientific expeditions already in queue for a place on the schedule. But McKay, still pissy over the loss of the "spare" ZPMs, was positive there was something here and predictably lacking in patience. So Sheppard, recognizing the signs, stepped in. He had originally planned for just him and McKay to come explore and then he had decided to make it a team activity.
Fearing that he was about to lose half of his team, his friends, he had tried to get them all together in the City – for meals, for movie night, etc – but one or more of them was always unavailable. Then he came up with this brilliant idea.
He looked around. As heavily forested worlds went, this was an impressive example. The well-spaced trees were massive, the trunk-size rivaling the giant redwoods on Earth. The dense tree canopy was more that fifty meters overhead and so thick that it blocked out a good deal of the searing white sunlight. It also did a damned fine job of trapping the heat and moisture underneath.
Because of the lack of light the farther you went into the woods the less secondary foliage there was at ground level – a few orchid-like flowers and ferns, some vines – but the ground was spongy with moisture, the air pungent from decaying leaves and deadfalls. And there were plenty of bugs, of all varieties.
Then there was the weight factor. How had the Ancients managed to not mention that the gravity was so much higher here? He watched as Teyla stood up, rubbing at the small of her back.
Grimacing, he got to his own feet – trying to ignore his aching knees – and shouldered the knapsack with their trash and the remaining water bottles.
"Sorry again. I was just trying to..." his voice trailed off.
Teyla looked back curiously. "John?"
"I..." he stopped again. He wasn't sure he was ready to hear that she wanted to leave Atlantis. Shaking his head, he blew out his breath. "Nothing. Don't worry about it."
The partially collapsed entry to the compound was only a few meters away. The world had been a retreat, the Ancients apparently unaffected by the higher gravity. When they had abandoned the world they had done so hurriedly, not taking the ZPM with them. The thought of a ZPM left fallow all these years had had McKay more excited than a kid the week before Christmas.
And then they arrived and discovered that the last Ancient out the door had not turned off the lights.
Sheppard had landed the jumper in the only non-tree covered spot within kilometers, the middle of the Ancient compound next to the dried up riverbed. McKay, whose scans had already revealed the ZPM was severely depleted, had done some inventive cursing before settling down to harvesting the power source. The rest of the team had taken turns hacking through the tough vegetation and prying open doors that stood between him and his goal.
The bones of the once beautiful retreat were depressing to view. Thick vines covered many of the buildings and the ones that were visible were faded and dirty. According to the Atlantis database there had been multiple waterfalls providing a spectacular vista, dropping from the semi-circle of cliffs half a kilometer away. A narrow river, fed by those waterfalls, ran through the middle of the compound. There had been a number of footbridges that crossed the water, but only one still stood and it was too fragile looking to risk walking on.
In the millennia since the Ancients left, the water source above the falls had shifted. The waterfalls were gone and the riverbed was dry, filled with rocks and scrubby bushes. Some of the mammoth trees had managed to take root within the resort compound, thrusting up through cracks in the paving material. In at least three places, dead trees outside the walls had fallen into the facility, crushing the buildings underneath.
Sheppard opened the jumper and then waited on the ramp for the rest of the team. Teyla stored the knapsack before she continued down the aisle and dropped into the co-pilot's seat.
Ronon and McKay finally appeared among the trees. McKay was red-faced and sweaty; his uniform t-shirt clinging damply, the jacket tied around his waist. He was almost staggering, obviously tired, but still protectively clutched one of the cases used for transporting ZPMs. Ronon paced along behind, grabbing him by the neck of his t-shirt when he tripped over something and impatiently brushing away the stick-bug that landed on McKay's head before the smaller man could crank up the panic.
"Come on, come on. Stop dawdling," McKay mumbled as he stumbled up the jumper ramp, thrusting the case at Sheppard as he went past. He continued into the cockpit and practically fell into the seat behind the pilot's chair. "Oooh, my aching back. Let's go, people. God, I can't wait to get off of this planet."
"I second that," Ronon growled.
Sheppard closed the hatch and then Ronon helped him store the remaining gear. Most of it was standard equipment kept in the storage area underneath the bench seats. The chest containing the ZPM was secured against the ship's hull with nylon webbing.
They were fastening the last clip holding the webbing to the wall when Sheppard broke the silence.
"I already apologized to Teyla, but I wanted to say I'm sorry for dragging you here on your day off. This didn't turn out the way I'd hoped."
