He knows there are three because that's how many impacts he feels before his back hits the wall and he slides to the ground when his legs give out from under him. The passageway he folds in is dark. The only light to be seen is the lazy muted white the flashlight at the end of his P90 throws off from its place on the floor near his feet - the place where it landed after he body checked McKay out of the way.
Three bullets and he can tell where each one of them landed: one in the chest, one through the hand and one into the flesh of his thigh.
Someone (maybe one of his, maybe one of theirs) kicks his gun in the desperate scramble for tactical advantage and now only muzzle flash around the corner illuminates the space around him as the battle moves on.
And there's not enough air.
Every time he tries to inhale what he needs the oxygen meets some impenetrable barrier and he's spent enough time around injury to know what it probably means. So what would Carson do?
Carson would tell him to at least try. Tell him to apply pressure and give it a shot. So that's what he tries to do, and nearly forgets there's a hole in his hand. He would curse at the pain it ignites if he could. In fact there's a nice four letter word preparing itself on the tip of his tongue already but he can't voice it and it dies there before it can even be born.
"Too bad," he thinks, detached. "It was a doozey, too." But even thinking hurts and he lets his head roll back to knock against the mossy wetness of the algae covered stone wall behind his shoulders.
The darkness around him is claustrophobic and he can't make out a single shape or body around him. He knows he wasn't the only one to fall. Yet even though the blackness is absolute whiteness creeps in around the edges of the dark and something just below his skin and near the hole in chest alters. It's a warning, he figures. A warning that this might be it.
The end of it all.
He's been here before... more times than he cares to count, but at least this time he courts the edge of the abyss in the service of a friend. McKay is alive (he made sure of that) and will live on to invent the things that will change the world. And John? John will become a distant memory. A sad smile the scientist will let escape when he thinks no one is looking and John's okay with this.
It's a good way to go. A good way for a soldier.
So maybe now he can rest because ever since that day she died - that beautiful creature he called Mom - he's been living in this kind of survival mode. It was necessary, he knows this; he had David to protect from his father's grief, his own fragile heart to adequately armor - and when those causes were lost to him he refocused those efforts on the soldiers under his command. It was a good life and one he's proud of but to think of standing down, of sinking into the earth to let others take care of the rescuing and the fighting for once, well, it's something he thinks he might deserve now. Something he could...
"Oh know you don't," he hears a voice say and something heavy clamps down on the hole in his chest and his shriveled little lungs remember their place for a moment. He rolls his head, no longer having the strength to lift it from its slick pillow, and squints up at the shadowed face of Dr. Rodney McKay.
"Sheppard! What the hell did you just do?" His friend kneels beside him shivering. A line of blood is snaking its way from a cut above his eye - probably from when John pushed him - and he's looking as pissed off as John's ever seen.
"R-Rodney," he sputters out and its more than just the scientist's name he lets escape past his lips unchecked. The fragile utterance hints of the conclusions he's already come to on his own and Rodney's P90 light lifts to shine on his face. Their eyes meet for the briefest of moments and Rodney's go wide with understanding. It flits across his features like epiphany but fizzles out a moment later as the scientist looks angrily away. It isn't the goodbye he was going for, but John guesses it will have to do.
"Do you have any idea how monumentally stupid what you just did was?" Rodney spits at him, propping his gun against the slime covered wall with one hand while the other stays fixed over the wound in John's chest. The light the flashlight throws is faint, but it's just enough to see by.
"Honestly, John. They could have killed you!"
He wants to open his mouth and argue that they probably have, but Rodney's free hand is searching his torso for more holes and he has to grit his teeth to keep from crying out.
"You know, you've done some pretty stupid shit over the years, Sheppard. But this... this has gotta take the cake. I mean, what the hell were you thinking?"
Rodney's demanding answers from him but John doesn't know what to tell him. He saw the gun, knew instinctively where the bullets would land, and he made a decision. It's as simple as that but the explanation is something he knows Rodney will never accept so he stays silent.
"Typical," The scientist mutters in true McKay fashion, but John lets the slight slide. Pain is lancing its way up his back and he shifts when it reaches the base of his neck. He coughs then, just a little, but something metallic rises up into the back of his throat and he swallows it down not letting himself think of what it might mean.
"And I can't believe you pushed me! This isn't some damn Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, John!"
He pulls his wavering focus back to Rodney who's hands are shaking in anger. John fills his lungs as best he can and puts his good hand on the arm Rodney's using to cover the hole in his chest.
"'S okay, Rodn'y."
"The hell it is!" The physicist practically growls at him. "They shot you!"
When they're eyes meet again in the dark John worries the resignation behind his will be seen by his friend and he tries to put something there that will rally Rodney's spirits rather than dismantle them further. It must not work because Rodney's head drops down and his shoulders shake with something John's pretty sure he's not supposed to see.
"No, I won't let you..." Rodney croaks a moment later, but a noise towards the end of the passageway has both men looking left automatically.
The network of caves they're lost in throws sound around illogically. John can't tell exactly where the careful footfalls originate from but he's pretty sure it's not their particular corridor. Rodney apparently doesn't come to this same conclusion and hurriedly douses the light from his gun. Pinning John closer to the wall with his weight, the hand still clamped down over his wound increases its pressure against him, and John's world blinks out of existence without his permission.
The place where he goes to has no room for anything other than the memories his own brain produces and he's back in that other Genii stronghold... that other place deep in the earth where there's nothing but the greedy hot pull of pain as the Wraith feeds from him under Koyla's lost and dead gaze. Being fed on by the Wraith isn't all that much different than being shot in the chest he decides. They share the same slow draw that drains him completely of all that he is, pulling it out through a hole in his chest.
These memories are strong ones. They even invade his dreams at times and once caught in their clutches, their nearly impossible to escape... He's always tied to the chair, ropes biting into the flesh of his wrists. Elizabeth's voice always comes through the camera they have trained on him, her cries to stop, please just stop, ring in his ears... He was helpless in that place and it's happening again to him now so he uses all the rage the remembered feelings invoke and claws himself back up to the present.
