They convened by late starlight, on the side of the mountain. The sharpshooter, Kraeter, advised he had seen nobody but Altantis personnel, all day.
"They're used to dimmer light," said Ronon. "They are night-hunters."
"No problem," said the Marine. His accent was thick, almost hard to understand. "I got the night scope here. Still no go on shootin' em?"
"They don't know we're here," reminded the Russian, Gonayev. "Let us keep it that way."
"Aint seen nobody yet anyway." They had eaten a meal cold, and sat together cold in blankets. Ronon saw well in the graying night, even without goggles, but the others moved carefully like blind creatures.
"Here is the problem," Ronon began. "The prisoners are not in their prison. We need to look for them without alerting the enemy. Ideas?"
Yagelski was bruised and tired, though she did not admit it. "Sounding equipment. The anthro department has some, right? Shoot sound waves into the earth and listen for an echo. Boom, you find your cave."
"You're not a caver, are you?" asked Hastings. "It's not like one long sausage in a straight line. It's like bubbles in a, um, in swiss cheese or something. All on top each other, and connecting, or not."
"Also," said Gonayev, "heavy and slow. Not secret."
"How long can they live underground?" asked Ronon.
It was Kraeter who answered. "It kills you like this: you freeze in a day or two. If you don't freeze, you die of thirst in four days. If you got water, you starve. That takes weeks."
"There were pools," Ronon volunteered. "But it was chilly." The Marines both wrapped their arms around themselves unconsciously.
"They got pretty far," contradicted Yagelski. "Far enough it was more than a day, if they dug their own holes. And they marked their path with food wrappers. They're on a starve schedule."
Hastings said, "That's good, I guess."
"Not if they've got the sickness," Kraeter said darkly.
Ronon and Yagelski shifted, looking uneasily at each other. "I have been here longest, and underground longest. I am not ill," he said. "Sheppard endured a great deal despite his illness. He is --" Ronon did not know what he had been planning to say. Everyone shifted, finishing that sentence in their own heads, little mutters and grunts. Ronon did not know what words they were thinking.
"There is danger of unbreathable air," said Gonayev. He made a bubble with his hands. "Pockets of gas, trapped until people burst into them." His hands opened, spread apart. "This is why 'canary in coal mine' -- nobody cares if canary dies."
"There's a lot of dangers," argued Hastings. "Rockfalls and drownings and getting turned around in the dark and I don't know what all. We can't help them down there. Alls we can do is help from up here."
"I have two plans," Ronon told them. "First is to search the mountain from the outside, below the stones. Find entrances."
The big Marine nodded. "See, this is what I am talking about."
"The second is to abduct an enemy alive, carry him by force through the Stargate, and interrogate him until he gives up maps of the cave system."
This plan was not so popular. Yagelski shifted away from him as if afraid, and the others sat in silence.
"Ain't strictly correct," said Kraeter, hanging an elbow off his rifle.
"The Major wouldn't allow it," added Hastings.
Kraeter followed this up. "I don't know about your people, but that's illegal, black ops type of stuff for us."
"I don't have any people," said Ronon. He looked over their heads, out beyond their little niche in the mountain. In the pre-dawn gray, he saw the outlines of peaks far away: a whole range. There was enough mountain to search forever.
The last flashlight was dying while they debated what to do for light. It was unlikely that the emergency floodlight would last an entire day, and without wood, Teyla did not know how they would manage.
"Okay, sideways thinking," said Rodney, snapping his fingers. He sat among the rucksacks, mopping his brow. Beside him, John slept on. "What do we have that will burn?"
"Pickax handle, but we need that," Judy volunteered immediately. "Clothes. Rucksack fabric. Five emergency flares, one candle."
"Romance novel," added Van Arden. "Did you even get to read it?"
Judy laughed and shook her head.
Both women looked to Teyla, and she struggled to find a plan. "First the glowsticks," she said. "There are six or eight left of those. Then the flares, then the candle, then other open flame. We will continue to keep the beacon for emergencies."
