Evan Lorne didn't wake up so much as realize he was actually there in the world, alive, and everything around him was real. The pain was real; so was the snow drifting through the split in the Puddle Jumper's hull. As Evan watched and blinked at the flakes floating into his eyes, more snow blew in with the wind. It was very cold. His right arm was killing him and his chest felt like there was someone's hand in there, twisting. It was hard to breathe.
He was lying on the floor of the jumper, curled up like a rag doll thrown into a corner. It was hard to tell at first because the skin was so cold, but Evan realized after a long moment that his upper body was resting against Corporal Zimmerman. There was something sticky in Evan's hair.
Moving was a bitch. He was stiff from cold and battered, but it was his ribs that really tore it. He was alert enough now to know that at least three of them were cracked or broken on one side, and doing anything with any other part of his body made them flare wildly with pain.
Someone had taped them--Zimmerman, for sure--but Evan didn't remember how he'd gotten hurt that badly. He didn't remember getting into the Jumper either, but at least it explained why he was lying in the back instead of smeared all over the instrument panel.
Evan finally got sitting upright, using his left hand because his right arm was useless and couldn't take any weight. His head swam and he panted shallowly, trying to breathe without hurting his ribs. There was sweat on his face and down his back despite how he was freezing even with his jacket.
Zimmerman was dead, not just unconscious the way Evan had hoped. His neck was broken, snapped when the crash threw him into the wall of the Jumper. At least it was fast, though Evan couldn't take any comfort in that while he closed Zimmerman's staring eyes. He looked surprised, like he hadn't expected that to happen.
Evan didn't know Zimmerman all that well, but he liked him. The kid had a large family and told great stories about them, keeping them alive and present in his life even though he didn't know if any of them even existed anymore. And now Zimmerman was gone and with him his entire family, an entire history lost in a disaster Evan couldn't remember.
It was also pretty obvious that Zimmerman was dead and Evan wasn't because the corporal had shielded him with his body when the Jumper crashed. Evan was guessed that he must've bounced into the underside benches, which would explain why his head was bleeding and almost every second of the day was a solid, white blank. He probably broke his arm in the crash as well, because it wasn't splinted. Zimmerman would've splinted it; Evan was sure of that much.
"Thanks, Asher," he said, wishing the corporal could hear it.
Getting to his feet was worse than sitting up, but the cockpit was as silent as the rest of the Jumper, except for the soft whistle of the wind. Evan was getting desperate to know if Ramsey and Cosmescu were still alive.
They weren't. Evan was breathing through his mouth because it was easier on his ribs and the inside of his nose was frozen, but this close the charred stench was impossible to miss, even with the wind and snow blowing through the shattered windshield. Evan had a memory of lightning flashing outside the ship, so close it filled the Jumper with brilliant light and he'd been forced to shut his eyes. That's all he remembered, though: just that one moment of light and the boom of the thunder that followed. But now he knew what happened after that--his Jumper had been struck by lightning.
He was the only one left alive, and the bleak, cold horror of that was worse than his newly-broken ribs or the thick, gnawing ache in his arm. He liked these people, and now they were dead and he's wasn't and he was hurt and freezing and very much alone. He didn't know where the Gate was, or how long the storm went on while he was lying in a broken Jumper among the dead. He didn't have a coat, and there was no cold-weather gear in the Jumper. The storm probably caught them all by surprise.
Even wished he could remember what they were doing on the planet in the first place, or even which world it was. He didn't know if they were coming from a friendly village or fleeing for their lives. Maybe someone kicked him in the side and stole his parka.
He realized he was just standing in the cockpit with his arms wrapped around his torso and shivering like a child when he should've been doing something to get out of there and find his way home. His brain was working so slowly it was like it had frozen along with everything else.
Become a dragon, Evan. You'll be warmer.
Evan sucked in a frigid breath, thinking about it. He could try, but he was already injured and freezing and he hadn't turned into a dragon in over a year. More than likely he'd just end up as a frozen, blood-covered pulp trapped somewhere between animal and human.
Besides, Evan really, really didn't want to get naked in this kind of cold.
The medkit had hit the same wall that Evan had and burst open, but Zimmerman must've wrapped him in the thermal blanket because Evan found it crumpled under the bench. There was frozen blood on it but Evan wrapped it around himself anyway and instantly felt warmer. He loved those blankets.
He took Zimmerman's jacket even though the idea of stealing from the dead was nauseating. But the corporal didn't need it anymore and Evan really did. Zimmerman was a little taller than Evan, so the jacket was looser on the shoulders and arms, which was great because it fit over the jacket Evan was already wearing. It was very hard to take it off Zimmerman's stiffening corpse with one hand and even harder for Evan to put it on himself, dangling his right arm into the sleeve was like trying to slide a piece of string into a bottle. The jacket took a while to warm from Evan's body heat, and he didn't want to think about that.
He took Zimmerman's tac vest as well, because he couldn't find his own.
There was nothing else in the Jumper he could use, which might've meant that they weren't planning on staying overnight, or that they were ambushed and barely got away with their skins. Zimmerman had an MRE in his vest, though Evan was too nauseous to consider eating. He also had a flint striker, which might end up saving Evan's life if he could find dry wood. It would have to do.
Ramsey had been wearing her Texas A&M university cap, like always. Zimmerman liked saying it was glued to the anthropologist's head. Evan might've taken it, except that it was as burned as the rest of poor Ramsey's body.
He found his cold, lonely Sadatan energy pistol from where it had skidded under a bench. Evan managed to slide it into his thigh holster with his opposite hand, even though he wasn't sure he'd be able to hold it, let alone shoot anything. Normally he could shoot with his left hand almost as well as with his right, but now his good hand was already thick and fumbling with the cold.
He used his field knife to cut a slit in the middle of the thermal blanket then awkwardly put it over his head like a poncho. It wasn't easy to work his belt off with mostly numb fingers, but with a lot of effort he was able to use it to cinch the blanket around his waist. All he needed now was a tinfoil hat to complete the look, he figured. As an afterthought he cut a strip off the back and tried to tie it around his head to protect his ears. He gave up after the fifth try; he wasn't coordinated enough to do it one-handed.
The lever to manually open the back hatch still worked at least, and the hatch fell open to thud quietly on drifts of snow that looked silver in the twilight. The wind swept through Evan's hair and stung his eyes like needles, though at least the snow was only scattering in desultory puffs. Evan had no idea when the storm had started, but it looked like it was over.
That was something good in a mess of pretty fucking awful, but he still didn't know where the Gate was. It hit him suddenly that they might've been heading to a space Gate, in which case he was well and truly screwed. But he decided that couldn't be true the next second because they hadn't seemed to be flying up when the lightning hit. At least from what he could piece together.
The life signs and energy signature detector was gone from its little alcove in the Jumper wall. Evan bet it was in his tac vest. And maybe that meant they were visiting this planet for the first time? He couldn't remember. The whole day had collapsed down to two unconnected moments: lifting the Jumper out of the bay back in the city and the flash of lightning. The rest--good, bad, important--had been eclipsed by bright white. It left Evan with the awful certainty that there was something he desperately needed to remember; something terrible and dangerous, but it was gone. He finally stopped trying to force his brain to work when his head hurt so bad he could barely see, black spots crowding his vision like static. He sat on one of the benches in the back of the Jumper with his eyes closed and his broken arm in his lap, forcing as deep breaths as he could manage without feeling like his ribs were stabbing into his lungs. By the time his vision cleared his legs were so cold they nearly gave out when he put his weight on them.
You shouldn't go out there. You'll die, whispered inside his head. But he'd die if he stayed in the Jumper too. He'd be just another frozen body by the time anyone came to rescue them. If anyone did. It was possible Atlantis had no idea where they were.
Evan stood wobbling until he more-or-less found his balance, then shuffled out the Jumper into the snow. It was powdery but nearly up to his knees. Walking was like pushing through sugar. The twilight had faded to full night, but this planet's moon was larger and tonight it was full, so at least he could see. And there were trees up ahead. They would cut the wind, if not the cold, and maybe there would be less snow on the ground and enough dry wood to let him make a fire.
He hated leaving the Marines and Ramsey behind, but he promised himself that he'd make sure a team came back for the bodies. And that if he ever got the chance, he would tell Asher Zimmerman's parents how their son's final story was saving Evan's life. He mouthed a prayer for them as he slowly pushed away from the Jumper. The silent words were pulled from his lips by the wind.
The wind whistled angrily over the snowfield, lifting Evan's short hair away from his scalp and making the blanket flap and shudder against his body like a flag. Evan's shivering got worse, until he had to grit his teeth so they wouldn't clack like toys. He cradled his broken right arm against his chest and thought of how much he wished he had a hat and a pair of mittens. When he was a kid, one winter his mom knit him a bright yellow winter hat with a huge pom-pom on the top, as well as a long, long yellow scarf and a pair of yellow mittens to go with it--the kind that were attached together by a string that meant when you took them off they'd dangle from the ends of your sleeves. He loved those things. The scarf went on forever and was wide enough to keep his face warm up to his eyeballs, and the yellow was a happy sunshine color that always made him smile. He'd outgrown the mittens and hat the way kids do, but he'd kept the scarf until it got so ratty he couldn't wear it anymore. He really wished he had that scarf now.
The wind scoured him and the air was so cold it felt solid, slipping only grudgingly in and out of his lungs and coating his chest with ice. Breathing at all hurt, but breathing deeply felt like getting stabbed in the side. Mostly it didn't feel like he was getting any oxygen at all. He was dizzy, on top of the ache in his head and ribs and the steady, deep throb of his broken arm. And the cold caused its own kind of pain, like needles in his fingers and the tips of his ears.
Evan stumbled on, shifting feet that felt like concrete blocks with no connection to the rest of his body. He was sweating with pain without being warm. The drops ran like ice water down his sides and back, froze into the crunching mess of his hair. He couldn't think beyond anything except the next step, the next icy creep of air into his aching lungs.
He was very careful not to trip, because he was pretty sure he wouldn't get up again.
When he saw the light flickering among the black pillars of the trees he was certain he was hallucinating, his struggling brain conjuring up the promise of rest and warmth out of a concussion and wishful thinking. But the flicker didn't disappear. Instead it grew steadily larger as Evan plodded closer, and then Evan was almost sure he could smell smoke, and maybe something cooking. His stomach rumbled in a pathetic little demand, but the thought of actually eating anything made him want to puke.
You shouldn't go to them. It's dangerous, came the whisper in his head, hissing and urgent as if there was some part of him that somehow knew what the rest didn't. The voice sounded like Jeannie, which made Evan smile. He stopped, swaying in the wind. He licked his chapped, freezing lips, watching the flicker of the fire.
I don't I have a choice, he thought, as if this were an actual conversation as opposed to Evan going nuts as he froze to death. He didn't have the strength to say the words out loud.
He started walking again, staggering like a drunk and swinging unconsciously towards the light like a moth to a candle. The cold bit into him with every faltering step, until it felt like nothing else had ever existed except the cold and the pain, and the light of a fire through the brooding monoliths of trees. He didn't realize he'd actually entered the forest until all at once he registered the quiet. The snarl of the wind was muted as it splintered through the trees. Here the moonlight was broken into shards by the naked, snow-laden branches, leaving faint, jagged reflections on the silvered ground. It was far darker than the stark plain but not too dark to see, especially with the fire so close now Evan could almost imagine its warmth.
He could hear voices now, it sounded like two women and a man. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but the cadence of their voices seemed friendly enough.
Evan stopped just before he entered the clearing, resting against the trunk of a tree and locking his knees so his legs wouldn't give out. He stood there trying to control his shivering and failing badly at it. He slowly uncurled his numb left hand from his right and it dropped like a dead weight to his side. Evan sucked in air through his teeth, holding back the cry of pain. He used his left hand to stuff it into a jacket pocket. He didn't really think it would make him look any less vulnerable, but at least it got his arm out of the way if nothing else. He reached across his body and pulled out his Satadan gun, which felt like grabbing a handful of ice. He flexed his fingers but wasn't really sure his hand was actually moving.