McKay has a hand clamped over his mouth when he resurfaces and he fights against the urge to knock it away from his face. He must have called out at some point in the dream because Rodney is rigid against him and trying not to breath, like the added silence will cloak them further somehow from whomever is approaching. If things get messy John's going to have to try and defend their position. He even goes as far as to fumble for his sidearm in the dark, but the movement slices him in half and its all he can do not to cry out.
The footsteps pause at the end of the corridor and time stands still for a beat. He's pretty sure his wheezing is audible - that the drops of his blood hitting the stone floor are giving their position away to the enemy - but he can't help it. Even the strain of holding his body still is taking its toll and he sags involuntarily against the solid heat of McKay when he can't hold himself upright any longer. The scientist doesn't let him fall but rests his cheek against the side of John's head in the only move available to him that doesn't make a sound. It's a gesture John takes to mean that he's far from alone in this fight, that he's got someone to watch his six if things go sideways, and he holds what little breath he has in as they wait.
Immeasurable minutes pass with no movement from down the hall and for a moment John is certain they've been discovered. The tactical part of his brain runs scenarios of how he can get Rodney out of this alive once the shit hits the fan and he winds his pain and frustration up as tightly as they'll go. He'll use them as a springboard to get himself up off the floor, maybe even get in a few good punches and inflict some damage on whomever it is that stalks them in the dark.
"Here it comes," he thinks, "...the wind up and the pitch..." But a moment later the footfalls move on and Rodney practically collapses on top of him with a sagging sigh of relief. John lets out his own shaky breath but the movement shifts something inside and he lets out a hiss Rodney takes the blame for.
"I'm sorry," he apologizes in a whisper, scuttling back and away from John but keeping a hand on his shoulder to keep him upright. They can't risk the light just yet. If their visitor is still lurking nearby they'll see, so John closes his eyes and focuses in on his breathing. It only hurts when he moves so he does his best to stay still.
A few minutes later Rodney turns the flashlight back on and sweeps its beam around the corridor to make sure the passageway is empty. Even in the faint light John can see that the scientist has gone white as a sheet and worries for a moment that he's going to lose the calm focused Rodney he's been depending on for the past few minutes for the illogical, pessimistic mess from before.
"Okay, McKay?" He grinds out and Rodney turns towards him sharply like John's just startled him but offers a shaky nod in return. It's not often their roles are reversed, that Rodney plays the hero while John is the damsel in distress - but it is known to happen.
When Rodney kneels back down to start bandaging the wound in John's chest with trembling hands he almost wants to commend the man. This isn't the Rodney McKay he met 5 years ago who wouldn't even think of sullying his scientific hands with someone else's blood. This Rodney McKay is steadfast and brave and John's glad in that moment he has him.
"What were you thinking, John?" The question pulls Sheppard from his thoughts and he tries not to jerk when the physicist pulls at his vest to try and get a better view of the damage he's working with.
"Wasn't I guess..." He lies, knowing it's probably what Rodney needs to hear.
"Well that's fairly obvious," but his friend's snark is unconvincing and Rodney tosses the bandage he's been working with off to the side with a frustrated huff before grabbing another from his vest pocket. "Seriously, what were you thinking?"
"You ask'd me that... a-already... McKay." The words come out thick, the adrenalin from earlier burning off fast and the scientist stops his ministrations to look up at John.
"Yeah, well, I can ask you whatever the hell I want. You pushed me, remember?" McKay fumbles with something at his chest in the dark and a second later the pressure around his middle eases minutely. Rodney's unlatched his flack vest and John manages to pull in a bigger breath than before but pays for it with another round of wet hacking coughs that coat his mouth in blood again. When he finishes spitting the iron away McKay puts a hand on his shoulder.
With the vest unlatched Rodney's got better access to the wound and John grits his teeth to stop himself from crying out every time the physicist prods jagged flesh. He knows what Rodney does is necessary and tries to hide the agony he's in as best he can, but when Rodney shifts him forward slightly to snake the bandage's tails around his back to secure it more firmly against him, there's no holding back the cry it rips from him and he jolts.
The movement is involuntary, his body no longer obeying his pleading orders to calm, so he closes his eyes against the decimation and tries not slip back into the shaky nightmares that threaten on the edge of his mind. Rodney gently pushes him back against the wall when it's over and John spends unknowable minutes with eyes tightly closed clutching at the thin tendrils of consciousness which are all that anchor him in place. He needs more air but every time he tries to move in the volumes of it his lungs demand, the attempt is aborted by a stab of pain that leaves him feeling desperate. One unimpeded breath is all he needs but it remains elusive and he knows deep down that things aren't working like they should inside of him. He's lightheaded and the feeling of weightlessness is unnerving but he can't let himself go just yet and he forces his eyelids back open. Rodney is sitting back on his haunches with eyes wide as saucers and John realizes then how much he must have just scared his friend.
"Still with me?" Rodney's voice cracks and John offers a weak nod, their roles reversed again.
"Okay," Rodney nods back, actually placated for once. "Okay."
With no more need for his hand on John's chest Rodney collapses against the wall beside him and they lapse into silence for a while. If John could manage more than just a few sputtered words at a time then he knows how he'd fill the silence but as it is he can only sit and try to match his breathing to Rodney's. Every inhalation is a new lesson in torture, but he refuses to let his lungs give up just yet.
"John?" Rodney pipes up a little while later.
"Did you see the guns they were carrying?"
"Yeah, R'ney," he chokes, tasting blood again. "I did."
"If I had known... I never would have..." but Rodney doesn't finish the sentence and John's glad for it. He doesn't have the air to interrupt his friend and tell him not knock it the fuck off.
Rodney's words are an admission of guilt and it's so uncharacteristic of McKay that John would yell if he could. There was no way any of them could have known what they were walking into. It was a fluke, a strange element in the planet's soil that hid the secret Genii rebel base from their sensors. A secret base armed to the teeth with young and hungry soldiers fed solely on a diet of nothing but 'kill any Atlantian you see' no less. So no, Rodney doesn't get to shoulder the blame for this one.
"S-stop it," he pushes out and turns his head as best he can to try and make out Rodney in the dark. He's pointedly looking away but John can't let this go on. If he dies here and Rodney blames himself John knows what it will do to his friend. He needs a distraction.
"R'ney, you need t'.. need t'get outta here buddy."