Ronon pushed his hair away from his face – even the dreads were looking limp – and shrugged. "Didn't have anything important to do."
Sheppard stared at him uncertainly. "You sure?"
A brusque nod was his only answer. The large Satedan went to his seat, arching his back with arms stretched over his head as he walked.
Sheppard moved into the cockpit, unclipping his P-90 and stowing it at his feet as he sat. He ran through the pre-flight in record time and they were in the air, starting the twenty-minute flight to the stargate, before anyone spoke again.
"Dear God, what is that smell?" McKay gasped. "Did someone step in something and forget to wipe their feet before getting in the jumper?"
Sheppard wished he could turn around and get a look at McKay's face; it was probably classic. A quick glance to the right showed Teyla looking a little distressed, her nose wrinkled. Ronon appeared to be asleep, arms crossed over his chest and long legs protruding into the aisle.
"I think we're all pretty fragrant," Sheppard said, his own nose twitching a bit. But if he could handle being in an overcrowded gym with sweaty Marines then being stuck in a jumper with a few overripe colleagues was nothing. "We've been doing some pretty hard labor for the last few hours. I think all of our deodorants have given out."
"It's not just given out; it's died and started to rot." From the muffled sound of the pronouncement McKay was pinching his nose closed.
"Please, Rodney, do not continue speaking of it," Teyla begged.
"I'm just saying, I can't remember us ever coming back from a mission smelling this bad," the scientist said, but then subsided to the occasional mumble. Once the word "fumigate" was clearly heard above the sound of him typing on his laptop.
Sheppard sat back, hands light on the controls. It was quiet except for the typing and Ronon's quiet snores. He heard Teyla sigh and looked over to see her rubbing her temples.
"A bit," she said, starting to rise. "I think I will –."
The HUD popped up, unbidden, flashing the Ancient sigil for an alert.
"What the hell?"
A flying target had appeared, emerging from a rocky outcropping in the jungle to the west, and headed toward the stargate, toward them. At Sheppard's startled exclamation a corner of the HUD display changed to show a picture of a reptilian-appearing bird with a brief line of Ancient script underneath. He squinted at the text. His Ancient was still sketchy at best, but he was pretty sure it said it didn't have any information on the bird.
He maneuvered the jumper so that they could see the creature as it approached. To have activated the HUD from that distance it must be huge. Everyone leaned forward in the seats. After a moment McKay's pointing finger shot over Sheppard's shoulder.
The barely visible blob was approaching fast. It quickly resolved into a shape recognizable to the two men from Earth.
"It's a pterodactyl!" Sheppard and McKay both exclaimed.
"It is very... large," Teyla murmured.
Ronon propped an elbow on his knee and dropped his chin onto his fist, staring at the approaching creature. "That's one ugly bird," he finally announced.
"Christ, McKay, did that thing evolve here since the Ancients left? Surely you didn't miss something like that when you were researching the planet?"
"Believe me, Colonel, if the database had mentioned giant flying reptiles I would have brought it up in the briefing. That thing must have a twenty-meter wingspan," McKay muttered, his fingers flying across his keyboard. "I think..." His voice trailed away as he became absorbed in his computer.
The rest of them watched as the bird a neared. When it was only a few hundred meters away it stopped moving forward and started to rise on a thermal in wide, lazy circles.
Sheppard finally tore his fascinated gaze away and moved to continue the flight toward the 'gate. "Teyla, go ahead and dial us home. I'm sure the xeno-zoologists are going to want to come study this. Not to mention the anthropologists. Ronon, remind me to make sure we don't get that escort duty."
"You got it," Ronon grunted in agreement.
"I am sending the IDC now."
"Sheppard, watch out!"
A collision warning began sounding, beeping for attention. The glyph representing the huge-reptile was now descending rapidly across the HUD display, heading toward the jumper at an incredible rate. Sheppard didn't even have time to try to evade before they were struck from behind.
The craft shuddered under the impact and they were thrown forward in their seats. Multiple shrieks tore through the air: angry avian, protesting metal and panicking scientist.
"What the hell is that thing doing?" McKay yelled. "It's going to kill us. Make it stop."
Sheppard didn't bother to answer as he wrestled with the controls, trying to keep the craft level. The power in the port engine failed and the inertial dampeners cut out. It felt as if the flying lizard was trying to wrench the drive pod off of the hull. Normally the jumper could compensate for the unbalanced movement of a single engine, but it was difficult to do manually with the dampeners gone and a giant, horned-lizard doing it's best to destroy them.
