The corridor was empty, and with the squalling emergency siren covering their noise, they could probably have marched down it with a brass band. But, all too aware of their exposed position, they crept along the wall, sharing nervous glances. At the far end of the corridor Rodney stood on tiptoe and peeked through the single small window set in the door. He ducked back down with a frown.
"No one there. Just a lantern. Maybe they evacuated already." He tried the door, found it unlocked, and pushed it very gently open.
The room inside was empty except for several shelves, one of which held a hissing gas lantern. Several more doors opened from its sides, one of which had a stripe of light underneath. Unlike the other door, it did not have a window; it was heavy and metal, with a keyhole set in a large, solid-looking lockplate. Rodney gave it a very gentle nudge with his hand, and scowled. "Locked."
"What if we --" Jennifer began, but just then the door started to open from the inside.
"Sesame Street!" Rodney yelled at her, and threw a canister through the crack that had opened up between door and frame. For one frozen instant, Jennifer had no idea what on earth he was talking about -- had stress made him snap? -- and then she made the connection and squeezed her eyes shut, ducking back against the wall with her hands pressed over her ears.
Even through closed eyelids, she could see a red flash as the room lit up, and her ears rang from the explosion. She opened her eyes to see Rodney kicking open the door in a fair approximation of Rambo, his face screwed up with rage and intense concentration.
Wow, she thought, he's actually ... kind of cool, and followed him through the door.
The room inside was filled with a haze of smoke and a reek of gunpowder, as well as several people in gray uniforms staggering or writhing with their hands over their eyes. "Against the wall!" Rodney yelled. "Over there! Now! Move!" He loosed a burst from the P90 against the ceiling, sending a shower of plaster chips and dust down onto the chaos below.
"Ow! Rodney, stop it!" Jennifer protested, taking one hand off the P90 to throw it up in front of her face as chips of plaster stung her skin and threatened her eyes. Then, through her fingers, she saw her patient and forgot everything else, running past the soldiers crawling for their guns.
Colonel Sheppard was chained to the wall with his arms outspread, and wearing nothing but a set of loose gray pants; his feet and torso were bare, and marred with ugly welts. One of his shoulders was obviously dislocated. His dark head hung down on his chest, but he raised it when Jennifer began to feel her way quickly over his arms, checking for circulation and broken bones. His face was bruised and swollen. "Oh, hi," he slurred in a cheerful-sounding voice. "Who are you? Can't see a damn thing."
"It's Dr. Keller, Colonel. We're here to get you out." Jennifer tilted his face towards the light. One of his eyes was swollen almost shut from the bruises, but both of them had pupils so dilated that the iris was nothing but a thin green rim. "No wonder you can't see," she said, wincing; with his eyes like that, she only hoped that he hadn't been looking directly towards the flashbang when it exploded. "Colonel, do you know what kind of drug they gave you?"
"Huh? Hey, are you Keller? Oh, wow! Hi!"
"Hi, Colonel," she sighed, palpitating his shoulder very gently and cringing at the awkward angle his chains were holding him. They'd probably done him a favor by drugging him; he still seemed to be feeling at least some amount of pain -- he'd flinched violently when she touched his shoulder -- but just didn't seem to care very much.
"How is he?" Rodney demanded. Looking over her shoulder, Jennifer was amazed to see that he'd managed to get all of the soldiers disarmed and lined up against the wall. "Did I say you could move? I said nobody move!" he barked in a drill-sergeant tone when one of the soldiers tried to take advantage of his moment of distraction by shuffling towards the pile of guns.
"I need to get him down from the wall," Jennifer said. "Does anyone have the keys?" The door gaped wide-open behind Rodney. It was only a matter of time before someone came in and found them; they were racing the clock and she was all too aware of it.
"Keys!" Rodney yelled at his prisoners, punctuating it with a spray of bullets into the wall above them. Jennifer cringed and hoped he didn't shoot anyone by accident. "I am a desperate and terrified man! My hands are shaking! See? Shaking!" This time the P90 jerked upwards and gouged another trench out of the abused ceiling. "I hardly know what I'm doing! Where are the damn keys!"
One of the soldiers grimly tossed a key ring in Rodney's direction. He kicked it towards Keller and she began to sort through the keys with trembling fingers.
Sheppard began to hum a little tune while she unlocked him. "Well, at least you're a happy drunk," she said as his arms came loose and he sagged onto her. His legs wouldn't support him, and suddenly she found herself holding quite a lot of weight; between that, and the pack, she lost her balance and went down onto her butt with a loose, half-naked Sheppard on top of her.
"Ow," he said quietly, in a small voice that almost broke her heart. His face was nestled into her neck and he didn't seem inclined to move. "I think -- I think I might've had an accident."
Jennifer brought her hands up to spread the palms across his cold, bare back, feeling more burns and bruises there. He was shivering. "Yes, Colonel," she said quietly into his hair, "you've had a very bad day, but we're going to -- oh, shit, Rodney, behind you!"
Rodney swung around at her shout and fired off a burst from the P90 by total reflex, raking it across the chest of the Nolari soldier who had appeared in the open doorway. The man dropped his gun and staggered back with a hideous gurgle, collapsing in a heap.
"Oh Jesus," Rodney said, his eyes huge.
One of their prisoners took advantage of the distraction to lunge for the pile of guns. "No! Stop!" Jennifer shouted helplessly, trying to push Sheppard off her chest. Rodney's gun barked out its staccato again -- this time totally missing his intended target (Jennifer could see him shaking even from here) but the enemy soldier froze in his tracks.