"Excuse me?" McKay's voice is angry but it's the reaction John was hoping for.
"Get out... of here. G-go find help."
"Are you out of your freakin' mind!?" McKay pushes away from the wall and rounds on him. He's been expecting this and he hardens himself against the fire Rodney breathes.
"I'm not leaving you here John and that's final." Rodney crosses his arms over his chest like some petulant child and John wants to tell him to give it up, that it's no use. He wants to tell his friend to run and leave him here to die. To warn him that there are still more of them out there and that the longer they stay here exposed, the more likely it is that another group of kids with guns will find them.
"You do not get to send me away. And you most certainly do not get to give up!"
He has no weapon against the look Rodney throws at him then but when the fight goes out of him he releases more control than he should and his head falls forward till his chin hits his chest. Nothing he does can make it lift and Rodney grabs his face roughly and forces his head back up until John can do nothing but meet the penetrating gaze and try not to fall apart at what he sees there in those eyes... what he's put there.
"What did I just tell you?" The scientist's voice goes high, just like it does when he's terrified... just like it does when he sees no solution. "Pull it together, Colonel!"
It's challenge in its purest form and John engages his neck muscles so that when Rodney pulls his hand away after realizing how forceful he's being, John doesn't let his head fall again. He can give Rodney this one show of strength, though he knows what it will cost him in the end. He deals in energy now, and in his world and in this moment, it's no longer a renewable resource. Regardless of the cost though, his little stunt has done the trick and John can already see the cogs working away in Rodney's brain. Something's brewing and its almost enough to make John smile.
"Look," Rodney says after a heavy beat and his eyes have returned to normal, "we should move you. You're sitting in a puddle of something and if you die from pneumonia after Jennifer patches you up, I swear to God I'll kill you myself."
John almost laughs as that.
"Plus we can't stay here. It's only a matter of time before they come back for their dead. I'll help you. We can..."
"Can't McKay," he admits and moves his good hand to the field dressing at his chest when the wound there throbs unexpectedly as if reiterating the point.
"Sure you can!" Rodney paints his voice with false bravado but John can tell he's working out exactly what 'can't McKay' really means. "Who knows what muck is in this cave and my pants are already soaked. See?"
Rodney grabs the P90 from its place against the wall and shines the white beam at his knees for dramatic emphasis. Whatever plan he has must backfire then because he freezes and his silence says more in the space of a moment than any cynical Rodney McKay argument ever could. John pulls his eyes downward and even though the world rolls beneath him from the movement, he doesn't miss the blood covered palm that Rodney hastily pulls from the line of the light to hide what he's found.
"Sheppard..." the scientist breaths out realizing John has seen anyway. He lets his eyes fall shut and imagines the crimson streaks his blood will leave when Rodney swipes his palms across his thighs to clean them.
"Where else are you hit?" The question is asked softly with just the slightest shake of anger and it's like Rodney's finally getting it.
Like he's finally realizing how this all ends.
"M'fine, McKay." John lies, "... n'thin'... nothin' to worry about."
"The hell there is," and he sees the flashlight beam wash over him even behind his closed eyes. He almost forgot about the other holes. McKay went after the most obvious threat, but there were others. There are always others.
"Oh God," he hears Rodney mutter. "Oh Jesus, John."
But John's too busy conjuring up his own version of what Rodney sees: his shirt dark with the blood he can feel slowly running down his torso to drip onto the cold stone floor despite the field dressing, the damp pant leg resting in the puddle of it, and the bloody stump which is all that is left of his hand. Panic tries to swell then but its beaten back almost before it starts by the cool and calm fuzziness that only blood loss can bring. Exsanguination, not exactly the way he expected to go, but at least he won't be feeling much when it happens.
The funny thing is, no one is coming to help them and anything Rodney does now will only prolong the inevitable because he broke them off in a different direction than he should have and with their comms down, there's no one out there to call to for aid. Ronan disappeared ages ago, following the battle and the little group of kids that ambushed them in this cave. God, some of them were no older than 13, their skinny little fingers wrapped around the triggers of automatic weapons too big for them to even carry properly. They were weapons he recognized, Rodney too, and that realization makes this whole situation even more ironic. American Military Issue. Not much unlike his own P90 lost somewhere in the murky dungeon of this place where he will die.
"John? John, are you listening to me?" Rodney is tapping his cheek and he pulls himself back together as best he can. "I said I need you to hold this here for me so I can take care of your leg."
The physicist has hold of his good hand and is trying to press it against the bandage over the chest wound that's still leaking. "Sheppard?" But no matter how hard he tries, John just can't make the hand stay and it falls to the floor to rest palm up in the puddle of blood at his side that coats the back of his hand in warm sticky ooze. If he had the breath he'd apologize but there's only fumes left in his tank now and he's diverted those to more critical systems like breathing and the sluggish beat of his heart.
John is glad for the semi-darkness around them then because he doesn't want to leave this world knowing that Rodney had to watch him bleed to death from the floor, blood soaking into the knees of the scientist's BDUs in the bowels of the planet he insisted they visit. The dark offers some disconnect and John's content for a while to bleed out quietly under its concealing cloak.
"Damn it, John!" There's a hand on his shoulder shaking him gently, "you have to stay awake! Stay with me, okay?"
Rodney has made the move from anger over to fear. John can hear it in the pitch of his voice and the way the hand at his shoulder is rougher than it means to be, so he does what he can to comply. It's getting more difficult by the second, but he tries.
"Ronon? Major Lorne? This is McKay, can anyone read me?"
John forces his eyelids open again not realizing that they have closed and pulls the comms device from his ear with his good hand when it squawks Rodney's call back at him. It's been hissing static and interference into his ear all mission, the same element in the soil that hid the base wreaking havoc on their communication systems as well, and he tosses it away happy to finally be rid of it.
Rodney is threading something beneath the leg he can't feel anymore and John wonders for a detached moment what it is exactly the scientist thinks he's doing. He doesn't wait long to find out and a second and a half later Rodney tightens the belt encircling his upper thigh, a few inches north of the gaping hole in his pant leg, and he chokes on the scream that detonates from within.