"McKay! I'm losing systems here. Can you do something?"
"What are you expecting me to do?" McKay demanded, but got to his feet and staggered into the rear compartment. He flipped open the panel protecting the ships control crystals and starting interfacing his datapad. "That thing is trying to eat the drive-pod, and I –."
A hard jolt and the jumper tilted to port. McKay was tossed across the compartment and found himself sitting on the deck. Grumbling, he climbed back to his feet, leaning into the tilt. Picking up the datapad dangling by its interface connectors, he snapped, "That prehistoric throwback is going to kill us soon enough. Can't you shoot it with one of the drones?"
"Yeah, if I want us to die with it."
The pterodactyl began beating on the hull with the blunt horn emerging from its forehead; at least that was what is sounded like: shriek! clang! shriek! clang! clang! The jumper shuddered with each strike. Every few seconds a leathery wing would flap across the viewscreen.
Sheppard tuned out McKay's agitated monologue, hearing it only as background noise along with Teyla's quiet tones as she attempted to calm the scientist and an occasional impatient bark from Ronon.
Finally he broke into the conversation going on behind him. "Get back in your seats. I can't keep it in the air much longer."
The words were barely out of his mouth when there was a muffled explosion and the jumper threw itself violently to the side. Sparks flew from the control console and several crystals popped free, one striking Sheppard on the temple before sailing off into the cabin.
The bird's limp body slid down the front of the jumper, leaving a smear of purplish blood on the window. It dropped from view, and the jumper suddenly tilted to starboard. Thinking a wing or other body part was caught on the drive pod, he automatically compensated for the drag. Energy continued to discharge across the console, snapping at his hands as he fought to keep the jumper airborne. He ducked his head, using the sleeve of his t-shirt to swipe at the blood dripping into his eye.
The drag to starboard disappeared and the jumper rolled to port. Sheppard tried to correct, but they were too low.
The jumper plowed into the treetops and slammed to a stop.
Shocked silence rang inside the cockpit. After a moment Sheppard pushed himself carefully off of the console where he'd been thrown.
"Is everyone okay?"
There were reassuring replies of varying degrees of irritation at this latest disaster. He tuned out the string of complaints coming from directly behind him. The HUD was still active. He noted the now clear skies, and then tried to bring the engines back online. He tried both physical and mental manipulation but met with failure. When the HUD changed to a diagnostic McKay started cursing immediately. Well, that answered that question. He sent a command for any drive system still active to shut down but to leave the pods deployed. Spreading out the puddlejumper's weight would keep them from falling from their treetop perch a little longer.
The jumper swayed and bounced on its precarious landing pad. They were sinking deeper into the foliage as tree limbs bent under the weight. The sound of branches scraping against the hull and ominous creaking noises competed for dominance with the panicked breathing Sheppard recognized as belonging to McKay.
"Nobody move," Sheppard ordered quietly as he keyed the communications system. He didn't dare look around to see how everyone was situated.
"W-well that is about the stupidest –." McKay began, terror warring with indignance in his voice.
"Not now, Rodney." Sheppard ignored the complaints; a complaining McKay was a live McKay, that was what was important. He heard Teyla murmuring soothingly and Ronon's threatening growl. His team. "Atlantis, this is Sheppard."
After a few moments silence from the radio, he tried again. He hoped it was just that they could not hear Atlantis and not the other way 'round. "Atlantis, this is Sheppard. If you're answering I cannot hear you. The jumper was attacked by a... a very large bird and was damaged. We have crashed approximately five kilometers northwest of the 'gate. The jumper is currently tangled in the branches of the trees we landed in, but I don't expect we'll be here much longer. The jungle is too dense to use a jumper for rescue. I sug – "
There were several loud cracks. The jumper bounced once and tilted sharply toward aft.
"Everyone hold on." Not for the first time, Sheppard cursed the lack of chair restraints in the jumpers.
Sheppard blinked up at the shadowy view through the jumper's window, wondering why it was farther away than normal. Then he felt the jumper shift under him, creaking, and remembered.
This day just wasn't getting any better.
He was lying on his back on the bulkhead between the cockpit and the rear compartment, his right arm dangling over the edge. Something sharp was poking at his shoulder, probably a crystal. He had lost his grip on the console when the jumper hit the ground. The others had fallen, too, with varying degrees of noise, McKay being the loudest. He thought Teyla had landed on him briefly before continuing her rapid descent into the rear compartment. He should have closed the bulkhead door.