Jennifer had finally managed to regain her feet. "We're just going to walk out of here now," she told the prisoners. "Oh, oh! Radios! Throw your radios out the door." She was trembling so hard her teeth were chattering. It had to be amply evident to everyone in the room that their captors were scared out of their wits. But terrified people were desperate people, and no one wanted to push them. One by one, the big walkie-talkie-style radios clattered on the floor. Jennifer kicked the guns after them, into the outer room. Then she knelt and got an arm around Sheppard.
"Colonel, can you walk? Come on, yeah, just like that."
"Oh, look," Sheppard said in a tone of wonder, clinging to her neck with his good arm. "I have feet."
"Yes, yes you do; now please make those feet walk towards the door," Rodney snapped.
The three of them backed out of the room, and Jennifer propped Sheppard against a wall while she hunted for the key to the door. She tried very hard not to look at the crumpled, obviously dead body of the man Rodney had shot, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Rodney give the body a very wide berth as he made his way around it to take Sheppard's weight from her.
"This is where you say 'Nice rescue, Rodney, well done.' "
"I have feet," Sheppard reported cheerfully, leaning his head on Rodney's shoulder. "Two of them. Sometimes even four."
"Good for you," Rodney said, and gave Jennifer a pleading look. Despite their situation, it was all she could do not to laugh.
She found the right key and locked the door, started to turn away when her eyes fell on Sheppard's bare feet. "Oh ... damn."
"Now what?" Rodney's voice emerged as a near-whine.
"We can't take him outside like that. He'll freeze." She glanced back at the door. "I guess we should've made them take their boots off, but -- I didn't even think of it, and I don't want to open it again; we were lucky to get out of there alive."
They both looked at the dead man on the floor. No, Jennifer realized -- dead woman on the floor. Not that it made much difference, she thought -- a soldier was a soldier, and she was a fairly big woman; her boots would be better than nothing.
What's happened to me? she thought, sickened and stunned. I can't believe I'm thinking calmly about robbing the dead. But there wasn't a choice; you did what you had to do. She was starting to understand Teyla a little better now.
Rodney looked pale and sick -- and frozen, staring at the body. Jennifer tried to choke down her own nausea and fear. "Rodney," she said, "you get the boots, and I'll see what I can do for the Colonel in the meantime."
Rodney nodded without speaking and knelt at the dead woman's feet. Jennifer turned her attention to Colonel Sheppard, who was listing at an alarming angle. "Hi, Colonel," she said, catching and steadying him, and guiding him to the floor.
He gave her a lopsided smile. "Hi, Doc. What're you doing here?"
"Helping you." She gently felt his fingers, checked their color. "Colonel, I'm going to try to relocate your arm, but if it doesn't slide back into the socket easily, I'll wait until we're outside and have more leisure time to do this. All right?"
At least the drug, whatever it was, would help provide a bit of a buffer for the pain. If there was already a depressant in his system, she didn't dare give him morphine. "This will probably hurt. Please try to relax and don't fight what I'm doing, if you can."
One small favor today -- it slid back into place with less resistance than she'd expected. Previously dislocated? Not too unlikely, considering his active life -- she made a note to check when they got back to Atlantis. Aside from a small intake of breath, he didn't make any sound, just went rigid and then leaned against her.
Rodney knelt beside them. "Boots. Here. The coat's, uh, the coat's a loss." He glanced over his shoulder, and Jennifer did likewise -- swallowing hard, she could see what he meant; the soldier's heavy gray overcoat had been chewed up by the bullets and was sodden with blood. Still, she didn't expect what Rodney did next: he shrugged off his tac vest, stripped out of his jacket and handed it to her.
She forced Sheppard's feet into the ill-fitting boots while Rodney guarded the doorway, bare-armed and jittering with nervousness. "Are you done yet? Hurry up! I can't believe no one's come to check on the prisoner. At least the walls seem to be thick."
"Maybe they think he's safe, with half a dozen soldiers in the room." Jennifer couldn't help laughing as she helped Sheppard lean forward, gently working his arms into the sleeves of Rodney's jacket, still warm from Rodney's body heat. "We did it, you know that? I can't believe we did it!"
"We haven't 'done it' yet," Rodney snapped. "We're behind enemy lines, surrounded by soldiers -- are you finished yet?"
"Keep your pants on." Still riding high on a wave of elation and adrenaline, she helped Sheppard to his feet with an arm around his waist. "How are you doing, Colonel?"
"Mmm, dunno." He leaned on her heavily; she staggered under his weight. "Don't feel too good, really," he confided into her hair.
She patted him on the hip. "It's all right, Colonel; we'll have you home soon."
"Not if we don't move," Rodney said darkly.
After the warm, flickering light of the lantern, the hallways seemed all the more oppressively dark. They felt their way forward into darkness, Rodney in the lead, using the flashlight only to check their map. The Nolari soldiers, carrying lanterns, were abundantly obvious and easy to avoid. It was difficult and disorienting to navigate in the darkness, however, and by the time they emerged into the storm, Jennifer had no idea which side of the compound they were on. From Rodney's hunted, skittish-woodland-creature look, she suspected he didn't know either.
Peering through the buildings, she caught sight of the wire fence through a thick curtain of blowing snow -- probably not the same part of it they'd cut through before, but any fence would do at this point. All she wanted was to get out of the compound; even the woods looked like a safe haven right now. She wasn't even sure if Sheppard was completely conscious; he was loose and floppy against her, with most of his weight bearing down on her shoulder.
"Thank God," Rodney said fervently, shivering as the wind brushed across his bare arms. "Another few minutes and we're home fr--"
He was moving as he spoke, which was why the bullet hit him in the side rather than dead center. Blood sprayed across the snow. The look on his face was almost comically startled as his knees buckled.