Inside his head he makes all the noise he can. He screams and thrashes and sees red. But on the outside, all he manages to do is quake when he can't make his heavy limbs obey. Sweat springs up on his brow and drips into his eyelashes to mingle with the hot angry tears collecting at the corners of his eyes. Every bit of him throbs and he folds in on himself, not even caring when the movement dislodges the tears and sends them rolling down the sides of his face in little streaks of heat.
"John, I'm sorry!" He hears Rodney cry but the apology is washed away by the roaring in his ears. He loses himself in that angry snarl for a time, riding the waves of his pain up and back down as they ebb and flow beneath him. There are rocks hidden in the waves and the angry sea bashes him against them over and over again until he's sure they will kill him. Every time he goes to take a breath, his head is pushed under the water and when he finally manages to open his eyes again, he's laying supine on the corridor floor, his head half in Rodney's lap and no air moving past his lips.
He's floundering. There's no sensation more terrible, and it's all he can do to hold tight to consciousness and try to obey Rodney's order to breathe as he searches for his friend's eyes in the dark. He needs something tangible to hold to. A grayish-blackness is invading his field of vision, pulling him back out to sea, and he can't find what he seeks.
"Breathe, John. Just breathe." Rodney says it like a mantra above him - like repeating it will force it to happen - then stabs something into the space between his ribs.
Searing purple heat rips through his chest and a fire so absolute ignites within him that he's afraid for a second it will burn him away completely. And yet fire and water were never meant to exist together and the raging inferno lets a little more air than before into his oxygen starved lungs. It takes a panicked moment but soon he's picking up some kind of rhythm to his breathing and it's syncopated itself in time with Rodney's chant.
"That's it. You got this," Rodney congratulates him and John collapses down into himself when he realizes he can breathe relatively freely again.
"What the hell," he wheezes from his place on the floor, "did you just do to me McKay?" He looks up at Rodney's flushed face and even though it's half in shadow, the scientist looks away.
"Don't worry about it. Just lie still and shut up, you really shouldn't try to talk."
"It's no big deal, John, okay?" Rodney says sheepishly, still refusing to look down. "Just something Carson showed me once."
"Beckett.. showed you?" His breath hitches a little then but he ignores it, refusing to entertain the idea that his reprieve is only temporary.
"That's what I said, isn't it? Now stop talking. I really wasn't kidding about that." Rodney finally looks down at him and his eyes flash like he dares John to defy him again... so he does.
"C'mon McKay," he winces. "Tell me."
"It was a thoroacotomy, alright?!"
"It really doesn't matter, John" Rodney says as flatly as he can. "Please, just lie still and shut up."
Rodney is trying to act like this is no big deal, but John knows him better than that. He studies his friend in the dark and the scientist practically radiates worry. It furrows his brow and has Rodney so distracted he doesn't realize he runs an absentminded hand through the damp hair near John's forehead. It's a jerky and unsure attempt at comfort but pain is beginning to worm its way back in through his chest wall so he says nothing about the hand. Shifting to find a position that relieves the pressure in his chest, John winces when his wounds protest and when he looks up again, Rodney is watching him warily.
"Hurts," he admits quietly and gives a little bit of himself away by saying it. Rodney continues to study him and there's something unreadable behind his eyes.
"Yeah, well, I just poked a hole through your chest," the scientist acknowledges gently, seeming to understand what uttering that small stupid word cost him before removing his hand from John's brow.
"Now please stop talking, I mean it."
And he does, but only for a moment.
"What did you do it with?"
"What?" Those eyes flash back down at him again but John just doesn't care. If he can talk then he's still alive and if he's still alive then there's still time to try and convince Rodney to leave him here and go in search of safety again.
"The thora-what-a. What did you use?" His voice seems steadier with the reestablished flow of oxygen to his lungs and he's glad when his sentences don't crack.
"Um," that sheepishness is back, "you probably don't want to know."
John realizes then that he really doesn't want to know and though he thinks he remembers what a thoracotomy entails, he lets the matter lie. That fact alone is a clear indication of the direction he's headed in and he wonders if Rodney reads the same in his unwillingness to argue the point further. He must because the careful hand returns to his chest and blocks the sight of the object protruding from his chest which he's pretty sure is the empty exoskeleton of Rodney's favorite pen. But that thought makes him nauseous and he looks away to focus instead on not dying for a while.
"You still with me, Sheppard?" Rodney doesn't let quiet last long between them and John forces his eyes up. He doesn't feel much of anything anymore and knows that this numbness is both a blessing and a curse.
It means he's slipping.
It means it won't be long now.
"Thought you didn't want me to... t-talk, McKay."
"Yeah, well, it's too damn quiet down here."
Rodney's right about one thing, the sounds of battle have moved on but in their place is the deep earthy echo of water falling on rock and it's a calming sort of patter. For a while John matches his breathing to it and tries to ignore the rattle that's developed somewhere deep in his chest. It's a rattle that wasn't there before and one he knows will only increase in strength now that it's gained purchase, and its only then he lets himself acknowledge that Rodney's fix was only temporary.
It's a death rattle, he gets why they call it that now, and he can only imagine the damage the bullet ripping through his chest has done. When he closes his eyes he can replay the moment it hit though he doesn't know why he lets himself think of it.
He can remember the unmistakable dull thud of metal meeting bone, the throb of white hot heat as it rips past sinew and bone...
The molten pain in his chest shifts on his next breath and Rodney's hand returns to his scalp when he moans.
No, not a moan. A whimper.
"Do you remember the first day we met, Sheppard?" The question takes John completely by surprise and he drags his tired sight line back up to Rodney's face. The scientist is looking away and John knows it's on purpose but also knows that if Rodney looked at him now, he wouldn't be able to do get through this... and he has to try.
"You w-were so... jealous of me," he wheezes with a watery smile upwards and Rodney lets out an indignant little laugh that manages to jar him.
He loses the smile and there's a catch in his chest he's not expecting. Flesh rends with heat when the first cough hits then leaves him with nothing but a mouth full of blood when it ends. He can feel rivulets of it run past his lips and he turns his head as best he can to spit out the gore as he tries not to choke on it. His breath comes out in hitched little gasps he can't control and Rodney pulls his head back around with a palm.
