Drawing the Line
by Eildon Rhymer

Sheppard's been shot, Rodney has a price on his head, and the hunters are closing in. As the two of them struggle to stay alive, recent events come to a head.

Rating: T – some violence
Characters: Sheppard and McKay (gen.)
Genre: Angst, adventure, injury, episode tag. Gen.

Fourth season spoilers: Even though it doesn't look like it at first, this is a kind of indirect tag for Miller's Crossing, and as such has some spoilers for that episode.

Note: I had originally intended this to be some entirely self-indulgent and gratuitous whump, written as light relief while I planned my next long, serious story. It ended up morphing into something somewhat different…

Part one of four

"This isn't going to work." McKay's voice was broken up with breathlessness, and his pants were drenched with water right up to his waist. "It was a stupid idea."

"Got a better idea, McKay?"

Sheppard kept his hand pressed to his side. It felt as if it helped, though he doubted it made much difference, really; the wet blood on his hand was proof of that. So, too, was the light-headedness he was beginning to feel. When he turned his head too sharply, the world lurched, and was slow to catch up. Mild dizziness sometimes took him at the worst moments, and it was getting worse.

"You heard them. They–" McKay slipped again, his foot shooting sideways on the muddy rocks. He shot his hand out for balance, but the other one came too, dragged by the cuffs. This time he managed to stay on his feet, but only just. "A little help…?"

Sheppard was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, on keeping the rhythm of that. He had tried to catch McKay the first time he had stumbled, but the pain had almost torn him apart.

"It's all right for you." McKay stopped long enough to make a forceful gesture with both cuffed hands. "You're not the one with a price on your head."

"I don't think they're going to pay for you," Sheppard told him, "just kill you."

"And that's supposed to make me feel better?"

"You're not worth much, anyway," Sheppard managed. "Perhaps a gourd and a woven basket."

"I distinctly heard them say 'disembowel.'" The mask of outraged slipped, and the fear was evident beneath it. "Disemboweled while still alive. Because I ran from my punishment. Because I have no honour."

"Which is why we need to keep on running." Sheppard spat the words through gritted teeth. It hurt worse when he stopped moving. It ought to hurt worse when he was running, but it never did. When you stopped, part of your mind thought that the fight was over, and let itself give in to the pain.

"If you hadn't made me run in the first place…"

"Rescued you," Sheppard corrected.

McKay visibly swallowed. "I… I could have taken it." His chains rattled, speaking of hand movements he was unconsciously trying to make. "The punishment, I mean. It wasn't… wouldn't have been so bad. Wouldn't have killed me. But you… you had to break me out. I don't like being hunted, colonel. You should have left me there."

Something howled not far below them in the valley. McKay's head snapped up, his mouth dropping open. Sheppard steadied himself, his hand pressing hard beneath his stolen cloak. Beyond the rocky cleft of the river, there was only open moorland, with black rocky outcrops the only cover. It was the worst place imaginable to be hunted, but it had been the only choice. I couldn't leave you there, Rodney – just couldn't.

"It's your fault when I get bloodily killed." McKay had gone paler, the flush of his exertion stark on his cheeks.

"Neither of us is going to get killed."

Was that a trail over to the left? The moor was dark purple, almost brown. From a distance, it looked like bare earth, but now he could see that it was a carpet of some thick plant, two or three feet tall. Wading through it would be excruciating, but if the worst came to the worst, they could crawl. No, if the worst came to the worst, they could lie completely still, and hope the hunt passed over them. If the worst came to the worst, they could fight with hands and feet when men and animals came to drag them out, doing anything and everything to stop these people from slaughtering McKay.

"That's easy for you to say," McKay said. "You're not the one who–"

The howl was joined by a second one, and then a high and excited yelping. A sudden gust of wind brought them the faint sound of human voices, and then there was silence again.

"Get moving, McKay," Sheppard chided him. He preferred to go behind him, closer to the hunt. He preferred to go behind him, so McKay wouldn't see if he staggered sometimes, or couldn't suppress a grimace of pain. "Keep following the river for now."

"For now?"

"Until I tell you to do something else, and you do it."

"Oh." McKay started to move, clearly hampered by his cuffed hands. "Oh!" he cried. "Ugh! Wet pants. They chafe."

"I really didn't want that image."

Above his uniform, Sheppard wore a dark brown cloak, grabbed on impulse as they had fled. That was all. Although he had officially been a guest, they had stripped him of his vest and all visible weapons, and there had been no chance to get them back. The only weapon he had, he thought wryly, was the broken-off tip of an arrow embedded in his side. No, it wasn't a weapon; it was a ticking bomb, a stop-watch counting down to zero. They were working against two different clocks: the clock that governed how long they could elude pursuit, and the clock that governed how long Sheppard could keep going.

Contrary to what certain people sometimes said, Sheppard was neither suicidal nor a martyr. Only a fool refused to seek medical treatment for an injury that reduced their effectiveness. Hiding an injury from someone who depended on you was more than foolish, it was selfish. You needed perfect trust in a team. You needed to know that your wingman could do the task you needed him to do. If you suddenly found that he couldn't, then you were dead, just as much as he was.

Whoever made those rules, he thought, pressing his lips together, had never worked with a panic-prone scientist called Rodney McKay.

He would do what he had to do, and one of the things he had to do was to keep McKay calm – relatively speaking, he added – and focused. Whether McKay knew about his injury, or not, running was the only option, because he would not hand McKay over to those barbarians. If he told McKay, then he would have to contend with a whole new level of emotion and panic, slowing them down, making it harder to think.

I won't let them take you, he thought, but out loud, all he said was, "You have to go faster than that."