And Jennifer was moving, with reflexes she didn't even know she had, pushing Sheppard to the side and bringing up the P90. Squeeze the trigger, she told herself, and it bucked in her hands, impossible to aim or control, a spray of bullets raking across the side of the building and across -- through -- the soldier who had shot Rodney. No, not just one, two soldiers -- both falling, thrashing, blood geysering into the snow.
I shot someone, she thought in disbelief. Two someones. Her mind was a gray haze; her first thought was to go help them, and she was already taking a step in that direction when Sheppard slipped completely off her shoulder, faceplanting in the snow. As she turned towards him, Rodney moaned, and the haze around her blew away like fog on the wind -- she could see clearly now, could remember her responsibilities.
I shot a man, oh god --
-- not now, Jen, people need you --
Rodney was struggling to get up, his hands pressed to his abdomen where blood was rapidly saturating his T-shirt and vest. "Don't move!" Jennifer shouted at him, and he froze, on his knees with his arms wrapped around his body.
She didn't know where to turn first, looking from Sheppard to Rodney and then, beyond, to the two soldiers in the snow -- one of whom was thrashing feebly, so maybe she hadn't killed both of them.
Those gunshots will have every soldier in this place converging on us. We have to run. There's no time for -- for anything.
Letting Rodney walk around with an injury like that was insane, especially without doing anything to bind it (punctured intestine! her mind shrieked at her; hemorrhaging spleen!) but there was no time. "Rodney, can you walk?" she gasped, struggling with Sheppard's deadweight.
"I'm shot!" His voice was breathy and high with pain.
"I know! I'm sorry! We have to run! Get up, Rodney, please!"
"You told me not to move!" But he was climbing to his feet, leaning on the wall. Jennifer fought down her panic (Spleen! hemorrhaging!) and managed to get Sheppard back on his feet again.
She couldn't believe they actually made it to the fence, but they did -- Jennifer half-carrying and half-dragging Sheppard, Rodney staggering behind. The wind was whipping up into a true blizzard, which would be good in a way -- much harder for their pursuers to find them. But Rodney's lips were blue, and Jennifer could feel the wind cutting straight through her inadequate jacket.
And she'd forgotten that she still had to get over, through or around the fence. "Oh god, no," she moaned, leaning her forehead against the wire. "Rodney, do you have a knife?"
"Pocket knife," he panted.
Ronon had made it look so easy. Wait -- Ronon -- Jennifer reached for her ear. Radio silence be damned. If this didn't count as an emergency, she couldn't imagine what would. "Major Lorne! It's Dr. Keller!"
All she got was bursts of static, and then Lorne saying something about staying off the radio.
"Major, I know, but we've got Colonel Sheppard. I repeat, we've retrieved the, uh, target. Can you hear me?"
Something something puddlejumper.
"We're trying to get back to the jumper! Major?" She heard more static and then, through the radio as well as faintly from somewhere in the compound, a clatter of P90 fire.
Great. Looked like they were on their own. She only hoped everyone else was all right. Somewhere not too far away, she heard shouting voices and knew that pretty soon she and her patients wouldn't be.
"Screw this," she muttered, and lowered Sheppard into the snow. Stepping back from the fence, she unleashed a burst of P90 fire against it. Sparks flew wildly. She swept the gun back and forth, and was gratified to see the fence peeling apart.
The deafening stutter of the assault rifle gave way to a series of impotent clicks. Jennifer let the gun fall, warm against her chest, and ran to the fence, kicking at the damaged section. It had peeled away at the top and one side. It would have to be good enough.
"Rodney, go, go! Help me with the Colonel!" Drawn by the gunfire, the Nolari would be on them in moments.
Jennifer had no idea who was supporting whom, but leaning on each other, the three of them struggled through the gap in the fence. She felt jagged ends of wire tear at her skin and clothes, gouging bleeding trails, and then they were through, with nothing between them and the blessed freedom of the forest but an expanse of empty snow. The wind was whipping so hard that she couldn't even see the trees, but she did the best she could, steering the three of them in an away-from-fence direction.
People were yelling behind them. A gun went off, but no one stumbled and she didn't know if it had been aimed at them or not, so she just kept running, dragging the other two with her.
In the relative shelter of the trees, they fell apart, collapsing in the snow. The wind wasn't so brutal here, but it was still achingly cold. Jennifer lay on her back in the snow, shaking from cold and reaction, and squinted her eyes against the blizzard as she stared up into the branches of the trees. She just wanted to lay here for a minute -- but she realized now that they weren't much safer in the woods than in the compound. They had to keep moving. Find the jumper. Hope that Lorne and Ronon and the rest of the Marines had gotten enough of her message to rendezvous there.
She was so tired. So cold.
Which was exactly why she shouldn't be lying here in the snow. Jennifer sat up. Rodney, she saw, had crumpled against a tree, and he was shivering violently, goosebumps standing out on his bare arms. Nothing like a little hypothermia combined with shock, Jennifer thought, and before she could really let herself think about what she was doing, she slid out of her pack straps and her vest so that she could take off her jacket. "Rodney," she said, "here," and wrapped it around his shoulders; it was far too small for him to wear, but at least it would help slow down the hypothermia that threatened them all.
With shaking fingers she opened her medical pack and bound Rodney's side as quickly as she could. She didn't dare stay here for long, but she intended to get both of her patients back to the jumper alive, and this meant that she wasn't about to allow one of them to bleed to death.
"Am I d-dying?" Rodney managed to say through chattering teeth.
"No, of course not," she retorted with more confidence than she felt. She used handfuls of snow to scrub away enough blood from his skin that she could find the entry and exit wounds under his sodden shirt; the bullet had gone through, at least. There was no way to determine the extent of the internal damage until she could get him under a scanner, no point in beating herself up in the attempt. Disinfecting the wound properly would have to wait until they were back at the jumper; she splashed iodine over his stomach and bound it as tightly as she could.