"No no no no! Come on now John, none of that." Trembling fingers smear through the blood on the side of his face, so much so that Rodney's hand almost slides off, and he says something then that John cannot hear. The sound around him is muffled like his head has been pushed underwater again. He imagines he smiles then, red blood staining his teeth and turning the weird little hallucination macabre. A small little part of his brain recognizes this symptom of blood loss and oxygen deprivation.
Decreased mental alertness.
The part that makes him who he is will be the first to go and he almost mourns the loss of himself. It's all starting, he can feel his systems begin to shut down and he's sorry that McKay will have to be there while it happens even though he can't see much.
John looks up again then, pulling strength from some secret reserve he didn't even know he had, and meets Rodney's filling eyes. The scientist is still trying to say something to him, but his ears are still underwater so he just smiles slightly and covers the hand on his chest with his own. His fingertips brush past the pen but he ignores it and tries to say goodbye with his eyes.
He floats away then in semi-consciousness and feels his hand hit the stone floor before he goes. It's quiet in the place he finds away from the pain and a little voice inside his head suggests he make use of this time. Rodney was trying to take him down memory lane earlier so John lets his mind wander to the past...
"All inbound craft, we have a rogue drone that could seek a target on its own. Land immediately and shut down your engines. This is not a drill. I repeat ..."
The controls of the helicopter he's piloting are vibrating against the palms he has wrapped around them in a death grip.
"It's too late, hang on!"
Even though it's a life or death situation, he secretly relishes the thrill of the chase and banks hard to the right when the unknown drone appears on the horizon headed straight for them.
"Pull up! Pull up!"
General O'Neill is seated beside him gripping the sides of the craft to steady himself and yelling commands he ignores into the headset as they weave. John's maneuvers are precise and well executed because this is what he was trained for and what he's been yearning for ever since he got that black mark after that business in Afghanistan. When he sets them down safely, the drone detonates impotently in the snow.
"That was different."
"For me, not so much."
There's no fanfare from General O'Neill for the save, just a sardonic glance his way and a lift to the corner of O'Neill's mouth when they finally land at McMurdo. It was a close call, they both note it and file it away with the glance that they share, but there's no time to dwell because it's just part of the job and General O'Neill's men are already plowing through the snow and headed their way. The part of his brain that's still him feels a pull of regret when he spies Aiden Ford among the soldiers but this journey is about good things, and he pushes the feeling away.
"Hey! Don't touch anything."
If John had just followed that order, he wouldn't be bleeding out in Rodney's lap right now. If it hadn't been discovered that the ancient gene ran so strongly through his veins then he never would have been sent to Atlantis and who knew what direction his life would have taken after that. Maybe he would have roamed the frozen Antarctic tundra for the rest of his career, maybe he would have found some cute little scientist to settle down with... but then he sees himself sit in the chair and its then he remembers why he chose this path that he's on.
He watches the control chair light up beneath him. Notes with amusement the look of surprised shock and terror on Carson Becket's face before the doctor disappears to find Elizabeth, and feels along with his remembered self, the sensation of the activated ancient gene in his blood. It sparks across his skin, hints of the bigger universe that he's connected to, and even though it unsettles him, even back then he knew his life would never be the same.
"Who is this?" They've all come running and Elizabeth looks him over like some kind of invader. This is a pre-Atlantis Elizabeth and she looks younger than he remembers. The weight of command hasn't pulled her down yet and he almost wants to leave this leaden memory alone. He's failed her in so many ways but here, in this particular memory, she's alive and well and whole so he lets the torture continue believing he deserves it...
"Major John Sheppard?"
"Yeah?" He turns around at the sound of his name and she's jogging to catch up to him.
"Dr. Elizabeth Weir," she smiles when she reaches him and extends a hand which he takes cautiously. "We met yesterday."
"I remember who you are ma'am," He's forgotten how green her eyes were. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"Actually there is. I wanted to talk to you about yesterday when you sat in the control chair."
"Okay..." this is usually the part where the reprimands come and he watches himself stiffen but Elizabeth's smile only widens. She gets that look in her eye, the one she always got when she was particularly excited about something.
"What happened yesterday has a lot of people very excited, myself included. You have a level of control over the ancient technology we've never seen before and I have a proposition for you."
Right, definitely not what he had been expecting.
"What kind of proposition?"
"I assume you've been debriefed on Atlantis?" John nods, guessing he can call Carson's hurried explanation yesterday a debriefing.
"Well, I'm heading up an expedition there and I think you should come along."
He watches the memory of her sell the idea to him and the animated way in which she uses her body to broadcast her passion for the project. This is the Elizabeth Weir he will always remember: the starry eyed scientist who hands him the wonders of the universe on a silver platter and gives him a chance when no one else will. This is the Elizabeth he follows through the Stargate a few weeks later and it's Atlantis herself he visits next.
It's not the version of the city he left only a few hours ago but the one the expedition team finds when they first enter the Pegasus Galaxy. He can still remember stepping through, the weightless feeling of traversing the wormhole, and the all out terror he felt as he took his first steps into the ancient city he would end up being more of a home to him than any other place before. He laments his city for a moment then, wishing for a second that he could have died there instead of in the bowels of some secret Genii base, but he's got far to go and pushes the present away with his hands.
Atlantis gives him purpose even though Colonel Sumner doesn't want him there. It's his blood that reactivates long dead systems, his gene that saves them all from drowning that very first day, and all of the rest of it spirals out from there. The Wraith, the Genii, the Athosians... and he can see the tendrils of his life all knotted and tangled up in the destiny of an entire galaxy. The burden is weighty on his shoulders and he searches for other memories to bring back the balance.
It's hard to find any he wants to revisit because most of them are shrouded in grief. His moments of joy are radiant, but the spaces around them are tainted with blood and he tries to decide where he should go next on this odd little trip of his.
Memories of Carson are still too confusing so he avoids those and thinks instead of Teyla and her son... but even those memories drip with failure and come packaged with Michael and pain and his own ineptitude... yet he visits them anyway.
He arrives at the moment of Torrin's birth in the murky dampness of a Hive Ship holding cell. Rodney beams at him from the floor as he enters.
"I caught it. It didn't hit the floor or anything!"
