NIGHT HIGHWAY (or Why Rodney Never Went to Niagara Falls)
Disclaimer: Stargate: Atlantis and its characters are the property of Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story was created for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author(s), not me. Thank you to the amazing writers, producers, actors, crew and directors who bring these shows to life.
Characters: McKay, Team, McKay's family
Rating/Genre: Gen/T – pretty much pure McKay h/c
Status/Parts: Complete in Six Chapters
A/N: I've written a flashback story, of sorts, which makes this potentially AU. I'm hoping you forgive me. Blame the long drive home I had the other night.
Description: The Jumper is stranded several light years away from the nearest Stargate. The Team knows the Apollo will find them before they run out of power, but there's a problem. Rodney's sick—very, very sick—and he's running out of time
CHAPTER ONE: THE ENDLESS NIGHT
"This is the last of it."
Rodney closed his eyes, waiting for a moment, before turning to look up at the man standing next to his chair. His neck protested the motion when it pulled at the cut, and he lessened the angle. John was leaning against the DHD console in the Puddle Jumper, his right hand outstretched. Three white pills rested on the palm.
"This is the last of the Tylenol," John said, as if Rodney needed clarification of the man's first statement. The scientist sighed softly, and uncurled his arm from the blanket cocooning him. Hand trembling slightly, he plucked the three pills up and placed them on his tongue. John then handed him a bottled water to drink them down.
Rodney grimaced at the way the pills dragged at his swollen throat, as if cutting open his neck from the inside. The water helped a little, but not much. When he handed the water bottle back, John capped it then placed it on the co-pilot's console in front of Rodney.
"For later," he said. "In case you need it."
Rodney just gave a small nod, and looked out the front.
"Auto-pilot is still working fine," John told him. "In case you're wondering. In fact, I'm getting kinda bored." John smiled and leaned forward so he could see more of Rodney's face. "I was wondering if, now that you're awake—you might want to help me teach Teyla and Ronon how to play bridge." He shrugged, "They already know all the other great card games—poker, hearts, gin, war, rummy, whist," he paused, "canasta..."
Rodney's eyebrows lifted instantly, and he turned an incredulous look at Sheppard. "Canasta?" he whispered. "You know how to play canasta?"
"I had grandparents," John shrugged. "And no siblings to distract them growing up."
Rodney quirked a smile, but it didn't last. He was just too tired. Looking away from John, he looked outside once more, eyes focusing on the never ending stars.
"So," John said after a moment, his voice full of forced cheerfulness. "Whaddya say? Feel up to a game? Bridge needs four after all."
Rodney considered answering.
And then forgot the question.
He couldn't seem to look away from the view outside the Puddle Jumper, mindlessly absorbing the endless expanse of stars and darkness stretching out before him. It just continued forever and forever, black and cold and untouchable.
At some point, Rodney had stopped seeing the stars and planets and galaxies as individual things. They'd blurred inside his brain into one massive tapestry of light and energy, of which he and the three members of his team were just one tiny, insignificant part. And some ancient, nihilistic part of his soul knew that, in the end, whatever happened to them now, whatever happened to anyone in Pegasus, or in the Milky Way, or anywhere else—the universe would just keep going. All those planets, all those stars, all those galaxies, all that life, it would all just keep spinning past without stopping.
"Okay. I'll...uh," he felt a feather light tap on his arm, "I'll check in with you later. Join us if you want to, okay?"
Rodney blinked slowly, feeling the dryness in his eyes, the sickness in his stomach, the dull throb of the headache inside his skull. Why would he want to join anything? He curled deeper into the co-pilot's chair, trying to get warmer inside the blanket around his shoulders. He just wanted to forget it all. Forget where he was.
He closed his eyes.
The car rocked sharply, and he opened his eyes, startled awake by the abrupt motion. There was crud stuck to his eyelids, and he wiped at them furiously, trying to clear his vision so he could see. Blinking quickly, he took in the soft, navy blue fuzzy fabric of the station wagon's back, frowning a little to feel some of it sticking to his face where he'd been drooling. Darn it, why did he always slide off the pillow?
Wiping at his face, which felt itchy and hot, he pushed himself up onto his arms, letting the sleeping bag slip off his shoulders. He immediately shivered, and grabbed at it to pull up over his shoulders again. It was cold in the car.
A gurgled sigh from the other side of the wagon had him peering around the pieces of luggage separating him from his sister. Being four, she needed a lot less room than he did, and she looked like a cat curled up in a little ball between the suitcases and boxes. He smiled slightly at the stuffed unicorn in her arms, the animal's soft horn crushed under her arm. Jeannie had also fallen off her pillow, but her head was pressed into the stuffed animal, so she was fine.
He sniffed, wiping his running nose on his arm, and slid himself (and the sleeping bag) forward to look up over the top of the backseat. His mom was driving now, her frizzy hair sticking out in all directions, the headlights of approaching cars putting it in stark relief. It reminded him of the mad scientist from that movie with Frankenstein (best movie ever!). His dad, from what he could tell, was sleeping in the passenger seat, judging by the way he was sitting...and snoring.
He scratched at his neck and under the collar of his pajama top, and tried to figure out where they were.
It was still night. He'd sort of hoped it'd be day by now. Dad had explained that the drive from Vancouver to Montreal, to the University where he was supposed to be getting some new job, would be long, but, to Rodney, it seemed to be going on forever. He'd worked it out—on the route Dad had mapped out (they were driving through America on a road called Interstate 90), they would travel a distance of 4,903 kilometers. At a speed of 80 kilometers an hour, it would take them 61.3 hours to get there. Of course, you had to factor in speed while in cities and on smaller roads and stops. He estimated it would take them three days (well, 70.2 hours, but he knew how to round up).
So why did it feel like longer? He didn't understand that.
Dad had given him his own map, which was neatly folded and tucked inside the comic book he'd been reading (Conan the Barbarian – he was collecting them, had been since he was 8, and even had the first one, carefully protected and sealed inside some of his other books in the U-haul trailer). Problem with pulling the map out now, though, was that it was too dark to see.
He sniffed again, then sneezed softly. Wiping his nose again on his sleeve, he looked to see if his mother had noticed. She hadn't. She was staring at the road. She looked like she'd been hypnotized, like in a magician's trick. Frowning, he peered out the window at the other cars, wanting to understand what she was seeing. Cars surrounded them on all sides, their headlights and brake lights filling the scenery. Some were faster, some slower. He tried to catch glimpses of the faces inside the car windows, people who never looked his way, and whom he quickly realized would never see again. There were other kids, sometimes, like him. He saw dogs and, at one point, a horse. Men and women, young and old, all different colors, all different races. None of them ever saw him, so he focused on the vehicles.
He knew the differences between them. He knew Fords from Chevys from Buicks, could tell you the engine size of the Lincoln Continental versus the Dodge Charger, could calculate the gas mileage of the Firebird and the Mustang off the top of his head—he knew it all. And, at first, he took delight in recognizing each one by just the shape of the brake-lights alone.
But soon, even the cars began to all look the same. They weren't individual cars anymore. Just cars. Lots and lots of cars.
He stared and stared, until the most horrible sensation he'd ever known took over his body.
He felt...hollow. But he didn't know why. His body started to shiver, and he couldn't make it stop.
He closed his eyes.
A cool hand rested on his forehead, startling him awake again. The hand stayed, and Teyla leaned into his field of vision, blocking his view of the space outside the puddle jumper. She smiled softly.
"How are you feeling?" she asked. It was strange—she sounded far away, like he had stoppers in his ears.
"Cold," he said softly. Teyla nodded, and reached into his space to pull the blanket higher up on his shoulders.
"Your fever seems to have leveled off," she said, smiling again. "About the same as yesterday."
He frowned. He'd always questioned the efficacy of the whole 'hand to the forehead' means of taking temperature. He would have said something, but something else bothered him more.
"When was yesterday?" he croaked, wincing a little at the roughness of his voice. Teyla's expression saddened, and she knelt a little so he wouldn't have to look up to see her.
"When we ran out of the Tylenol in your pack," Teyla said, her tone apologetic. "Remember?"
He didn't. Not really. He knew that they'd been using it since they discovered he'd picked up an infection from that planet, but he had thought he'd had at least 25 pills. Which meant they'd been flying for longer than he thought. If he'd had eight a day, and there were 25 pills, then...four days? Four days since they left that planet, four days since the Wraith had destroyed the orbital Stargate's power source and prevented them from going home, four days since he'd started getting sick.
"How's your throat?" Teyla asked then, peering down at his neck.
She nodded again and pulled away some of the blanket to see the wound on his neck, and the infection surrounding it. Though she tried to hide it, he saw her wince at little. It had to look bad for Teyla to wince. Of all of them, she was the best at hiding her feelings.
He was, of course, the worst.
She gamely tried to smile again when she saw the clear dismay on his face. "No, no," she assured, patting his shoulder beneath the blanket, "do not worry. It does not look worse."
"But it doesn't look better," he inferred. Teyla paused, the answer already obvious, and then, slowly, she nodded, lowering her head. For a moment, she said nothing, just stayed there, her hand on his shoulder, her head bowed.
When she looked up again, her bright, gorgeous eyes meeting his, there was nothing but certainty in her gaze.
"They will find us, Rodney," she promised. "The Apollo will find us, and they will make you better."
He said nothing.
He thought about telling her to look out the window, to see what he saw, to show her how vast space was—and how small they were. He thought about telling her that this was why it would be impossible for the Apollo to find them quickly. He thought about telling her how unlikely it was...that the Apollo would find them in time.
But he said nothing. Because, looking into her eyes—she already knew.
"Do you want to go in the back and lie down?" she asked, looking past his shoulder to where Rodney guessed John and Ronon were standing, then back to him. "You have been sitting here for a long while now."
He shook his head lightly, and returned his gaze to the window. To the outside. "I'm good," he told her.
It absorbed him soon enough, the expanse. The hollow feeling in his chest was one he knew well now, had known for most of his life. He had just forgotten what it felt like for a while.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Teyla tried to not frown, but he saw it on the corners of her lips anyway. Her hand patted his shoulder once more.
"Call if you need anything," she said as she drifted away. "We'll be here."
Of course they would. They had nowhere else to go.
He closed his eyes.
CHAPTER TWO: FEELING CRAMPT
Rodney blinked, and lifted his head up off the freezing cold car window, and rubbed at his throbbing head. He didn’t know why his head hurt, but it did. In fact, he was feeling sort of shivery and gross all over, and his head was just one part. He didn’t like getting sick. It seemed like he got sick all the time—though his Dad, for some reason, had come to the conclusion that it was mostly in his head. Just because it didn’t always manifest itself in a fever, didn’t mean it wasn’t real! Dad had called him a hypochondriac. He’d looked it up. He didn’t like being called that.
“Mer?” the soft voice called again. Then she repeated it, over and over again with soft pauses in between. “Mer? Mer? Mer? Mer?”
“What!” he snapped, turning to glare at his little sister and scratching under the collar of his shirt again. Jeannie didn’t even flinch, peering with her huge eyes at him over the boxes and suitcases. She just blinked, and started pawing at the luggage, as if she wanted to try to find a way over them to get to his side.
“I have to go,” she said quietly, pushing at one of the suitcases. It didn’t move. Dad had wedged everything in tight.
Rodney rolled his eyes at the news. “So?” he said. “Tell Mom.” A glance towards the front confirmed that Mom was still driving, and that it was still night. He scratched at his arm next, hating the burning sensation it left behind.
“I tried,” Jeannie said, sniffing a little. “She won’t answer.”
Rodney grimaced, looking again at the woman driving, but this time more studiously. He’d been right to think she was hypnotized by the night highway. He wondered why. Maybe she couldn't be woken up? What if she had been—
“Mer!” Jeannie stressed again, hopping a little. “I have to go!” She pushed again at the suitcases, and Rodney jumped, pressing his hands against the boxes.
“Don’t push the stuff!” Rodney snapped. When he was sure that she wasn't going to screw up Dad's packing job, he pulled the rest of the way out of his sleeping bag and shivered. For Christ's sake, why was Jeannie trying to get to his side of the back? What did she think he would do, let her pee on him? How gross! She’d been gross since she was born, always throwing food and throwing up and peeing all over the place. He’d been five when she was born, and he knew she’d be this way—he’d seen all the pictures in the library about mothers giving birth. It was all true. Baby sisters were revolting things.