"Sh-Sheppard," Rodney said, trying to sit up. "Where's Sheppard?"
"Oh," Jennifer whispered, and floundered through the snow to the still, slumped figure. She slipped her arm under his shoulders. "Colonel?"
He blinked at her, and mumbled, "Hi, Doc. What are you doing here?"
"Wondering how long whatever they gave you will take to metabolize," she sighed. "Can you get up, Colonel?"
With her assistance, he regained his feet, swaying and leaning on her. "I think I'd rather sit down, really," he said softly, slumping against her. "I'm not feeling so good."
"I'm sorry, Colonel, but we can't. You'll be able to sit down soon." The cold was appalling without her jacket; the skin of her arms burned, and she tried desperately not to calculate frostbite rates. Then her head snapped up, as voices carried to her through the snow -- unfamiliar voices. Time to go. "Rodney? Rodney, can you stand?"
"I ... I don't know." His voice was soft and weak; he tried to rise, and slumped back to the snow.
"Oh, crap," she whispered. "Oh, crap." She cast a quick, helpless look at Sheppard, his long body slumped in a bow so that his dark head rested against her shoulder. Towing him along, she stumbled through the snow to Rodney's side. With her free hand she tugged at his arm. "Rodney, we have to go."
"Can't," he mumbled, thrashing and sinking back down. "Can't -- Jennifer, I can't!" he snapped, with a faint flare of his characteristic irritation, as she kept tugging on his arm. "Just -- just go, take Sheppard, get him back to the jumper, you can come back for me --"
"You're a coward," she cried, hoarse with desperation, because she couldn't carry two of them, and they had to move, had to get out of there, one step ahead of the Nolari. Back in the sinkhole, days ago, she'd goaded him, and it had worked; gentle words got you nowhere with Rodney McKay, and she didn't care if he hated her as long as he got up. "What are you going to do, lay there and die? Bleed out in the snow? Is that what you want me to send back in a report to your sister?"
He blinked, staring at the ground, his lashes silvered with frost. "That's not fair, bringing Jeannie into this. Playing dirty." He groped at the pseudo-conifer behind him, bloody fingers skating over the rough bark.
"I killed a man for you!" Anger rose in her throat like bile. "You haven't got the right to lay down and die now. Get up!"
Using the tree, and what support she was able to give him, he staggered to his feet. "Whoa," he mumbled, "headrush ..." and clung to the tree, leaning his forehead against it.
Jennifer staggered closer, until she could lean her shoulder against his. "Rodney, come on." Her teeth were chattering so hard she could barely talk.
His eyes were closed, his chest heaving as he breathed. "Seriously, I don't think -- I can't -- I'm going to fall, take one step and fall down. Too dizzy. Just go, come back for me."
What did she have in the medical pack that might help? Painkillers would just make things worse; the last thing he needed right now was a depressant. She didn't have time to hunt through it for a stimulant --
"Just go," Rodney said, his voice cracking desperately.
And then Sheppard moved. Jennifer hadn't realized that he was cognizant of his surroundings at all, but he reached across her and seized a handful of Rodney's jacket. Well, technically Jennifer's jacket, wrapped around Rodney's shoulders -- but that was all he did, just seized it in a fist and hung on.
"Not without you," Jennifer said, speaking, she assumed, for both of them.
Afterwards, she never remembered how long they stumbled through the snow. At some point, she lost the P90 -- just unclipped it and put it down, because she had to lighten her load any way she could. She couldn't feel her feet or arms or ears. Sheppard seemed to rally a little along the way, helping her almost as much as she was helping him, but Rodney relaxed into deadweight against her side. Only momentum kept him going, staggering along, one foot in front of the other.
It took a while to find the jumper, but she managed to locate the Yoda tree and then struck back into the woods. The jumper turned out to be unexpectedly visible -- a weird, eldritch shape in the woods, with the piled snow from the storm describing an empty space beneath. She wondered, dully, what the Nolari would think if they saw that.
Thinking. It was getting very hard to think. They had to get inside, get warm.
"Rodney," she said, jostling his arm -- or tried to say; her tongue was thick in her mouth. "Rodney. The remote. We need it."
He didn't seem to understand her. She had to lean Sheppard against the side of the jumper and fumble through Rodney's pockets herself until she found it. No gene activation seemed to be necessary, and she had never seen a sweeter sight than the interior of the jumper, blessedly warm and bright. She staggered and fell on the ramp, dragging the two men down with her, and pushed the button to raise the ramp without bothering to get up. They all tumbled forward, dumped into a wet, snowy heap on the floor.
"Thank God, thank God," she sobbed into the jumper's floor mat, and then, aloud, to remind herself, "Warm, warm, got to get warm. Got to get everyone warm."
She pushed herself upright on shaking limbs and staggered to the front of the jumper, then stopped and stared at the dark controls. "Oh, crap crap crap." No ATA gene. No pilot. She looked behind her at the miserable crumpled pile of her companions. No help from that quarter anytime soon.
Don't get killed, she thought frantically at Major Lorne, because if you do, we are so screwed.
She tapped her radio again, but received only static.
Taking a deep breath, she made her way to the back of the jumper by hanging onto things. Her legs were starting to work a little better, and so was her brain -- she suddenly realized that she was still wearing the heavy medical pack, which felt like it had grown into her shoulders, and gratefully shrugged it off. Be glad for that pack, Jennifer. It helped insulate you. Probably saved your life.