Teyla is drenched in sweat but smiling sweetly and she holds the newborn son in her arms she hasn't named yet, "He did a wonderful job."
"That's good." he hears himself say.
"You did good, Rodney."
"Sheppard? Sheppard, please snap out of it."
The line is not scripted, not part of the memory and he fights it.
"Goddam it John, wake the hell up!"
He forces his eyelids open as someone shakes him.
"Oh thank God."
He blinks up into McKay's concerned face and Rodney's practically sobbing with relief.
"Why did you do that, John? I couldn't get you back," the scientist gasps with a hysterical edge to his voice and John doesn't know what to say. He would have stayed in that world of remembered moments if he could have but Rodney's not going to let him go back. Renewed pressure is applied to the wound in his chest and the world whites out again but the pain doesn't let him slip away this time. If anything it anchors him in place more firmly and he contemplates asking Rodney to just stop trying and let things run their course. He's tired of fighting and letting the end come like it wants to seems more appealing than continuing to play at the edge of oblivion. John looks back up at Rodney and tries to decide how to ask.
But he just can't.
"You're a good friend, Arthur," he chokes out instead and Rodney starts to laugh. It's inverted and cockeyed and not like it should be, but John will take what he can get.
"That's my line," Rodney says with a smile when the laughing subsides and John tries to smile back. It doesn't work though and the rattle in his chest sends more blood flooding into the back of his throat and this time Rodney catches the wave of it that escapes past the corner of his mouth with a cloth. He pushes some appreciation up into his eyes at the gesture but that's all he has the strength for and Rodney threads fingertips back into his hair when he's finished cleaning up the blood.
"You know, it's only a matter of time before they find us. I gave Lorne my life signs detector when we split off from the group. So even though this place is a maze, he still can find us." Rodney's arguing the finer points of his need to survive and John tries to take it to heart.
"Ronon will remember where he last saw us, too. He really is a fantastic tracker, isn't he? But I swear if you tell him I said so, I'll deny it," John gets an eyed promise with that. "They'll find us and get you back to Jennifer.
Crap, I bet Zelenka's already starting to take over my lab. I swear that guy can smell when I'm in trouble..."
"Not the one... who got shot... McKay..." he manages somehow and Rodney snorts.
"Yeah, but this place is overrun with little weasels who want nothing more than to shoot me dead. Trust me, Zelenka's spidey sense is definitely going off."
"Y'need to go find help." Rodney studies him again then but John can't decide what the physicist is thinking.
"I don't think so."
"Damn it, McKay!" he coughs, but it brings up more blood and he can feel it drip down his chin. Before when he tried to talk Rodney into leaving he thought he might still have a shot, but if the blood is anything to go by, John figures he doesn't have long now. It's time to face reality and get Rodney to safety. Whether he wants to or not.
"Look," Rodney's biting back, getting angry with him all over again, "There's no way in hell I'm leaving you here like this so you have to stop asking me to."
"McKay... p-please." His begging is desperate and blood makes the words thick as they pass by his lips but he took an oath to protect this bumbling, arrogant ass who refuses to follow orders, and he's not about to fail one last mission.
"Jesus, Sheppard, just DROP IT! You're a stubborn bastard, you know that?"
"It doesn't make any sense... for both of us to d-die down here."
"You're not going to die," Rodney says matter-of-factly like he's trying to build some sort of barricade around himself to keep John's words out. "Ronon will find us soon, get us some help, and you'll be back up and running in no time. Besides, I'm not particularly fond of the idea of getting lost down here and dying at the hands of some kid... or starving to death when I get lost in these caves for that matter."
John can see there's no use in arguing the point anymore or pointing out the obvious flaws in Rodney's logic. He'd convinced himself he's better off sitting here letting John bleed out in his lap than trying his luck with the labyrinth of caves they're stuck in and if there's one skill set the scientist has honed in his time here in Pegasus, it's his stubbornness. With a heavy sigh, John admits defeat for the second time that day.
"Okay, Rodney," he says wetly and tries to believe in the words.
"Took you long enough," the scientist chides and John ignores the smug look that settles when his friend realizes he's won.
In the silence that follows a tremor starts near the muscles of his abdomen and John wonders if Rodney can feel it beneath the palm he still has situated over the wound in his chest. The involuntary spasm starts small and he tries to ignore it at first, but the movement sends out little lightning bolts of pain from every artificial hole in his body and it's not long before he's quaking with it.
"R-Rodney," he stammers, searching for his friends eyes when the shaking doesn't stop and he realizes its fear that's prickling up the back of his neck.
Is this it? He wants to ask his friend, but he can't get the words off the ground.
"Come on," he hears Rodney plead, "you just gotta hold on a little while longer, Sheppard. Help is on the way, I promise."
John closes his eyes and tries to make those words the cornerstone of the structure he builds inside his mind to cordon off the pain. He knows they're just platitudes designed by Rodney to give him something to hold to, but he tries to dig his heals in all the same. His shaky resolve to stay doesn't stop the tremors but it does manage to beat back the lightning bolts a bit and he holds on as best he can.
"You know, I really was jealous of you that first day we met." Rodney is saying and John pulls focus back to his friend. "Can you imagine? Me? Rodney McKay jealous of some Air Force Major?" John cocks an eyebrow at that but Rodney shrugs it off unapologetically.
"Well, it's true! I was so mad that some good looking flyboy could just waltz onto my base and play with ancient tech I couldn't even get to turn on like it was some kind of X-Box game. And then Elizabeth and O'Neill were fawning all over you until just like that..." Rodney snaps his fingers, "you were on your way to Atlantis with us."
"... y'think I'm... good looking, McKay?" John manages to interrupt, the words sapping him dry as they pass.
"I admit I was jealous of you and all you take away from that is the fact I said you were good looking?" Rodney laughs. "God, you really are on your way out, aren't you?"
It's the first time Rodney truly acknowledges out loud the direction John is headed and as soon as the words release Rodney blanches and tries to pull them back in with a sputtering gasp.
"I'm s-sorry..." he stammers. "...I didn't mean to..."
John grabs the lapel of Rodney's vest with his good hand and yanks.
"Look at me, McKay," he growls, ignoring the ice picks jamming into the bullet wounds as he shifts. "Are you listening to me?"