He had wanted to check out the campsite first from the relative safety of the trees, but it was impossible to walk quietly with the new snow squeaking like wax under his boots, even if he'd had the energy for it. He was all but staggering as he finally pushed his way into the clearing.
The three people Evan had heard were huddled close together, sitting so near the fire that their hide boots were in danger of burning. They were wearing what looked like thick wool coats in bright, primary colors with an undercoat of some kind of heavy animal skin. And they were all talking about the little white Ancient detector that the woman in the middle was holding in her hands. Evan's tac vest was lying on the ground near the far woman's feet.
Evan saw this the same second all three of the strangers snapped their heads up to stare at him. And then the woman in the middle started to laugh.
"Oh fuck," Evan whispered. He had a flash of memory: the heavy thump of a club in his side and him sprawling, unable to breathe; rolling out of his tac vest when someone tried to grab him while he was gasping on the ground; gunfire and then the splash of someone else's blood, bright, bright red melting into the snow. Zimmerman pulling him to his feet, helping him run.
Lying in the back of the Jumper while Ramsey flew them to the Gate, which was in the complete opposite direction of where he was now.
Evan brought up the gun, careful not to catch it in the emergency blanket, hoping he wasn't going to shake it right out of his hands. The three people froze. The woman on the far end in the green coat had a club in her hand. Those were the weapons these people used--clubs and knives, and the ability to move as silently and as unnoticed as Teyla.
"Don't move," Evan said, but his voice shuddered over the words and the woman in the middle in the red coat smiled a little, glancing sideways at the man in the royal blue coat next to her. Evan took a step further into the clearing; he thought he could just feel a tease of warmth from the fire. "Throw that over here," he said. He nodded his chin in a quick jerk at the detector that his head instantly regretted, before he realized that he wouldn't be able to pick it up.
"Or you'll do what?" Red coat asked him. Her smile was thing and mocking. She swept to her feet, still holding the detector in one hand. She looked very warm. Evan shifted so that the gun was pointing directly at her. She stopped moving but didn't look the least bit concerned. "We saw your flying boat go down, Lantean," she said with that same cruel smile. "Long walk, in this cold."
The man in the blue coat sniggered.
"I'm not going to tell you again," Evan said. He had to concentrate to keep his arm from trembling so badly it threw off his aim. His ribs were hurting like hell. He hoped he wasn't going to have to shoot anyone, mostly because of how much he knew that would hurt. "Give me the white box, now. You've already seen one of you die from our weapons. This one's worse--don't make me use it."
The three of them glanced at each other.
"Trinn's not dead," Red coat said, sounding confused.
Blue coat sniggered again. "Actually, she's right behind you."
Evan hadn't heard a damn thing. He was just turning when it felt like a tree hit him in the side of the head. The world strobed out and then he was suddenly on his side with a mouth full of snow and his broken arm twisted underneath him. The pain was like an alarm shrilling in his brain, adrenaline forcing him awake and alert. He rolled onto his back, yanked up the gun and shot Trinn as she was raising her club again. She toppled, dead.
The gun's recoil wasn't nearly as bad as what a P90 would do, but it was still like being clubbed in the ribs all over again. Evan wanted to curl up around the pain. He wanted to sleep, but he knew if he stopped moving he was going to die. For a second he had no idea what was going on, why he was so sure he was in danger, and then he caught a flash of incongruously beautiful color out of the corner of his eye and shot a hole through Blue and Red coat before they could come close enough to use their knives.
Green coat had further to come around the fire and the gun blasts had made her hesitate. She held her club uncertainly in her hand.
Evan levered himself upright, head spinning. He could feel his consciousness ebbing like a weight in his head, dragging him down. "I don't want to kill you," he said, or tried to. The words were slurring, leaking slow and muddled out of his mouth.
Green coat came a step closer. Her grip shifted on her club, tightening.
"Don't," Evan said. Another step. "Don't."
She lifted the club, her face screwing up in rage. She died before she hit the ground. Her club rolled into the fire.
Evan sagged back to the snow, shaking and panting mist into the air.
Get up. Get up or you'll die.
"I know." The words were all but unintelligible to his own ears. He rolled up onto his side only to gasp and fall back. His ribs hurt. He'd forgotten they were broken. He tried again, prepared for it this time, and was able to flop onto his stomach. He cried out weakly at the jarring in his arm and his side. The world teetered towards total dark and he desperately hung on to awareness, knowing he was losing. Get up or you'll die.
He tried, but his legs were numb and his one good arm wouldn't support him. He slid back to the ground.
The fire was right there, crackling merrily around the wooden club. Evan watched the flames dully. They were very far away and fading into the cold and dark.
Become a dragon, Evan.
It felt almost like someone else was speaking, words sharp and angry in his head. He didn't know what a dragon was. His mind felt as loose and jumbled as a handful of dropped sticks, but he had a sense of size and power and grey-blue like a sky as it waits for a storm to come. And warmth; he'd be warm.
He didn't know how to become a dragon, but he wanted to live and he wanted to be warm again. There was a vague feeling of warning in his head, wrongness that he couldn't connect to anything. He had no idea what it meant and couldn't match it to anything in his memory. He couldn't hold onto anything that might've happened before this moment. All that existed was pain and the terrible, terrible cold.
Evan closed his eyes and thought about warmth and strength and power and willed himself to change.
He hadn't expected more pain, or that it would be everywhere, so much of it that he couldn't feel his broken arm or his broken ribs anymore. There was nothing in his body but agony. Nothing else existed except the overwhelming, relentless pain. He dropped out of the world screaming.
The morning sun was shining when the dragon finally opened his eyes.
He saw trees, stark and unwelcoming in the weak light of the sun, and above him the pale blue of a winter sky. He pulled in a deep breath through his nostrils, trying to scent anything familiar. It made his side ache with a sudden, jabbing pain. He whipped his head around to snap at whatever was hurting him and promptly threw up, choking out blood onto the snow. Each heaving breath stabbed his ribs but he was alone. Whatever had hurt him was gone.
When the heaving finally stopped he lay his head down as far from the mess as he could manage, whimpering a little because his whole body hurt. The worst place was his side, but there was also pain in his head and in one of his front legs. He could smell blood, not all of it his, and the ashes of a fire.
He needed to hide, find some place safe where he could heal. He carefully gathered his legs under him, not using the sore one, and made it up to his paws. His back legs gave out almost immediately and he ended up sitting heavily in the snow, panting with effort and pain. But when he tried again his three legs held him. His wings dragged on either side of him, digging furrows into the snow. He was too tired to hold them on his back. Later, he would lick the blood smell off them and clean the rest of his body. He didn't like smelling like blood; other creatures could find him and he needed to hide.
The dragon turned slowly, trying not to let its right foot touch the ground. There were the remains of a fire, the unpleasant smoky scent made him snort. And three dead creatures with colorful skin, too cold for him to smell much of anything besides burn and the faint scent of death. He leaned down to slip his nose under the nearest one's belly and flip her over. The body was frozen with one arm stretched over her head. The burned hole in her chest smelled like meat.
He was very hungry, but even though the creatures were freshly dead and right there, the thought of eating them made him feel sick like he would throw up again. The dragon reluctantly pulled his head away and sniffed the air. It was difficult to tell over the heavy scent of the ashes and the dead creatures, but he was almost sure he could smell water. Washing the stench of blood and smoke off him would be very good, and he was thirsty. Maybe there would be something to eat in the water, too.
More snow began to fall as he stumbled into the forest.
"I am so very sorry for your loss, Leader Sheppard," the village leader said. She held his hands in her smooth, gnarled ones and looked earnestly into his eyes with tears in her own. She gestured at a younger man standing beside her, looking very somber under the fine, dark embroidery of his coat. "Nalut saw it last evening when your bird machine was hit by lightning and fell into the expanse, bare moments after leaving the ground. We sent our fastest and strongest hunters to find it as soon as the sun broke the storm, but none of your people survived." The woman blinked and tears ran freely down her cheeks. "Their bodies were too frozen to move, so we left them as they were found. I am truly sorry for that. No disrespect was intended."
John nodded, swallowing. "Thank you," he said simply. "We appreciate that you tried to help them."
"They all died?" Jeannie asked. Her voice was mouse-small and her eyes were wet and red. She wasn't crying, though. Not yet.
"No," Nalut spoke up. He jerked his chin in negation, which John kept having to remind himself wasn't actually rude. "There were only three. Asher, Learned Sister Sandra who led the machine, and the other one." He looked apologetic. "The one with the name I can't say right."
Jeannie was staring at him. It looked like she'd forgotten how to breathe. "Not--not their leader? Not Evan?"
"Wait," Rodney said, and it figured that the first time he finally decided to speak up it would be to cut in on his sister. "Evan wasn't flying? Why wasn't he flying?"
Nalut tilted his head back and forth, which John guessed was the same as a shrug. "I don't know, Learned Brother Rodney. That's what we found." He looked at Jeannie. "He wasn't in the machine."
"We searched the expanse and all the way to the edge of the forest," Malen said quickly. She looked apologetic. "But the storm started blowing again, and we had to come back before it got too dangerous."
Nalut jerked his chin again. He seemed to be the de facto narrator. "Storms blow quickly, and even in the forest we might've been hit by killing light."
"You did the right thing," John said, because Malen especially looked ashamed that they'd abandoned the search.
"He might've tried to cross the expanse," Jala said. He was taller than Nalut and Malen but seemed to hate any attention. He fiddled with the string of his bow. "The new snow covered the tracks, but we didn't see him out there, and we would've. We can see right to the trees."
"And we know he didn't come towards the village or the travelling water, because we couldn't've missed him," Malen added eagerly.
John nodded, gratefully pulling back his hands when the old woman let go of them. He was incredibly relieved that there was hope now that Evan was still alive. He forcibly shoved aside any sorrow at the loss of Ramsey, Cosmescu and Zimmerman. There would always be enough time to mourn, but if Evan was out there in cold like this he didn't have much time at all.
"Thank you. You've been very helpful," John said to the three young hunters, who all beamed at him. He turned to the rest of his team who had been waiting while he talked with Leader Salen. "Okay. We'll take the Jumper across the expanse, checking for life signs along the way." He clapped his hands together, grateful for something concrete they could do. His gloves made a sharp smacking sound when his palms met. Rodney had gone uncharacteristically quiet, staring at his modified life signs detector like his survival depended on it, when not glancing uncomfortably at his sister with an expression that made John's heart hurt. He smiled at them both in a way he hoped was reassuring. "He's probably somewhere in the forest in a nice, cozy shelter just waiting for us to get our act together and come find him." He thanked Salen one more time and started walking back towards their Jumper, which he'd landed just outside the village to save time since it was an hour walk to and from the Gate. He took a second to radio the team he'd left there to tell them what they'd discovered and to make sure they relayed it back to Atlantis, along with the message that his team was continuing the search.
"I don't understand," Rodney said, finally deciding to speak again as he fell in next to John. "Evan's team had flown the Jumper to the edge of the forest--why would he go back there if they were trying to return to the Gate?"
"Don't know that he did," Ronon said, "only that the kids didn't see him."
"Right." Rodney rolled his eyes, apparently abandoning the uncharacteristic quiet entirely. "Because he would've been so easy to miss on a completely flat, featureless tundra stretching out to the horizon in two directions."
Ronon shrugged. "The snow might've buried him."
"Good one, Pessimistic the Barbarian," Rodney snapped at Ronon. "Why not crush any hope entirely while you're busy stamping on it?"
"Rodney," John said warningly.
"Sorry," Ronon said, actually sounding repentant.
"The Jumper spun around when the lightning hit it, according to the kids," Jeannie said, answering Rodney's original question. There was a snap in her voice; the McKays always got bitchy when they were scared. "If he was disoriented after the crash he could've thought that was the right direction. If he did go back to the forest," she added, glancing at Ronon.
"The trees are closer than the village from where they crashed, at least from what the youths told us," Teyla said. "Perhaps he thought it would be easier to shelter in the forest."
They'd reached the Jumper by then and John opened the hatch. He'd left the Ancient equivalent of the heater running, and he sighed happily for the warmth. It hadn't been desperately cold outside, but it was grey and damp, the kind of cold that could seep in and sap your strength if you were already hurt. Nothing like the balmy ocean air on Atlantis.