"Flashlight! Whoa! Need the flashlight over here!" Rodney blurted. Van Arden spun, dropped to her knees, and pawed out the big beacon. "Not breathing!"
Its beam was blinding, a terrific blue-white Teyla could see even with her eyes closed. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she shaded her forehead with her hand to see what was the matter.
"He's not breathing," Rodney explained, cradling John's head on his lap. "I had my hand on his chest, just, you know, and it fell when he breathed out and didn't come up again. It's been almost 40 seconds already." He gave information only, no bluster, and that meant he was terrified.
Teyla lowered her ear to John's ribs. His heart beat, slow and lazy, its rhythm still fine. He did not breathe.
Melo brushed her aside, brusque. "I'm on it, ma'am," he muttered, and Teyla remembered he had medical training. She had seen reviving methods before, watched Marines thump on unresponsive chests or even use electricity to startle the heart into moving again. It was both exalting and terrifying, the power they professed over the end of human life.
Thumb on John's chin, he tipped John's head back and laid it on the rock, gentle. Melo was on his knees, and Teyla knew his broken leg must be screaming at him. He licked his lips and lowered his head, brows furrowed, and breathed for his Colonel.
They all watched John's chest rise, reached out to touch him as if for healing magic. It fell again, slowly, while Melo put his ear to feel the warm air emerging. He breathed again, a low noise of motion like wind through a doorway, and John's chest rose again.
This time it tightened, the muscles along his ribs and stomach hardening, and he gave a dry, shallow cough into Melo's ear. His shoulders twitched, twitched again, and he breathed in on his own while Melo listened. Teyla let out her own gasp and heard it accompanied all around the group. Melo was grinning, his ear still over John's face, and he came up with his hand open for the High Five. They all slapped it, one after another, Melo muttering "Yeah! Yeah!" to himself. The last to slap was Rodney.
"Yeah," said Rodney, and put his open hand over his eyes.
"Help me out, man," said Melo, and pulled Rodney's hand till it was cupping John's shoulder. Together they rolled him, head and shoulders and the hips lagging behind, till he was on his side. "Pillow." Judy instantly stripped off her jacket and handed it to Melo. He stuffed it under John's head. "In case he pukes again. Keep him like that all the time when we're not moving."
Van Arden sat down, flashlight pointing at the ceiling. "Well, shit," she said.
Teyla asked, "Is this expected? That he might stop breathing and then begin again on his own?"
"Hell if I know ma'am," said Melo. He dragged himself to the rucksack and rummaged for the medical kit. "Could be a seizure. Kids with asthma do that sometimes too, in the night, and that's kind of the same, but -- " He opened the kit in his lap, frowning. "Kind of maybe different, in a new galaxy."
"We need shifts," interjected Rodney, energetic again. "To watch him every minute--"
"Hey," interrupted Melo. "Or the defibrillator." He untangled long white wires from a small box, flipped it over and checked its battery. "Okay, this is good for six hours continuous, that's all. And, uh, ma'am I guess I should ask your permission to give him some adrenaline. There's a couple Epipens in here." Teyla felt Rodney react to the word: every kit carried them, at his insistence.
"How will allergy medicine help John breathe?" she asked.
"It's for a lot of situations, ma'am," said Melo. "Eyes dilate, heart beats faster, makes you breathe harder. Like the body's getting ready for a fight, ma'am."
"Oh my god," Judy said, and turned away. "I saw Pulp Fiction. I can't watch you stick a needle in his chest."
"His leg," Melo argued. "And I was thinking, we should use the saline, too. It's for washing out your eyes, but -- he needs fluids, and that's fluids."
Teyla touched the plastic jar he indicated. It sloshed as it rolled. "'Sterile saline solution' -- this will keep him from thirst?"
"Well," he waved his hands, "yeah. A start, anyway. I can, uh, I'll figure out a drip."