At the start of this eternal mission from hell, someone had mentioned Arctic survival gear stowed in the back of the jumper -- Had it been O'Hara, poor O'Hara, who'd said that? Unbuckling cargo straps, she dragged down a pile of big, fluffy parkas and sleeping bags, wrapping them around her two semi-conscious charges. Neither one of them seemed to be badly hypothermic, as far as she could tell. But Rodney was white and trembling and definitely going into shock, and Sheppard was still out of it, unconscious, slumped against one of the benches. Jennifer wondered if the Nolari had misjudged the dosage of their drug for his physiology. Her staff had discovered on several occasions that Earth and Pegasus people reacted differently to several of the common drugs from both galaxies.
The work, and a parka snugged around her shoulders, helped warm her up a little. Her hands were still a bit clumsy, but if she slowed down and concentrated, she could do her job. She got a saline IV and some painkillers into Rodney, and spread him out on the floor in a nest of parkas and sleeping bags so that she could examine and clean the gunshot wound. A little palpitation didn't show any obvious signs of internal bleeding, but she didn't like his color and wished she could get him under a proper scanner. The portable Ancient medical scanner wasn't much help; without an ATA gene, she could use it for basic vital signs but couldn't access most of its advanced functions.
Sheppard woke up while she was in the middle of this process, rolled over and threw up on the floor. "Sorry, sorry," he mumbled, flailing helplessly with a near-total lack of coordination.
"It's all right, Colonel; please just sit still. I'll be there in a minute." Jennifer tightened Rodney's bandages, checked the IV and flipped one of the parkas over him. The rehydration seemed to be helping a little with his terrible gray pallor, but he was still unconscious, and she didn't like it. Gently she ran a hand over his face, checking skin temperature -- and maybe indulging herself just a tiny bit. There was something very sweet and vulnerable about a sleeping Rodney. Probably because his mouth was shut, Jennifer thought.
"What happened to him?" Sheppard asked in a weak, rasping voice, propping himself up on his good arm.
"He was shot. I think he'll be all right," Jennifer said with an optimism she didn't quite feel. Picking up her medical kit, she stepped over Rodney and limped to Sheppard. Every part of her body hurt, including all the parts that had just stopped hurting from their adventure on the sinkhole planet. The cold-traumatized skin on her arms had taken forever to regain sensation, and now it burned and stung and was beginning to blister as the damaged dermis separated in layers. Just what I need, she thought wearily. She threw a towel over the mess on the floor and handed Sheppard a wetwipe to clean his face while she laid out her tools and a clean pair of gloves. "How are you feeling, Colonel?"
"Sick. Dizzy. Weird." He lay back and blinked up at her as she started an IV. "I, uh, don't really remember how I got here. We're in a jumper, right?"
"That's right. We're waiting for Major Lorne and Ronon." Jennifer dabbed at his cuts and burns with disinfectant, trying to divorce her mind from the all-too-acute awareness that these injuries had been caused by deliberate human action. They were superficial and would heal cleanly; she focused on that. "Do you know what kind of drug they gave you, Colonel?"
He shook his head, and swallowed hard at the resulting dizziness. His eyes kept sliding closed; he had to fight to keep them open. "No idea. Guess they got tired of trying to persuade me the old-fashioned way."
Torture. Jennifer tried not to think about it; she rummaged through her supplies instead. "Well, see if you can keep some Tylenol down. I have heavier painkillers, but I'd like to get more of whatever they gave you cleared out of your system before I give you anything else."
After giving him the pills and a paper cup of water, with admonishments to sip slowly, she sat back against the bench seat with her leg resting against Rodney's side. She carefully wrapped her own frostbitten arms in loose rounds of gauze and knocked back a few painkillers herself. Sheppard appeared to have slipped back into unconsciousness or maybe just ordinary sleep, his hand curled loosely around the empty paper cup. His breathing was slow and even. She tucked the sleeping bag more tightly around him and slid over to check on her other patient.
"Oh, hello," she said when blue eyes blinked sleepily at her. "Back with me, McKay?"
"Gah," he said intelligently, and blinked at the roof of the jumper while she checked his bandages. The bleeding seemed to have slowed considerably; she still needed to get him into surgery, but it didn't look like he was going to drop dead in the immediate future. "I'm, um, alive?"
She tried not to laugh at him; his voice was small and vulnerable, and made her heart do an odd little loop-de-loop. "Yeah, Rodney. You are. How do you feel?"
"Doesn't hurt a bit," he said, soft and surprised.
Her heart did that little loopy thing again. "That's because I've given you some fairly heavy-duty painkillers," she said, and thought at herself sternly, Okay, this is ridiculous. This is Rodney McKay here, Jennifer. The scourge of the science division, remember? He's not some kind of -- little wounded bird, for crying out loud --
"Sheppard," he said suddenly, and lurched in an apparent attempt to sit up, which, since he was bound from neck to toes in sleeping bags and parkas, only resulted in slumping back down with a sad little, "Ow."
"He's all right, Rodney. See? Right next to you." She tilted him gently so that he could see Sheppard, asleep in a nest of fluffy parkas.
"He looks pale," Rodney said anxiously. "What am I saying, of course he's pale; he's been tortured and drugged. Which makes this not altogether different from one of our standard missions. Oh God, I'm babbling. Am I babbling?"
This time she wasn't quite as successful at controlling her laugh. Jennifer decided she could blame it on exhaustion. "Not in an annoying way," she started to say, when a sudden pounding on the side of the jumper made her jerk upright.
"Ronon?" Rodney mumbled, thrashing weakly in his cocoon of blankets.
Jennifer tapped her radio. "Major Lorne? Ronon?" Only static answered her. Clambering painfully to her feet by clutching at the jumper seats, she made her way to the cockpit and halted with a dismayed gasp.