The planet could go from cool to winter blizzard with a speed that reminded John of Rodney's capriciousness every time they were facing imminent disaster, so it didn't surprise John that a storm had come up while Evan's team was there. They hadn't been hunting for Ancient tech this time so much as a possible Ancient data repository that had been built on the area that was now covered by trees. John knew they'd have to re-think any future trips here--or at least wait until summer if the Atlantis teams had to leave the village. The Semat people had readily joined the Sadatan Alliance after Rodney's team had built them a force-shield to use during storms, and had gratefully given them access to all archeological sites on their planet, but they would only go as far from the village as they could still safely return between storms, which meant they couldn't give more help than they already had.
If Ramsey were flying, it might explain why they didn't have the Jumper's shields up when they were hit, since she didn't have very much piloting experience. Though it was also possible they hadn't been in the air long enough for her to activate them. But why wasn't Evan in the pilot's seat?
"I wonder if Evan was injured, which is why he wasn't flying the Jumper," Teyla said as she settled in her chair, as if she'd read John's thoughts.
"Do you think he was bitten by a wild animal?" Rodney asked. He glanced at John nervously from his copilot seat and then looked over his shoulder at Teyla as if for confirmation. "The locals said there were big animals here, right?" He looked back at John. "Maybe they're vicious man eaters..."
"The large animals are all herbivores, Rodney," Teyla said. "And the largest of them don't inhabit the forests, in any case."
"And they're probably all hiding from the storms or hibernating or something anyway," John put in before Rodney could start fretting about being trampled or anything else that was never going to happen. He finished the pre-flight checks and lifted the Jumper into the air, turning towards the north and the expanse. He could see a few darker grey clouds off in the distance, and hoped that didn't mean they'd be hit by another snowstorm in the next hour or so. At least he knew to put the Jumper's shield up even before they left the ground.
Jeannie swiveled around in her seat and turned on the console set into the hull behind her while Rodney poured over the small detector in his hands. "There are lots of life signs that could be something Evan's size," Rodney said, "but they're all over the place. I have no idea if one of these dots is even him."
"Why the hell didn't anyone think to give you subdural transponders?" Jeannie demanded. John heard her smack angrily at the console screen behind him. "They should be standard! They are standard where I come from!"
"Yeah, well, they would've been a bit easier to get if we could contact Earth," John said, with a bit of bite in it.
"It's not like we can't make them here," Jeannie went on, either missing or ignoring John's sarcasm. "Seriously--you've been here five years. How couldn't you have figured out that it might be useful to be able to actually find someone if they were missing?" She smacked the screen again. "He could be right underneath us and I have no idea if it's Evan down there or some kind of ungulate!"
"I'm sorry, okay?" Rodney blurted at his sister, and oh boy, but exactly what John didn't need was a sibling rivalry slap-fight in the middle of a search and rescue mission. "I'm sorry that I've had other priorities, like oh, say, trying to contact our home planet or not being a dragon!"
"What's an ungulate?" Ronon asked. He'd stretched out on one of the benches, sounding bored.
"An Earth herd animal," Teyla said.
"Radek could've made them," Jeannie said to Rodney, barely subdued. "It's not like it's difficult to program a microchip--"
"And we'll look into it as soon as we've got Evan back," John cut in before the McKays started throwing punches. He arced smoothly into a gentle landing. "But right now arguing about whether or not we should've made transponders isn't going to do him any good." He shut down the Jumper as he spoke, making sure to leave the heater on again. He was certain Evan would need it. "So, are you two going to help look, or would you rather stay here and pull each other's hair?"
"I wasn't arguing!" Rodney protested, but he got up readily enough and grabbed his pack. "I know it's still warm out. Well, vaguely warm-ish, but I think we should put on the colder weather gear. I'd hate to be caught out in a storm with just my standard-weight jacket."
"That is an excellent idea, Rodney," Teyla said. She started pulling on her parka. They all looked the same because they were Sadatan military equipment, courtesy of the Alliance: thick and stark white with fur-lined hoods. John always felt a bit like Han Solo in his, but he'd never tell Rodney that.
Rodney just looked adorable in his, like a short, grumpy Yeti. But John would never tell him that, either.
They all had packs with cold-weather survival equipment and Ronon was carrying an extra parka and knit hat for Evan. And John knew Jeannie was carrying so many chemical heating packs that if she jostled her backpack too much it'd probably burst into flame. Warming Evan up wouldn't be a problem. They just had to find him first.
"The hunters said they searched to the edge of the forest, but no further," Teyla reminded them.
John nodded his acknowledgement, then stood back and gestured for Teyla and Ronon to go first. Ronon's tracking skills were better than John's, but Teyla had honed hers for seven years as a runner. John was sure that if Evan had so much as put a toe on the ground anywhere she'd find it.
"Anything?" he asked the wonder twins walking behind him as he followed Ronon. They both had identical postures, hunched over their life signs detectors.
"Yeah," Jeannie said tartly. "The five of us and about fifty different life signs in our immediate vicinity, any of which could be Evan."
"Not to mention that the fact the trees are also alive is narrowing the detector's range," Rodney said. He looked like he was about five seconds from slamming the thing into one of the closer trees he'd just mentioned. "Maybe I can gimmick it..."
"Later," John said as Rodney began to slow down. "If Teyla and Ronon can't find any trace of him I'll let you do your thing, but right now we can't take the time."
"Oh, Right," Rodney said quickly, He lifted his head and walked faster.
"John," Teyla called to him, and John picked up the pace as he went towards her voice.
There was a natural clearing, near enough to the edge of the forest that John ground his teeth in frustration that the kids hadn't taken the time to find it. There was a tent, blown over and mostly covered with the snow from the most recent storm which had hit in the early morning. There was a snowy lump in the middle that was probably the remains of a fire, and three much larger shapes that were very obviously bodies.
Jeannie froze at the edge of the clearing, clutching her life signs detector tightly in her mittened hands. Then she took a deep breath, obviously steeling herself, and went to the nearest body, carefully brushing the snow off the upturned face.
"It's a woman," Jeannie said, and John and Rodney both exhaled in relief. "Help me with her," she said to Rodney. "I want to see how she died."
"Got another woman," Ronon grunted from the other side of the buried fire. John went over to help him turn her over, silently grateful that she hadn't frozen to the ground. Her nose and lips were black with frostbite.
"Nice coat," John noted absently. It looked like it was made of felted wool and was a rich, deep red against the pure white of the snow. The color was marred by the hole in her chest, though, surrounded by the charred edges of her garments and skin. "Well, I guess we know how she died."
"Only a Sadatan pistol would do that kind of damage," Teyla said. Her voice didn't betray any excitement, but she turned back to the body she'd been examining and cleared off more snow from the front of his blue coat. The man had fallen on his side, propped against the log John Assumed they'd been sitting on. He had the same kind of blast hole in his abdomen.
"This one's been shot as well," Jeannie said, standing. She looked like she didn't know if she should be hopeful or worried. "That means it was Evan, right? I mean, no one else here has weapons like that."
Rodney stood out of his crouch, grimacing as he slapped his mittened hands together to clean the snow off them. "What the hell happened here? It looks like a freaking massacre!"
"Evan was attacked," Teyla said. She pointed out of the clearing into the forest. "His tracks were buried by the snow, but there is another female body there, and obvious signs of a struggle. He was on the ground when he shot her." Teyla pulled her arm back with her hand in a fist. "She was going to club him, and he killed her to defend himself. I believe they wanted this," she added, lifting up another detector. It was as white as the snow and John had no idea how she could've even seen it.
"And they were going to kill him for it?" Jeannie sounded horrified. She looked at Teyla as if the other woman had all the answers. "Who were they? Were they Solen's people?"
"No. Coats're too bright," Ronon said. "Solen's people wear more grey and black."
"Bandits, maybe, like the Bola Kai," John suggested. He wondered how long they'd been hiding out in the woods, and what they'd been planning on doing to the village. Maybe Evan had done Solen and her people a favor when he killed them. He just wished the poor bastard hadn't had to face all four of them alone.
"All right, so we know Evan made it this far, now what?" Rodney asked. He pulled out his detector again and glowered at it. "Where the hell did he go?"
Teyla stood, searching the fire and at the three uncovered bodies with her eyes. "If you would all stand back, please," she said then began walking around the fire, crouched low to the ground. She stopped. "Something has made a depression in the snow, here. Something large." She knelt and started clearing away the new snow. The rest of them helped her, pushing the snow aside where she told them to, like they were making some giant, abstract snow angel.
"There's a lot of blood," Ronon said. He yanked up a piece of cloth, frozen and crusted with snow. Blood had darkened it entirely from its original light tan.
Jeannie sucked in a breath then started swiping faster, shoving the newer layer of snow away. "His jacket!" she said breathlessly.
"There's more over here," Rodney said from the opposite side. "He must've been wearing two." He held up what was obviously the remains of a third sleeve.
"I have his gun," Teyla said. She made sure it was powered down then put it into her backpack.
"He left his gun?" Rodney gaped.
"Along with everything else, it looks like," John said. He found a boot, not too far away from the expanding area of Evan's clothing. The leather was ripped right off the sole, as if the boot had burst apart.
"He's a dragon," John said, as if it wasn't already obvious. He held up the boot to show them.
Jeannie's eyes were like big, blue coins. "It must've been to keep warm."
"I'm surprised he kept all his clothes on," Teyla said, which John figured was her subtle way of saying she'd guessed the worst, too.
"Would you want to get naked in this?" Ronon said.
"But what about his boots?" Rodney asked, glancing nervously at John. "He could've at least taken off his boots for a few minutes. And the jackets," he added as an afterthought.
"Or this," Teyla said softly. She held Evan's snapped dog tag chain in her hand. The two metal tags clinked gently in the slight breeze.
"Yeah," John said, but he and Rodney exchanged a silent look and John knew exactly what Rodney was thinking: Evan wouldn't have done this if he was just cold, not with a fire and the bandit's tent right there and more than likely packed with all their gear. Gruesome though it was, Evan would have scavenged the coats from the dead before he'd changed form. That's what John would've done, and Evan had hated the agony of the change even more than John did. If Evan had willingly become a dragon, it could only be because he was sure that otherwise he wouldn't survive.
"Where is he?" Jeannie asked, looking at them all. John wondered if she was aware she had clutched one of Evan's ripped sleeves to her chest like a talisman. "Where did he go? Why didn't he fly back to the gate?"
"Might've been too tired," Ronon suggested, glancing at Jeannie before he looked at John. "Changing forms takes a lot out of you, right?"
"Yes it does," Jeannie said, nodding. She balled up Evan's sleeve and slipped it into her pocket. "That's likely what happened."
Teyla silently handed her Evan's tags, and Jeannie carefully put them into the zipped pocket on the inside of her coat.
"Sure," John said. He stood and looked at Teyla. "Do you think you can track a dragon?"
Teyla grinned at him, looking relieved and determined. "Certainly."
"Well, good thing he wasn't trying to be sneaky, eh? Ow!" Rodney glared at Ronon's back, swiping at the snow that the branch Ronon had bent aside had just flung into his face. Ronon smirked evilly at him and then easily ducked Rodney's return volley of snow.
"Focus, guys. I want to find him before the storm starts," John called ahead to the two of them.
Not that Rodney was wrong--even with the more recent snow covering his tracks Evan had left so many broken branches and downed saplings in his wake it looked like a drunken elephant had been blundering through the trees. Not that stealth was a dragon's strong suit or anything, but Evan might as well have hung neon signs blaring, THIS WAY WITH THE TORCHES AND PITCHFORKS with helpfully pointing arrows. John was pretty sure that even he would've managed to duck once or twice if he'd been in the same situation, or at least dodge one leaning tree out of ten.
Rodney glanced up nervously at John's words, though nearly all that was visible above them was the stark netting of leafless branches coated in frost and the steadily darkening grey of the sky. The wind had picked up as well, making John happy for Rodney's suggestion that they wear their heavier coats. A few drifting snowflakes were already swirling down, like the harbinger of the onslaught to follow.