“Okay,” he spat, pushing himself up more so that he could climb over the back seat. “Okay,” he repeated. He pulled himself up over the soft fabric, and then fell onto the sharp cornered boxes in the back seat, hitting one of them hard so that it dug hard into his ribs. “Ow!”
“What?” Jeannie was peering over the top of the back seat now, watching. “You ‘kay?”
“I’m fine,” he hissed, glaring at her and rubbing at his chest. Stupid little sisters.
Clumsily, he slid to the small clear space on the back seat where he could sit during he day if he wanted, and sat up straight, now scratching at his ribs through his top. His mother still hadn't said anything. Grimacing, he leaned forward and grabbed at the back of the driver’s seat. “Mom?”
She didn’t react, so he tapped her shoulder.
This time, she gave a little shriek, and the car jerked to the side when she jumped. Straightening the Oldsmobile, she turned in the seat to stare with big eyes at Rodney.
“Jesus Christ, Mer!” she hissed. “Are you trying to kill us? You scared the crap out of me!”
Rodney just blinked. No, he hadn’t been trying to kill them. Had he nearly killed them? The hollowness in his chest from earlier, when he’d woken up before, started to come back.
“What do you want?” his mother asked, still sounding stressed, her eyes again on the dark road stretching endlessly before them.
“Jeannie needs to go to the bathroom.”
His mother sighed heavily, lowering her head for a moment before lifting it again. “Of course, she does,” she said tiredly. “I knew her father was wrong to let her have that extra glass of soda at dinner.” She turned in her seat so that she could see Jeannie over her shoulder, and then faced front again. “Christ. And, of course, there's nowhere to actually stop...” She shook her head, glancing to the side at the line of black trees on either side of the road. "Blast," she muttered softly.
Rodney settled back into his seat, looking out the various windows. They were in the middle of nowhere still. He couldn’t even see hills. Just road, the night sky and other cars. There weren’t even road signs. His mother checked the rearview mirror, her eyes catching his briefly as she did so, then away. She hit the turn signal to get over, baring her teeth when a car in the right lane didn't immediately get out of her way.
A second later, as she drifted into the right line, she slapped his father on the arm, getting him to jerk awake. His dad snorted and coughed, looked around for a minute at the black landscape, then turned to glare at his wife.
“What was that for?”
“I’m pulling over,” his mother replied snippily. “Jeannie has to pee.”
His father shook his head, “So? Why’d you wake me up?”
“Because you always say I have to tell you everything I do,” she explained bitterly, and Rodney sank back in his seat. He knew where this was going—his mother wanted to fight. “And so,” his mother continued, “I’m telling you that I’m pulling over.”
His father snorted, and looked out the window again. “Where are we?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere in one of those American States that begin with M, I think. Minnesota or Montana or Michigan or Madison or something.”
“We’re not driving through Michigan, and Madison’s a city,” his father offered tightly. “We also left Minnesota over 14 hours ago, so, unless you've gone too far and we've hit Massachusetts, I'd say you're wrong."
His mother huffed, her shoulders lifting. "All I know is that you told me to stay on this highway until we got to some place called Buffalo, and that's what I've been doing. I saw signs for a place beginning with M and that's it."
"Obviously, those were signs for Michigan. Anyone who looked at the map for more than five seconds would know that. Jesus, Mary, can’t you at least get that right?”
“I don’t see why I should,” Mary McKay replied, just as tightly. “I mean, who cares, Richard? Who really cares? Mer,” she glanced up at him in the rear view again, “do you care?”
Rodney opened his mouth, but his father cut him off.
“Don’t bring Rodney into this, Mary.”
“I just think that Mer should weigh in. After all, this trip is partly his fault.”
“Oh, God,” Richard muttered, settling in the passenger seat and crossing his arms. “Not this again.”
“Yes, this again,” Mary spat. “And I’ll keep bringing it up for so long as I can, especially when this special school you’re enrolling him in turns him into a spoiled child.”
“He’s gifted, Mary!”
“He’s nine years old, Richard! He should be with normal kids! He’s weird enough as it is!”
I’m ten, Rodney thought idly, staring out the side window.
“He’s ten,” Jeannie offered softly from the back. Rodney smiled softly at that, and looked up at his sister, still peering up over the seat. She smiled back at him, and hopped again, mouthing the words, ‘I gotta go!’
The two in front didn’t hear Jeannie’s correction of his age.
“All I’m saying is,” Richard was shaking his head, “don’t blame Rodney for this trip. We both agreed that my taking this job at McGill would be—“
“Oh, we agreed, did we? I thought it was more, you took the job, then told me afterwards. Made me give up my associate professorship at BCIT, give up my friends and family, and all so you can move up in the world, and we can enroll Mer in this snobbish, elitist—“
“Mary! Stop it! For Christ’s sake, he’s sitting right behind you!”
“I don’t care,” she snapped back. Her eyes lifted to catch Rodney’s again. “Always tell the truth, Meredith,” she said to him. “No matter how much it hurts, you speak your mind and tell people exactly what you think, you hear me? Honesty is more valuable than nicety. Remember that.”
His father huffed, crossing his arms again. “Jesus,” he muttered, “you can be such a bitch, Mary.”
“Swearing, however,” she hissed, glaring at her husband, “is not allowed. Do not call me that again, Richard.”
Richard just frowned. He looked off to the side, then back at her. Her hands were gripping the wheel like they were soldered to it. He leaned over to look at her speed, then tilted his head so that he could look at her.
“You going to turn off anytime soon, Mary?” Richard asked snidely, a mean smirk on his face. “Because you’ve had the blinker on for a really long time.”
Mary’s hands flexed on the wheel. “Don’t tell me what to do,” she spat.
“Mom! I have to go!” Jeannie called from the back. She was really hopping now.
“Oh for…” Mary rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’m pulling over,” she said, glaring at her husband. “But only because my daughter needs me to.” She turned off onto the gravel side, slowing the car to a stop.
Richard rolled his eyes, and then turned to look at Jeannie as his wife turned the car off.
“Hi Daddy!” Jeannie called. He smiled at her.
“Hi, Honey,” he answered. He then slid his eyes to Rodney. “You okay, son?”
Rodney just nodded. Richard smiled again.
“Leave them alone,” Mary snapped as she shut the car off. “Oh, and you’re driving when we get back on the road.”
“What?” Richard’s expression went instantly hard, and he turned to face his wife. “But it’s only been a couple of hours. I thought four hour shifts were the what we—“
“I’m tired of driving. And considering this isn’t a place I chose to go to, and since I don’t agree with you placing my son in some school for—“
“Fine!” Richard yelled. “I get it! Christ!”
“Mom!” Jeannie yelled, really bouncing now. “Please!”
Mary McKay looked back over her shoulder, then, in a quick movement, got out of the car, leaving her door open. Freezing cold air blasted inside, and Rodney shivered, trying to bury himself closer into the side of the car. A second later, she had opened the back door opposite him and was leaning inside to pull Jeannie out. His little sister giggled and let herself be pulled, then she held onto his mother like a monkey as Mary grabbed some paper towels from under the backseat. It wasn’t until she was fully outside that Jeannie noticed it was cold. And dark. And scary. And that they were going into the even darker trees.
As his mother carried Jeannie into the woods, his sister started to cry and scream about not “wanting to go in there!”
Rodney buried himself deeper into the seat, trying to block out the arguing as his mother tried to convince Jeannie that there was nothing to be scared about, and that she wouldn’t leave her. Rodney leaned over and shut the car door to shut out the screaming and the cold.
His face itched, and he scratched at it until it stopped.
Richard, meanwhile, had slid over into the driver’s seat. He turned the car on, turned up the heat, and let it idle. He glanced at Rodney. For a moment, the man and the boy just stared at each other. Rodney wasn’t sure, but, for a second, he thought he saw something dark flash through his father’s eyes.
“You want to stretch your legs?” Richard asked softly, not taking his eyes off his son.
Rodney stared at him. He kinda did, to be honest. He had been pretty crampt in the back. “Um…”
“Go on,” Richard suggested smoothly, smiling again. “Won’t have another chance for a while.” His father’s hands flexed on the wheel, but his eyes still didn’t leave Rodney’s. “Get out of the car, Rodney.”
At that moment, Rodney was absolutely convinced of only one thing.
If he got out of this car, his father would leave them behind. He’d go and never come back.
“I…” Rodney swallowed, and he noticed that his throat was getting even more sore. “I’m okay,” he said finally, weakly.
Richard continued to stare at him, and it was almost like he was pleading with him. Then his eyes hardened, and, for a second, Rodney thought his father might actually throw him out.
Then the moment passed, and his father seemed to deflate, looking forward again. His hands dropped from the wheel and he lowered his head.
Rodney sniffed, and scratched his arm.
A few moments later, and his still crying sister was once more put in the back, and his mother was sitting down in front, her motions sharp and angry. His father pulled out into traffic, and they were on their way once more down the highway.
Rodney climbed back over the seat into the rear of the wagon, crawled back into his sleeping bag.
"Mer?" Jeannie called softly, peering at him through the boxes and suitcases.
"That was scary," she said, sniffing.
He just nodded and turned on his side facing away from her.
He closed his eyes.
"We should have turned around!" Ronon snarled, his angry shout waking Rodney from his sleep. "The moment he fixed the cloak, we—"
"He said it would only work intermittently, at best," Teyla said calmly. "And we were only a day away from the planet, barely on the edge of that solar system. At the time, it made sense for us to keep going. We could not have known he would get this sick."
"I told you it would happen!" Ronon yelled again. "No way that knife was clean! I told you he'd get infected!"
Rodney tipped his head up, and looked around. He was lying down on his side on one of the benches in the back, inside a sleeping bag. How had he gotten back here? Wasn't he just sitting up front? God...he was freezing. He tugged the sleeping bag higher. Why did they have the temperature down so low?
"We also thought the Tylenol would knock the fever down," John said quietly. "Even Rodney told us to keep going—and he wouldn't have said that had he thought that—"
"Well, he was wrong," Ronon snarled, his voice lower. "And so were you."
Rodney blinked a few times at that harsh statement, then managed to push himself up on his right so that he could see the three people in the front of the Puddle Jumper. John was sitting at the controls, facing away from Rodney, his neck muscles as tight as Rodney have ever seen them. Teyla was sitting in the co-pilot's seat, although Rodney could only see her legs from where he was lying. Ronon was standing. Actually, the better word would be pacing. As if aware of the scrutiny, the big man looked back at Rodney, and his step stuttered slightly when their gazes locked. Then Ronon returned to pacing steadily, his head down.
"So what would you have me do, Ronon?" John asked.
The Satedan stopped pacing to face John. "Turn us around. At least on the planet, there's fresh air. And maybe those people haven't used all the antibiotics in the kit."
"And if the Wraith are still crawling around?" John asked, looking at Ronon over his shoulder. "And the cloak fails?"
"He won't survive if we don't do something, Sheppard," Ronon hissed. "You know he won't. That fever is bad. On the planet, there's lakes and stuff. We can use them to cool him down. Can't do that up here."
"That planet's almost five days behind us, now." John tapped something on the flight console. "The Apollo is going to estimate our location based on speed and distance to the nearest Stargate. We turn around, it'll take them even longer to find us."
"They're not going to find us for another week anyway!" Ronon snapped. "He'll be dead before then!"
"Ronon!" Teyla snapped, and Rodney looked towards her. She was leaning off her seat now, so he could see her—and she stared right back. John turned to his right to look at her, then looked back. When he saw Rodney watching them, the Colonel grimaced.
Rodney just lowered his gaze. A moment later, he was lying down again on his side, curled deeper inside the sleeping bag and staring unseeingly towards the back hatch.
God, this was a stupid way to die. Of all the things they'd faced over the last three years, of all the enemies they'd knocked down, of all the problems they'd survived...why this? Why couldn't he have died in a blaze of glory? Or doing something terribly heroic and martyrish? Something to make people misty eyed when they remembered how he'd died? But no. Not Meredith Rodney McKay. He was going to die from an infected knife cut on the back of his neck, courtesy of a superstitious native who had thought they'd brought the Wraith down on them. In this day and age, with antibiotics and painkillers and IV fluids, it was a stupid, stupid, stupid way to die.
But they didn't have any antibiotics. They had given them all away on the planet, along with the rest of the first aid kit. Turned out, the population was suffering from some sort of pervasive infectious disease, and a lot of them had died from it. When they didn't find anything during the mission there, Teyla had, at the last minute, just as they were leaving, given the headman the kit. Had she not done that, had they left fifteen minutes earlier, they would have been home by now—back up through the orbital gate and sleeping in their own beds on Atlantis.