Rodney watched them all, his hand on John's ribs. That ribcage expanded and contracted under Rodney's wide fingers. He settled on Teyla, stared at her hard. Teyla gave him back his stare, and shamed him into looking away.
"We will do what we have to do," she said. "Fix him as best you can." Melo nodded at her, and laid out his tools on the rocky floor. Van Arden held the flashlight for him. Nobody argued with the decision to use precious battery time.
Judy broke out the stash of glowsticks, nine in all, and took up her beloved pickax. She looked absurd, short sleeves high on her arms and matted, bloody socks still over her hands. Rodney and Teyla sat with nothing for their hands to do on opposite sides of the medical intervention. Melo unbuckled John's trousers, finding a site for the drug to enter his body. Rodney shuddered away from the sight of the Epipen piercing flesh, then pulled himself together and turned to the rucksacks.
Teyla came around and touched his shoulder, shy. She was not adept at his outsized moods, found him tiring when he was not amusing. It was hard, sometimes, to like him, especially without the counterpoint of John's wry subtlety. "I will help you watch him," she said.
"There isn't any tubing in the kit," Rodney not-answered. "We'll need something long and hollow, and a plastic bag we can get from the MRE-kits. I don't think I brought any ballpoint pens." He ignored her comforting hand and pulled his laptop out of its case, setting it carefully on the ground. Its battery had been dead for at least a day; she could not remember. Rodney pulled out his knife and slit open the case. "They use hollow plastic to stiffen the seams. I wear these things out all the time; I've seen it."
"It may work," she said, and pulled away to think again of practical matters.
"Don't --" Rodney reached behind him without looking, grabbed her wrist. "Don't go. I want you to, you know. Stay."
Teyla crouched behind him, and settled both her hands on his shoulders. She felt the moisture through his t-shirt, saw it glisten on his neck. It was shockingly easy to forget that he fought the same Ancient-hatred illness, and was watching a progression he would soon take himself.
"Rodney," she said, and realized she did not know what she meant to say. "I told him I would not leave him behind."
Rodney sawed at the case's black fabric. "Did he believe you?"
Teyla shut her mouth, teeth clicking hard. "No. How did you guess?"
Rodney did not answer. He needled with the point, pushing his knife under the edge where the plastic hid between lines of stitches. Teyla crouched behind him, watching, and wrapped her arms around his broad back.
Thanks to some medical tape, an empty Epipen, a plastic bag, scissors, eleven inches of laptop case lining and a barrette belonging to Judy Yu, fluids entered Sheppard's body for the first time in probably days. Rodney could not remember what the warning signs of death by dehydration were, but Sheppard did not look any better once Melo was done squishing contact lens solution into a vein. ("It's not really for contact lenses," Melo grumped.) That was it for the saline, though, and unless they wanted to try again with cavewater, that put Sheppard's lifespan at three more days.
Melo packed up the jury-rigged IV anyway, in the medical kit as if it were professional equipment. Judy did not even ask for her barrette back.
"You know what I just realized?" Melo was helping to cut the laptop case into something useful. Rodney took up another strip of fabric, and measured it. "That thing when we woke him up that time."
"What time?" Each strip had to be long enough to get around his body; no point trying to tie together several. Melo was pretty good with a knife. "Oh, oh, that time, of course, you're right."
"Couldn't wake up, had a headache --"
"We'd only spent an hour here, before he fell. Why didn't I see it?"
Melo dropped a hand on Rodney's arm. "Nobody did, man." It was extremely unpleasant, being comforted by a man who had to scoot around on his butt because his left leg was in pieces and lashed to a pair of shovels.
"It's my job to see things like that." Rodney shrugged. Together they moved over to where Sheppard lay still (the defibrillator resting on his stomach) and began to lash him into his sleeping bag. "I'll do my penance dragging him around on my shoulders. I don't know why you volunteered."
"You don't?!" Melo asked, incredulous.