He reached out, trying to connect with the jumper and turn the interior lights on, but nothing happened. He pushed harder, but the quiet presence he always felt from the City and – to a lesser extent – the jumpers was missing.
There was a quiet shuffling noise below him.
"You ready?" Ronon asked.
"I'm never going to be ready for this," McKay snapped back nervously. "Just... just give me a – Arghhhh!"
The shriek brought Sheppard to his feet before he realized what he was doing. "McKay! What's going on?"
For a moment he thought he was suffering from vertigo as the bulkhead under his feet shifted and he felt the world tilting. But the shouts from below and the increasingly severe angle of the deck quickly convinced him otherwise. He tried to move away from the door but lost his balance and found himself falling into the rear compartment. With a loud groan and the sound of snapping wood, the jumper collapsed onto its side.
There was no time to prepare for a good landing. His right foot touched down first and then twisted sharply away as the rest of his body bounced off of a benchseat.
Sheppard lay on the floor gasping, trying to get air back into his lungs. He didn't think he was injured except for a few cuts and the burns on his hands from the energy discharges, but he was definitely going to be sore in the morning. And then his knee started to throb. Within moments it felt as if his entire right leg was swelling, pounding agony to the rhythm of his heartbeat.
He could hear McKay whimpering and rustling noises as someone moved around. It was a lot darker in the back of the jumper, especially now that the only window was facing away from the only natural light source. He fumbled for his vest, wanting his flashlight, and then remembered he had taken it off when he got back to the jumper, because of the heat. Stupid, stupid.
"Anybody got a flashlight?" he asked into the dark.
"I am looking, Colonel," Teyla answered.
"Come on, McKay, let's get you out of the way," Ronon said quietly.
"W-w-wait! Wa... Ow! Ow, ow, ow, ow!"
More movement. Some grunts of exertion. The whimpering increased briefly and then subsided into harsh panting. "There you go. Teyla, you find a light yet?"
"One moment. I have... Ah, there."
Sheppard blinked rapidly to adjust to the sudden flare of light. When he could see again he looked around and almost wished for the darkness again.
He was laying on what was normally the port outer-bulkhead. Teyla, down near his feet, was sorting through a pile of equipment and supplies that had apparently broken free when they crashed. She looked relatively unscathed except for a lump in the middle of her forehead and an eye already swelling shut.
"How you doing, Sheppard?"
He tilted his head back and looked up at Ronon who was grinning down at him. Sitting on the floor next to the tall Satedan, McKay was looking pale and disgruntled. His right arm had been strapped across his chest with what looked like Ronon's belt.
"Don't let him touch you," McKay said, cradling his right elbow in the palm of his left hand. "He fancies himself a doctor today. I'm probably going to have permanent nerve damage from him popping my shoulder back into place. Don't know why I couldn't wait for proper medical personnel. And drugs."
Sheppard tried to look sympathetic as his own knee screamed bloody murder. Ronon did look extraordinarily pleased with himself.
He pulled in a deep breath and held it as he pushed himself slowly, carefully, into a seated position. Even that small movement set off a spike of pain. He blew out the breath, forcing back the desire to whimper. "Is everyone okay?"
"We have minor injuries," Teyla said before McKay could start a new litany of complaints. "We should be able to walk to the stargate as soon as I sort through our supplies."
"Yeah, about that," he said reluctantly. "I think I may have broken my leg when I landed. Something definitely popped. I'm not sure I can – Ronon, what are you doing? Damn it, don't –!"
He sucked in a pained breath as Ronon slipped a knifepoint into his pant leg and slit the material from shin to mid-thigh. The pounding in the rest of his leg eased when released from the confining cloth, but the pain in the knee itself increased. It was rapidly approaching the size of a soccer ball and appeared oddly misshapen.
Ronon prodded and felt around the injury while Sheppard stared at the rear hatch, clenching and releasing his fists and gritting his teeth to keep from howling. Involuntary tears of pain rolled out of his eyes and mingled with the sweat and blood already on his face. If he could have laid his hands on something heavy he would have beaten Ronon about the head and shoulders.
The large Satedan finally sat back on his heels with a satisfied grunt. "Not broken," he announced, looking at Sheppard with a raised eyebrow that sent foreboding shivers up his team leader's back. "Kneecap's dislocated. I can put it back; did it to myself once."