"This is Sheppard to Ally," John tried his radio again. "Corporal Ally, this is Sheppard." There was no answer except the snarl of static, steadily getting louder. "The weather's messing up our radios," he said. Rodney had told them to expect that, but that didn't make John any more comfortable not being able to contact his men at the gate.
"No kidding," Jeannie groused. She was walking in front of them, just behind Teyla, and she glanced at her detector one more time before scowling and tapping it with her curved fingers, as if that would make it work better. "I can't pick up anything except the five of us anymore. Nothing further than two meters. Fucking machine," she muttered.
"Where the hell was he going, anyway?" Rodney demanded. He ducked under a broken branch only to trip over another one. John caught his arm before he could fall then kept holding him, pretending it was to keep him steady. Rodney gave him a small smile and moved a little closer to him.
"I believe Evan was limping," Teyla said over her shoulder. She looked ethereally beautiful, like a snow queen with the fur-lined hood surrounding her face. She pointed at a tangle of broken twigs that looked to John no different from any of the other ones. "Here--he is favoring his right front leg."
"He'd be trying to hide, if he's hurt," Ronon said.
"Cats do that," Rodney said. He looked at John, the worry on his face as visible as his cold-reddened cheeks. "What if we don't find him?" he said, managing to keep his voice down for once so only John would hear him. He glanced unhappily at his sister, whose body was almost featureless with her hood covering her hair. "What--what'll we do?"
"We'll find him," John murmured, using the tone Rodney wouldn't argue with even if he wanted to. He forced a smile, feeling the cold on his lips. "He's a dragon. Where the hell could he hide, anyway?"
"That sounds like the beginning of a really dumb joke," Rodney said, but he moved his arm so that John's hand slid down until for a moment it was mitten-to-mitten with Rodney's, folded together.
"We'll find him," John said again.
"I found something!" Jeannie called out.
John and Rodney looked at each other and then raced ahead, crashing through the powdery snow. Jeannie was standing stalk-still with her head so low over her detector that her breath was misting the screen. "I'm getting an energy reading. I think. And a life sign. A big life sign." She lifted her hand and pointed with her mitten. "That way."
"Two meters from here?" Rodney squinted in the direction she was pointing. There were just trees, trees and more trees, as far as John could tell. "I don't see anything."
"No." Jeannie shook her head. "Farther than that. Whatever it is, it's powerful enough to cut through the interference from the storm."
"The repository?" Rodney asked, visibly brightening.
"Evan?" John said.
"I believe so," Teyla said. "Look." She pushed aside the snapped trunk of a small tree and suddenly John could see that they'd walked to the edge of a steep slope. It led down to a shallow valley which ended in steeper, rocky cliffs on the other side, where the forest continued as if someone had gouged a huge, uneven slice out of the ground. The valley was dotted with the tangled remains of what would probably be lush bushes and grass in the summer, and there was a shallow river racing through the center. Ice had formed on either side of the bank, but not in the center where the current was too quick, swirling and splashing around and over ice-covered stones.
The whole thing looked as beautiful and pristine as a postcard, except for the crushed foliage and the huge rectangle in the cliff directly across from them, as if someone had opened a door into the rock.
"Evan! Evan's in there!" Jeannie cried. She ducked around Ronon and started down the slope, leaning back and more-or-less sliding on her butt and the bottom of her backpack as she worked her way down. Ronon followed her, then Teyla, who slid down impossibly gracefully on her feet.
"Like surfing, cool," John said to Rodney.
Rodney stared at him. "'Cool'? This is not 'cool', Sheppard! We could--!" His protest elided into a squawk as John all but dragged him by the arm over the edge of the slope with him.
Ronon hauled them both to their feet at the bottom, John grinning and shaking off snow and Rodney furiously wiping the snow off his parka and backpack like a wet cat. "You are so juvenile," he said to John. "Only you would go sledding in the middle of a rescue mission."
John patted him on the back. "We had to get down the hill somehow, McKay." He jogged to catch up to Ronon and the others, glancing back to make sure Rodney was right behind him. The snow was already falling more heavily now, making him very glad they had somewhere protected to wait it out. He hoped Ally's team would be all right back at the Gate. John had ordered them to Gate back to Atlantis if the storm got bad; hopefully they wouldn't disobey that order out of misguided loyalty, considering they were out in the open in front of a big, round lightning rod.
The snowfall here was contained by the valley and was so deep that it came up nearly to the top of Teyla's thighs. There was also the sea of brambles to wade though, which might have made even trying to cross the valley impossible except that Teyla found the path left by the wounded dragon, where Evan had inadvertently ploughed a trail for them. The hardest part was getting over the stream without ending up with soaking cold feet. In the end John was sure only Ronon had managed it. Luckily they'd all brought spare socks, not to mention Jeannie's several thousand heating packs, and it was kind of funny listening to Rodney's and Jeannie's muttered swearing all the rest of the way to the repository.
"The door must've opened for his ATA gene," Jeannie said, looking up at the high entrance as she went inside. There were lights on inside too, but dim the way John remembered Atlantis had been when he and Rodney had first climbed the stairs to the control room together. Their misting breaths looked ghostly in the light pouring through the open entranceway.
"Conserving power," Rodney murmured, looking around.
The repository branched off from the entrance in three directions like a T-junction, each one with dim lights that disappeared into darkness like a subway tunnel. The walls were lined with narrow alcoves, each one filled with crystals, thousands and thousands of them.
"Oh my God," Rodney breathed. He reached out and took a crystal almost reverently from its housing, then grimaced at the large crack running through it and put it back. "This place was probably meant to be temperature controlled. Most of the crystals probably cracked or shattered with this planet's extreme temperature changes." He sighed. "We might not even find anything."
John clapped his hand on Rodney's shoulder, steering him away from the wall. "The crystals can wait until Evan's back safe in Atlantis," he reminded Rodney, who winced guiltily and nodded. "Besides, even if most of the crystals are broken, there'll probably be enough data left to keep your scientists in geekgasms for years."
That got a faint smile, but Rodney was looking around for the rest of the team. "Where'd they all go?"
"This way," John said, pointing to the middle corridor which led in a straight line right from the door. They could easily see the light from the room where the corridor led, like walking through a tunnel.
They trotted to catch up with the others, only to freeze when they heard a very loud roar echoing towards them.
"Oh yeah, that's Evan," John said, grinning in relief.
"He doesn't sound very happy," Rodney said.
They started running.
They could hear the animal growling even before the corridor widened into a square, dimly-lit chamber that housed what John was sure was another of the Ancient console/pedestal interactive encyclopedia things, and now held one very pissed-off blood-streaked dragon, glaring at them all with narrow blue eyes and growling and snorting gouts of steam like a bull.
Evan's head snapped up when John and Rodney galloped in. He had wedged himself into the farthest corner of the room, which wasn't very far given that the room wasn't all that big. His wings were pulled firmly against his back and his tail was wrapped tightly around his body, tip twitching frantically. The side facing them had a thick, dark bruise over part of his ribs, and Evan's opposite front leg was stretched out. It was swollen and looked like it hurt.
Evan pulled even further away when he saw John and Rodney. He made a noise of obvious pain then his growls got louder, full of menace and warning.
John and Rodney immediately skidded to a halt, arms raised and palms showing.
"Whoa," John said to Evan. "Easy, buddy. We're just trying to help."
"Jeannie--you okay?" Rodney said, trying to look at her without actually taking his eyes off Evan.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Jeannie said. She sounded frustrated and a little spooked. Her hood was down and her mitts were off, and when John glanced at her she was tucking loose hair behind her ear. "It's just that he won't let us get near him."
"He doesn't know who we are," Ronon said.
"Yeah, I kind of got that," John said. He kept his arms up, not moving any closer to the dragon, trying to remember how Teyla had gotten through to him when he'd been freaking out like this over his and Rodney's injuries more than a year ago. He cleared his throat and Evan's eyes flicked to him. "Hey, buddy," John said, trying not to show any nervousness though he was sure Evan could smell it. "It's me, John. I'm your friend. We're all your friends here. You know what we smell like, right?"
Evan kept growling.
"Maybe he doesn't like your aftershave," Rodney murmured. He eased back a step until he was next to the cluster of Ronon, Teyla and Jeannie, who were nearer to the Ancient dais than the corridor where Rodney and John had just come in. "Any time his sparring partners or his girlfriend want to say something would be good."
Jeannie shot Rodney a look that was part glare and part big-eyed anguish, but she licked her lips and focused on Evan again. "Evan?" His ear flicked towards her but at least his growling didn't get worse. "Evan...I know you're in pain and you're frightened, but you're safe here. I promise no one's going to do anything to you. We just want to help you, okay? Can I see how badly you're hurt?"
She took a step closer and Evan's head swung towards her, his tail thrashing. His growling crept up a few decibels. Jeannie flinched, but she stayed where she was until he seemed to settle, then she moved forward again. She was close enough now that she could touch his face if she reached out. "I'm Jeannie," she said quietly. She carefully offered him her hand.
Evan sniffed her palm and the tips of her fingers. It felt like everyone was waiting with held breath, no one daring to speak or move. It was weirdly like a fairytale: Beauty and the Beast or the Aesop's fable about that guy and the lion with a thorn in his paw. It made John think of Teyla, feral with privation and fear when they'd found her. He was pretty sure he'd said something to Carson about going into the lion's den when Carson came to help her.
Evan didn't lick Jeannie's hand, but he did drop his head and stop growling, even if he was glaring warily at them the whole time. He started licking his leg. John knew the dragon's saliva would make it hurt less, but there were no cuts for it to heal.
"That's it, that's right, sweetheart," Jeannie crooned. She edged a little closer and then very carefully crouched down until she was in front of Evan's face. "I'm just going to check you out, okay? I need to see where you've been injured. I'm going to touch your ribs, okay?"
Evan huffed and glared, but he didn't try to stop her until Jeannie put her fingers lightly on his ribs. She'd barley touched him when he snapped at her, whipping his head around to smack her in the side with his teeth.
Jeannie yelped as she fell onto her back, then stayed very still while Evan snarled at her, his lips pulled away from his sharp, glistening teeth.
Ronon pulled his gun and it whirred as he powered it.
"Don't!" Jeannie said to him, voice quiet but the urgency in it carrying. "I don't know the extent of his injuries--stunning him might make things worse."
Ronon looked at John, who nodded. Ronon lowered his gun, but John didn't hear it powering down. Hopefully Ronon wouldn't really have to use it.
Evan growled a bit more like he was making a point, then settled back into his corner, switching the licking from his leg to his side.
"Okay...maybe it's time to move away from the pissed-off dragon," Rodney said.
Jeannie sat up, too quickly in John's opinion, but even though Evan's ears twitched towards her he didn't do anything aggressive. "I can't," she said. She gathered her knees under her and crept towards the dragon again. "I just want to see if you're all right," she said to him. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry about your ribs. I didn't want to hurt you but it was the only way to find out if they're broken." She carefully reached out her hand. "Can I at least look at your eyes? I promise that won't hurt at all. I won't even use my flashlight, okay?"
She touched the lid of Evan's closer eye but he flinched away from her, his growl spiking like an angry cat. John tensed, hand on his own gun, but Evan just turned his head away and squeezed his eyes shut. His tail beat against the floor.
"Come on, Evan!" Jeannie said, sounding frustrated. "I just want to look at your pupils--it's not going to hurt!"
"Jeannie," Teyla said quietly, "what is that on the back of his head?"
"What? Oh my God," Jeannie said, looking up and seeing what Teyla already had. John was too far away to make out much detail in the insufficient light, but he could still find the dark stain of a bruise spreading from the back to the right side of Evan's head. It looked like two bruises that had blended together, swollen and obviously recent. They were small on a dragon-sized skull, but John was certain it wasn't the dragon skull that'd been hit.
"The woman outside the clearing was using a club as a weapon," Teyla said.
"I know," Jeannie said softly. "Sorry," she said to the dragon, "I'm really sorry, but I have to..." She reached up carefully and felt around the edges of the nearest bruise with her fingertips. John could tell she was touching even more lightly but this time Evan didn't just snap but actually lunged for her. Teyla grabbed Jeannie and yanked her away before his jaws could close around her head. Jeannie fell back with a small cry and then both women scrambled away from him.