"That's not a good noise," Rodney's voice came from the back of the jumper.
"It's the Nolari. They've found us." Trying not to panic, she watched the Nolari soldiers on the screen, groping their way around the outside of the jumper and tapping it with the butts of their guns as they tried to guess at its size. These people had been living in and around an Ancient outpost for most of their history, she reminded herself. Coming upon the outline of an invisible ship frosted with snow wasn't likely to make them flee in terror.
She wasn't sure if anyone outside could hear inside the jumper, but dropped her voice anyway. "Can this thing deflect a oh!" She broke off as a hellishly loud rattling sound, like flung rocks, clattered across the skin of the jumper. Gunfire.
"No," Rodney said. His slurred speech had sharpened and he was trying to struggle upright, wincing. "Oh, the hull can take quite a bit of gunfire, that's not a problem, but if they damage a drive pod, we're totally screwed. Ow, ow!"
"Don't get up! You shouldn't be moving around." Jennifer stared helplessly at the jumper's dark controls. "Okay, on second thought ..." Against her better medical judgment, she hurried to the back of the jumper -- stepping carefully over Sheppard, who was huddled in a ball -- and picked up the bag of saline hooked to Rodney's IV.
"Please tell me you're not planning on flying in your condition," she begged, sliding her shoulder under his and helping him limp slowly to the front. The rattle of gunfire continued, trailing around the side of the little ship. She had to struggle with a constant, instinctive urge to duck.
"What, in this weather? Do I look like Sheppard? Who can wake up anytime, by the way." But Rodney made no move to rouse the Colonel. Instead he let her ease him into the pilot's seat and ran his hands across the controls. Gauges and readouts lit up under his touch.
"Oh," Jennifer said, and her jaw dropped as a Nolari soldier leveled his gun at the jumper's forward viewing port -- straight at them.
"It can take it," Rodney said, but he flinched as violently as Jennifer when the shots spangled the window only a few feet in front of them. "Okay, this is ridiculous. I think it's time to show them who they're messing with, don't you?"
There was a soft whine from the jumper's engines. Jennifer couldn't tell what he was doing, but the Nolari backed away from the suddenly humming jumper. Without warning, a golden streak arced over their heads and exploded somewhere in the woods, lighting up the trees in a brilliant flash. Jennifer realized that she'd fallen into a crouch with her hands over her head, and straightened up slowly. The Nolari were falling over themselves in their haste to flee.
"What was that?"
"I fired a drone." Rodney looked pleased with himself, but it didn't last. "And I'm sure they'll be back with the local equivalent of C4 in no time. Where are Lorne and Ronon?"
"I don't know." Jennifer took a seat in the co-pilot chair, and looked at the displays she couldn't read. "All I can get on the radio is static. Too much interference from the storm, I guess."
Rodney smacked himself in the forehead with his palm, and then winced, curling a hand around his side. "Ow. Okay, your painkillers must be screwing with my genius brain, because that might have been a problem out in the storm, but we have a very sophisticated filtering and augmentation system right here. Basically, we use the jumper to boost the radio signal." He began to type on the jumper's crystalline keypad, looking a little less crumpled and gray with something constructive to do.
Jennifer looked out at the trees. The Nolari appeared to have vanished, for the moment, and there was nothing she could do up here to help, so she went in the back to check on Sheppard. Respiration shallow and even, pulse fluttery and weak, shivering -- she tucked the parkas more firmly around him and wished for a nice well-stocked infirmary.
"Lorne," Rodney said loudly. "Major Lorne. Ronon. Anybody?"
Lorne's voice came back, immediate and clear. Jennifer could hear intermittent bursts of gunfire in the background. "McKay. I'm guessing that explosion just now was you?"
"Drone," Rodney said. "The jum -- uh, the you-know-what's been found by the enemy, and we could really, really use you guys back here, seeing how nobody in this ju -- this machine is in any shape to fly it."
"The Colonel?" Lorne's voice was sharp.
"He's alive, but let's just say everyone in here could use a trip to the infirmary. Where are you people?"
"We're slightly tied up right now, Doc," Lorne drawled. "When you fired off the drone, it gave us a bit of a reprieve. A distraction would be really nice."
"Distraction, distraction," Rodney muttered. "Okay, get ready, or whatever the correct military terminology is."
A moment later, the sky lit up. Crouched with Sheppard in the back, Jennifer stared in awe, wishing that she had a better view without all of the seats in the way. Light from the exploding drones reflected from the clouds, the falling snowflakes, the snow-draped trees -- it was a gorgeous, apocalyptic effect.
"Nice one, McKay," Ronon's voice growled over the radio. So he was all right, too. Jennifer felt a little something inside her relax, and she saw Rodney's rigid shoulders slump just a bit before he reached for the radio control again.
"Get your ass back here then, wookie."
"Watch it, McKay." From the sound of Ronon's voice, Jennifer could tell that he was running. "I've seen those movies now. Sheppard can get away with that, but you're not Sheppard." The words were harsh; the tone was light.
"I consider that a selling point," Rodney retorted.
Lorne's voice cut across theirs. "Radio silence, people!"
Jennifer gave Sheppard's shoulder a little comforting rub, though he wasn't awake to notice, and came up to the cockpit to make sure that her other patient hadn't faceplanted on the controls. He was still upright, but barely, from the look of things. In the reflected light of the jumper's displays, his face was white, and smudged with blue shadows under the eyes. He'd curled an arm around his side again.
"You should lay down," Jennifer said gently.
Rodney shook his head stubbornly. "Our trigger-happy little friends might come back. Looks like the last drone volley scared most of them away, but a few are still hanging around in the trees. Oh, look at that." One of the displays came up, enlarging itself on the screen. Rodney raised a finger to point at it, and Jennifer tried not to notice how much it was shaking. "Six life signs, moving fast. Lorne and Ronon and their teams. Looks like everyone's alive."