For now, McKay's outrage was sufficient goad for them both.

He was cold, he was wet, he was miserable… he was shackled, for God's sake, and certain lieutenant-colonels were yapping at his heels, with a "Hurry up, McKay", and a "We can't stop now, McKay", and "Dammit, Rodney, they're almost on to us."

"I'm trying, I'm trying," he gasped.

Then Sheppard told them to leave the river and head out onto the moor, though why on earth was he doing that, when there was no cover, and Rodney was the man with the giant price on his head – the arrow pointing at him saying "shoot here", as he ran totally exposed on the vast side of the mountain?

"Why?" he demanded.

"Just do it." Sheppard, too, sounded breathless.


"Rodney." Sheppard sounded weary, rather than furious. "You have your area of expertise. I don't question you on yours. What do you know about wilderness survival and being hunted?"

"Oh. Good point." He swallowed. And how do you know about that?

It appeared that Sheppard knew what he was talking about, after all. The undergrowth was thick, almost sheltering. The moor was far less smooth than it looked from a distance, with rocky rises that could hide them from view. As they ran – staggered, really – Rodney often found himself in the cold shadow of an outcrop. When he looked back, Sheppard, with his dark cloak, was almost invisible. Rodney's cloak was identical, so he had to assume that he, too, was camouflaged, even though he felt as visible as a flare.

The light faded as the sun sank lower, touching the mountains on the far side of the valley. "What if we're still here when it's dark?"

"Then it'll be easer for us to hide."

"And easier for them to creep up on us. They've got dogs. Whatever passes for a dog round here, anyway."

He had nothing he could do with his shackled hands. He had no devices, no machines, not even any weapons. The only thing between himself and a hideous death was the ability of his own body to keep on running, and sheer blind luck… and Sheppard, he found himself adding. When Sheppard had broken him out of that cell… And, before that, when Sheppard had offered – no, demanded – to take Rodney's place…

"I'll need a rest soon," he said, and his chains rattled as he spoke.

"I know."

Half a dozen steps later, he tripped, his ankle turning on a rock. He flailed for balance, the chain jerking at his wrist, wrenching at his shoulder. It was difficult to catch himself when he realised that falling was inevitable. The coarse vegetation scratched his face, and he ended up on the ground, his vision dark with stalks, and his mouth and nose full of earth and fragments.

He rolled over. "I'll live, thank you for asking." He clutched his ankle with both hands, the chain stretching across the top of his foot. It's broken! he thought. I'm crippled! Then he remembered the hunters, and the fate they had planned for him. He moved his foot experimentally. The pain was already fading. "Help me up." Sheppard, for a moment, looked as if his attention was a million miles away from Rodney. "It's hard to get up when your hands are tied."

Focus seemed to return to Sheppard's eyes. He hesitated for a moment, then offered Rodney a hand, hauling him to his feet.

"What about now?" Rodney hobbled towards an outcrop. "Just for a minute."

Sheppard didn't join him as he leant against the stone, but stood nearby, looking taut and ready. Rodney watched him for a while.

"You didn't have to," Rodney said, at last. "This, I mean. Break me out." There had been so much shouting, with spears jabbing, and arrows flying. They had ducked and run, Sheppard's arm sweeping around his shoulder, covering him with the cloak, and for a short and terrifying time there had been nothing but shouting, and his breathing, and the ground pounding beneath his feet.

"Yeah," Sheppard said. "Yes, I did."

"Oh." Rodney pulled disconsolately at his chains. Sheppard had known the way, too – weaving his way through the houses and walls and yards, although Rodney had spent just as long as Sheppard had spent in the village, and had no idea at all. They should have been back in Atlantis by now, but Rodney's captors were cleverer than they looked. Sheppard's face had gone entirely still when he had seen the twenty armed men guarding the jumper. "You can take them," Rodney had whispered, but Sheppard had let out a slow, shallow breath, and shaken his head. "The jumper was secure when I started," was all he had said, a little later. "They must have taken a short cut. Guess we're on the run, then, until back-up arrives." Some time after that, he had said, "I'm sorry."

"They're still following," Sheppard said now. "Five minutes behind. I'm sorry, Rodney, but we need to..."

No.Rodney curled his hand around the chain. I'm sorry. He pushed himself away from the rock, and found that his ankle was hardly hurting at all. The air was cold on his face, though inside his cloak, he felt as if he was roasting.

Sheppard had found them a narrow animal trail through the foliage, and that alone made it possible to walk. It was a bit like heather, he thought, remembering images on Carson's calendar, remembering Carson himself. The few trees were bent almost double by the prevailing wind, and the dark specks of birds overhead looked predatory, as if they were waiting for him to fail.

"I don't want to be disemboweled," he found himself saying.

"If it comes to that, I'll kill you myself."

Rodney faltered; turned round. "Do you mean that?"

Sheppard's face was impassive. "Do you want me to mean that?"

Rodney turned back, concentrated on walking, concentrated on the scratching branches of the almost-heather, on the circling birds, on the shivering undergrowth ahead of them that denoted… what? If he was on the scaffold, facing… facing that, then wouldn't he want a clean death? If a friend was prepared to take on the burden of his own death in order to save him that agony, wasn't it a…? Wasn't it…?

No, he thought. Oh no, no, no. He chewed at his lip. "I always said you were going to get me killed one day."

"That's a yes, then?"

Sometimes, even after three years, even after so many shared adventures, so many hours together, so many talks, something happened that made him realise that he would never truly understand John Sheppard. Could he really be asking…? Could he really mean…?

He stopped, turned, opened his mouth to ask…

That was when the creature leapt silently out of the undergrowth, and fell on them with a jubilant growl.

end of part one