And without waiting for a "yay" or "nay" he... did it.
Sheppard managed to choke back a howl of pain but a higher-pitched-than-normal growl did squeak from between his clenched teeth. His breath escaped with a whoosh when Ronon finally let go of his leg and turned stiffly to help Teyla look for the splint from the emergency kit. He concentrated on his breathing... and plans to murder Ronon in his sleep.
Something struck his eye and fell into his lap. Blinking away the watery sting he looked down at the ibuprofen packet and then tracked back along its trajectory to an only slightly guilty looking McKay.
Resisting the urge to snap something other than "Thanks," he ripped open the paper pack, dumped the pills into his mouth and dry-chewed them. A nasty chemical taste spread across the back of his tongue. They'd activate faster this way (not that he expected them to put up much of a barrier against the throbbing agony radiating from his knee), plus he enjoyed the disgusted look on McKay's face when he did it.
He accepted a water bottle from Teyla. While swishing the last of the pill crumbs off of his teeth he examined her a little more closely. In addition to the lump and the black-eye, she had a number of tiny cuts scattered across any exposed skin. He looked at McKay and Ronon and they were covered in the small nicks also. There must have been a veritable shower of broken crystals to cause all that damage; the jumper's window was still intact.
Teyla moved to hold his ankle in the air while Ronon slipped the flexible plastic splint under his leg and then wrapped it with an ace bandage. He hissed and resisted another urge to swat at Ronon.
"Not so tight. Teyla, you okay except for that bump and shiner?" he asked, grinning slightly when she self-consciously raised a hand to cover the swollen eye.
"I am fine," she assured him again.
"How about you, Ronon?"
The big Satedan grunted non-committally, which could mean just about anything. But Sheppard had noticed that his movements were rather stiff. He looked at Teyla with a raised brow.
She shook her head. "I believe he has bruised or cracked ribs. But otherwise he appears fine. Rodney dislocated his shoulder when he fell. And we all received some small cuts, nothing serious." McKay started to protest the diss-ing of his injuries, but Teyla spoke over him. "With Ronon helping you, we should be able to walk to the stargate."
He grimaced. "It was nearing sunset when we left the ruins and we crashed at least five kilometers from the 'gate. We wouldn't make it there before it was completely dark. Even if we had NODs I don't want us wandering around a strange forest at night; especially after that Jurassic Park wannabe attacked us. If this planet has had pterodactyls evolve since the Ancients left, God knows what else is wandering around out there."
"Saber-toothed tigers," McKay piped up, not looking from the datapad he was typing on one-handed. "Or giant, mutant boars with really long tusks; more likely in this environment. Or saber-toothed monkeys."
"Thank you for that, Rodney. It'll be better to wait –."
"I can get to the stargate before night," Ronon volunteered.
"I appreciate the offer," Sheppard said with a slight grin, "but I don't want anyone out there alone. The 'gate was active when we crashed and the IDC had been sent," he glanced at Teyla and got a confirming nod. "Atlantis knows something happened to us, even if they didn't get my radio call. So we'll wait here until morning. We'll head out if rescue hasn't reached us by then."
"Well, you've killed another one, Sheppard," McKay announced, looking up from his datapad. "There's no power, so no radio. Too many crystals are busted to attempt repairs. And the beacon's not working. It never seems to survive a crash, which makes it pretty damned useless if you ask me." He turned back to his datapad, obviously content to stay where he was.
Sheppard looked at Ronon and Teyla. She appeared unperturbed with the situation, already sorting through the MREs. Ronon was looking restless, would probably have been pacing if there had been room.
"Ronon, see if you can get the rear hatch open. You'll need to use the manual release."
"I thought you wished for us to stay in the jumper?" Teyla asked, helping McKay with his MRE.
"Bathroom facilities," he explained, watching Ronon strain against the only access point on the jumper large enough for a human to get through. It didn't want to open. They weren't on level ground; the rear of the ship was pointed up a gentle slope. After much shoving and grunting there was enough space for them to slip out if they turned sideways and sucked in their guts. Ronon immediately disappeared through the gap.
"Damn it! Teyla, follow him."
She bounded to her feet, pausing only to grab a P-90 before she disappeared, too. Her head reappeared after a moment, a mischievous grin in place. "He is all right. He is..." A hand fluttered expressively. "There is a large rock right behind the door, it cannot be opened any further."