Rodney bent to tie another strip of fabric. "Okay," he allowed. Melo shook his head. Together they lifted Sheppard's hips and threaded fabric underneath him. Melo was slow, methodical, with round stubby fingers always in contact with the body. Rodney blurted, "I just --"
But he was saved from confessional by a shriek in the distance. Teyla dropped the rucksack she had been packing and stuck her head into the passage. "Judy!" she called. "Van Arden, are you hurt?"
Rodney and Melo sat together, hands on the body between them, and listened to two female voices crying and shouting and coming nearer. The disastrous potential grew in Rodney's mind: poisonous toads, salamanders that really did breathe fire, bears, a troop of hoodie people. At this point, Wraith would be comically underwhelming. Maybe they'd had a cave-in and were bashing themselves to death against the barrier; maybe one or both of them had crushed pelvises.
But they tumbled out of the hole, tear-tracks in the dirt on their faces, and grabbed up Teyla in their arms. "Sky! Sky!" Van Arden bellowed, while Judy wept and wept, tucking her face into Teyla's neck. "Daylight! Oh, we found it!"
Wow. Wow. Melo grinned crazily and shook Rodney's shoulders. "Awesome, man! Awesome." He let go and leaned down, put his mouth to Sheppard's ear. "Almost there, sir. Hang on just a little while."
Rodney pressed fingers into his eyelids, exhausted. If they got Sheppard up into the place that had the hole, they still had to get him out of the hole, without rope of any kind and really they better have meant gigantic gaping doorway when they said it and not some crack in the ceiling, and then of course they would be outside, exposed all over again for the crazed hoodies to hunt down and lock back in the cavern they'd spent all their fucking energy escaping from in the first place.
Teyla had untangled their little girl-power circle, and came to congratulate everyone else. "A concrete goal. Let us move into the upper chamber, assess our distance from safety, and then we will splurge with rations."
"Oh good," said Rodney, nerveless. Melo finished up with the ties, and turned on the defibrillator. It beeped gently, a nice slow steady rhythm in the background. Suddenly it seemed desperately important not to leave behind the discarded bits of the laptop case: a plastic buckle; little slices of black fabric. Rodney swept everything up carefully and dropped it into his rucksack.
Judy approached him, still shaking with emotion. She hugged him quickly. "I'm gonna need your help," she said.
"What, you admit that I may actually have a worthwhile opinion on something??" Hostility was a comfortable haven.
"Yeah," said Judy, ignoring his tone. "You know grenades a lot better than I do."
Rodney smiled bitterly: no free lunch. "It's a tiny pinprick hole in the ceiling fifteen feet above our heads?"
Judy laughed. "No. It's a tall, skinny gap right at ground level. I think it's too skinny for your ridiculously manly shoulders to fit through."
"Oh. Okay then." He shouldered his rucksack and followed her to the hole. Teyla squeezed his shoulder as he passed.
"I will carry Sheppard this time." She flexed her arm, and tipped her head ironically. "Or drag him, if need be."
Rodney boggled at her. "Right. Going to blow stuff up now."
"Make it big," said Teyla. "Make it matter."
He saw it as a puff of dust, as happens with a near-miss bullet in the dirt. It was only when Hastings, next to him, shouted that Ronon realized he was seeing something far away, and the dust was rocks flying. Seconds passed before the report came to him, rumbling through the air: an explosion.
Ronon knew only one group of people who would make explosions on this planet. He bounded off across the standing stones with the Marines' disbelief still raw in his ears. They followed him or they didn't, but he went. The zigzag pattern of his path allowed him to see that Yagelski was right at his heels.
Later, he asked Kraeter, with his longsight rifle, and found out that the blast was four miles from where they had been resting, "as the crow flies" -- he guessed a crow was a kind of bullet. It was longer on the ground. He and Yagelski dropped off the stones as they came to an end, and skittered down a field of scree that paved the way between their own peak and the next. Ronon mapped it in his mind, just in case: the plateau of the standing stones; the sharp peaks away to his left; to his right the slumping shoulders of mountain and foothills disappearing away for miles of dull brown.