The only person who'd died was O'Hara -- and the Nolari that she and Rodney had killed, but Jennifer was very steadfastly not thinking about that, and she suspected Rodney of doing likewise. She glanced at him -- his profile bottom-lit from the glowing controls, trembling slightly with the effort of staying upright.
When they got back -- and when she'd tapered off his pain medication so that she'd be able to clear him for alcohol in good conscience -- there would have to be more beers in their future. Maybe a whole drunken little self-pity-fest. Jennifer realized that she was looking forward to it; well, not the drunken self-pity exactly, but the whole idea of spending more time with Rodney. She was staring at him again, she realized -- not really looking at him, but just gazing in an exhausted reverie. Eventually, he noticed that he was being watched, and looked a bit shyly in her direction.
"Are you ..." he began, and fumbled around a little. "Are you okay? This is all, um, I mean, we just got done with the whole cave-in thing."
"I'm okay," Jennifer said, which was a total lie, because she was exhausted and aching and shivering and still trying very, very hard not to think about bullets slamming into a human body, the way it had tumbled like a rag doll ... But if Rodney McKay wasn't complaining about being shot, she couldn't exactly whine about some sore muscles.
Rodney blinked at her. "I'm glad. I'm -- that's good. Really."
She was leaning on the console, leaning forward out of her chair, so close to Rodney that she could trace the lines of exhaustion and pain in his face. So very close. He was still staring at her as if he'd never seen her before, eyes wide and blue.
Jennifer's hand slid forward across the console -- stupid willful hand! -- and curled around Rodney's cold, trembling fingers. His nails were crusted with dried blood -- his blood. "You did really good," she said, fumbling her way over and around each word. "I mean, really good. You were amazing."
She could have cringed. Did that sound as stupid to him as it did to her? But he'd lit up from the inside, a little bit of energy seeping into his crumpled form and perking him up. "Yeah," he said, wonderingly, "I was kind of amazing, wasn't I?"
And he flashed her a grin, a bright grin so very different from his smug little smiles that it took her breath away. She'd never seen him smile like that before, especially not at her. It was sincere and brilliant and -- and beautiful, Jennifer thought.
Rodney's hand moved in hers, one thumb lightly and gently tracing the contours of her knuckles, as if it was a new piece of technology that he was exploring. Jennifer realized that she was holding her breath.
A loud thump from the back of the jumper jolted them both. Rodney's hand slipped quickly away from hers, as Jennifer recoiled guiltily. Rodney looked up at the displays -- "That's them," he muttered, and hit a control on the dashboard.
Jennifer tucked her hands in her lap. What just happened? she asked herself. Her hand still tingled where he'd touched it. She looked at the side of Rodney's face, but he was focused on the controls again.
The ramp came down with a muffled thump. Jennifer shivered as cold air flowed through the jumper. She twisted around to see the rest of the Marines (and one extremely tall Satedan) troop up the ramp, shaking snow off their hair and stamping their boots.
Lorne spared a glance for his CO and stepped across him very carefully before coming up to relieve Rodney at the controls. "Let's blow this popsicle stand, eh Doc?"
"Very glad to," Rodney muttered, slumping into Lorne and Jennifer as they manhandled him out of the seat. Lorne handed him off to Jennifer and then sat down in the seat he'd just vacated.
"Now you'll lay down?" Jennifer asked as she led him into the back of the jumper. He didn't answer; his body was big and warm and heavy, slumped against her. Jennifer picked her way through the cluster of snowy men and women to find a place for him. Ronon, she was not surprised to see, had settled down next to Sheppard, one big hand spread out across Sheppard's chest as if Ronon just wanted to feel him breathing. Jennifer let Rodney slide down on Ronon's other side.
"I see you're alive," Rodney said, oozing down against Ronon's arm in a puddle, and closing his eyes.
"You too," Ronon said, and reached up with his free hand, the one not anchoring Sheppard, to ruffle Rodney's hair.
"Stop that," Rodney said without opening his eyes.
Jennifer forced herself to stop grinning at them, and wrenched her attention away from Rodney. "Who needs my professional attention first?" she asked, sweeping her eyes across the cluster of Marines. Several of them were bruised and bloodied.
The jumper rocked underfoot. "I suggest you all sit down back there, boys and girls," Lorne said over his shoulder. "This might get rough. Is their intruder-detection system still offline, Doc?"
"He's asleep," Ronon said, looking down at Rodney, who was drooling on his arm.
"And don't you dare wake him up," Jennifer said tartly, cutting away Airman Kleinberg's bloody sleeve. She wracked her fatigue-numb brain, trying to remember what Rodney had said while he'd been working on the Nolari computer terminal; it seemed as if they'd been on the planet for days, not hours. "He took the whole system offline. He said that he thought it would take them weeks to get it up and running again."
"Guess we better hope he's right," Lorne said. The jumper shuddered, and Jennifer realized they were in the air. She concentrated on cleaning Airman Kleinberg's bullet wound, and barely flinched when the icy chill of the wormhole washed across them.
"You guys weren't exactly the cavalry I was expecting," Sheppard said in a sleepy voice.
Jennifer looked over at him. She was curled up under a warm blanket, pleasantly muzzy with a light dose of codeine to take the edge off her aching muscles and the burn of the healing frostbite. Just a little less than twenty hours ago, they'd come back through the gate to a bright Atlantis morning. She had desperately wanted to assist with Rodney's surgery, but Dr. Cole managed to convince her otherwise, pointing out her shaking hands, mild hypothermia and general exhaustion. She'd taken herself off duty, had a hot bath and then returned to the infirmary and sacked out on a bed for eighteen hours straight. She vaguely remembered waking up briefly to eat, while her staff quietly and efficiently went about their business around her, and then falling asleep again.