"That's okay, so long as we can squeeze out. Tell Ronon to take his time." Settling back to wait, he looked around and watched McKay devouring his meal and reading from the datapad.
"How's you're shoulder?"
McKay tossed him a quick glare before turning back to his reading. "I'm trying to ignore how much pain I'm in by keeping my mind occupied with something else. Thank you so much for reminding me of my agony." Another sporkful of Veggie Pasta disappeared.
"It's what friends are for."
Snort. "Then I'll return the favor: How's the knee?"
Each satisfied that the other would survive, they went back to their previous occupations.
Sheppard shifted gingerly, not wanting to move his leg too much, but wanting to get off of whatever was jabbing him in the backside. Feeling around cautiously, he brushed away some crystal fragments, a spare M9 clip and a roll of duct tape. He kept glancing toward the open hatch, beginning to feel a little anxious.
It was nearly ten minutes before they reappeared; Teyla slipping in first with no trouble, followed by Ronon who had to wiggle a bit to get his shoulders through.
"There is something moving around, but it stayed away from our light and we could not see it," Teyla announced as she came to sit at Sheppard's side.
"Great. Well, the hatch was going to have to be closed anyway. Rodney, your turn."
"What?" McKay looked up, confused.
"To visit the facilities," Sheppard explained patiently, pointing toward the hatch.
McKay grimaced in distaste; he never enjoyed the more 'natural' aspects of going offworld. "I don't need to right now."
"Well, the hatch is going to be closed for the night, so it's now or never – or until morning, whichever comes first. Ronon will help you."
This earned him a glare from both men, which he ignored as usual.
After much grumbling on both their parts, including McKay's worry about additional nerve damage when his arm had to be unstrapped so he could squeeze out the doorway and Ronon growling at him to stop being such a baby, they finally disappeared into the darkness.
Sheppard looked around when he heard Teyla giggling. She was picking up the last of the debris, sweeping the shards of crystal along using the lid from the first-aid kit.
"I have missed this," she said simply when she saw his look.
He hoped his mouth wasn't hanging open in astonishment. "Ronon and Rodney bitching at each other?"
"All of this." She waved a hand to indicate the situation.
"Spending the day sweating on an over-heated, too heavy world, crashing, almost dying and then having to spend the night in an uncomfortable jumper while waiting for the Marines to come rescue us? Again?"
She sat back on her heels, still smiling. "You know I love my people very much, John."
"I would do anything for them. Including spending the last months helping to get the new settlement in order, the homes set up, the fields cleared so that crops could be planted, going on trading trips to arrange for the supplies they need. I do all of this gladly."
God, was this when she was going to tell him she was leaving Atlantis? He nodded then looked toward the hatch, as if monitoring the noises outside. "I know it takes a lot to get all those people settled in a new home and ready to be self-sufficient. I remember when you, the Athosians, moved to the mainland. Perfectly understandable that you want to help, to stay with them."
Outside, he could hear the sound of McKay complaining about something, the cadence was familiar even if the words were indistinguishable.
"Well, they are settled enough," Teyla said briskly. "The last of the crops are being planted this week. The animal pens are built and occupied. And I am tired of being a farmer. I am ready to move the last of my possessions back to Atlantis and resume all of my duties there."
His head whipped around so quickly a twinge rippled up his neck.
"You're leaving New Athos?"
Her head tilted quizzically. "I am not abandoning them, John. It is much easier to step through the stargate than it was to find someone to fly me to the mainland. Halling, Maya and Erak have assumed leadership roles, truly they had already done so while we still lived on the world of the ancestors. They are perfectly capable of guiding our people to prosperity on the new world. I have been helping while things were so new and chaotic, but everyone knew I would be returning to Atlantis. They know that my work in helping to defeat the Wraith is important." Something on his face must have given away his thoughts because she reached out to touch his hand. "Surely you understood that I was not going to remain on New Athos permanently?"
He could feel his ears warming up and thanked God for the dim lighting. Definitely uncomfortable now. "I –," he coughed to try to disguise the nervous crack in his voice, "I had wondered why you hadn't moved all your things back to the City. I've been waiting for you to come and tell me you were leaving the team."
She looked strickened. "I am sorry, John. I did not realize. I should have made my intentions –."
Okay, now he felt like a jerk. "No, no. Totally my fault," he tried to reassure her. "You know me." He smiled and pointed at himself. "Mr. Abandonment Issues."
"Yes, I do know you," she said, smiling fondly. "And still, I should have been clearer about my plans."