Climbing a scree-field was not nearly as easy as traveling downwards. Yagelski had a better time of it, skipping upward and along the loose incline, and he followed her example. Gonayev and Hastings struggled behind him, and nearly two hours passed before they all had made it into solid rock again. All that remained was strenuous hiking, uphill, steep but easily done with hands and feet.
They were all too short of breath for speech. Upward they went, the bare rock hot under their hands in the morning sun, and Ronon outpaced them all. He knew he was close when loose rocks showed signs of blast marks. And then an unexpected thing happened: a gray animal emerged from the stone above his head, saw him, and fled.
Ronon climbed higher, shouting to the others to follow. He heaved himself halfway over the promontory, feet dangling, and lay that way for a moment to understand what was happening in front of him.
Here was a lip of stone, with the gray animal sitting upright and shivering. Behind it a cave-mouth, gaping darkness, and sooty stones still smoking near the edges. The gray animal crawled close up, and looked in Ronon's face. She touched his hair, tugged on a lock and said, dazed, "Oh, I know you."
Ronon did not know this creature. He hoisted himself up so he could stand, and it stood with him, and that was when he realized it was a woman, hair matted gray and skin painted the same color and her Atlantis clothing torn and stained with mud. She put her head back to see him all the way up, and then her mouth cracked into a smile. "We wondered what happened to you. I'm Judy."
Then she was grasping him about the waist, trying to push the breath out of him. He pulled at her shoulders till she let go.
"Where are they?" asked Ronon. He shook her gently and asked again, "Where are they?"
The woman took his hand, and led him into the cave. Behind him, he saw Yagelski come up over the edge, and then another hand: the men. In front of him, stark darkness, enveloping him for the long moments before his vision adjusted. Two people clustered around a hole in the back wall, pulling on a third. Judy let out a shout and they all turned at once, eyes glinting off the daylight, terrified.
"Ronon!" cried Teyla, and it was she, and Rodney on the floor among bundles, and the tortured Marine and the little blond Lieutenant. They rushed at him, arms everywhere, touching his face and hair and tugging on his necklaces, grabby. Their strange intensity enveloped him and he fought to control himself, breathing hard. And then they were people again, silhouettes like things he recognized, clasping each other and him and each other again.
McKay was filthy, his hair standing up. He wore aviator glasses, one of the lenses all cracks. "Come on," he said, in that curt way of his, as if no figure of authority could overrule him. McKay was pulling him forward into the cave, toward the bundles and where the tortured one, Melo, sat half-in half-out of a hole, hugging himself because he could reach nobody else. Ronon flicked his head left and right, searching.
"Where is Sheppard?"
Teyla jogged with them, drawn and wide-eyed. They all followed, shuffling, and gathered around a heap of dirty clothes. Judy burrowed into a sleeping bag as if sorting laundry and came up with a face between her palms. A face, pale and dirty, eyes sunken. It was Sheppard, and he was in a very bad way.
"He is sick," said the pale woman, Van Arden. She crouched by Melo at the hole, leaning against him. "Sick to dying. Take him through the Stargate now, before anyone else. Take him, and leave us behind."
All of them, beseechment on their faces. Ronon had never seen McKay speechless. Teyla was unzipping the sleeping bag, cutting the ties that bound the body into it. Sheppard smelled, like illness and sweat and mud. His arms flopped, useless, and they had removed his boots. He breathed shallowly, white wires glued to his body reporting his life-rhythm. McKay knelt and ripped the wires free. "Get him away from this planet," he said. "Go now."
Ronon took him. He lifted the body in his arms, a hand behind the shoulders and another under knees. Gray hands touched him, touched the body, remained high and reaching after he turned to carry the body into daylight. He could not bear to look back into their shaky hopefulness, but nodded to Yagelski and the Marines to enter the cave. Sheppard did not say a word about being carried, did not kick himself free.
"All are alive," Ronon reported. "Melo moves but does not walk. Work quickly."