Right now, Rodney was fast asleep -- apparently he'd been awake intermittently, while she still slept, but, unfairly, had drifted back under again, now that she was awake. Teyla and Ronon had been in and out of the infirmary all night; at the moment, Ronon was snoring on a bed on the far side of Rodney, and Teyla was nowhere to be seen. It must be shortly before dawn Atlantis-time, but Jennifer's internal clock was thoroughly muddled. She had to keep glancing at the clock on the wall to remind herself of the time.
"Sorry to disappoint you," she said, curling a fist under her cheek to prop her head up.
"Not disappointed." Sheppard sounded a bit surprised. "Just ... like I said, not expecting you. Thought I was hallucinating when the two of you came through the door."
"You probably were hallucinating," Jennifer said dryly. "We're still trying to analyze that chemical--"
She saw a shudder run through him, and clapped her mouth shut, thinking, Great, Jen, stick your foot in it again. Way to remind the guy who just got tortured of his ordeal.
But Sheppard gave her a small, twisted grin. "It was a good surprise," he said. "Thanks for coming to get me."
Cautiously, Jennifer returned the smile. "It was sort of an accident, me and Rodney rescuing you by ourselves like that. The whole point was to go in with a team of heavily armed Marines at our back. It just ... didn't quite work out that way."
"Lorne's apologized to me about twelve times for letting the two of you go off on your own."
Jennifer frowned. "It wasn't his fault. I hope you told him that."
"I did. And it wasn't. He made the best call that he could, under the circumstances." Sheppard lifted his good shoulder in a small shrug.
"Good," Jennifer said. "And, uh, the guy who was guarding us, O'Hara --" She swallowed hard. "We weren't able to, um, his body was --"
Sheppard's eyes went distant, dark. "You had to leave him there. I know. Not your fault. It happens."
It happens. For some reason, those words chilled her. It happens. We're in the Pegasus Galaxy. People die here.
Rodney and I could have died.
Colonel Sheppard could have died.
But we didn't, she thought, snuggling down under her warm blanket. We didn't.
Rodney and I ...
Sheppard was still watching her, sleepily, his eyes half-lidded. "Are you all right, Colonel?" she asked him. "I mean -- painkillers, a drink of water, do you need anything?"
The words she wanted to say wouldn't come. Jennifer sat up, wincing as her muscles protested, and peeled open her warm nest of blankets to the outside world. In bare feet and pajamas, she padded around to Sheppard's other side. He turned his head to follow her.
"Hey, Doc. I said I'm good. You don't have to get up."
"I know," she said.
Rodney slept with a childlike abandon, pressed into his pillows, mouth open and drooling. Jennifer checked his monitors and IVs, and then the Colonel's. On Rodney's far side, Ronon cracked open an eye, smiled at her, and went back to sleep.
You all protect each other against the outside world, she wanted to say. If I risked the heart of one of your own, would you consider me one of you, or an enemy to be subdued? Their closeness scared her, the unrelenting intensity of the bond that she had witnessed during nearly a year as Atlantis's head of medicine. She was afraid that it wouldn't open up to admit her ... and equally afraid that it would.
It was like being a teenager again, admiring a boy from afar but needing her father's permission to approach him. Only here, it was Sheppard's permission that she wanted to ask -- Sheppard's permission, Ronon's forgiveness, Teyla's indulgence. And she didn't know how.
She brushed Rodney's thinning hair lightly back from his high forehead. She wanted to touch his lips, slack in sleep, but didn't have the right to do that yet. And I don't even know if he's interested too. But he'd stroked her hand in the jumper. She could still feel the ball of his thumb, slightly callused, caressing the back of her hand with infinite gentleness.
I don't know if you want to try, and I don't know if your strange and loyal family will let me in, but I think we should try it, Rodney. I want to try.
Sheppard was still watching her. She could read nothing in his hooded eyes. "Well," she said, a little too brightly, "I ought to get back to my quarters, get some clothes on -- I can't sleep the day away --"
Sheppard stirred a little on his bed, shifting so that his eyes slid away from her. "You should stay for breakfast, at least."
"Breakfast?" Her stomach rumbled.
"Yeah. Teyla went to -- oh, there she is."
Teyla wobbled into the infirmary, off-balance anyway with pregnancy altering her center of gravity, and now she was exacerbating the problem by trying to balance two heaping trays from the mess.
"Teyla!" Jennifer ran to help her. "You carried those all the way back by yourself? Didn't anyone offer to help you?"
Teyla smiled, showing a bit of tooth. "They offered." But she let Jennifer take one of the loaded trays with an obvious look of relief. The smell of eggs, bacon and fresh muffins wafted through the infirmary, and Ronon's head popped off his pillow like a wind-up toy.
Jennifer settled the tray on the bedside table between Sheppard and Rodney's beds, and looked down at Sheppard with a small frown. "So ... I can stick around for breakfast? It's okay?"
"It's okay," he confirmed, and maybe, just maybe, from the little smile lines crinkling around the corners of his eyes -- maybe he knew what she was really asking.
The most overprotective, doting father had nothing on Sheppard's team. Jennifer wasn't sure just what, exactly, she might be getting herself into, but life in the Pegasus Galaxy was all about taking risks. She'd slowly begun coming to terms with that, and why stop now? Sitting down on the edge of Rodney's bed, she poked him gently, teasingly, in the arm. "Wake up, sleepyhead. Come and get it," she said, and when his eyes opened, she smiled at him.