But he couldn't blame Teyla. None of them could have foreseen the Wraith choosing that moment to appear overhead with a Hive. Or foreseen that one insane kid throwing himself at Rodney, calling him a Wraith worshiper and slicing his knife across Rodney's nape before Ronon had pulled him off.
It had been a shallow cut. It should have been easily dealt with. Should have been.
He wondered if any of the people on that planet were still alive? Had the Wraith completely culled the planet after they left? He didn't know. All he knew was, the fight with the Wraith as they'd tried to escape had resulted in a lucky shot from a Dart hitting one of the orbital gate's power sources, effectively rendering it dead. The fight had also damaged the Jumper enough to kill the cloak. All they could do after that—was run.
The nearest Stargate was 5.7 light years away—obviously, they would never reach it. They were headed in that direction only because it was mission protocol. When they didn't return, Atlantis would send the Apollo after them, and it would use long range sensors to locate them wherever they were along the projected route from the planet to the nearest stargate.
But Apollo had been over halfway to Earth. Turning around, it would still take the ship two weeks to get to them.
And that was too long.
Rodney tipped his head up, focusing his tired eyes, and found Ronon kneeling next to the bench. The Satedan was watching him carefully, his expression tight.
"Hey," Rodney croaked softly.
"You need anything?" Ronon asked. "Water?"
Rodney blinked slowly.
"How about food?" Ronon asked.
Rodney frowned, and rolled onto his back. He looked up at the roof of the jumper, thinking about what the others had been arguing about. He sniffed, and grimaced. "I'm sorry."
"Huh?" Ronon stood up a little, so he could see Rodney's face. The Satedan was frowning, confusion clear on his face. "What are you sorry for?"
"For," Rodney swallowed, grimacing at the roughness, "For not fixing the cloak earlier. You're..." he coughed softly, "You're stuck out here, because of me."
"No. No...if I'd fixed it faster, we could have stayed on the planet. I'm sorry."
Ronon grasped his arm through the sleeping bag covering Rodney. "Wasn't your fault," he said. "Don't think that."
Rodney continued to stare at Ronon, and his unhappiness grew. "Sorry."
"Stop saying that!" Ronon hissed. "It's fine, McKay. I'm fine. Look...," Ronon glanced up front, where John and Teyla were both obviously listening in, "I was wrong. Sheppard's right—what we're doing is protocol. It's the fastest way to get you help." He frowned, then shrugged. "I just don't like being cooped up, you know that, but..." he looked down, "this was the right decision."
Rodney didn't believe him. He rolled his head away, ignoring the pull on the infected wound, so that he was looking at the wall of the Jumper.
"Rodney...Come on. I'm gonna get you some water, okay? And you're gonna be fine, I promise."
Rodney shifted so that his whole body was now facing the wall, his neck angrily letting him know that it hadn't like being moved. But it was better this way. Ronon had lifted his hand away from Rodney's shoulder when Rodney moved, but it came back when he was still again.
"Just..." Ronon seemed to hesitate, "just stay awake a minute. You need water. I'll be right back. Don't fall asleep."
Except, Rodney wasn't sure he cared.
So he closed his eyes.
CHAPTER THREE: WORTH ANY RISK
He woke up coughing, gagging into the small travel pillow, desperately trying to muffle the noise and not disturb his sister. When the coughing finally stopped, he rolled onto his back, staring up at the navy blue car ceiling, panting and wiping the spittle from his mouth. His body was shivering, and his head hurt. And he itched. God, he itched!
His nails scrabbled at his skin, digging through the pajama fabric. He didn't want to itch the skin directly—cause his fingernails were dirty. The fabric rubbed and scraped, and it wasn't good enough.
His breathing quickened, and he shook even more. He started coughing again. It felt like he was coughing up his whole insides. Another image from a book popped into his head—heart, lungs, stomach, intestines—they were all coming up, choking him.
"Mer?" His sister's sleepy voice called.
"Rodney?" His father's voice was more awake, and sounded concerned. "Son? You okay?"
Rodney finally stopped coughing, and rolled onto his side, gasping for air. He couldn't move.
"Daddy," Jeannie said, sounding closer. "I think he's sick."
"Rodney?" Richard McKay sounded more worried now. "Rodney, what's the matter?" There was a sound like a soft punch, then, "Mary! Mary, wake up."
"Oh, what now?" his mother moaned. "Oh, Christ, Richard. It's still night. I told you not to wake me until—"
Rodney started coughing again. The whole world cut out as he gagged and choked, and he curled up even tighter. He heard voices calling his name, and was vaguely aware of the sensation of the car slowing down. Jeannie was suddenly by his side, pressing a tiny hand to his head.
"He's hot, mom! He's really hot!"
"Sweetie, get away from him. If he's sick, I don't want you getting sick, too." His mother sounded really worried.
The car had stopped moving. He just kept trying to breathe, curling up in a ball inside the sleeping bag.
Cold air filled the car as doors were opened, and he felt Jeannie slide down to his feet. How had she gotten to his side of the back? Someone got into the backseat—he could tell because their head blocked the interior light.
"Baby?" He felt a new hand on his forehead, dry and cool. "Oh, baby, why didn't you say something?"
Rodney tipped his head back, blinking up at her through haze-filled eyes. "Momma?"
She smiled gently at him, though there was fear on her face. She was leaning over the backseat into the back, one arm holding herself up while the other pressed at the underside of his chin.
"What is it?" Richard McKay called from the front. "Mary?"
"He's got a fever," Mary replied.
"Are you sure?"
"Of course, I'm sure," she snapped roughly. Then her voice softened again as she smiled again at Rodney, "Mer, sweety, can you lift your chin more?"
Rodney did as he was told. She pressed a little harder into his neck, and he winced at the pain. "Ow," he whispered. She looked apologetic, and shook her head.
"Your glands are swollen," she told him, running her hand down his face again, "probably your throat too. That's why you're coughing—your body is trying to get more oxygen." She leaned further into his space and plucked at the sleeping bag around his shoulders. She frowned more when she saw something near the base of his neck. "Is that a rash?" she asked quietly. Rodney guessed she wasn't actually asking him—since she didn't look at him when she asked. What did Dad say those questions were called? Ret...something....It had oral in it. Right? Oral came from the latin 'oris,' for mouth.
His mother was talking again.
"Meredith, honey, can you come out of your sleeping bag? I need to see you."
No. No, he didn't want to. "Cold," he said, shivering and trying to curl tighter. "Too cold."
"I know, baby, but I need to see what's wrong with you, so I can make it better, okay?"
"Nuh-uh," he said, shutting his eyes tight and shaking his head.
"Come on, Mer," he felt small hands rock his legs through the sleeping bag. "Let Mom see you."
"Leave me alone," he muttered, trying to kick at Jeannie. He hit something, and heard his sister huff.
"Jeannie," his mother's voice sounded exasperated, "come on. Come out of there."
"No, buts, Jeannie. Come out of there. Give your brother his space."
"Jeannie! Now!" The anger in his mother's voice was a whip-crack, and Rodney felt Jeannie physically flinch where she'd been touching his leg again. He opened his eyes as he felt his sister crawl by him, her lips quivering—obviously on the verge of crying again. She glanced at him, frowned, then pulled herself up over the backseat and into the front of the car. His mother had made room for Jeannie to climb out, and then she was back again, reaching for Rodney again.
"Rodney, listen to me," she urged. Rodney actually looked up at her in surprise—she never used his middle name, even though he (and his father) liked it better. She gave him a small smile at his expression. "I need you to come out of the sleeping bag, Rodney. Please. Just for a minute."
He stared at her, then, reluctantly, he gave a nod. With shaking hands, he pushed himself out of the sleeping bag. The cold air bit at his dry skin, seeping into his bones. He felt himself shivering even harder, and he couldn’t stop.
His mother worked quickly. She physically pulled Rodney to his knees and grabbing at his right wrist, roughly shoving up his pajama arm. She frowned, then pulled at the neck of the shirt, tugging it down to see the top of his thin chest. He continued to shake, and his head really began to hurt.
Next thing he knew, his mother hand pulled him even further up and had wrapped her arms around him, holding on tightly.
And for a moment, he stopped shaking.
"You always tell someone when you're feeling sick, okay?" she whispered. "No matter what your father says. You always tell someone."
He felt his mother tense at his father's call, then she let go. She dropped him back down and backed up. "Get back in the sleeping bag, baby," she said as she turned around to face the front of the car.
"Mary," his father sounded annoyed, "What is it?"
"He's sick, Richard," Mary stated coldly. Rodney quickly climbed back into the sleeping bag and tugged it as high as he could around his shoulders.
"Well, obviously," Richard ground out. "Boy sounded like he was coughing up a lung before. You said he had a fever. How bad is it?"
"He's burning up," Mary said. "I think...I'm not sure, because it's so dark in here, but he's also got a rash on his arms and his chest."
"Damn," Richard muttered.
Cocooned once more, Rodney propped himself up to sit against a suitcase almost as big as he was, arms wrapped tightly around his legs. He could just make out his father's silhouette up front, the headlights of the cars going past on the other side of the highway throwing all sorts of weird shadows across his square face. Dad's eyes glittered as they peered back at him, then they turned to look at Mary.
"I think I saw a sign for a gas station a couple of kilometers ahead," he said. "They might have some Tylenol."
"Tylenol?" His mother said, surprise in her voice. "Richard, no. Even if I thought it was safe for him to have any, which I don't, he needs to get to a hospital."
Richard's eyebrows lifted, genuinely surprised. "A hospital? Why?"
His mother's head listed forward, like she couldn't believe what she'd just heard. "What do you mean, why? He's sick, Richard. I just told you that he's burning up."
"Yes, but," his father grimaced, "it's hot in the car, Mary, and he was deep inside that sleeping bag. You just touched his forehead with your hand, which, really, is not the most precise—"
"Richard! I'm not arguing with you about this. Your son is sick! We need to get him to a hospital."
"Mary, be reasonable. I'm sure it doesn't warrant—"
"Stop it, Richard! Do not argue with me! We are taking him to a hospital. Now!"
There was silence for a moment, as his father looked out the front window, watching the cars fly past them where they'd stopped on the shoulder. The car rocked from the wind gusts caused by the other vehicles. Rodney found himself flinching when a massive Mack Truck rolled past, loud and screeching.
"Richard!" Mary called, growing even more frustrated.
"I don't even know where one might be," his father said tightly. "We're in the United States, Mary, not Canada. Even if I was able to find a hospital, I've no idea what they might charge us. They make you pay here, remember? And with our current state of finances, I—"
"You are not seriously putting money before your son, are you?" Mary stated coldly. Rodney coughed again, and his mother reached back a hand, grabbing his wrist through the sleeping bag.
"Of course not." His father sighed, and Rodney could almost feel him rolling his eyes. "All I'm saying is, for now, let's just find a drugstore and get him some medicine. Triaminic or something. And keep going. I'll watch for hospitals in case he doesn't get better, okay? If he gets worse, we'll—"
"Damn it, Richard McKay, don't you do this!" Mary spat. "Just because you're so desperate to get to this new job, doesn't give you the right to endanger your son!"
Richard's shoulders hunched forward as if he'd been punched, and Rodney saw his head bow down. He let out a heavy breath, then turned in the seat to glare at his wife.
"That's it," the man muttered. "That is it." His eyes narrowed. "I am not endangering my son, Mary. He's got a cold, that much is obvious to me. And you think he's got a fever. Well, children get sick all the time. I'm not going to risk our future on your theory that he suddenly needs a hospital! You're being irrational!"
"I am not being irrational!"
"Of course you are! You're his mother. He coughs a little, and you immediately assume that he's dying. You and he are the worst kind of hypochondriacs—what was it last time, huh? A nosebleed? I came home to find you had taken him out of school for two days because of a nosebleed! And before that, you took him to the hospital for pink-eye!"
"I couldn't have known!"
"My point exactly! You didn't know then, and you don't know now!"
"Rodney," his father's gaze lasered in on his son, "do you need to go to the hospital?"
Rodney blinked. He turned his eyes to his mother, who had turned around to look at him. Her gaze pleaded with him—she wanted him to back up her argument. He looked back at his dad, and his father's expression held no plea. All it held was that same darkness he saw before. And he was more afraid of that, than of his mother.