They did not ask him what he was going to do. Ronon knelt with the body in his arms, and with a heave had him folded over one shoulder. He was miles, four miles as it turned out, away from the Stargate, burdened heavy and with only his own skills and the last Marine, the sharpshooter Kraeter, to protect him. The enemy might have heard, and might come in force again with their convulsion weapons. Sheppard might die before he made it home.
Ronon spared a look back at the cave-mouth, where the Marines were fending off compulsive muddy embrace. Teyla turned her face to him, and raised a hand. "Go," she said. "We will follow."
He did not look back again, but clambered downward, toward the scree between the peaks. Sheppard's hands dangled down Ronon's back, tapping at the backs of his thighs now and then. Terrified, Ronon climbed faster.
Teyla did not understand why two fresh Marines shadowed her until she stumbled and was caught by them. They maneuvered her, gentle hands at her elbow and hip, and asked whether she would prefer to be carried. Teyla thanked them and declined, and entered the infirmary under her own power. They hunched around her, hands outstretched, but she did not fall again.
She had done enough falling for one day, hiking down one mountain and up the next. It had taken them most of the daylight to make it back to the Stargate, hard vigorous exercise and and blinding sun and no reason to remove the socks from their hands. The Marine carrying Melo had slipped and nearly dropped him, and Van Arden's ankle might yet turn out to be broken.
The infirmary was full of bustle and rush, white-dressed personnel sprinting and pushing beds. "Oh, you're here," said a nurse, and led her to a newly-arranged bed. "Sit."
Teyla did this on her own too, easing her sore thighs. The Marines stepped back, smiling tentatively, and then turned pink when she began to strip off her clothing. But the jacket had torn elbows and her shirt was crusted with days of sweat -- she would not wear them an instant longer. The nurse helped her into a hospital dress without a word, even when Teyla threw her clothes onto the floor in hatred of them.
The rest trickled into the infirmary at the speeds they could manage: Van Arden, limping and leaning on the tall woman Yagelski; Judy dazed and holding the hand of the Marine who had carried Melo. Melo himself came on a stretcher, a position significantly more comfortable than over a shoulder, which he had been till they achieved the gateroom. Rodney came last, staggering, with his hand shading his eyes despite his wearing sunglasses. He collapsed onto a bed and lay prone, moaning.
Teyla's nurse wanted to sponge her clean, and look into her eyes with a flashlight. Teyla submitted to this for a little while, sitting still while the world moved around her: so much noise, so many people. It was frightening, after days of smallness and quiet. Elizabeth appeared in the doorway, full of fear, and sighed relief when she met Teyla's eyes.
"Everyone made it back?" Elizabeth asked. She did not shy away from touching Teyla's gritty hair.
"Yes. About Sheppard. He and Rodney --"
"Hush. We guessed it. Lorne came down with the same thing after a day there. Dr. Beckett has worked up a protocol for treating the symptoms, but the cure is simply getting them away from the repulsion field."
"Oh," said Teyla, and looked around for Lorne. Instead she saw Melo, clamping his lips together as two medics maneuvered his leg, and a flash of Van Arden's white skin as she dropped her filthy clothing.
Elizabeth smiled. "Lorne's in his own bed, and he's already stopped throwing up. He'll be fine."
"And where is John?"
That smile faded. "I'll check on him."
"I'll go with you," Teyla said, and instantly slid off the bed in her bare feet. She held Elizabeth's hand as they walked the open space toward a room, closed off from the rest of the space.
It was a brightly-lit room, with a door halfway open, and in it on a bed John lay dying.
He was no different from before, in the cave. His skin was pasty-white, shocking pale against his dark hair. They had not shaved him, but they had washed off most of the grime and stripped him naked under the flimsy sheets. All over his chest and shoulders, black bruising: large blunt blobs and tiny finger-marks from his being handled. Teyla recognized that one blob on his chest as her own boot -- she had fallen on him and he'd lied and said it hadn't hurt. His eyes were small slits and the skin around the bone yellowish, ugly, lines marked with faint traces of gray dirt. Dogtags lay in a pile of chain, just below one ear.