Evan snarled at everyone in the room, wings flapping and tail thrashing wildly against the floor and the dais behind him.
"Sheppard," Ronon had his gun up again, looking between Evan and John. John had his own gun out and powered, but he wasn't firing yet.
"Don't you dare shoot him!" Jeannie yelled at them both. "He's got a concussion--stunning him could kill him! Don't do it!"
John clenched his jaw. "Stand down, Lorne," he said to the dragon, trying to throw every ounce of command into his voice.
Evan didn't respond to John so much as just run out of steam. He lay down again, panting harshly and trembling. He lowered his head to his good leg, growling and glaring wearily at all of them.
"What the hell did you do that for?" Rodney demanded of Jeannie. "Puff the Angry Dragon over there wasn't agitated enough for you? Or do you want to end this perfect day by being burned to death?"
"I'm trying to find out if his skull's been fractured along with his ribs, Rodney!" Jeannie yelled at her brother. She gestured at Evan, apparently remembering in time not to go near him again. "It's not like I can ask him, can I?"
"You two--take it easy!" John ordered, glaring at them both. "We're all concerned about Colonel Lorne, but bitching at each other isn't going to help." He narrowed his eyes at Rodney when he saw him about to protest. Rodney shut his mouth. "Okay," John said, turning his attention to Jeannie. "It's pretty obvious he's been beat up. How bad is it?"
"I don't know!" Jeannie exclaimed, then glanced guiltily at Evan and lowered her voice. "I don't know," she said again. "I'd say by his reaction that he's got at least one cracked or broken rib--probably broken because Evan's usually more stoic than that."
"Evan's not usually a dragon," Rodney said.
Jeannie gave Rodney a quick glare but continued. "Like I said, at least one of his ribs is probably broken. His breathing is shallow which makes sense if his ribs hurt, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't have a punctured lung." She took a breath. "I'm almost sure he has a skull fracture on the right side of his head--it obviously hurts like hell, anyway. I don't know if he'll let me get close enough to palpate the contusion on the back of his head. I don't think either of them are depressed skull fractures, but they could be compound, or there could be internal hemorrhaging I don't know about..." She hesitated, seeing that the others weren't understanding her. She started again. "I mean, I don't think any part of his skull is pressing in on his brain, or that there's any torn tissue or bleeding there. But I don't know. He won't even let me look at his eyes to see if his pupils are properly reactive to light." She looked at Evan helplessly, digging her fingers into her hair. "I don't know. I need to scan him and do tests to find out anything for certain, but he'll have to be on Atlantis for that. And human."
"Dragons heal really fast," John offered. He risked taking a couple steps closer when Evan seemed to be okay with it. His growling hadn't dropped further than a low, warning rumble, but at least he wasn't baring his teeth.
"So, that's why he's acting crazy?" Ronon asked. "Because he's been smashed in the head?"
"You said it yourself," Rodney said grimly to Ronon. "He doesn't know who we are."
"Seriously?" John said. He stared at Rodney, then realized Jeannie would have to know better than her brother would and stared at her instead. "He's got amnesia? This isn't just normal hurt dragon stuff?"
"I don't know what 'normal hurt dragon stuff' is, John," Jeannie said, sounding tired and exasperated and upset. She didn't take her eyes off Evan.
"This isn't it, though," Rodney said quietly.
"So, what do we do about it?" Ronon said.
John tapped his radio, but if anything the static was even worse. "Our radios are going to be out until after the storm." He looked at his watch. "If we don't check in about a half-hour from now, they'll send another team to look for us, and they already know our general location. And the Orion should be here soon."
"Their sensor and communications range is much farther than our radios or a Jumper," Rodney added. "They should be able to contact us even if it's still storming, maybe even transport us onto the ship."
"Fine. Great." Jeannie sighed, rubbing her forehead. "And what do we do in the meantime? Play cards? Make bets on how long it takes Evan to fall into a coma?"
"He's still here," John said, using the same tone with Jeannie that always got Rodney to focus when he started spinning. "Evan's still here and he's all right--mostly all right," he amended at Jeannie's incredulous snort. "And in a couple hours the Orion will be here and they'll take him back to Atlantis. All we have to do is sit tight and be patient."
"Perhaps we should leave Evan alone for awhile," Teyla said, and John realized that Evan's growling had gotten steadily louder the more they'd been talking, as if the dragon was reacting to the growing tension in the room.
"Good idea," John said. He looked at Rodney. "We can see what's at the ends of the other two corridors, maybe get a start on deciphering some of these crystals."
"Oh, yes, good idea," Rodney said, brightening a little. He took off his pack and added it to the cluster of three that had already been set against the furthest wall from the dragon. He dropped his mittens on the pile then straightened, dusting off his hands. "Oh, wait," he said, and bent to rummage in a pocket of his pack. He made a small noise of triumph and resurfaced with three homemade energy bars.
Ronon jerked a thumb in the direction of the large main entrance. "I'm going to see what the storm's doing."
John nodded. "Don't go outside if there's lightning," he said. He hadn't heard any thunder yet, but that could've just been because of how deep they were inside the cliff.
"No kidding." Ronon grinned wolfishly at him then started jogging down the corridor. John knew Ronon was really looking for an excuse to move, but it would be useful to know what was going on outside anyway. It might be safe enough to walk Evan back to the village, if he'd be willing to go with them.
"I'm staying here," Jeannie said. She zipped open her parka as if to underscore the point, glaring at John and Rodney as if daring them to have a problem with it. "I agree with Teyla that there're too many people in here, but I'm not leaving Evan alone."
"Fine," John said on a breath. He could tell by Jeannie's expression that she'd turned on the implacable McKay stubbornness and nothing short of stunning her and dragging her out of the room would get her to move. Well, John knew he wouldn't want to leave Rodney, either. "Just be careful."
Jeannie gave him a small, sad smile. "I've handled unhappy dragons before, John."
"I know," John said, even though she'd never had to deal with a dragon this badly hurt and they both knew it. He watched her choose a spot on the floor and sit cross-legged. She pulled the detector out of her pocket and started flicking through screens, acting as if everyone else had already gone.
"I'll stay with her," Teyla said quietly, and John nodded his thanks. She gracefully lowered herself to the floor next to their packs and settled into the pose she liked to use for meditation. John figured that of the two women, Teyla would be a much better calming influence than Jeannie. He hoped Evan would pick up on her serenity vibes and relax.
"Let's go," he said to Rodney, who had been busy unwrapping the three energy bars from the squares of cloth. He stuffed one in his mouth and held it there, then took two cautious steps towards the dragon.
"Rodney!" Jeannie hissed. She looked like she wanted to bolt up and grab him, but she stayed where she was, looking worried and annoyed.
John could see Evan stiffening again and drawing back, but Rodney didn't go any closer. Instead he knelt on the floor and slid the bars towards the dragon, one at a time. He stood up slowly, brushing the crumbs off on his pants.
Evan stretched his neck out just enough to sniff the energy bars, and then he gave the nearest one a tentative lick. Then he stretched out further and snapped up them both, crunching loudly. He stopped growling.
"Food tames the savage best, right?" Rodney said when he'd walked back to John. He sounded smug even though his words were muffled around the half of the energy bar he had in his mouth. He offered the half he'd broken off to John.
"That's music," John said, taking the offered snack. He liked how crunchy they were.
He grinned as he left the room with Rodney, feeling like he was relaxing along with the dragon. If Evan trusted them enough to take food, then he figured things had to be all right.
The dragon sighed and shifted his head on the leg that didn't ache. His head hurt and his side hurt and he felt sick. He wanted to sleep, but the Small Noisy one would yank his ear or tug his nostril or pull on his neck spikes every time he closed his eyes. He'd growled and even snapped at her again, but she didn't stop, and he was too tired to roar or bat her away from him.
But he really wanted to sleep. He growled more loudly as a warning, but it just made him feel worse.
She wouldn't stop making sounds, either. Some of them were familiar but he was too tired and it hurt too much to figure them out. He wanted her to be quiet so he could sleep.
He wasn't frightened anymore. He didn't know where he was and he didn't recognize the ones who had come into the cave after him, but only Small Noisy had touched him and even though that had hurt she didn't smell dangerous. And the Big Noisy one had given him food and the others had left him alone.
Small Noisy was annoying, but she smelled good and her hands felt nice when she wasn't grabbing at him. He liked the rise and fall of her voice even though he couldn't understand it...
There was a sharp, very painful tug on the corner of his mouth and the dragon jerked awake, roaring and tossing his head to dislodge what was hurting him. The movement made the cave around him spin and spin and spin and he threw up, spattering the ground with the barely-digested food, which made his side burn in pain. He dropped his head with a groan, shutting his eyes tightly until he didn't feel so sick. When he opened his eyes the Small Calm one was with him as well, crooning something and rubbing the skin between his eyes. Small Noisy was murmuring at the same time, like the quiet rush of a river. Despite their gentleness, both the females smelled afraid, which made the dragon feel afraid too.
The cold, crackling smell of the air coming from outside the cave was thicker and harsher. Crackling smell meant danger, hurt, and the females were frightened so they knew that, too. He needed somewhere else to hide that was safe.
The dragon heaved himself to his three useful feet, keeping the hurt one bent with only the curled toes touching the ground. He swayed, unable to keep his balance. He stepped on his hurt leg to steady himself and crashed to the ground howling when it wouldn't support him.
He lay on his side panting and whimpering in pain, his nose full of the stench of his own sick and the cold and crackling. Small Calm called loudly to the others and the noise hurt his head. Small Noisy was trying to soothe him by petting his neck but then the sky roared, so loudly and so close by that the cave shook and there was a flash of light outside at the end of the tunnel.
The dragon bellowed in terror and surged to his feet. Small Calm was knocked aside but he was too scared to care if she was hurt. He was too scared to notice the pain as he ran, throwing his body into a rolling limp that was too slow to outrun his panic but fast enough to get past Big Noisy and Belongs to Big Noisy, who grabbed his mate and threw them both to the ground before the dragon could hit them with his spread wings.
The tunnel was too narrow to extend his wings fully, but there was daylight ahead and as soon as he was outside the dragon could fly away from the noise and the light and find somewhere safe to hide until he didn't hurt anymore.
Growl Voice stepped in front of him, blocking the clear path to the sky. He threw a red light at the dragon that grazed one of his shoulders. It hurt and part of his wing felt cold, but he didn't stop running. He exhaled fire. Breathing hurt so it was a small puff and cool, but Grumble Voice dove out of the way and the dragon snapped his wings open and threw himself into the sky.
He was right in the middle of the noise and light and the wind was fighting him, but he had to get away, find somewhere safe. He fled in panic through the storm.
"Okay," John sighed the fifth time he caught Rodney staring off into space instead of analyzing the crystals in the alcoves. He was sitting on the floor with his back against the wall, letting Rodney's steady, quiet muttering lull him into a doze, but he kept waking up every time Rodney stopped. "You can't be that unhappy over the fact we didn't bring your laptop, so what is it? What's on your mind, buddy?" he added more softly when he saw Rodney's troubled expression.
"Nothing," Rodney said too quickly. "Well, nothing except how you insisted that there was no point in taking my laptop on a rescue mission and now of course I don't have it when I really need it." He made a show of studying the readout on his detector, but soon enough he stopped doing that and rubbed the middle of his forehead, a sure sign that he was upset. "All right, fine. If you must know, I can't stop thinking about Evan."
"That's nothing to be ashamed of," John said, though he winced inwardly because yeah, he liked talking about this stuff even less than Rodney did. "We're all worried about him."
"He's my friend. Of course I'm going to worry about him," Rodney snapped. "I'm not ashamed of that. That has nothing to do with it." Rodney sighed. He tapped his detector a few more times, scowling at the reading. "Great. Either this detector's readings are totally inaccurate--which I'm inclined to think they are, since it wasn't designed for this kind of work unlike my laptop--or I'm looking at the Ancient version of a cookbook."
"How to Serve Man?" John suggested then grinned when Rodney looked over his shoulder to roll his eyes at him.