"I'm okay," he said softly.
"Mer," his mother admonished, ducking her head away from him. She was disappointed.
"There," Richard said, smirking a little. "I'm not taking him to a hospital. And that's final. We're going to keep going. Now, shut your door and let's go."
Rodney watched his mother, the way she seemed to go rigid. Her breathing grew shallow and quick, as if she were on the verge of exploding.
But she just expelled a heavy sigh, and pulled away from Rodney.
"Fine," she said tightly. "But I'm staying back here." She shut the back door and settled into the little space between the boxes on the backseat, where Rodney had been sitting before.
"Whatever," Richard replied, reaching over and shutting the passenger side door loudly. He turned the car back on and they slowly merged back into the traffic.
His mother glanced back at Rodney, then turned to look out the window at the trees.
His sister sniffed back tears from somewhere Rodney couldn’t see.
And his father urged the Oldsmobile to move faster—Rodney could feel it shaking with increased speed.
He slumped against the suitcase, pulled his knees in tighter to his chest, and turned around. He could just make out the cars through the rear window even with all the stuff in the way.
So many cars.
He wondered, did they see him? The people in those cars? Did they see him inside here when they drove past? Did they see his sister? His mother? His father? Did they even look?
He coughed again, so hard his chest started to hurt. Swallowing, he forced back the tickle in his throat and sniffed, trying to get his breath back. He scratched at his leg near his ankle.
When he felt okay again, he saw his mother watching him. Her eyes were so wide, he could see the whites of them. Her eyes were really blue. Dad's were too, but Mom's were paler, like his. Her thin lips were pressed together tightly, her pointed chin looking like it was sticking out even more than normal.
Then, suddenly, she looked away, turning her back to him.
His teeth chattered, and he nodded. Turning, he looked again out the back.
Another truck passed them by, rocking the station wagon.
No, he thought. They didn't see them. The people in those other cars. If his dad crashed the car right now, just drove into the woods in this nowhere place—all the people in those cars would still move on. They'd never know him, or his family, or know what had been lost. He'd be dead, his family dead, but the cars would keep driving down the highway. They would just keep going, wheels spinning on the road, forever.
Another truck blew past them in the outer lane.
"You might at least go faster," his mother said tightly. "You know, so your son doesn't die for lack of air before he gets something to soothe his throat."
Rodney heard his father sigh heavily.
The car shuddered as it increased in speed.
He closed his eyes.
The proximity sensors suddenly went wild in the Puddle Jumper. Rodney's eyes popped open, trying to make sense of the noise—and the Jumper shuddered. The shake caused him to fall off the bench and land hard on the floor—and onto something soft and yielding. Teyla squeaked, shoving him off and pulling herself out of her sleeping bag, where she too had obviously been sleeping. Rodney tried to do the same, but his body wouldn't behave. So, he just stayed on the floor, coughing harshly and staring into the front of the Jumper as Teyla dashed to stand by the pilot chair, next to John.
Sheppard was at the controls, having obviously taken off the auto-pilot. And for good reason.
A Wraith Hive had dropped out of hyperspace directly in front of them. And it was shooting at them.
"Damn it," Sheppard swerved hard to the right, his body backlit by the flash of weapons' fire. "Come on," he muttered, "cloak!"
Rodney felt his chest tighten. "What?" he whispered.
Ronon glanced back at him, the glare of the weapons' fire casting strange shadows across his face, and he shook his head. Rodney's eyes widened.
No, no, no!
He'd fixed it! He was sure he'd fixed it!
"What happened?" Teyla asked, her whole body rocking forward as they barely missed another strike. "Where did the Hive come from?"
"It's my fault," John said, swerving to avoid yet another volley from the Hive. "I wasn't watching the sensors. I must have dozed off." He spoke through gritted teeth. "Damn it! We're sitting ducks!"
"How did they find us?" Ronon demanded, gripping tightly onto the back of the co-pilot's seat.
"No idea," Sheppard answered. "Probably weren't even looking for us."
Rodney pulled himself out of the sleeping bag, his hands grabbing onto the bench in order to lever himself up. The motion pulled at his neck, and he felt something tear as he pushed up. Hot liquid ran down under the back of his collar from the wound—he tried not to think about it, focusing on just getting up. He had no choice. Damn it, what the hell! He'd fixed the cloak! He'd fixed it!
"Can we..." Teyla shook her head, leaning into another swerve. "Is there anything we can hide behind? Something in the vicinity?"
"No," Sheppard sounded pissed. "There's nothing here."
The Jumper rocked hard to the side, and Rodney slammed into the bench, causing stars to flash behind his eyes. He was half sitting, half on his side...he coughed liquidly and blinked to get his vision back.
"They just decided to drop out of hyperspace here?" Ronon scoffed. "Hell of a coincidence, Sheppard!"
"Well, don't look at me!" John shouted, swerving around to avoid another volley. "I didn't invite them!"
Rodney turned and managed to pull himself up the whole way to standing, though every muscle in his body wanted him to bend over. It felt like his stomach muscles were barely holding him up—he couldn’t remember the last time he'd felt this weak.
He grabbed at the Jumper control box, pulling down the panel. Blood rushed from his face as he inspected the crystals, and, for a second, he felt so dizzy, he thought he'd faint. Blackness filled his vision so he actually couldn't see anything at all, just felt the throbbing pain of the wound on his neck.
"Look," John said, "we know they drop out of hyperspace at certain intervals to recharge their batteries or something—Zelenka worked the distance out, remember? This could just be us shit out of luck. As for why here? They're probably heading to the same planet and Stargate we are—to them, it's probably the next closest food source."
Rodney's vision came back slowly, and, blinking, he finally got a good look at the crystal matrix, and his heart sank. "Oh God," he whispered softly. "I...the distress beacon is broadcasting. They must have heard it—that's why they're here."
"What?" Ronon's voice bellowed. Rodney leaned heavily into the panel as his vision threatened to blacken again. Blinking it back, he looked towards the Satedan. Teyla and John obviously hadn't heard Rodney's comment, because both looked startled by Ronon's shout. Teyla turned around, saw Rodney standing, and her eyes widened. John had glanced back for only a second, before he was facing forwards again and swerving to avoid more weapons' fire.
Ronon jogged into the back, his hands raised as if he expected to catch Rodney at any moment. "Can you turn it off?"
"Turn what off?" Sheppard called. "What's on?"
"The distress beacon," Ronon answered.
"What?" Sheppard all but shouted. "McKay, get it off!"
"It's my fault," Rodney whispered, looking up at Ronon with fevered eyes. "It must have come on—"
"When we were hit," Ronon nodded, stepping closer. "You didn't know. Just turn it off."
Rodney gave a headshake. "No. I did know," he said, his voice cracking. "I just forgot to—"
"Doesn't matter!" Sheppard yelled from the front. "Right now, all I care about is turning it off and getting us cloaked! McKay! Now!"
Rodney gave a nod, and reached up to pull out the crystal that controlled the beacon—which crystal was also interfering with their ability to cloak. He had meant to pull it back when he'd first done the fix, because he'd rerouted the system through it. God, how could he have been so stupid?
"That did it!" Sheppard called happily, turning them around and down, avoiding another set of weapons' fire. "Nice job, McKay!"
Rodney felt the cool sensation that always ran through the Puddle Jumpers when they cloaked, and closed his eyes. He felt a hand on his arm, and he opened them again. Ronon was giving him a strange smile.
And then Ronon held up the crystal Rodney had dropped. He stared at it for a moment, then looked down at his empty right hand. He hadn't even noticed it slip out of his fingers.
The gentle canting of the floor demonstrated Sheppard was still swerving, but without the urgency of before. A glance forward showed that the Hive was now shooting blind, and nowhere near their location. Sheppard was really just getting the Jumper into the safest spot.
A moment later, and the Hive turned away from where they were.
"Hive's leaving," Sheppard said, leaning back a little in his chair. "They can't find us."
"That was too close," Teyla muttered.
"See?" Ronon said to Rodney, patting a hand to his back. "Told you it'd be okay."
Rodney snorted a laugh, then felt his legs give. Ronon caught him securely in his arms, and lowered him gently to the bench. The room was spinning, now. Ronon's weight at his side, holding him upright, was the only thing keeping him grounded.
"Stay awake, McKay," Ronon pleaded softly. "We need to get food into you."
Rodney frowned. His neck muscles seemed to give up, and his head tipped down again, pulling angrily at his neck wound. Hissing in pain, he reached a hand up to touch the bandage, but Ronon stopped him by grabbing his wrist. Rodney forced his head up, pulled his wrist free with the last of his stubbornness, and turned to look towards the front.
He caught Sheppard looking at him. The Colonel's eyes were filled with worry. Then, abruptly, they lit up, focusing on something far beyond Rodney. Rodney frowned—that was Sheppard's 'crazy idea' look. Sheppard grinned and spun back around to face the front, and the Jumper gave an almost imperceptible shudder as it picked up speed.
"John..." Teyla had slid into the co-pilot's seat, so Rodney couldn't actually see her anymore. "John," she called again, her voice thick with tension, "what are you doing?"
"Trying to catch that Hive before it goes into hyperspace."
Rodney frowned, and he felt Ronon tense behind him.
"Why?" Teyla asked, her tone that of someone wondering if they were about to talk someone off a ledge.
"Because," John said, and Rodney could hear Sheppard's maniacal grin, "we're hitching a ride."
Oh God, Rodney thought.
"John," Teyla said again, still in her questioning tone, "are you sure that is wise? What if the cloak fails again?"
"Rodney," John called, ignoring Teyla's question and turning in his seat so that he could look directly at the scientist, "We are taking you home." He turned around again, and the Hive loomed in the window of the Puddle Jumper like a small planet. "We are taking you home," John said again.
"John?" Teyla still sounded nervous.
"Any means necessary, Teyla," he stated firmly.
She paused a moment, then, just as firmly, "Of course," she said. ""Worth any risk."
Rodney felt Ronon huff a laugh behind him. "Works for me."
No! Rodney shook his head, his whole body tensing with the thought. The risk was too big! He couldn't guarantee that the cloak would stay on, couldn't guarantee they wouldn't be caught. It was too dangerous. He would not be responsible for their deaths!
He lurched up out of the seat to stop Sheppard, and everything went white inside his skull.
He barely felt that arms that caught him, or heard Teyla shout his name. Without him wanting to...
He closed his eyes.
CHAPTER FOUR: FADE TO BLACK
"We just passed another exit, Richard," Mary said sharply, waking Rodney from his uneasy doze in the back of the car. He immediately started shivering, "I thought you said we would get off, find Mer some medicine."
"I didn't see anything at that exit," Richard replied. "I didn't recognize the town names either. We could have gotten off and gone nowhere. As soon as I see a city I recognize from the map, I'll—"
"You said we would get him some medicine!"
"And we will! As soon as we can get off, we will."
"We could have gotten off a half dozen times, already!"
"Yes, but where would we have gone? We've tried two gas stations already—both were shut. It's the middle of the night and it's pointless to keep trying blind. I don't know anything about this place, do you?"
"I know that if you get off, you're at least going to see another gas station! You could ask for directions!"
"What part of middle of the night are you missing? It's 4:23 in the morning! No gas station is going to be open! Haven't we already proved that?"
"This is America, Richard! They have things like twenty-four hour gas stations! We have to keep trying!"
Rodney listened to the argument with only half an ear. His chest really hurt. He tried to lift an arm to rub at it, but his limbs wouldn't move. They were just too heavy. He blinked slowly, and, with a great deal of effort, he somehow got his head to turn so he could see the backseat.
He was lying down again, curled up. He didn't remember lying down. Had his mother done that?
"And if I see one off this highway, I will get off!" Richard shouted.
"No, you won't! I know you, Richard! You think this is all in my head! You think I'm trying to sabotage you! Well, I'm not! Your son is sick, Richard! He needs medicine!"
Rodney tilted his head up, and peered through half-lidded eyes at the back of his mother's head. She was still sitting in the backseat, her short blonde hair in disarray, sticking up at all angles like a troll doll's hair.
He snorted a laugh, and it instantly turned into a massive coughing fit.
When it finally stilled, he was panting and his throat felt ten times too large. Like it was going to explode out of his neck.
"There! Did you hear that?" Mary McKay was upset.
"I don't like it either, Mary, but—"
"But you're not helping either! Why won't you do something?"