McKay shrinks under his intensity but John doesn't let go of his vest.
"You're the smartest man I know," he gets out. Somehow the words come out clear so he rolls with the forward momentum the victory gives him and doesn't let himself stop. "You've saved my ass... more times than I can count and it's been an honor" he chokes finally, not sure if it's on emotion or the blood the words bring up, "... to serve with you." His hand falls away and Rodney stares at him blankly.
There's a meaning behind his words he's not sure Rodney gets. "It's been an honor to serve with you," puts Rodney McKay right up there with the likes of General O'Neill, Colonel Samantha Carter, the men he served with in Afghanistan... with every commanding officer and soldier he's fought beside over the years and he hopes Rodney understands. Judging by the look on his friend's face he doesn't just yet, but John doesn't have the energy to try and explain it to him. He blinks up at Rodney's wavering form, the confession taking more out of him than he has and swallows back another mouthful of blood when he can't turn his head enough to expel it.
He's happy then that Rodney chose not to leave him here to die alone and knows he won't try to talk his friend out of it again. He's come to rely on the reassuring warmth beneath his head and the hand that doing its best to keep his insides in, his survival contingent on the continuation of both and he holds to them like a lifeline in the impossibly angry sea that's threatening to swallow him again. John has reached the bottom of the barrel, the absolute end of himself, and there's little left to feel other than the warmth that leaches up into his skin from Rodney's knees and the hand that's running across his brow in the most intimate gesture Rodney has ever given. The pressure and warmth are comforting and he draws them in to himself as he closes his eyes.
"Sheppard?" Rodney murmurs sadly, sensing somehow that John has finally reached the end of himself.
In the clarity he finds unexpectedly he meets his friend's eyes one final time.
Breaths come in shallow difficult gasps and they're slowing. He tries to disguise the fear he knows is clear on his face but Rodney doesn't buy it for a second and gathers John closer to him when his eyes finally close.
"You're not alone, John,"is whispered close to his ear and warm tears splash against his skin but there's no talking his eyelids into opening again. He needs it all, every last bit of himself, just to stay anchored in place.
"If you die on me I'll never forgive you," Rodney rambles, rocking back and forth in a way John can't decide is for his benefit or for Rodney's. "Who am I going to whale watch with now? Who's going to save my ass when I get in over my head with the next ancient device? Who John, if not you?
Do you remember the painting that bratty queen made of us? Or beers on the pier? I swear, Sheppard, if you make it through this we'll make it a tradition. Twice a year. Once on the anniversary of that night and once for today so we never forget.
Just please John, not like this."
But 'like this' is something he can live with. He pushed Rodney out of the way of bullets, plural. It's a good death and he wishes he could open his eyes to convince McKay of this.
"You know when it was that I first realized you were my friend? It was a moment in that abandoned Wraith ship we found right after Abrams was killed and the Wraith shredded Gaul. You were off fighting the lone survivor and for one illogical minute I was going to leave that kid there defenseless to go and help you. You changed me, John. Gaul even called me out on it and he was right. So come on, there's a lot more galaxy out there to see and I'll never survive exploring it without you. John?" Rodney pleads, shaking him a little.
He can't give Rodney the response he wants to. His consciousness is beginning to lift and disintegrate and what happens next passes by him in that detached way things often do when one dies. The sound of approaching boots cuts through sound of McKay crying. He thinks to grab for his gun but someone has dropped to their knees beside him and calloused fingertips search his neck for a pulse.
"...what the hell happened?"
"...shot Ronon. ... get him out of here, now!"
He's yanked upwards then, the fiery pain back so suddenly his heart sputters out in his chest and not even Rodney's begging is enough to make him stay.
The event horizon in front of him explodes outward and John involuntarily flinches back. He scans the faces of the men clapping around him to see if anyone has noticed his reaction to seeing the Stargate engage for the first time. No one has. They're all too busy with their own silent uncertainties about what awaits them on the other side of the watery blue barrier between worlds to notice him. Not much information has trickled down the ranks his way so he can't help but make up his own version of what he'll find when he finally walks through that gate and reaches Atlantis.
Anticipation sits heavy in his stomach and while he's antsy for an adventure he still hesitates before the gate even as Ford and Elizabeth, Sumner and Becket all disappear into its depths. He knows he should follow them but something makes him hesitate.
"Are you coming, John?" It's Ford who asks and his face reemerges from the event horizon with a smile. "We're waiting for you."
"Who's waiting?" But his lost Lieutenant doesn't answer.
"What's it like over there Ford?" he asks carefully, not sure he really wants to know, especially if he's going to have to fight to be allowed to stay behind.
"Different I guess," Ford answers truthfully and with a shrug of his shoulders. "Good... amazing... basically whatever you want it to be."
"And all I have to do is walk through?"
"That's all you have to do. But, only if you want to, Sir."
"And what about the others... McKay, Ronon and Teyla? Will they be alright if I go with you?" Ford thinks on his response for a moment before answering.
"Would it make a difference if you knew?"
Anger rises hot at the back of this throat and its preposterous that Ford would even ask such a thing.
"It would," He grinds out and Ford shakes his head a little.
"Then I don't think you're quite ready for this yet, Colonel."
"Wait a minute here, you mean I get a choice?"
Ford smiles at him.
"The Stargate will always be here for you, John. You just come and find it when you're ready." His lieutenant turns to go.
"Wait, Ford!" he calls and takes a step forward. He can't let this opportunity pass him by and the dead man in front of him turns back.
There's so much to say, so much to apologize for, but he doesn't know quite where to start.
"Sir, you did the best you could for me and I know that now. So stop blaming yourself for what went down. I know I have." John holds Ford's gaze and searches the dead Lieutenants eyes for any indication he's lying. But all John sees there is peace and he drops his gaze to the toes of his boots.
"So... it's goodbye then," he says, lifting his head.
"More of a 'see ya later'."
"Alright then, I can live with that. Guess I'll see ya later, Ford."
"See ya around, John," and this time when Ford disappears into the wormhole, the Stargate disengages and even John's not sure where he goes.