"Well, I forgive you," he said cheerfully, amazed at how much lighter he felt, how relieved. "I was –."
The sound of Ronon's gun discharging startled them. Forgetting his knee, he tried to get to his feet. Sharp pain stabbed from his knee up to his hip and the leg collapsed under him. Before he could try again Teyla stepped over him and took up position next to the open hatch, P-90 at the ready.
Within a few moments the sound of Ronon and McKay returning reached them. McKay was talking a mile a minute in his hyper, I-just-survived-certain-death tone. Sheppard and Teyla looked at each other in exasperation and returned to their former positions.
"I wish you would stop shoving me along."
"I'm not shoving you."
"Could have fooled me. You know, I'm perfectly capable of walking on my own. Been doing it since I was eleven months old. Ow! Don't try to stuff me in there like a cork, you'll reinjure my arm. Sheppard! You'll never guess what is out there."
He watched in amusement as McKay carefully squirmed his way back into the jumper. The scientist was looking simultaneously irritated (undoubtedly by Ronon's babysitting technique) and excited.
"A saber-toothed monkey?" he guessed, willing to play along.
"No, but close." McKay practically vibrated in place as Teyla strapped his arm across his chest again; she had found the sling from the first aid kit, so Ronon got his belt back. "Not so tight."
"It must be this tight to keep your arm from moving, Rodney."
"Whatever. Thanks. Anyway... where was I? Oh, yeah! It was a saber-tooth rat," he announced, looking around to make sure everyone was impressed.
"It didn't have swords sticking out of its mouth," Ronon said from the opening.
"It refers to the size of its teeth, not its accessories," McKay explained impatiently. "Seriously, Sheppard, this thing is – or rather – was the size of those giant rodents they have down in South America." He waved his free arm to indicate the dimensions.
They all looked at Ronon for confirmation and got a brief grin.
"It was pretty big." He looked over his shoulder. "It's getting darker. You ready, Sheppard?"
Sheppard nodded reluctantly. He was not looking forward to this. "Yeah, give me a hand up."
He held up a hand. It was grabbed and he found himself suddenly upright. Startled, he managed to keep from putting any pressure on his right leg. It didn't stop the pain from increasing as blood rushed downhill into the limb and the throbbing redoubled.
Ronon draped Sheppard's arm across his shoulders and they began an awkward hop-shuffle. Sweat broke out again on Sheppard's forehead, from the pain and shear physical effort of moving forward on the uneven ground while keeping one leg from touching anything. The high gravity added to the exertion and his good knee and hip were soon aching from supporting all his weight. After five torturous minutes they arrived at the tree designated for latrine duty. He leaned against it, exhausted, and finally let his right foot rest against the ground.
"God, I am not looking forward to walking back to the jumper," he mumbled to the tree bark. "Maybe I'll just stay here and let the saber-toothed rats eat me. It'd probably be less painful."
"Quit whining, Sheppard," Ronon chided cheerfully. "It's not like your leg is broken. Couple weeks and you'll be trying to keep up with me during our runs."
"Thanks for the sympathy, I appreciate your concern. I'll be sure to return it when Beckett is wrapping your ribs and forbidding any physical activity for the next month. We'll see who's laughing then."
Sheppard tried to balance on one leg, but ended up propping one hand on the tree for balance and fumbling one-handed with his clothes.
"Need some help there?"
"No! I can do this myself."
He was struggling to get everything closed up again when movement on the right, near some bushes, caught his eye. He had tried to avoid looking that way; even in the deepening twilight the carcass of the giant rat was not a pretty sight. But now it appeared to be trying to crawl into the bushes, despite the large, gaping hole Ronon's gun had opened up in its side. It moved forward with small jerky movements. And then he saw the other eyes gleaming in the bushes.
Apparently making eye contact was taken as a challenge and something leapt out of the bush and stood astride the potential meal, snapping and snarling. He couldn't see it clearly in this light, but it wasn't as large as the rat and it sounded mean enough. When it lunged at him Sheppard automatically stepped back while reaching for his pistol, putting weight on his bad leg.
He was on the ground, curled up on his side, when he was able to take in his surroundings again. Somewhere above him he could hear Ronon speaking, followed by McKay's demanding tones, but he didn't try to sort out what was being said. He concentrated on calming his breathing, sucking in a deep breath and then letting it out slowly as he pushed himself into a sitting position. He kept his eyes lowered, careful not to look up as rustling heralded the last of the saber-toothed rat disappearing into the bushes. Bon apetit, he thought with a shudder.