"Mer?" Jeannie's voice was only a whisper beneath the yelling match of their parents, but he'd heard it anyway.
Rodney turned his head to look through the suitcases. His sister was peering at him through one of the gaps. She looked really scared.
He tried to smile at her, but it was just too much work. So he just mouthed her name.
His chest really, really hurt. He curled a little tighter, pressing his hands to his ribs.
"Mer?" his sister called again. She reached an arm through the luggage, and it made him think of someone reaching through the bars of a prison. Like he was the Count of Monte Cristo. Except his prison bars were around his body. Steel bands around his arms and legs and chest, holding him down. Jeannie stretched her arm more, and the bars got tighter. And tighter. And tighter.
He couldn't breathe.
Oh God, he couldn't breathe!
Why couldn't he breathe?
He stared hard at Jeannie, right into her wide eyes.
She looked confused all of a sudden, and her hand fell.
Where was his voice? He meant to say that out loud. He tried again, his shaking lips mouthing the word.
His vision started to go, and he tried to swallow so he could speak, but couldn't. He couldn't. He focused on her again, saw the tears running down her face. His eyes widened, trying to make her understand.
Her eyes widened, and suddenly she was gone, throwing herself at the backseat.
"Mom! Mom! Mer's not breathing! MOM!"
He felt the car swerve hard at that, then lurch to a sudden stop, tilted at an angle. His mother's hands grabbed at him from the back seat.
He tried to respond, to answer. But everything seemed to fade away to black, as black as the night sky outside the window. His eyes rolled back in his head, just as he felt his mother climb into the back with him.
He felt his whole body shudder...and then go still, and his mother screamed.
He closed his eyes.
"You are sure the Wraith cannot sense us here?" Teyla asked, her voice soft.
She sounded close, and Rodney opened his eyes. Something warm gripped his hand where it hung off the edge of the bench he was lying on, and it only took a moment for him to figure out it was Teyla. She was sitting down in the back, leaning with her back against his bench, and she had Rodney's hand gripped in both of hers on her lap. The way they were situated, it was almost as if he had his arm around her.
Since the back of her head was to him, she couldn't tell he was awake. And he didn't want to tell her.
She was looking towards the front of the Jumper, and her hair tickled his chin.
He was wheezing badly and shivering. How could she stand it?
He looked to the front, blinking so that he could clear his vision. Ronon was pacing again, walking in and out of Rodney's view, and John was still in the pilot's seat.
"What did you say?" John asked.
"Are you sure," Teyla said, enunciating more but still keeping her voice low, "that the Wraith cannot sense us here?"
"Um," John was busy hitting things on the console, "Wraith sense or sensors sense? And you don't have to whisper—they can't hear us."
Teyla gave a shrug, which Rodney felt in his arm. It was sort of nice. She was warm. It seemed he hadn't felt warm in a long time, just like he couldn't remember what it was like not to shiver.
"I meant," she said, a little louder, but still not loud, "can they sense us with their equipment? And I am whispering because Rodney is sleeping."
"Well," John gave a shrug, and turned in the chair to look back at her, "they didn't sense that I was stuck to their ship when I was in that F-302. So, I don't think they could—" He smiled suddenly as he looked into the back. "Hey, Rodney." He bounced out of his seat and walked towards them.
Teyla also shifted immediately, pulling away and letting Rodney's hand go. He tried not to be upset by the loss of warmth. She turned all the way around on her knees, and peered down at his face, smiling softly.
"Hi," she said, gently running a hand across his forehead. It was cool. "You gave us a fright," she said.
He frowned, not quite understanding. "Sorry," he said. Except he didn't say it. No noise came from his mouth at all. He frowned more. He tried again, but even the attempt to use his voice caused pain, and his throat started to burn. He tried to swallow, but it felt like he was trying to force down hot sauce, and his throat muscles contracted—making the pain worse. He started to cough, and it was like having razors slicing at his trachea. It just made him cough more, and...God, it hurt!
"Rodney?" Teyla sounded worried. "Rodney, don't. You have to relax."
But he couldn't. He couldn't relax. The wound on his neck felt like it was the size of a melon, burning through his skin! Couldn't she see how much it HURT?
Suddenly new hands were on him, shaking him, and it got him opening his eyes again (he hadn't even noticed he'd closed them). He found himself looking into Sheppard's face, even as he continued to gasp for air like a fish on dry land.
"It's okay, Rodney," the Colonel said sharply. "You're going to be fine. Just ride it out. Breathe."
He stopped coughing for a second, his mind tripping over those words. Breathe? Why would he stop breathing?
Although, thinking about it, it was sort of hard to breathe...kinda like he was sipping up oxygen through a straw.
He started to panic now, trying to draw in more air. The pain from before was replaced by terror as his lungs started to burn, and his chest began to heave. John shook him again, keeping McKay's eyes locked on his.
"Aw crap. Come on, McKay. Don't panic. You're fine. You're fine."
"Rodney!" Teyla sounded scared, her head near Sheppard's. "Listen to him!"
Rodney stared at the earnest eyes of his friends, and tried to glean some of the confidence in them. Thing was—there wasn't much.
"Damn it!" Ronon suddenly roared, and Rodney flinched as something loud banged against the back of the Jumper.
"Ronon!" Teyla stood up, glaring at the Satedan.
Ronon had thrown the tool box against the back hatch, and was now just standing there, breathing hard. He looked like he was on the verge of exploding.
It had worked though, whether Ronon meant it or not...Rodney had stopped panicking. Breathing was hard, but he was breathing. There was just pain now, and resting his head back on the pillow lessened some of that.
Sheppard, seeing that Rodney was calm now, actually gave a small smile to Ronon before looking back at the scientist. His hands fell away and he rocked back on his heels, creating distance.
"Okay?" he asked.
Rodney just continued to struggle to breathe, and when he looked up at Sheppard again, he tried to convey the obvious. He wasn't okay, for Christ's sake. But he could breathe. For now. But he'd really, really like to go home now.
Sheppard smiled dryly, his expression suggesting he understood everything Rodney just silently conveyed.
"Yeah," he said quietly, looking down. "I know."
Ronon, meanwhile, had sort of sighed and deflated behind Sheppard, falling back to lean against the bulkhead doors. Teyla leaned against the bench again, her head leaning back against the padded seat. The Colonel ran a hand through his terminally spiky hair and blew the air out of his cheeks, standing up and stepping away from Rodney. He turned to look out the front of the Jumper—which Rodney couldn't really see from where he was without sitting up. Rodney reached out and grabbed at Sheppard's pant's leg around the knee, tugging hard.
Sheppard actually tripped a little, looked down at the hand, then arched an eyebrow at Rodney. "Yes?"
Rodney frowned at the slightly mocking tone (he couldn’t speak! What did the man expect? Semaphore?), and mouthed the question, "Where are we?" at the Colonel.
Sheppard smiled suddenly, this time with a wicked quirk of the lips and eyes narrowing with glee.
Rodney gave a small eye roll, and Sheppard just grinned even more crookedly.
"Wanna see?" the Colonel asked, eyebrows raised. Oh, he was proud of himself, wasn't he? Rodney hesitated, then gave an almost imperceptible nod, though he didn't necessarily want to feed the crazy.
"Ronon," Sheppard said over his shoulder, "give me a hand, will ya?"
Sheppard helped Rodney to sit up, then Ronon was there. Between the two of them, they practically carried Rodney into the front, then settled him into the co-pilot's chair. Rodney had closed his eyes, trying to manage the pain from the infected cut on his neck. When he opened them again, he found Ronon had stepped back, while Sheppard stood next to the DHD, his hands on his hips and a huge grin on his face. Teyla ducked under Sheppard and draped a blanket over Rodney, then ducked back out.
"So," Sheppard said, throwing a thumb towards the front window, "take a look."
His jaw dropped.
They were sitting, neatly nestled, on the arm of a Wraith Hive ship. The architecture of the massive ship curled around them on three sides, silver, shiny and complicated, like sitting inside the limb of an old, gnarly tree made of metal. And surrounding the Hive ship was the soft, blue-tinged whorl of hyperspace.
McKay tried to say, "My God," but it just resulted in more coughing. He felt Ronon's large hand rubbing his back, and, eventually, the pain subsided. When his vision cleared, he was holding the console in front of him, staring at it without really seeing it. His neck and shoulders both burned—he could barely hold his head up. No wonder they had him lying down.
He heard the three of them talking above him, but couldn't focus on the words. All he could do right now was breathe. He focused on the console, willing his eyes to stay open.
When he felt more stable, he snaked up a hand to touch his neck, the other gripping the console to hold himself up. Shaking fingers traced the edge of the bandage—which went down under his shirt collar. He could feel the sensitive skin all down his back—got it had to be hideous. How could they even stand to look at him?
A large hand—Ronon's—gently plucked his hand away from the wound then let go. Rodney sighed, and let his hand fall back to the console.
A thought crossed his mind, then, as he stared at the buttons in front of him—the first useful thought he'd had since he'd gotten really sick.
"Even so," Teyla said quietly from somewhere, the first real words to break through his reverie, though she obviously wasn't talking to him, and he didn't know what she was agreeing to. "He'd probably be more comfortable lying down."
He held up a hand. Not yet.
"Not yet," Sheppard said, easily getting the meaning. The colonel leaned against the DHD so Rodney could see him better. "What's up, McKay?"
Sucking in a shallow breath, Rodney leaned forward slightly, ignoring the strain on his neck, and hit a couple of buttons on the console. A HUD appeared, and it told him the status of the cloak. It wasn't on.
"Figured they wouldn't be able to tell we were here," Sheppard explained, his arms still crossed, looking over his shoulder at the HUD. "They didn't know that whole time while I was in the F-302, until I moved after we dropped out of hyperspace, so....I didn't want to waste power."
Rodney gave a small nod, wincing a little when even that hurt. It was getting seriously frustrating. Sniffing, he hit a few more keys, and brought up an estimated trajectory. Based on where they entered hyperspace, and, assuming the ship was headed to the nearest Stargate...they should come out of hyperspace in about thirty five minutes.
"Oh," Sheppard said, reading the information on the HUD, his arms finally uncrossing, "that's good to know."
Rodney set up a ticking clock of sorts for Sheppard to use, then fell back, practically crumpling into the chair. He felt a quick pat of thanks on his left shoulder as the co-pilot's soft leather chair wrapped around him. They were very nice chairs.
In this slumped position, though, his chest began to hurt. More than his neck. He was torn between wanting to stay—and help—or go back to lying down. He didn't want to sleep anymore. He didn't.
His chest began to hurt more, as if someone were slowly cutting out his lungs from the bottom up.
He caught Sheppard glancing at him worriedly, so he tried to hide his discomfort by staring out at the Wraith Hive.
They really were beautiful ships. As elegant as a spider web.
The presence behind him that had been Ronon left then, and Rodney tried to sit up, to see where he went. Failing that, he focused on the reflection in the window. Ronon had walked into the back, and was now pacing to the front again. The Satedan looked at Sheppard, then at the back of Rodney's chair, then turned to pace again.
"You know..." Ronon seemed to stop himself, growled a little, then continued, "You know, if they don't know we're here...and now that he's awake, there's a lot of people on the Hive who might be—"
"I had a feeling you were going to bring that up again," Sheppard said quietly, crossing his arms again. Rodney's eyebrows lifted. This had come up before?
Ronon snorted. "I'm just saying, if we can help—"
Ronon didn't answer that immediately, and Rodney finally managed to turn the chair a little so he could see all three of his teammates without turning his head. Teyla was sitting in the chair behind Sheppard's, and Ronon continued to pace. He had his head down. When he looked up, he was frowning.
Sheppard sighed, "First of all, I'm not sure I can move us while we're in hyperspace..." He glanced at Rodney for the answer.
Rodney grimaced, and used his hands to convey a shrug. Depended on the nature of the Hive's shielding protecting it in hyperspace. If it was wide enough, they might be able to do it. If not—they risked being torn apart.
Sheppard frowned at his response. "Is that a yes or a no?"
Rodney just narrowed his eyes at him. He raised a hand and tilted it from side to side, then, with a wry grimace, gave a thumb's down.
"Possible, but not likely?" Sheppard asked, in clarification.
Rodney gave a thumbs up.
"But it is possible," Ronon said, bouncing a little as he came forward again. Sheppard frowned, and shook his head, his arms still crossed.
"It's a bad idea, Ronon."