"It's my worst nightmare," Rodney said, which was such a non sequitur that for a second John thought Rodney meant being eaten (which was sadly logical, actually, given their everyday lives), "Evan, I mean," Rodney amended as if he'd known John was confused. "When I was a dragon for so long...Sometimes I felt like that, like I was losing myself--my humanness, or whatever you want to call it," Rodney went on, his voice dropping. "There were times...like when I would try to follow what Radek was doing and I couldn't, or I wanted to tell you something and you didn't understand...I would be so terrified that, that it wouldn't come back. That one day I would wake up and I wouldn't be Rodney anymore. Just a dragon."
John swallowed. He'd never said anything, but that had been his nightmare as well: that he'd lose Rodney completely to the animal he'd become. "That didn't happen," he said.
"I know," Rodney said. "Not to me."
John took a breath and scrubbed his face with his hand. "Rodney," he said. "Turn around all ready, will you? I don't want to talk to your back."
"Come here," John said when Rodney finally turned around. He patted the floor next to him. "I'm cold," he lied when Rodney just looked at him dubiously.
"Right," Rodney snorted, but he sat down next to John so that they were touching from knee to hip to shoulder. John put his arm around Rodney's back.
"Evan's going to be fine," John said.
"I don't know what Jeannie will do if he's not," Rodney said quietly.
"He'll be fine," John said again.
"Sure," Rodney said, "but what if he isn't?"
"Hey," Ronon said, jogging up and startling them both before John could respond to what Rodney said. "The storm's worse. Lightning's getting closer, too. It's practically on top of us."
"Crap," John said. He checked his watch. "Atlantis knows we're late by now, but Elizabeth probably won't send a Jumper if it's bad, not after what happened to Evan's team."
Rodney was looking at his watch too. "We should've heard from the Orion by now."
"Maybe they're having trouble breaking through the storm," John said. He tried his radio. "Orion, this is Colonel Sheppard. Colonel Sheppard to the Orion. Come in, please." He waited.
"Anything?" Rodney asked.
John shushed him, closing his eyes to help him listen. He was almost certain he could hear a voice but he couldn't make out any of the words. "Orion, this is Sheppard. I don't know if you can hear me, but I can't hear you. Can you boost your signal?"
Whatever reply he might've gotten from the ship was obliterated by a boom of thunder so close it felt like a cannon had gone off next to his head.
"Jesus Christ!" Rodney exclaimed, and even Ronon jumped. "That must be right on top of us!"
Down a different corridor, they heard Evan bellowing in pure animal terror.
"Uh-oh," Rodney said.
"Shit! Don't let him get out!" John ordered. Ronon nodded and disappeared.
John and Rodney scrambled to their feet and ran out into the main corridor, just in time for Evan to almost trample them. John grabbed Rodney by the open collar of his parka and threw them both to the ground before Evan's wing plowed into them and Jeannie had two more concussions to worry about. He looked up from his sprawl over Rodney's body to see Ronon shoot Evan in one of his wings and hear Jeannie yelling, No! No! from further down the corridor. Evan retaliated with a small blast of fire, and when Ronon dodged it Evan leapt through the doorway and out into the air.
"Damn it!" John ran to the doorway and pulled his gun, making sure it was set to stun only before aiming. The last thing he wanted to do was knock Evan out while he was flying, but he would risk it if it kept Evan from being struck by lightning. He aimed as best he could through the sleeting snow, but Evan's skin color make him look just like a slightly darker patch of sky and he was impossible to hit. Ronon stood beside John and fired his gun as well, but they both missed and then Evan was out of range.
"No! Stop shooting! Evan! Come back! Evan!" Jeannie pelted yelling to the entrance, but Rodney caught her before she hurtled outside.
"Don't go out there!" he shouted at her. "Are you stupid? Do you want to be struck by lightning?" His words were muted by another flash of light and the pounding thunder that came just after, as if to underscore the point.
"Evan's out there!" Jeannie yelled back, as if the rest of them had somehow missed it. "We have to get him back before he gets hurt!"
"I know! We all know that!" Rodney exclaimed. "Do you think getting electrocuted is going to help him?"
"Shut up!" John hissed at them both. He clapped his hands over his ears to shut out all the outside noise while he tried to communicate with the Orion. "Orion, this is Sheppard. We have a situation down here. Do you read? Orion? Do you read? We could really use your help. Over."
The words came back broken and indistinct, but finally he heard something he understood.
"There is a dragon flying in the storm, heading due east. Due west!" he amended quickly after Rodney corrected him. "Repeat. There is a dragon flying due west of our position. He is badly injured. Can you transport him? Over."
"Tracking...ye...we...very...life sign...attempt...nsport now...ver."
"Hurry!" John was yelling into the mouthpiece of his radio, having trouble hearing his own voice over the wind and losing it entirely in each crack of thunder.
"We need to go back inside!" Rodney grabbed him by the back of his hood and pulled.
John swatted at him. "Give me a minute!" He ducked away from him into a crouch with his body just inside the entranceway and his head sticking out into the storm, pressing his palms even harder over his ears. The reception further inside the building was worse than standing in the doorway, though maybe that wasn't saying much. "Orion, do you have him? Repeat, do you have him? You're breaking up!"
Had they been forced to subdue him? Is that what they were saying? "You're breaking up!" John hollered into the mouthpiece. "Orion! Don't try to transport us, just get Evan to Atlantis! We'll make our way back later! Is that understood? Over."
The reply sounded like the faint crackle of a dying antique phone line: "Good...rion...nd out."
"Great." John breathed a sigh of relief, letting his hands drop. He rubbed his face, only now registering the sting of the wind.
"Okay, you're done--can we please go inside now?" Rodney snapped, looking worriedly at the sky. There was another crackle of lightning, so close that John could feel the static. The shockwave of the thunder that followed it hammered right through his body.
"You didn't have to stay," John said.
Rodney snorted. "And who would've carried your sorry ass back to safety when you got fried by lightning?"
"Ronon?" John asked as they trotted back to the safer depths of the building.
"Your sense of humor never ceases to surprise and delight," Rodney said. "Actually, he's with Teyla and Jeannie. Apparently he got a little singed by Colonel Scaly during the breakout. Jeannie's giving them both first aid."
"Are they okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, they're fine," Rodney said quickly. "Or, at least I think so. I didn't really check," he admitted.
John gritted his teeth as they went back into the room at the end of the main hallway, but let himself relax a little when he saw that Rodney was right. Teyla was cross-legged on the floor and holding an ice pack to a puffy red circle on the side of her cheek, but she didn't seem more hurt than that and even smiled at John when she saw him. Ronon was sitting impatiently while Jeannie examined his scalp--there was a patch of obviously singed hair on the back of his head. John wondered if this would finally convince Ronon to cut his hair.
"There," Jeannie said softly. She squeezed the back of Ronon's neck gently before she let him go. "I don't see any sign of a burn, but let me know if it hurts or anything, okay?"
"Sure," Ronon said. He hesitated, then, "He's going to be all right, Jeannie," he said.
"The Orion's got him on board," John said, smiling so she wouldn't guess that he had only the vaguest idea of what had happened to Evan afterward but didn't think it was anything good. 'Subdued' could've meant anything from weapons set on stun to P90s, not to mention that he was pretty sure he'd heard the word 'damage' somewhere in there but didn't know if Evan had done it to the ship or himself. "They're heading back to Atlantis. Carson's there, so he'll know exactly what to do for a wounded dragon."
Jeannie nodded dully, looking down at her hands in her lap. "Did they say who was on board?"
"No." John shook his head. He didn't say they might have but he couldn't hear it, because he didn't want Jeannie to start asking questions. "But they knew they were coming for a rescue mission, so I'm sure they'll have everything you'd want them to."
Jeannie nodded again. She wiped one of her eyes.
"I'm sure they'll transport Evan directly into Janus' lab," Rodney said, though he sounded a little too hopeful to be reassuring. "That's what I would do, anyway."
"Carson might think he's too injured to be able to survive the change back," Jeannie said. She blinked and wiped her eyes again.
"I am certain Charles will be honored to help heal him if necessary," Teyla said.
Jeannie looked up at Teyla and gave her a tiny flicker of a smile before it drifted off her face like the snow. "What if it doesn't work?" she said. "What if he can't change back or doesn't remember how?"
"It doesn't matter if he remembers how or not," John said. "The room forces the change automatically." He turned to Rodney. "Right?"
Rodney nodded. "I'm sure that's what Carson will do."
"He ran away from me," Jeannie said. She took a shuddering breath. "He ran out into the storm like an animal! Like he didn't even know what was happening. God, he was so scared..." She put her hands over her eyes and her shoulders started to shake. "He didn't even know. And he was so scared!"
"Hey, hey, it's all right," John said. He eased down to the floor so he was sitting the way Ronon and Teyla were. Rodney clumsily sat next to him. "Evan's safe now. He's on the Orion and he's on his way back to Atlantis where he'll have the best medical care he can get that isn't you. Hell..." John injected levity into his voice that he didn't feel. "He'll probably be human-shaped and sleeping it off in the infirmary by the time we get back."
"I was a dragon for a lot longer than Evan, and I was still able to change back," Rodney said.
"I know." Jeannie swiped viciously at her eyes. "But at least you always knew who you were! Evan...It's like Evan's not there anymore. I don't even think he knows his own name. What if he never remembers? What if he's forgotten he's a person and he never gets it back?"
Ronon shrugged. "Miko and Ford seem pretty happy on the Mainland," he said.
"Ronon!" Teyla snapped at him, aghast and gaping. "How could you even suggest such a thing?"
"She asked a question. I answered it," Ronon said. He looked at Jeannie. "You wanted to know the worst thing that could happen, right? Well, that's the worst thing."
"I believe that Ronon is trying to say there is always hope, even when it no longer seems so," Teyla said, glaring at him.
"Miko let Captain Mitchell touch her a couple weeks ago," John said carefully. "So, yeah...there's always hope."
Jeannie nodded, clearing her eyes. "I just don't want to lose him," she said softly. "I can't lose him."
"You won't," Rodney said. "You won't. I promise." He slid closer to his sister and pulled her into a hug. The look he gave John over her shoulder was wide-eyed with helpless terror, but he just rubbed her back and said, "I promise. I promise he'll be all right." Like he really believed it.
The hangar bay was Cameron Mitchell's favorite part of the Orion. It had been his favorite part of the Daedalus too, but there had been a lot more people on the Daedalus until they'd been forced to abandon her. Back on the Daedalus the hanger was almost always busy and full, with mechanics and technicians jostling for space with pilots and navigators, something always needing to be checked or fixed and there was always some mission to go on.
On the Orion, things were different. Only thirteen F-302s had survived of the original 16, and only eleven of the pilots and ten navigators. Most of the little fighters were now in Atlantis taking up the empty berths in the city's hanger bay, but they were really poor cousins to the Jumpers, which were larger and faster and deadlier in a fight. The Orion had gotten six F-302s, and most of the time there were enough crew on board to fly them. But now the hanger was almost always empty except for the ships, kept semi-dark to conserve power, cold and silent. That suited Cam just fine.
Cam liked being alone. It wasn't his favorite thing, but he was used to it. There had been times growing up where the occasional piece of solitude was the only thing he really had. He wasn't ordered onto the Orion that often, but when he was he spent as much time in the hangar as he could. His excuse was that way he could do individual system checks and make sure each of the fighters were in ideal shape to fly, but really it was just easier when he was alone.
That wasn't the case so much on Atlantis anymore. He led his own team now, and even if they weren't God's Gift to Pegasus like Team Sheppard, they were still pretty fucking bad-ass. And Colonel Sheppard and Dr. Weir had never once said Cam had let them down.
But once in awhile he was ordered to report to the Orion, and he always went to the hanger when he did. Some habits died hard, he guessed.
That was why right then Cam was all by himself, staring at yet another instrument panel and wondering if the order would ever come down to get a squad together and do an aerial search for the missing Colonel Lorne. Then all of a sudden the inter-ship alarm started blaring and Colonel Sobol was announcing with totally false calm how they now had Colonel Evan Lorne on their ship and by the way he was a dragon and apparently out of his mind and everyone in the F-302 hanger should evacuate immediately.