Ronon stood in a corner, watching. He was silent and expressionless, as at a vigil. His thighs were trembling, emotion or exhaustion or shock who could say.
Teyla did not realize she had made a noise until Beckett turned to see them standing there. He gave them a weary look, but it was not a look of defeat.
"Oh," gasped Teyla. "He will not die?"
The machines by the bed monitored him and proved he continued to breathe. Beckett tapped the readouts, watching their bouncing orange lines, and seemed satisfied.
"He's on enough drugs to open his own chemist's shop, and I expect he'll feel terrible when he wakes." Beckett smiled at her, his unthreatening smile. Teyla had not realized she frightened him. "Subsonics, I expect. Vibrations in the air that only affected the gene-carriers. The results are very like an allergic reaction. It was wise, to give him adrenaline."
"His breathing was --"
Beckett came and took her hand in both of his. "You did right, Teyla."
"We gave him saline solution, to stave off thirst. In his arm --"
"Clever girl," said Beckett, and kissed her cheek. "I saw the mark." She did not realize she was crying till she saw that his lips were wet. Elizabeth's arm across her back, firm, holding her up. Teyla gathered herself.
"It was Melo's idea. He is an able medic."
"Major Lorne's example took the guessing out of it. Has it affected Rodney too?"
"Yes." She swung around, and Elizabeth swung with her effortlessly. "He will live," she called.
Judy and Van Arden fell into each other's arms, laughing and sobbing. They pulled back to check each other and laughed at each other's tears. Melo lay flat, his leg still being moved, and wept in silence.
"Oh thank fuck," Rodney gasped, reaching out blindly. He caught Melo on the shoulder and held on, and slowly Melo's hand came upto touch that grip. Around them all, the Marines broke their stiff profiles and smiled, talked, shook hands with each other.
Beckett paused to tuck the sheets more tightly around John's feet, and came out into the main room. Ronon stood his vigil, and did not move. He was gray like them all, down one shoulder, his hair, one cheek: mud from carrying John. Except for a glimpse of him on the upslope, leaping, agile, while she had been still laboring downward, she had not seen Ronon at all after the cave. Teyla did not know what to say to him. She left him alone.
"I expect you all to be truthful about your injuries," Beckett began.
Van Arden said immediately, "Judy has broken bones in her hand." Judy's mouth flew open. "She didn't tell about them because, I don't know --" Heads snapped around from every direction.
"Matty was way worse than me!" Judy lowered her head in shame. "It isn't that bad."
Melo gave a doubtful snort, and then a groan as Beckett took hold of his leg.
"And anyway," Judy said, stalwart, "who else was gonna do the digging? Rodney?"
"Hm? What?" asked McKay. He raised himself on his elbows and rolled over to lift off his t-shirt. Up his arms, all was dirt and dull gray coloration, and on his neck too, so that the pale skin of his chest was hilarious. Teyla was relieved to see she was not the only one who laughed, and then she counted the bruises there and stopped laughing.
Elizabeth still had her hand. Teyla asked, "Has Ronon been observing like that since he arrived?"
"Beckett said it was all right to leave him be." Those careful, evaluative eyes. "I don't know how his culture expresses fear."
"Perhaps we are seeing it," said Teyla. She wiped her eyes. "I will speak with him now."
He swam into wakefulness like a kid riding the tide inward, unlike his usual morning routine of jerking fully alert at dawn. He eddied out of -- it wasn't a dream really, but some kind of easy blank expectation -- and into hearing and sensation: thin sheets, an air-conditioner's hum, smell of clean. He felt his breathing change, go deeper and stretch his chest more, and knew he really was waking up. His ribs ached.
He ached all over, raw Bactine sting on his knees and a dull throb up his neck that radiated around his skull like hip-hop on a subwoofer. He breathed deep again, and started down the inventory: shoulders, arms, fingers, stomach -- all parts accounted for, most of them complaining. His clothes had been cut off. A few flexes told him that things had had time to settle and stiffen, sore: he'd been out for a while.