Ronon crouched down, gun still in hand. "That got McKay wound up again," he said, sounding pleased. "You ready to head back in?"
Sheppard shook his head. "Is it safe to stay here for a couple more minutes while my leg calms down?"
"Should be. I didn't hit that thing when I fired, but it's been scared off. Besides, it has dinner now."
It sounded like there was a catfight going on in the bushes. He hoped the loser didn't decide to run this way.
"So, Teyla says she's ready to move the rest of her things back to the City," Sheppard began, turning his head to wipe off the sweat with his t-shirt sleeve. He needed something to take his mind off of his throbbing leg. "Probably means we'll be volunteered to help with the move. You going to be around for it?" One more try to find out what he's been doing.
"Sure." Ronon shrugged.
"You won't have to cancel any plans at the settlement?" he probed.
"Naw. The school's open. It's up to Kragan to make it a success now. Should do okay so long as he doesn't drink all the profits," Ronon said with a grin.
"School?" Had Ronon mentioned a school? Sheppard rifled through his memories and was pretty sure that the big Satedan hadn't. "What kind of school?"
"I told you before."
Sheppard shook his head.
"I didn't?" Ronon sounded puzzled, reaching up to scratch the side of his head. "Coulda sworn I had. I know I told someone in Atlantis. Oh, yeah. It was McKay."
He dropped his chin to his chest and rolled his head back and forth. McKay had known. All this time he was practically having anxiety attacks over the team breaking up and all he had to do was ask McKay.
"A martial school, teach fighting," Ronon said, sounding enthusiastic. "You know, people used to come to Sateda to train. And Kragan was one of the best. Now that the settlement is doing so well, he's decided to start taking pupils again."
"And you helped him start it?"
"Helped him build it. He couldn't afford professional builders." A mischievous grin. "I don't think it'll fall down any time soon."
Sheppard joined his laughter, although his was as much from relief as anything else.
"I'd been wondering why you were spending so much time there. I was beginning to suspect you were seeing someone," he teased, sobering quickly when Ronon stopped smiling. "What? You're seeing someone?"
"No," Ronon said, sounding resigned. "I was, but she's seeing someone else now. She wanted me to stop fighting the Wraith, stay in the settlement. Like Melena."
Sheppard was surprised when Ronon stood up, then reached down and lifted him to his feet. He had been enjoying the conversation, the opportunity to concentrate on something besides his leg. Now it all came crashing back and he had to indicate a need to rest for a moment before beginning the hop-shuffle back to the jumper.
"While you guys were back on Earth, after the Ancestors made you leave, Ladon Radim came to New Athos. He offered Teyla and me jobs fighting the Wraith, said he knew we'd never be content to be farmers." He smiled wryly at the look on Sheppard's face. "We turned him down; we couldn't work for the Genii. But he was right. Until all the Wraith are dead, I'm not going to be able to think of doing anything else."
Sheppard nodded in understanding.
"Let's hope we can accomplish it before we're all too old to enjoy it," he said, and indicated he was ready to head back.
"Are you two ever coming in?" McKay demanded, sticking his head through the opening. His pale face seemed to glow in the light bleeding from inside. "Bugs are starting to come in looking for the light source. And a meal."
"We're coming, we're coming. It's not like I can move any faster. Unless you want to see a grown man cry."
"We-ell, no more dawdling."
"Rodney!" Teyla scolded.
Sheppard threw a grin up at Ronon. He couldn't be sure in the dark, but he thought the big Satedan was rolling his eyes.
When they got to the hatch, Ronon went in first then practically pulled Sheppard through. He was fairly sure his chest lost only a single layer of skin from that maneuver. Ronon pulled the hatch closed behind them.
Within a few moments they were all settled. Sheppard had his leg propped up on one of the benchseats, an unopened MRE in his lap and a bottle of water, which he'd used to wash down another dose of ibuprofen. Teyla was repacking the emergency first aid kit, watching McKay and Ronon with an indulgent smile. McKay was trying to read something on his datapad, but Ronon was leaning over his shoulder, attempting to reach the keypad and getting his hand slapped repeatedly.
No pain, no gain. Not the original meaning of that phrase, but Sheppard was willing to suffer through this damaged knee to be here, with these people. It felt worth it.
He cleared his throat to get their attention.
"I've missed you guys."