It wasn't always easy for Cam to pull his head away from something when he'd been concentrating, so it took him a second longer than it might've for other people for him to remember that 'hanger' meant where he was, and 'evacuate' meant, 'now'. And then he was staring as an enormous blue dragon came screaming into the hangar like all the hounds of hell were running him down. And he was coming right at Cameron, who was in the F-302 parked closest to the door.
"Oh, shit," Cam breathed, then jammed himself down as far as he could inside the cockpit, contorting his body under the instrument panel. He'd just slid his head below the edge of the cockpit when the dragon screeched and leaped and smashed through the fighter's canopy like it was made of cheap glass. Evan threw his arms over his head as he was pelted with shards of the shattered canopy, then heard a bang and felt the fighter rock from side to side when the dragon's back legs kicked it as he landed.
There was another loud bang and the dragon screamed again in what sounded to Cam very much like pain. He scrambled up to look over the side of the ship to see that the dragon hadn't landed so much as kind of rolled into another F-302 and gotten half his body trapped under the fighter's crumpled wing. The dragon was trying to push himself free with one front paw and scrabbling madly with his two back ones. His tail was thrashing like a frenzied snake and his wings were flapping uselessly, beating so hard against the metal deck and the underside of the fighter's wing that Cam was pretty sure the dragon would pound them into splinters before he got out. One of the dragon's legs was already broken, looking swollen and mangled and horrifyingly wet and red where the sharp edge of a bone had stabbed through the skin. The rest of his body was covered in scratches and bruises.
The dragon's eyes were the same color as his hide, but they were edged with white and utterly blank with terror. He was making noises like horrible, breathless screams, so frantic to escape that Cameron was sure the dragon would die like that, keep fighting until his strength and his heart gave out.
Cam hadn't seen Colonel Lorne in his dragon body, but he'd seen Colonel Sheppard and the guy Dr. McKay, so he knew that they weren't really animals. But this dragon was completely an animal right now, struggling his way to death underneath an F-302 in the hanger bay. There was no recognition in his eyes, no sign of any humanity at all.
"What happened to you?" Cam asked, but of course there was no answer.
He hit his radio, speaking quietly to the crewmember on the other end, never taking his eyes off the dragon but knowing he had to do something soon or Lorne was going to die. "This is Captain Mitchell. Colonel Lorne's in here, but he's trapped himself under a fighter and he's panicking. I'm going to try to calm him down but you'd better get people in here with zats in case I can't, because otherwise he's going to be circling the drain real quick. Tell them to move slow," he added before he shut the radio off.
"I'm coming to help, but you need to calm down, sir," he said to the dragon. He kept his voice quiet, moving slowly even though all he wanted to do was throw himself down the ladder and get to Lorne before he hurt himself so badly they couldn't fix it. "I bet you don't know this, but I spent time on a ranch when I was growing up. Yeah, I did," he kept talking quietly, working his way down the ladder one agonizingly slow step at a time. "'Clearwater Creek Boy's Home'," he quoted the name, knowing he couldn't help the bitter twist in his voice. "They did teach me how to ride, though. I loved that. Taught me what to do with a panicked horse, too. Bet Mr. Bradley never figured I'd be using it with a dragon."
Cameron had reached the last rung now and he waited a second before he put his feet on the deck. "He told me to always come at the horse from the side, confident, like I know what I'm doing. You go to the horse's shoulder, not his face. You see, horses can't kick sideways, and they don't feel so threatened if you're not coming straight at them." He took a couple steps towards the dragon, spreading his hands a bit with his palms out. "And you got to show them there's nothing in your hands, so they won't get scared. I'm not going to hurt you. I promise. I'm just trying to help."
The dragon had stopped moving. He was trembling from his ears to the tip of his tail with his eyes wide and staring, fixed to Cam's every move. When a horse did this it was ready to bolt or fight, wanting to be helped but so scared that the slightest thing would set it off.
"That's it, that's it..." Cam edged closer, not even paying attention to what he was saying; just keeping up a litany of quiet patter in the most soothing tones he could manage. "I bet your leg really hurts, huh? Was that in the crash? Colonel Sobol told us your Jumper crashed and we were on our way to support Sheppard's team rescuing you. Looks like they found you first, but you got away from them, huh? It must've really surprised them when you just flew away. I would love to be able to fly like that, you know. It must be the best feeling ever, when you're not scared, I mean. Just being able to spread your wings and throw yourself into the air like that..."
Cameron heard a group of people coming into the hanger, probably the guys with zats finally getting their act together. He was pretty surprised that they were actually walking like he'd told them. He still wasn't used to anyone not on his team really listening to him if they didn't strictly have to. He hoped they all remembered to only fire once.
The dragon tensed that much more when he heard the noise, but Cameron was close enough now that he only had to reach out slightly to touch the dragon's shoulder and neck. He rubbed small circles with his first two fingers pressed together, which was meant to force a horse to relax. Not that this was a horse, but Cam hoped it would work anyway. "Shh...shh..." he crooned, "don't worry about them. They're not going to hurt you, either. We just want you safe and fixed up, that's all. Just relax now and you're going to be all right."
He glanced to the side to see Sergeant Mehra holding a primed zat, and two Sadatan fighters he didn't recognize with their energy weapons. "Keep your hands down," Cam said, using the same calm tone. "Sudden movements right now would be a really, really bad idea. Just move real slow and do what I'm doing. He'll be just fine. Won't you?" he asked the dragon.
The dragon didn't respond except to keep shaking. But the trembling didn't seem quite as bad, maybe.
"How are we going to get the F-302 off him, sir?" Mehra asked. She was looking pretty freaked out herself, but she'd taken Cam's cue and kept her voice low and gentle. She sidled closer to the dragon, hesitated, and then started rubbing with her fingers a couple inches away from Cam. The two Sadatans hadn't come any closer, but that might be okay as long as they didn't move too much.
"Site-to-site transport, I'm thinking," Cam said. "From here to the infirmary on base. What do you think, sir?" he asked the dragon. His only response was the dragon's harsh, strained breathing.
"Sir? Is this really Colonel Lorne?" Mehra asked. It was obvious she was nervous and Cam couldn't blame her at all for that, but he admired how she was sucking it up and doing exactly what he'd told her to all the same. "I mean...it's true? Colonels Lorne and Sheppard and Dr. McKay can really turn into dragons?"
Cameron nodded. "I've seen them flying." And God, he wished he could do that. Even after seeing Lorne like this, he still wanted to fly the way Lorne could as a dragon. More than anything.
"No way," one of the Sadatans said, quiet but still full of scorn. "No way this is anything more than a dumb animal."
"I'll tell him you said that," Mehra snapped.
"Sorry. Sir," the kid said.
"Get out of here, both of you," Cam said to the Sadatans. His voice wasn't any louder, but there was no missing the order in it. "Keep your voices down, walk slow and get out. Tell the Colonel we got it under control."
"Yes, sir," the other Sadatan said. He glared at the one who'd insulted Lorne and then started walking back to the door as quietly as if he was hunting. The other one followed, silent and ashamed.
"Thanks," Cam whispered to Mehra once the Satadans were gone.
Mehra smiled. "My fingers are getting tired."
Cam smiled back. "Mine too. But we'll be home soon. You heard that, right?" he added to the dragon. "We'll be orbiting Atlantis in no time. You're going to be fine."
The dragon snorted softly, as if he understood.
And the large cave with the heavy thing that had hurt and the ones who were quiet and didn't hurt were all gone, and he was in a different room that smelled like blood and fear and then pain and pain and pain and he couldn't run or move or fight it or hide and his body broke and broke and he was cold and he couldn't breathe--
He didn't wake up so much as realize he was actually there in the world, alive, and everything around him was real. The light was real, pouring into him, filling him with warmth everywhere there had been pain. He forced his tired eyes open a crack, just enough to see a man standing over him with his eyes closed with his right hand extended and full of light.
I know him, he thought, but he was too tired to go beyond that. He was safe and warm and nothing hurt, and all he wanted to do was sleep.
Evan Lorne let his eyes slide closed again, waiting for someone to pull his ears.
"He's going to be okay, you know," Rodney said quietly and then winced when Jeannie flinched. "Sorry," he said even more softly. "I, uh, thought you'd heard me come in."
"Well, I didn't," Jeannie said, sparing him enough of her attention to glare. She was sitting in one of the infirmary's hard-backed chairs next to Evan's bed, holding his hand in both of hers and watching him like she was trying to memorize his body for an exam. "What are you doing here?"
"Here," Rodney said. He pulled Evan's dog tags out of his pocket and held them up for Jeannie to see in the light. "I was able to fix the chain," he said proudly. "The place where I soldered the beads is stronger now too, so it won't break there again."
"Oh. Thank you," Jeannie said. She smiled warmly at him and took the tags. Rodney wasn't the least bit surprised when she slid them over her neck and tucked them inside her shirt. Rodney had done that with John's tags more times than he wanted to remember. John was always surprised that Rodney didn't just leave them on his desk or something; John mostly thought the dog tags were a nuisance, especially if you had chest hair to get tangled in the chain. He never understood why Rodney would voluntarily wear his. Rodney was sure Evan didn't understand why Jeannie would voluntarily wear his, either.
Jeannie bent her neck and hand and rubbed her forehead. "I know Evan will be all right. I did the scans myself after Charles healed him. He's just drained from the healing, and he was exhausted anyway."
"No kidding," Rodney said wryly. "I think I can safely say that was Evan's worst day ever. Or at least if it wasn't, I would really, really hate to think of what could possibly be worse than being in a Jumper crash, getting the shit beat out of you, becoming a dragon and then getting trapped under a 302."
"He might not remember it," Jeannie said. "He's healed now, but..." Her voice dropped. "Well, you saw him."
"Yeah. I did," Rodney said. "It's, uh, probably a good thing, if he doesn't remember all of it."
Jeannie nodded mutely. "I wish I didn't remember all of it." She swallowed then started gently rubbing circles with her thumb on the back of Evan's hand. "I've been with him a year, and in all that time the worst injuries he sustained were some bad bruises when he pushed Dr. Parrish away from some kind of aggressive plant."
Rodney smirked. "I think John's done more damage to himself eating lunch."
Jeannie smirked as well. "I'm sure he has." She looked down at Evan again, her expression collapsing. "He's never been that badly hurt before. At least, not with me. And..." She shook her head and closed her eyes, but it was impossible to miss the tears leaking from underneath the lids. "And I couldn't do anything. He wouldn't even let me." Her voice sounded rough and broken.
"It's okay. It's okay. You don't have to do that," Rodney said. It'd always broke his heart to see Jeannie crying. He stooped to give her a kind of awkward hug and she put her face against his jacket sleeve and cried. "It's okay," Rodney said again. "It's over now. He's safe and sound and his brain works as well as it ever did--though that's not really saying very much."
Jeannie swatted at him, but she wasn't crying quite as hard which was what Rodney had been going for. He kept holding her even though the position was killing his back, until she gently pulled away. Rodney kept his hand on her shoulder.
"Asshole," she said, wiping her eyes.
Rodney spread his hands. "Never said I wasn't."
Jeannie sighed, taking Evan's lax hand in hers again. "I don't know what to do, Mer," she said, so upset that she'd forgotten to use his preferred name. "I don't know how to deal with this. It...it was like when I lost you all over again, except even worse, because I was right there watching. I don't know how much more of that kind of helpless terror I can take."
"I know what you mean," Rodney said. "What--you think these weepy bedside vigils are unique to you?" he asked when Jeannie blinked at him. He gestured at the infirmary around them. "Do you have any idea how many times I've sat where you are, holding John's hand and thinking the exact same thoughts? Do you remember Ronon carrying John through the Gate three months ago because one of those mouth-breathers on Vasill, or whatever the hell the planet's called shot him by accident? Or how about when that wolf-like thing actually ripped my hand off last week?" He shuddered, automatically moving to hold his wrist. He could still remember the astonishing horror of his ruin of a forearm, the terrifying amount of blood. "I was just incredibly lucky that Charles was in the city and able to help."
"I know," Jeannie said. She shuddered too, in a way that made Rodney guilty that he'd brought either of those things up. "And what if Charles wasn't here? What then?"