That was how John came to understand he must have crashed a puddlejumper, and that he was probably in the infirmary, and that he probably had an audience and he should open his eyes to tell them to go away and quit staring. He moved his tongue in his mouth -- tacky, dry -- and something cool touched his lips. Ice. He licked it in, grateful, let it numb the roof of his mouth and drip down his throat.
Definitely someone staring.
Some kind of crust had formed on his eyelashes, so opening them was a chore. He blinked a few times, realized that it wasn't his eyes not working but the lights on dim. Elizabeth stood over him, watching, that diplomat smile on her face like a steel-hard Mona Lisa. She held up another ice chip so he could see it.
"Mmh," he said, and let his throat work a few times. "Thanks." The cold hard sliver helped sharpen him up, let him think about the pattern of his hurt. "Wha happen?"
"You almost died," she said, serene to let him know he hadn't, and the risk was past. "Carson explained it to me, but --" she gestured, long bony limbs. "You were in a coma."
Oh. He thought, hard, and couldn't come up with what day it was. "Long?"
"They brought you in this -- yesterday. So no, not long." Elizabeth brushed his hair off his forehead, turning her wrist to feel his temperature with the back of her hand. "They wouldn't leave."
John couldn't think who they were, but then, he was realizing, he couldn't think up a lot of things at the moment. He moved his fingers, and gave a little yip of pain. That cracked Elizabeth's facade, and she pressed on his forearm. Under her grip, he could feel the tubing of an IV, and when he felt that he understood the pinch on the back of his hand, where the needle had gone in.
"You're covered with bruises. Just rest, for now."
"Who?" he asked.
Elizabeth stepped away from him rather than answer. She took up a position at his feet, something sentimental in her smirk, and glanced to his right. It really shouldn't have been that much effort to turn his head, but he had to work at it, slow fallow muscles complaining. His cheek touched the pillow and he focussed his eyes.
A bed had been crammed into the corner, chairs backed up against it in a row. It was quaint-looking, like open wards in third-world hospitals, where kin came to feed and wash the ill. A man lay in the bed, his foot raised up in traction and an Asian woman in a forearm cast draped over his middle. In the chairs, a blonde woman resting against the wall, hand in hand with a familiar man. That man rested temple-to-temple with a dark-skinned woman who sighed gently. Between them on the floor, hands grasping at their ankles, a giant beast snoring, dressed in skins and hair. Oh, Ronon. Of course. Teyla and Rodney and Melo and Van Arden and Judy the geologist. Every one of them fast asleep.
"They're all okay, more or less," Elizabeth said. "Carson had some nice things to say about your field medic skills, by the way."
But John was still noticing the details: their clean white hospital clothes over heavy bruises and Rodney's shaven face and Judy's right hand in a cast all the way up to the fingertips. Van Arden's hands were hamburger -- all of their hands were. He watched Teyla breathe, that slow rhythm familiar and comforting. Ronon snorted in his sleep and shuddered, grasping tighter at the legs in his grip. Rodney moved his hand out of Van Arden's grasp and settled it against Ronon's cheek, and the disturbance passed. Rodney blinked his eyes open.
There was light over by the wall, shaded so it bounced away rather than right into the patient's eyes. It was nice, subtle light, restful. John could see that Rodney's eyes were tiny rims of blue around vast black circles, adjusted so well to darkness he missed nothing. He looked like a cat or a possum, startled by the sound of humans. John tried to waggle his eyebrows ironically, but he wasn't sure they obeyed him. Rodney just blinked: alert, himself, unmoving.
John really hoped he remembered it soon, because it seemed like it had to be a really exciting story. Later, he was sure, Rodney would tell it to him, ten or twenty times.
"Let the record show," and the drowse was in Rodney's voice, lulling, "that you really do sleep naked."
Sheppard was way too sore to laugh. "Yeah," he whispered, and let himself drift back under.