"Why? Look, maybe Teyla can help. She can connect to the—"
"Absolutely not," Sheppard said, stepping forward. Teyla's eyes had widened a little in her seat. Ronon frowned, and looked at her.
"Could you?" Ronon asked. "Just sense where they were without actually—"
Teyla shook her head, but it was more tentative than negative. "I do not think—"
"No!" Sheppard said. "Ronon, we're not having this conversation. I know how you're feeling, but I did not bring us here to stage a rescue."
"But, we could—"
"I won't just sit here!" Ronon bellowed.
Rodney jumped and turned his head to look at him, and immediately regretted it, as the burn in his neck turned into a mile-high flames, riding down his neck and into his torso. His air was cut off, and he started coughing, hard and violent. He fell forward off the chair, trying to get away from it, desperately trying to get air, desperately trying not to die.
There were three sets of hands on him as he gagged on the floor, holding on tight.
His vision went. Only the hands on his shoulders and arms stopped him from losing it completely. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, he managed to take in a breath, and, even more slowly, he began to see again. Looking up, he found Sheppard crouched in front of him, gripping his wrists. He was talking, but Rodney couldn't hear him. Teyla was kneeling next to John, a hand on his left arm. Which meant the hands gripping his shoulders were Ronon's.
Sound came back last, and he heard Sheppard sigh heavily in relief as he let go of Rodney's wrists. The other two continued to hold on as the Colonel sat back on his heels and lowered his head, covering his face with a hand.
Teyla's expression grew stern, and she looked at Sheppard. "We should lie him down again, his back and neck cannot take this strain."
John grimaced, gave Rodney an apologetic look, and then moved to lift him up on the left. Ronon once more reached in to pull him up on the other side, and the two men carried Rodney back to the rear of the Jumper. Teyla helped him climb back into the sleeping bag and helped him lie on his side, and then sat down next to the bench, acting like a bulwark.
She lifted her head, her gaze focusing on Ronon, who was standing in front of the bench opposite them.
"Even if it were possible, Ronon," she said, her voice tight, "we can not leave him to try. I will not do that. Even if I thought we stood a chance in there of success—"
"I get it," Ronon said, cutting her off. Rodney blinked up at the Satedan, and saw nothing but despair on his face. He stared at Rodney, then nodded at Teyla. "I know." He looked then at Sheppard, who was standing between the bulkhead doors. The Colonel had his arms crossed, looking between the two of them. "I'm sorry," Ronon said, shaking his head. "It was a dumb idea. I don't know what I was thinking."
Sheppard just nodded, then smiled crookedly. "I know what you were thinking," he said. "Believe me, I do. And I'm sorry, too."
Ronon gave a nod, and then sat down hard on the bench. He stared at the floor for a moment, then looked up, meeting Rodney's eyes.
He gave him a sheepish smile.
Rodney didn't smile back.
He didn't want to die. But he didn't want to be the reason they didn't try to save the people trapped on this ship.
He mouthed the word, "Go."
Ronon's eyes widened, then he frowned. "What?"
Rodney tried to swallow, then put everything he had into saying, with volume, "Go."
Teyla twisted to look at him, and Sheppard was staring at him now too, the colonel's arms loose by his side.
Ronon stood up again, and was shaking his head. "No, McKay. Sheppard's right—it's a bad idea."
"Go," Rodney tried again, feeling his eyes fill with tears. "Go."
"No," Ronon said, getting angry now.
"Please," Rodney said, tilting his head a little to see him better. "Go."
"I'm not going, McKay. Stop it!"
Rodney was breathing harder, and Teyla turned fully around, kneeling up so she could grip his arm. He was still staring at Ronon, though. He would not be responsible for stopping them from saving people. He wouldn't!
He tried one more time, all his reserves, everything he had, "Go!"
"No! You can't make us leave you!" Ronon yelled.
But Rodney didn't hear his shout. He was coughing again, and he couldn't stop. He tasted blood in his mouth, and his vision blacked out again. It was too much, hurt too much...
Oh God. Oh God....
He closed his eyes.
CHAPTER FIVE: BREATHE
"Come on, baby. Come on, baby. Come on, baby...." His mother was rocking him, holding him to her chest as he struggled to drag in another breath. "Breathe!" she pleaded. "Breathe!"
He tried. He really did. He just couldn't get his lungs to inflate enough, couldn't get the enough air past his swollen throat. Every intake of breath was a losing battle—less and less oxygen got to his lungs. His heart hammered in his chest—he could feel it failing.
The Oldsmobile was shaking ferociously, as his father kept the pedal to the ground. The car swerved hard to the left and right, avoiding other cars on the road.
"Richard!" his mother shouted. "How far?"
"I don't know!" his father shouted back. "I'm going as fast as I can!"
"Oh my God," Mary whispered, and she went back to rocking him.
He could hear Jeannie crying wherever she was. Rodney couldn't lift his head high enough to look for her, though. It was like all the muscles in his body had just shut down. It was strangely like that time he'd found out he was allergic to citrus—except, this time, he hadn't eaten anything strange, and this time...this time it burned.
The car lurched and swerved hard, and his mother screamed as a piece of luggage came dislodged and crashed down on them. She instantly curled herself around him, taking the brunt of it. A second later, and she was letting go of him, and, trembling violently, shoved the overloaded suitcase away as if it weighed nothing.
"Richard!" she screamed.
"Sorry!" he yelled back. "Wasn't my fault!"
"It's never your damn fault!" Mary snapped back. "Why didn't you listen to me before?"
"Not now, Mary!"
The car swerved hard, and something hard pushed into Rodney's back—one of the boxes must have moved. He started coughing again.
"Oh, my baby, oh God, come on, just ride it out. Just ride it out...." His mother rubbed at his back with one hand, while the other held onto his left wrist so tightly, he thought she might break it. "Richard!"
"I can't go any...oh, crap..."
Rodney heard the sirens now, and the inside of the Oldsmobile was suddenly filled with flashing red and blue lights.
His father started to slow.
"What are you doing?" Mary demanded. "You can't slow down! Richard, he already stopped breathing once! He has to—"
"I know, I know," Richard shouted. "For once in your damn life, Mary, would you fucking trust me?"
He felt his mother flinch at the swear, and he frowned. Dad really shouldn't swear. He was never going to swear when he got older.
He dragged in another agonizing breath.
His mother went back to rocking him, her head tucked into his neck. "Hang on, baby," she whispered.
A rush of cold air assaulted him as he heard his father unwind the window. He could also see Jeannie silhouetted against the window of the back seat now, peering out at the police car that was now obviously running alongside them. She was standing up, her hands and face pressed to the glass.
"Pull over!" someone shouted into the car, the yell muffled by the wind.
"I can't! You have to help me!" his father yelled back. "I have to get my son to a hospital! He's not breathing!"
"What?" the voice yelled. "I said, pull over!"
"My son's not breathing! He's in the back! Please, you have to help us!"
"Sir, you have to—"
"Damn it, listen to me! My son is dying! I don't know where the nearest hospital is—I'm just trying to get us to the next exit as fast as possible. You have to take us to the nearest one!"
"Did you say, hospital?"
"Yes! Please! You can see by the plates that we're not from here! Please, help us!"
"I...your son?...yeah...yeah, okay!" the voice answered. "Look, you're just outside Buffalo, okay? Follow me! I'll get you to a hospital, the best hospital New York's got!"
Rodney turned his head to the right, his eyes following the flashing red and blue lights, using his mother's shoulder to hold him up. He blinked slowly, watching as a police car got in front of them, sirens blaring. The Oldsmobile shuddered again as his father accelerated to match the other car's speed.
It was so cool.
He felt his eyelids growing heavy again, and he tipped his head down. He couldn't even try anymore. It was too hard. He just wanted to sleep.
"Oh, no...no...Mer, no...Baby, please. Breathe! BREATHE!"
He closed his eyes.
Something was lodged in his throat, like swallowing a bone. It stung, but mostly it was catching on his throat, like someone had stuck a stake through it. Ow...ow...ow...
"I can't believe you did that!" Sheppard gasped from somewhere close, sounding like he was struggling for air. "How the hell did you—?"
"Field training," Ronon replied, sounding too calm. "And...," he paused for a moment, "And Melena taught me a few things. She was a very good doctor." He said it so quietly, it was amazing Rodney'd heard it at all.
He tried to swallow the bone, to get it down, but he couldn't. His body wasn't doing anything, wasn't responding at all. He couldn't even open his eyes. Ow!
A hand rested lightly on his chest, the fingers curling slightly—Rodney could feel it trembling slightly.
"He's breathing." Sheppard just sounded awed.
"Yeah." Ronon sounded exhausted. "Kinda the point."
Sheppard let out a shaky sigh, and the hand left Rodney's chest. "Well...damn. I mean...damn." He huffed another breath. "Thank you."
"Will he wake up?" Teyla asked from farther away.
Ronon grunted a negative. "Probably not."
Rodney didn't understand. What had just happened? What were they saying?
Then the Jumper shuddered, and all his questions flew out his head.
"Oh," Sheppard muttered, "now what?"
"John?" Teyla's voice was sharp. "I believe we are dropping out of hyperspace."
"What? Cloak us!" Feet banged on metal near Rodney's head—Sheppard running into the front of the Jumper.
"Done!" she replied. Rodney felt the chill run through him again. He tried to move his head.
"Aw, crap." Ronon didn't sound happy, suddenly very close to Rodney's ears. "Don't wake up, McKay. And don't move your head."
"He's waking up?" Sheppard called.
"Right, right. Damn it! What the hell?" Sheppard sounded like he was smacking the console. "According to Rodney's calculations, we should have another ten—"
"Okay, so we're early! First time for everything!" The Jumper shuddered again as the engines came online. Rodney frowned. Did they need him? What was happening?
"Stay still, McKay," Ronon hissed at him, and Rodney felt hands on his shoulders. "We're right here. Everything's okay. Just hang on a little longer. Breathe, McKay. Breathe."
"Is it an orbital gate?" Teyla asked.
"No," Sheppard replied curtly.
"Then the Wraith will open a wormhole to prevent anyone on that planet from—"
"Way ahead of you." Sheppard sounded angry, but not at Telya. "I'm not about to wait for that to happen, are you?"
"I've got five drones left. Should be enough to teach these bastards a lesson—especially since they'll be fired at point blank range."
"But we will have to uncloak."
"Worth any risk, remember?"
"Yes, but...," Teyla hissed a breath. "Wait a moment."
"Teyla, we don't have time—"
"I'm not disagreeing!" she snapped. "Wait!" Rodney really wished he could see her, see what she was doing.
"Teyla? What are you—?"
She hissed a sound Rodney could swear was a "shush", and then delivered the next words through gritted teeth. "Now," she whispered hoarsely. "Uncloak now. They are looking the wrong way." There was a pause, "NOW, John!"
Rodney felt the cloak retract, then the shudder of the drone bay doors opening.
"There they go," Sheppard muttered. "Hold on to something! Ronon, make sure he—"
"I'm on it!" Ronon shouted, almost in Rodney's ear. It startled him enough that Rodney gasped—except he didn't. No air passed through his lips, and the stake in his throat suddenly felt like it was ripping his neck in two. He arched up, wanting to scream as the Jumper rocked violently and bright light flashed, stabbing right through his eyelids. Teyla screamed something, Sheppard said nothing, and Ronon grabbed McKay's head between his hands, and yelled:
He never opened his eyes.
CHAPTER SIX: FALLING APART, COMING TOGETHER
He was cold.
It was the first thing he noticed. He was cold.
He moved his arm, to pull his blanket up higher, but his arm didn’t want to move. Something was stuck to it, and it hurt to move.
He was cold!
He started to shiver, and he tried to listen, to see if he could hear his parents. If they were home, he could call out.
He wet his throat, and swallowed. It hurt to swallow.
His fingers curled, and he felt scratchy sheets, pilly. His sheets weren't pilly. They were also slightly damp. He felt damp. It was weird—like that one time he went camping, and woke up covered head to toe in dew. He'd hated that. He didn't get why Craig had liked camping so much if you woke up wet and uncomfortable. How was that fun?
Sounds filtered into his ears, and he realized he could hear something beeping softly, thought it was getting quicker. He didn't know what that was. Or what was stuck to his hand. It pulled at his skin—he didn't like that.
He shivered again.
Why was it so cold?
He tried to open his eyes, but they didn't want to open. He tried again. He managed to get in some light, but that was it. He was starting to get scared now. Why couldn't he open his eyes?