"Then I'd be learning to type one-handed," Rodney said flatly. "And Sheppard would still be recovering after surgery--actually, he and I would both be dead now." He winced. "And Evan would be sleeping off his recent cluster of disasters on a mat in the isolation room, waiting to heal completely before he changed back. But Charles is here, luckily, so I've got my hand and my precious, precious life, John is still merrily taunting fate with a stick and Evan is going to sleep for a couple of days and then be absolutely fine. He's fine, Jeannie," Rodney repeated. "Everything's okay."
Jeannie just shook her head. "It's not," she said. "I know he's all right but it doesn't make any difference. I'm sitting here feeling like my heart's been torn out of my chest."
"First of all, ew," Rodney said. "And second, yes, it is--it's lying on that bed right now, probably dreaming of having sex with you in one of the Puddle Jumpers."
"Rodney!" Jeannie snapped, glaring.
"Oh like he doesn't," Rodney said unrepentantly. "The point is, this is basically exactly what it's like to be in a relationship. Your heart isn't yours anymore, to use the most pedantic metaphor available. And since it belongs to someone else, when they get hurt you pretty much feel like you're going to die."
Jeannie nodded. "Yeah. That's what it feels like." She ran her fingers through her hair, which she'd left out of its customary ponytail to fall in loose curls over the top of her shoulders. "And I don't know what to do."
"The way I see it..." Rodney grimaced. "And yeah, okay, Kate Heightmeyer probably has something to do with the fact I can even say that, but, the way I see it, you've got two choices. The first one is to do what you--sorry! I'm sorry, what my other sister did--a long time ago, which is to pull back from everybody and make sure you don't have any close friends. That way you'll never get hurt or scared or feel helpless, but you'll be all alone. Your other choice," he said quietly, trying to remember how Kate had said it to him the first time John had almost died for the city and miraculously hadn't, "is to do it anyway. Watch your heart walk through the Gate without knowing for certain that he'll come back. Sit at his bedside like this when he's injured and all you can do is hold on. You're a doctor--you know how precarious and fragile life is. By rights none of us should dare love anyone else at all."
Jeannie sniffed and wiped her eyes again. "And here's where you tell me it's all worth it, right?"
Rodney shrugged. "Do I really have to?"
"It doesn't seem worth it, right now," Jeannie said.
"And yet you're still here, wearing Evan's dog tags," Rodney said, making his voice just smug enough to really annoy her. "And you're not going to leave until he's been released to his quarters."
It wasn't a question so he didn't phrase it like one, but Jeannie shook her head anyway. No, she wasn't going to leave.
"Thank you for talking to me about it," Jeannie said quietly.
"Anytime you want to," Rodney said. She still looked so sad and lost the Rodney hugged her again. "Love is only for the brave, Jeannie," he said. He kissed her forehead and straightened.
Jeannie was looking at him like she wasn't sure if she should smile or make a face and probably tell him he sounded like a bad rock song. "Did Heightmeyer tell you that too?"
"Nope," Rodney said, grinning. "I said it first to John."
"Hey, Captain--mind if we join you?"
Cam looked up from his breakfast, trying not to show how startled he was. "Yes, sir, of course. If you want to." He glanced at his tray, wondering if it would look suspicious if he suddenly declared he was done. It wasn't that he disliked Colonel Sheppard or anything, and he actually liked the guy McKay almost as much as the girl one, since neither of them treated him like he was dumber than anyone else. But in his experience, if a superior officer wanted to have a meal with him it was to give him a friendly warning to stop doing something before he got an official reprimand about it.
"You don't have to look like we're about to strip you naked and leave you for the Wraith, Captain," McKay said as he sat down.
"I'm sure he finds that extremely comforting, McKay," Sheppard said, deadpan. He smiled at Cameron as he picked up his mug. "Seriously, though, we wanted to thank you for what you did a couple days ago on the Orion. Colonel Sobol was adamant that it was your quick thinking that saved Colonel Lorne from more serious injuries, and kept him calm until he could be transported to Atlantis."
"Apparently you were the only one that kept Colonel Lorne from going all Reign of Fire on everyone's asses," McKay said. "The way Sergeant Mehra was gushing about you, I thought she was going to offer to be the mother of your Godlike, dragon-taming babies."
"Colonel Sobol asked me to put a recommendation in your file," Sheppard said, giving McKay a look that Cameron thought was weirdly like a fond glare. "I've already done that," he went on casually, as if Cameron wasn't sitting there with his jaw dropping into his bowl of the Pegasus version of cornflakes, "but that's not the only thing I wanted to talk to you about."
McKay nodded vigorously, chewing happily on his muffin. "Yeah," he said with his mouth semi-full. "We want you to be Atlantis's official Dragon Whisperer."
Cameron managed to scrape up his jaw long enough to talk. "Sir?"
Sheppard looked like he was barely managing to not roll his eyes at McKay. "The position doesn't have an official name yet. But other than that, yeah. Not only were you able to keep Colonel Lorne calm enough to avoid worse damage to himself or the Orion, but last month on the Mainland you were the only person to successfully approach Kusanagi or Ford in over two and a half years." Sheppard straightened, suddenly looking completely serious. "You have a gift, Captain, and it's one I'd like to make an official part of your duties."
"Not that it would come up all that often," McKay cut in, as if that would be the selling point. "Just, you know, on the rare occasion when one of the command staff goes scaly and ballistic and needs to be talked down."
"It is possible that we'd need your ability in other circumstances too," Sheppard went on smoothly. "Some of our allies depend primarily on animal transportation, for example. If you think you and your team would be interested, we could add Atlantis's monthly visits to those planets to your team's mission schedule. And we were also hoping that you might be interested in apprenticing with someone with veterinary knowledge." He gave a surprisingly self-effacing smile. "In all honesty, it's something we should have considered even before we discovered Janus's lab, given how interdependent we've become on our allies here, and how many of them raise animals."
"And it would be useful if we could heal a sick or hurt dragon without having to risk changing them back to human form, first," Rodney said. He gave a small shudder that only looked slightly theatric. "It hurts."
"I know that's a lot to consider, Captain," Sheppard said, "but I'd appreciate it if you'd think about it and--"
"I'll do it," Cameron said.
McKay blinked. "Well, that was difficult."
"Are you sure about this, Captain?" Sheppard asked. "You're allowed to take a few days to consider it. After all, it's a pretty big change from what you've been trained for."
"I know, sir," Cameron said seriously. "I know it's a big change, but I want to do it." He hesitated. "As long as I won't lose my team."
Sheppard shook his head. "That won't be an issue. This would supplement your duties, not replace them."
Cameron grinned. "Then yes. Yes, sir. I definitely want to do this."
"Cool," Sheppard said. He started eating his breakfast. "I'll add your new duties to your file, and let Chief Dex know to start looking for a vet willing to give lessons."
"Thank you, sir. Doctor," Cameron said. "This is...I can't tell you how much I appreciate it."
"Then don't," McKay said. "Just don't screw up."
"You saved Colonel Lorne's life," Sheppard said. "You earned it."
"Well, yeah," McKay said. He looked a bit embarrassed. "Of course. That too."
"Thank you, sir," Cameron said again. "I won't let you down."
Sheppard just smiled. "I know," he said, like he was sure of it.
"I know this isn't exactly our anniversary or anything, but since it's just three days from now and you're actually, you know, here and not required to be anywhere else for once, I thought we could...Well, Melena Na-Dex brought some of her patients in today for scans, and you know how she always brings those, kela fruit you like, and Melena very sweetly agreed to take my shift in the infirmary this afternoon so I could spend time with you. So, look!" Jeannie held up the cloth-covered basket she'd been holding. "I made kela rolls."
Evan laughed, as delighted by Jennie's rambling explanation as he was by how much trouble she'd gone to for him. "I know how hard those are to make. You must really love me."
"Well, duh. Moron," she said, but she was grinning and when Evan sat up and opened his arms to her she put the basket down on her desk and joined him on their bed.
"You're hot," she said after they'd kissed for awhile.
Evan grinned at her. "Thanks."
Jeannie rolled her eyes. "Not like that, though I'll admit that's true. I meant your temperature." She moved away from him so she could kneel on the bed, putting her hands on his forehead and neck. "Your skin seems a little warm. Are you feeling all right?"
"I'm fine," Evan said patiently. "I've been sleeping all day in a warm room and then you were basically lying on top of me. I don't have a fever. I promise, I feel fine," he repeated gently when he saw the worry clouding her eyes. "You did the scans yourself, remember? Charles healed everything." He smirked. "I think I probably owe him our first born by now."
Jeannie laughed, or at least made a sound something like it. "I have a feeling he'd love a portrait of Teyla, or a picture of the Orion for their living room."
"I don't think that'll be a problem," Evan said. He could already envision a portrait of Teyla on one of the balconies, with Atlantis's Ancient warship far above her in the clear night sky. Charles would probably love it.
Jeannie nodded, but she wasn't really smiling. She picked up his right hand and smoothed her palm along his arm, then turned it palm-up and then palm-down again. It wasn't a real examination; more like she was proving to herself that the bone was whole. She wrapped both her hands around his and held on. "Do you remember any of it?" she asked him, looking down at his hand.
"No." He took a breath. "Not much, anyway. I remember the lightning flash before the Jumper went down, and being in the repository." He smiled. "You smelled nice, and I liked your voice, but you were really, really annoying."
She laughed again, still sad, but all too soon she wasn't even smiling anymore. "You didn't remember me."
"Yeah," Evan said. "I'm sorry. I didn't...I didn't choose that." He tugged a little on her hands to make her look up at him. "I felt safe with you, at least until the thunder got loud. If that means anything."
"It does." She nodded. "It does. A lot. I'm sorry. I know you didn't have a choice about what happened to you."
"Hey, it's not like you did either," he said. He folded his hand over hers on the bed, rubbed her sharp, red knuckles with his thumb. "I don't know what I would've done if you didn't remember me."
"And what does it say about our lives that that's one of the most romantic things you've ever said to me?" Jeannie sighed and shifted around until she was lying next to Evan with her head on his shoulder. She moved his hand to her thigh and held it in both of hers again. Her curly hair tickled his cheek.
He turned so he could kiss her forehead. "That we're living the dream?"
Jeannie snorted. "More like the nightmare. It was a nightmare, actually." She shook her head, exhaling heavily. "It was horrible. You were so hurt, and so scared, and I couldn't help you. I couldn't do anything." She swallowed. "That was one of the worst moments of my life."
"I'm sorry," Evan said.
"It's not your fault," Jeannie said. "If those assholes in the forest hadn't tried to murder you, none of that would've happened. Well, except you changing into a dragon. That was good, because you would've frozen to death otherwise."
"I don't remember deciding that," Evan admitted. Except for going through the Gate and that one flash of lightning before the Jumper crash, his first real memory with any context was in the repository, when Jeannie woke him by calling his name. He just hadn't recognized it was his name at the time. "Pretty much everything I remember of what happened involves you," he said. "Anything without you in it is just kind of a blur."
Jeannie smirked. Her breath was warm through the woven fibers of his tee-shirt. "Well, you did say I was really, really annoying."
"No," Evan said. He changed position enough so he could bend his head to kiss her. "You're everything."
Summary: "What if he never remembers? What if he's forgotten he's a person and he never gets it back?"
Categories: Ship Pairings > Lorne/Other, Slash Pairings > McKay/Sheppard, Ship Pairings > Teyla Emmagan/Other
Characters: Cameron Mitchell, John Sheppard, Major Lorne, Other, Rodney McKay, Ronon Dex, Teyla Emmagan
Genres: Action/Adventure, AU - Alternate Universe, Established Relationship, Friendship, Hurt Comfort, Series, Team
Warnings: Adult themes, May squick
Chapters: 1 [Table of Contents]
Series: Dumb Beasts
Word count: 21026; Completed: Yes
Characters: Cameron Mitchell, John Sheppard, Major Lorne, Other, Rodney McKay, Ronon Dex, Teyla Emmagan
Genres: Action/Adventure, AU - Alternate Universe, Established Relationship, Friendship, Hurt Comfort, Series, Team
Warnings: Adult themes, May squick
Chapters: 1 [Table of Contents]
Series: Dumb Beasts
Word count: 21026; Completed: Yes