In the end, the hard part isn't remembering how it's all done. He can still recall what is to breathe and to know. The hard part ends up being pulling all the pieces of himself back together so that they fit in the way that they should. And more importantly, that when he glues them back together, they stay where he puts them.
His pieces are scattered everywhere and there's a very real chance that if he doesn't get the order of them right, he won't come out of this the way he was before.
And that's just not an option.
He's a soldier built for one purpose and if this goes sideways, if there's one hiccup in the system, he's going to find his way back to that Stargate and follow after Ford. Yeah, he knows it was probably just some lost corner of his mind he found refuge in, but imaging that Ford has forgiven him gives the slightest bit of comfort and he holds to that for a while.
Each time John slots another bit of himself back into place the pain he was managing to hide from finds him again in the dark. He knows that this is just a part of surviving, that he can't have one without the other, but the searing heat smolders deep and he burns in the fires of his own resurrection. He worries he'll lose something of himself in that fire but the heat reminds him of what he's trying to do here and he uses it to his advantage - uses it as brick number one and starts building.
When he's finished he takes a step back and to survey that work that he's done. It's shaky construction at best but he knows now he'll have the time to fortify it later and, taking a breath, begins to climb. There are moments when he worries the bricks beneath his feet will give way, that he'll tumble back down the way he came up, but the structure beneath him stays sound and he opens his eyes to the soft light of the infirmary when he reaches the top.
The place is quiet and the light is muted which leads him to believe it is either very late or very early on what day, he can only guess. Time had no meaning in the places he lost himself in and he wonders for a moment if life here has gone on without him.
"You're awake," a deep base-y voice rumbles quietly from beside him and Ronon's unexpected face comes into focus above him.
"How long?" he asks, not really sure he wants to know.
"A week or so," the Satedan shrugs and John swallows thickly. It's there in the ache he feels: the unmistakable evidence they had to put him on a vent, and he almost shudders.
"That one hasn't left your side since we bought you back." Ronon is pointing to the other side of his bed and John turns his head to see Rodney's slumped form passed out in a chair. The scientist is snoring lightly and it looks to John like his friend has escaped their ordeal relatively unscathed but he thinks of something then and looks back over at Ronon.
"Don't tell me McKay saved my life..." but the Sateden is already grinning.
"He stuck a pen in your chest." The former runner is looking impressed and John wants to ask after more details but a moment later Teyla breezes in and the wattage of her smile blinks everything else out of existence. She brings with her fresher air and the normal smells of Atlantis and for a moment John can almost imagine he's back in her halls instead of stuck in the infirmary for the foreseeable future.
Teyla approaches his bed carefully so as not to rouse Rodney and captures his good hand between both of her own.
"I am very glad to see you are awake, John," she says quietly, squeezing the hand she has trapped. "And equally thankful that you are still with us."
These are the scenes he's never really known what to do with and settles on a tired smile when the right words won't come. Teyla offers him the pink straw from the glass of water that sits on a table to his right and he greedily pulls at the lukewarm contents of the glass. The liquid smothers some of the embers still smoldering deep in places he didn't even know he had, but it chokes him a moment later and he sputters. The pain he had nearly managed to forget flares to life and before he knows it a machine has put into alarm what he just can't push past his clenched teeth.
Jennifer Keller throws the curtain to his space wide and his little gathered crowd of two backs away immediately. John pleads with his eyes for some relief and she pushes drugs into the IV at his hand as fast as she can.
"This will help. Give it time," she murmurs and swipes the perspiration away from his brow with a scratchy cloth near his head. This isn't behavior he would normally tolerate and it eats him alive to be so weak, but it can't be helped and he closes his eyes to wait for the pain to subside. It does take time like Jennifer promises but eventually it carries him away and he's lost for a time in its haze.
When he comes to a while later the infirmary is quiet again but this time it's Rodney he sees when he finally opens his eyes.
The look that passes between them is complicated. Rodney looks like he wants to both yell and spit fire but at the same time gather John up in his arms. They're two scenarios John would rather not live through but he acknowledges their possibility with a nod of his head. Rodney gets the gesture and drops his eyes to the hands in his lap with a sigh.
"What happened?" John asks carefully as he shifts on the bed but mercifully the pain stays silent for the first time since he can remember and he relishes the fuzzy medicated haze.
"What happened is we almost lost you," is the quiet answer he gets and Rodney still studies his hands without looking up. "Your lung collapsed. You lost an impossible amount of blood and Jennifer didn't think you were going to make it there for awhile."
John senses there's more to that statement than Rodney lets on but he doesn't push. He only knows one thing for sure.
"You saved my life."
Rodney flushes crimson.
"I picked up a thing or two from Carson that might have helped. No big deal."
"That's not what I hear." He replies, placing a hand on his chest right where the twin wounds are hidden beneath mounds of gauze.
"Yes, well," Rodney stumbles for a moment then recovers, finally looking up. "...I guess I did save your life."
There's the McKay John's been looking for and a smug look of satisfaction settles in around the scientist's eyes.
"I need to ask you something McKay. Will you be straight with me?" Rodney cringes slightly like he's not entirely comfortable with promising something like that but nods his agreement.
"My other hand, the one that got shot, is it still there?"
Rodney laughs at him then, a sputtering relieved little thing that has the scientist sagging back in his chair as he laughs. Apparently John hasn't asked what Rodney expects but he'll have to remember to inquire after it later.
"Still there," Rodney promises with a shit eating grin. "Through and through and as clean as it ever could have been. Jennifer said so herself."
"You can't use that if you were never a Boyscout, McKay."
"Who says I wasn't?! I was one for two whole years... you know, until I blew up that den mother's garage."
John can believe it and snorts when the image of a young McKay standing in the wreckage of a decimated garage floats to mind.
"Don't ever do that to me again, okay?"
John looks over at his friend.
"You got it, buddy," and even though he knows it's a stupid thing to promise he lets it out anyway and Rodney settles back in his chair looking content. There are things Sheppard could say in that moment, 'thanks' being the most obvious one, but the silence they share is comforting all on its own and he can't bring himself to shatter it with bumbled gratitude.
He'll learn later of the lengths Rodney goes to save his life in that cave deep in the earth, but for now he's content to just sit in the friendly silence they've created and match his breathing to Rodney's.