He tried a third time, really thinking about forcing his eyes open.
He saw that sliver of white light again, then more. It took a lot of blinking, but, finally, he got his eyes open.
He looked around, trying to understand what he was looking at.
Where was he? What was this place?
The room was a funny blue color, with a white ceiling and a window with slatted blinds. Sunlight was pouring through the slats, filling the room with brightness. It was too much after the darkness of before, and he squinted and averted his eyes from the window.
Was it a hospital? It kinda looked like one. What had happened?
"Mom?" he called softly. His throat hurt. He didn't care. "Mom? Dad?" Fear thrilled through his bones, and he tugged at the plastic tube stuck to his hand. "Mom?"
He heard a door open, and, still blinking sleepily, managed to turn his head away from the window.
It wasn't Mom.
A large, blonde woman walked in wearing a white coat and pink pants. She carried a tray covered in little cups. At seeing him awake, she smiled.
"There you are, Meredith," she said cheerfully, her voice a sort of belly croak. Rodney frowned, but she didn't notice. Reaching his side, she placed the tray she was carrying on the little nightstand next to his bed and then smiled down at him, placing her hands on her hips.
"Well, sweetie, you sure gave everyone a scare, I can tell you. Especially your parents." She reached around behind him and plumped his pillow, and he instinctively tried to get away, not liking being trapped between those enormous tree-trunk like arms. She laughed at him, and he gritted his teeth at the sound.
"Jumpy, ain't ya?" she asked, leaning back. "Well, that's okay. It can be scary waking up here, I know. But don't worry," she reached over and patted his head, causing him to flinch, "you're going to be just fine." She smiled again, and, as he studied her face, he realized—she had no idea what she was talking about. She was just trying to make him feel better, thinking he was just a little kid who could be patron...parton...lied to. Well, he wasn't going to stand for that. He hated being lied to! Especially by people who didn't know what they were saying.
He got enough of that at his old school. The one that kicked him out for being a "discipline problem" because he'd yelled at too many of his teachers.
"Go away," he whispered, furious now. He'd try to say it loudly, but even the whisper had been hard.
Her eyebrows lifted high. Then she smiled again, as if he hadn't said a word, and reached for the tray. "Now, now, pumpkin, I'm sure you didn't mean that. Now, I need to give you some—"
"Meant it," he whispered, frowning at her so hard, he started to get a headache. "Go away. I don't like you."
She turned to look at him, eyebrows lifted again. "Well," she said primly, "I'm sorry, Meredith, but I can't. I have to give you your medicine first." She placed her hands on her hips. "And that was very rude of you, just so you know. You should not say such things to grown ups. I'll be telling your mother, believe me."
Rodney felt his anger growing even more, and when she then tried to give him his medicine—a small plastic cup filled with a thick purple liquid, he clamped his lips shut and turned his head.
"Meredith," she scolded, "stop that now. This is to help you feel better."
He just gave a headshake and kept his head averted.
"Now, I know you're not a baby, young man. You're ten—that's too old to act like a child anymore. So look at me."
Rodney set his jaw, his eyes locked on the window.
"Meredith, look at me," she said again.
He frowned, feeling tears forming in his eyes.
"Look at me!" she snapped.
He was so startled by the shout, he did. Next thing he knew, she'd grabbed his chin in her hands and opened his mouth.
"Now drink this," she said sharply. "It's for your own good."
He started to cry. Her fingers hurt, dry and rough, pinching his skin. But he swallowed the liquid, choking only a little when it got stuck in his throat. She let go of his chin and, suddenly, she was all smiles again.
"There now," she cooed. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
He couldn't look at her anymore. He found himself staring up at the white ceiling, his cheeks wet, choking back the sob stuck in his chest.
She nodded, swiftly grabbing the tray up again. "I'll tell your parents that you're awake," she said stiffly, turning away. "And your doctor. You'll like him—his name is Bill. However," she lowered her voice, the smile leaving her face, "if I were you, I would not be as rude to him as you were to me. We're only trying to help, after all."
And then she was gone, bustling back through the door, and he'd never even gotten to ask her....
Where was he? Where were his Mom and Dad? He wanted his Mom!
The sob finally burst from his throat, and he started to cry.
Eventually, he cried himself to sleep.
He closed his eyes.
"His fever broke last night," a woman said gently, rubbing a soft, damp cloth over his forehead. "Poor thing. We only just got him comfortable."
He knew that voice—Keller? Was it really her?
"Has he woken up?" Teyla asked.
"Well, you, Colonel Sheppard and Ronon would probably know that better than me," Keller laughed softly. "You've been with him more than I have. Have you seen any sign of wakefulness?"
"No, but...oh...did you see that? I think he moved his hand." Teyla sounded close, and the cloth lifted from his head. "Rodney?" Teyla called, a measure of excitement in her voice. "Rodney, are you waking up?"
Slowly, he opened his eyes, and found Teyla leaning over him. Her face lit up in a smile.
"Welcome back, Doctor McKay," Jennifer Keller said, and Rodney turned to look at her. It was then he knew where he was, and relief and joy swelled through him.
He was home.
Atlantis rose up over their heads, beautiful and welcoming. He could picture it crowning them, spires reaching high to the sun dappled sky, the whole City filled with light. He'd often wondered why the Lantean ships were so plain and utilitarian, like the Jumpers, but the City was so elegant and bright. Perhaps it was for exactly this reason—because of the feeling it gave you when you finally made it home. He'd never been so happy to see its arched pillars and bubbling scenery.
He looked back at Keller, and she was smiling. He opened his mouth to say something, and her eyes widened before she quickly shook her head at him.
"Oh, wait, don't," she said. "Don't try to speak, okay? Your throat's not really up to that yet. But," she smiled again, "You're probably wondering what happened." She gave a small shrug. "And I'd love to let Teyla tell you, but...I don't think you're going to stay awake long enough to hear it."
He blinked at her, but didn't disagree. He was already feeling sleepy again.
"So, the short version," Keller told him, "you're going to be fine. Your team got you home, and we took care of the infection; the swelling has already mostly gone down. Your temperature is settling back to normal. Right now, your body just needs rest and fluids. You're going to be feeling pretty weak for a while, but it'll get better. I promise."
Funnily, he believed her.
He gave a small smile, and turned back to Teyla. He was blinking slower now, and it was getting harder to keep his eyes open. She leaned against the bed, gripping his arm in her hands.
"You can sleep, Rodney," she promised. "We'll be here when you wake up."
He watched her a moment, felt her grip on his arm, and smiled again.
She could go anywhere, but she wouldn't leave him.
And he believed her, too.
"Go back to sleep, Rodney," she whispered. "We are not going anywhere."
He closed his eyes.
Something warm and bulky was lying by his side, preventing him from moving. It was like someone had stuck a furnace up against his body, and he woke up warily, confused as to what it might be.
Slowly, he managed to peel his eyelids back. He was in that blue room again. Had to be a hospital. He blinked some more, then tilted his head to see what was lying on the bed with him.
Jeannie's head was pressed to his chest, all unruly blonde hair and light, snuffling snoring. She shifted and pressed closer to him, wrapping around him like he was her stuffed unicorn.
He sniffed, and, after finding out that he no longer had that tube stuck to his hand...poked at her head.
She didn't wake up.
"Jeannie," he whispered, poking harder.
She made a protesting noise, and snuggled harder. He rolled his eyes.
And slapped the top of her head.
She jerked awake, her eyes wide. "Hey!" she snapped. "You hit me!" Then, a second later, her eyes widened, and she grinned. "You hit me! You're awake! You've been sleeping forever, Mer! But you're awake! You're awake! You're awake!" She punctuated the repetition by bouncing on the hospital bed.
He hit her again. She leaned back, and placed her hands on her hips. "That wasn't nice," she said crossly. "I'm your sister. You have to be nice to me. Mom says so."
He was about to hit her again, but she reminded him of something. He lowered his hand, and asked, "Where's Mom?" His voice croaked like a frog, and he grimaced.
Jeannie was about to answer, when, as if on cue, his mother suddenly appeared in the doorway to the room.
"Jeanne! There you are! Good God, young lady! You terrified the hell out of me, running off like that! I've been looking for you everywhere!"
Jeannie sat up more, pouting slightly. "I wanted to see Mer."
"And I told you, you couldn't! He's been very sick, Jeannie! I don't want you catching what he..." His mother trailed off, her eyes on Rodney for the first time. For a moment, she said nothing, then, slowly, she smiled.
"You're awake," she said, sounding breathless all of a sudden. "Baby, you're awake."
Before he could answer, she was suddenly by his side, nearly crashing into the hospital bed in her hurry. She grabbed his head, and, before he could stop her, planted a kiss on his forehead and had buried her head next to his on the pillow, pressing their cheeks together.
"You're awake," she whispered again, her voice muffled by the pillow.
Okay, he thought. This is weird. Neither of his parents were much for gestures of affection.
For a moment, he didn't move, almost afraid to. Then, a little nervously, he reached up the hand he'd hit his sister with and patted his mother's shoulder awkwardly.
"It's okay," he said, feeling sort of lame.
He felt his mother suck in a breath, then she was standing up again, smiling down at him. The smile was then turned on his sister, and Jeannie raised her eyebrows.
"Jeannie, honey, go fetch your father, would you? He's over by the phones. You remember where those are? Tell him Mer's awake, will you?"
Jeannie gave a nod, and slipped off the bed. A moment later, and she was gone.
His mother sat down on the bed, still smiling that strange smile, and grabbed at his hand to hold it in both of hers.
She lifted her eyebrows. "Yes, honey?"
"Where are we?"
"Oh." She looked surprised by the question. "Has no one told you? You're in a hospital, baby. In Buffalo, New York. We're not far from Niagara Falls, did you know that? Maybe we can convince your father to stop there on our way to Montreal."
He frowned a little. "Why?"
"Why stop at the Falls? Because they're supposed to be amazing. You'd like to see them, wouldn't you?"
He frowned more. Sure, he would. Craig had been to see them on a trip with his parents, and had boasted about going under them. Rodney'd really wanted to do that. But...that's not what he wanted to know.
"No," he whispered, "What happened? Why are we here?" And, silently, he asked, am I going to be okay?
"Oh," she looked down, the smile finally slipping from her face. "Well," she pursed her lips, pondering the answer, then tilted her head and looked towards the window. "You got sick, baby. Very sick. We brought you here so the doctor's could make you better. They did, though for a while there..." She trailed off, still not looking at him. When she finally did turn her head back, her eyes were shining, and the smile was back. "But you're awake now. Everything is fine."
He didn't totally understand that, mainly because it told him nothing. What had been wrong with him? He wanted to know so that he could stop it from happening again. I mean...it wasn't going to happen again, was it?
He was about to ask, when his father's solid form appeared in the doorway, and Rodney couldn't help but smile. Jeannie hovered just behind him, her hand gripping his and peering around his legs.
He didn't notice how his mother stopped smiling at the exact same time.
"Hey, kid," Richard McKay said, taking in the room as if he owned it. "How are you feeling?"
"Hi, Dad," Rodney whispered back. "Okay."
Richard smiled at him a moment longer, then turned to look down at Jeannie. Without a word, she grimaced, let go his hand and turned around. "I'll be outside," she muttered unhappily. "Hate the chairs in the hallway, though."
Richard chuckled, gave her a pat on the head as she left, then walked the rest of the way to Rodney's bedside. He smiled again at his son, his hands going behind his back to clasp together.
That felt more normal. Rodney pulled his hand free of his mother's grip.
"So..." his father began, then paused, and, Rodney realized his father didn't know what to say. "Um..."
"Dad," he said—maybe his father would tell him more than his Mom, "what happened to me?"
Richard frowned as well, glancing at Mary, then back at the boy. "Oh. Well, to be honest," he lifted a hand to rub at the back of his neck, "I'm not totally sure. The doctors have been sort of vague. They said you developed some sort of infection, bacterial I believe, a bit like strep but with additional complications. It's apparently contagious, so they gave you your own room. Besides the fever and the rash, the infection eventually caused your throat to swell when you started coughing to fight it." He gave a shrug. "Your mother was right about that." He didn't look at her when he said that. "Of course," he smirked and leaned in a little closer, "you ask me, most medicine is just voodoo. The doctors don't really know what was wrong with you, but they pumped you full of antibiotics and it did the trick. Your fever broke, and your body is now fighting the infection on its own, as it should." He smiled now and leaned back. "All that's really important is that you're on the mend now. You'll be up and about and torturing your sister in no time."
Rodney frowned some more and looked down, taking that in. A bacterial infection. He'd have to look that up later. He wasn't sure what "bacterial" or "strep" meant.
"Mary," Richard said then, "Can I talk to you outside for a second?"
His mother was still sitting on his bed, and Rodney saw her face go cold at that question.
"Why?" she asked pointedly.
"Please, Mary," Richard said, glancing again at Rodney before looking back at her. "It's important."
"More so than your son?" Mary asked, her tone clipped.
Rodney almost groaned. Why did it never stop?
"Please, Mary," Richard said again. "This will only take a minute."
Mary grimaced, but finally she sighed. She stood up and patted Rodney's leg through the blanket.
"Be right back, Mer," she promised.
Rodney nodded, and watched as she followed his father to the doorway.
Richard came to a stop on the threshold, and looked down.
"Mary, I talked to the school and..." His father shook his head. "I need to get going."
Rodney felt his chest hollow out again. He didn't want to hear this. He didn't. His father had lowered his voice, but he could still hear him. Couldn’t they tell he could hear them? His fingers scrabbled at the sheets, bunching them up into his hands.
"What?" Mary asked, crossing her arms, her expression thunderous. "Are you kidding me?"
"No. Look, I promised them I'd be there yesterday. Obviously, because of Rodney, I'm now late. They understood, but they stressed that I really need to be there tomorrow. If I leave now, I think—"
"Richard, no," Mary said, dropping her arms by her side. "We can't leave with Mer like this. He can't possibly travel until—"
"Not us," Richard said then, shaking his head. "Just me. I'll rent a car. You keep the Olds. You can drive up when Rodney's ready to travel, and I'll meet you there."
"Look, I can't afford not to go. Besides Rodney's special schooling, they're going to be providing us with a lot of benefits, not the least of which is to pay off most of our debts. If I—"
"Richard, no. Please." Mary stepped forward, placing a hand on his father's chest. "Richard, think about it. The doctors told me to keep Jeannie away from Meredith. If I do that, there will be no one to sit with him. He'll be alone."
Rodney's father shrugged. "So? He'll be okay. He's a big boy, Mary, and so very smart." He smiled proudly. "He'll understand once we explain it to him." His smile fell as he shrugged again. "And it'll probably be good for him—show him that he's strong enough to be on his own, that he doesn't need us. It's not like we can hold his hand forever."
Mary's eyes narrowed, then softened. "And what if he has a relapse?" she asked quietly. "You know it's a possibility. They said so."
Richard just stared at her, then lowered his eyes. "I have to go, Mary. You know I do. He'll be okay." He looked up at her again. "He'll be okay," he said again, and Rodney wasn't sure who he was trying to convince.
His mother stared at Richard for a long time, then her hand fell away from his chest. It was as if she'd been rendered speechless. Rodney had never seen her that way before—he always imagined that nothing could stop her from talking, especially when she was upset.
"So," his father said, shrugging uncomfortably this time, "I'll just...I need to go now. I'm just going to say goodbye to Rodney and then head off. I booked you and Jeannie a room at a nearby motel. Here's the information...." He handed her a slip of paper. His mother took it without really looking at it.
"Wow," she said quietly, staring down at the slip.
"Wow?" Richard repeated. "What does that mean?"
His mother looked up from the paper. There was no anger on her face. Just loss. "Nothing," she said. "I just...okay." She looked down again. "I suppose I should be happy."
Richard frowned. "Happy? About what?"
Mary closed her eyes. Shook her head once, then looked up at him again. The coldness was back. "Say goodbye to your son, Richard," she ordered quietly.
Richard frowned more, but didn't disagree. Turning, he walked back inside. He stopped briefly when he saw Rodney's eyes on him, then continued the rest of the way forward.
"Hey, Rodney," he said, smiling again.
"Don't go," Rodney said. Please. Please, don't go. Don't leave.
The hollowness in his chest felt like it was going to swallow him whole.
His father's brow furrowed slightly, then cleared.
"I'm sorry, son," he said, sitting on the bed. "But I have to. Look, it'll be okay. I'm going to just go on ahead and make sure everything's ready for you guys when you come. I'll get your room set up and—"
"How?" Rodney asked. "You won't have the Olds. My stuff's in the trailer."
His father frowned, and he shrugged. "Okay, you have me there. Look, tell you what. I know you've wanted one of those little black and white portable TVs. How about I get you one of those?" He leaned in closer and winked. "You can watch all those shows you like that your mother doesn't want you to watch." He leaned back. "What do you say?"
Well...he did want one of those TVs.
"I don't want you to go," he whispered again. "Please."
Richard looked down, then up again. His expression was closed now. "I'm sorry, Rodney. It's not up to me." He shook his head and took a step back. "I'll see you soon, okay?" He backed up another step.
But it is up to you, Rodney thought. You just don't want to stay.
His thoughts must have shown on his face, because his father frowned deeply. The darkness in his eyes was horrible.
His father turned his back and walked away. As he left the room, he nodded at his mother, who was still standing there, leaning against the doorframe. She didn't acknowledge him.
A second later, his father was gone.
"Don't go," Rodney whispered one more time. His mother closed her eyes.
Rodney listened as he heard his father say goodbye to Jeannie in the hallway. He didn't actually understand any of the words, except for Jeannie's scream at his father not to leave. A few minutes later, he could hear Jeannie crying.
His mother was still in the doorway, her gaze locked on the floor.
After a few moments, her gaze lifted, and she stared right at him.
But he didn't think she saw him.
"I have to get Jeannie something to eat," she said tonelessly. Without waiting for him to say something, she turned and left the room.
Jeannie's crying stopped a moment later.
Rodney stared at the empty doorway for a long time.
It took a while for him to realize that no one else was going to come in. They weren't coming back.
He knew what the hollowness was now. He understood.
He turned away and looked towards the window.
It was night again. Stars twinkled through the slats. The stars were that always there.
He sniffed, and wiped a hand across his face, getting rid of the wetness.
He wondered what the stars were called. They must have names. Maybe he could learn to name them like he could cars. Maybe if he could, he could go up there someday.
And away from here.
He closed his eyes.
"Wake up," Ronon order, hitting his arm.
Rodney did, his eyes popping open in surprise. Ronon grinned.
"Hey!" Keller said from somewhere. "I said you could sit with him and keep him company if you didn't agitate him. That looked like agitating to me!"
"It'd be agitating if I didn't do that," Ronon replied, grinning over his shoulder at her. "Besides, it worked, didn't it?"
Keller sighed heavily and muscled him aside, which was pretty funny, considering he could probably eat her, she was so small. She arched an eyebrow at him. "Hey, McKay. How are you feeling?"
He thought about that. Actually, apart from feeling really weak, he felt pretty good. He opened his mouth, then closed it—remembering Keller's order from before.
"Oh," her eyebrows lifted up, "No, no. You can talk now. Well, whisper at least. It's been long enough that I think your vocal cords are pretty much healed. In fact," she smiled brightly, "there are some folks here who have been anxiously awaiting the sound of your voice."
"I wouldn’t go that far," Sheppard said quickly from Rodney's right. Rodney tilted his head that way, and found not only Sheppard standing near his head, but Teyla as well, smiling down at him. Sheppard quirked an eyebrow at him. "Wanting to hear his voice is a bit like wanting to remember that 80s song you really liked, but, once you do, you not only remember that it wasn't a very good song, but it gets stuck in your head and it's the most annoying—"
"Oh, you suck," Rodney whispered, rolling his eyes.
Ronon laughed, and Teyla grinned up at Sheppard.
"Nice first words," Keller said cheerfully. "And so accurate! He knows you so well," she said, narrowing her eyes playfully at the Colonel.
"Oh, ha ha," Sheppard said, crossing his arms and pretending to glare at her.
Keller laughed, and looked down again at Rodney. Her smile grew more gentle. "So, just for the record, you feel okay? You feel good? Aside from what I'm guessing is a little weakness?" Her eyebrows lifted.
He looked at the others around his bed, then back at her. "Yeah," he whispered. "I'm good."
"Okay, then." She patted his shoulder. "Then I'm going to leave you with this lot. The minute they start annoying you, though," her eyebrows lifted, "You let me know and I'll kick them out." She leaned in. "Believe me," she stressed quietly, "I'm more than happy to kick out Ronon and Colonel Sheppard. They've been a burr in my side since you got here." She smiled again and backed away, shooting the two men dark looks in the face of their innocent gazes. Then she smiled more warmly at the Athosian. "Teyla, of course, can stay as long as she wants."
"Thank you," Teyla replied smugly.
Keller laughed again, and turned away, siding past Ronon in order to leave them alone.
Ronon watched her leave, then turned back to Rodney. "So, you're good?" he asked.
Rodney gave a small nod, then grimaced a little. For the first time, he realized there was bandages around his neck—the front and the back. He reached up to touch it, but his arms felt leaden. He frowned, and looked over at Sheppard.
"What happened?" he asked hoarsely. "My neck..."
Sheppard grimaced, showing his teeth. "Oh yeah, that. Um..." He looked over at Ronon, then down again. "You kinda stopped breathing at one point. We couldn’t get any air down your throat because it was too swollen so..." He grimaced again, as if he didn't like to talk about it.
"Ronon performed a tracheotomy, " Teyla supplied smoothly.
Rodney's eyes widened, and he looked up Ronon.
"You cut into my throat?" he whispered.
"Got you breathing," the big man said, shrugged.
Rodney was speechless.
"He saved your life," Teyla said, as if that wasn't clear.
Rodney looked at her, then up at Sheppard. The Colonel gave him a sort of, 'yeah, he did, though it was kinda gross', look. Rodney eyes stayed wide as he looked back at Ronon.
"Thank you," he whispered finally. It seemed all he could think of to say.
"Yeah, well," Ronon shrugged, "Wouldn't have helped for long. Sheppard's the one who got you home in time. A few more hours, and you wouldn't have made it."
"That's true," Teyla said, and Rodney turned to look at her. She nodded down at him. "Colonel Sheppard managed to destroy the Hive we had hitched a ride on. It not only saved the people on the planet, but we were able to come through the Stargate without impediment."
"Oh, to be fair," Sheppard said, shaking his head. "It wouldn't have worked if you hadn't confused the Wraith long enough for me to get the shots off. You saved all our butts with that one, Teyla."
For a moment, she looked like she would argue, but, instead, she smiled and blushed, ducking her head.
Rodney just looked around at the three of them. He really didn't know what to say. What could he say?
"I—" He frowned. "I—"
"Hey," Sheppard punched his arm softly. "You would have done the same for any of us."
Yes, he would.
It was kind of amazing. There was a time...there was a time when he wouldn't have.
Just like there was a time when he had no one who would sit by his bedside.
But now there was no question. There wasn't even hesitation.
And he didn't feel hollow anymore.
He turned to look at Sheppard. The Colonel met his gaze, then smiled. He knew.
"Thank you," Rodney said softly.
Sheppard rolled his eyes a little, then grinned. "You know how you can thank us? Help me teach them how to play Bridge."
With a flourish, the Colonel whipped a pack of cards out of his back pocket.
"Oh," Teyla groaned, looking like she was in pain. Ronon just sighed.
"No, really!" Sheppard dropped the cards out of the box into his hand. "You're going to love this!" He started shuffling, grinning some more. "It'll be great."
Rodney couldn't complain. It wasn't one of his favorite games, but...how could he complain? In fact, he felt a growing love for the game as Ronon and Teyla went to pull up two more chairs in addition to the one that was already by Rodney's bedside. Sheppard continued to shuffle, watching the other two. Rodney settled back on the bed, feeling a little sleepy, but not wanting to close his eyes.
"Okay," Sheppard said finally, when three chairs had been positioned around Rodney's bed. He sat down in the chair next to Rodney's head, Teyla at his right and Ronon opposite. Apparently, Rodney's legs were going to be the table. "Ronon," Sheppard said, dealing out the cards, "you're going to be my partner, and Teyla, you'll be Rodney's. Now, the first thing you have to learn about Bridge," he smiled at them all, "is that it is a team game." He turned to Rodney, then arched an eyebrow when Rodney blinked a little too slowly. "And you," he said, pointing a finger, "don't you dare close your eyes."
Rodney feigned a glare. But he didn't close his eyes.
I know. I'm a sap. J Hope you liked it!