Drawing the Line - part 2 of 4

Thanks for all the reviews! As you can see, I'm in full-on evil cliffhanger mode on this story. In my long stories, I prefer the closure approach to chapter endings, rather than the cliffhanger one, but in my shorter ones, all bets are off.


Part two

It was the size of a large dog. Sheppard dodged, but his wound slowed him, and the creature was faster. As it crashed into him, Sheppard brought his hand up, and found himself grasping a collar. He hauled at it, but the creature was strong, far too strong. He was thrown down onto his back, and came up kicking, not really thinking at all, just using everything he had to keep it off him, to keep its teeth from his throat, to keep its claws from his chest.

Everything came in short flashes, one after the other. Saliva in his face. Bared teeth, and rotten breath. A clump of coarse fur in his hand. Dry undergrowth cracking beneath his body, sharp twigs digging into his back. His hand slipping on its collar, wet and warm and red.

And McKay, shouting. McKay, hauling at the same collar with his chained hands. Glimpses of McKay's face, of his shoulder, of his leg, of his cloak. "Shoo!" and "Get off him, Rover!" and "Stop!" and "No, please no, please no, no, no, no…"

"Hold him," Sheppard managed to gasp.

"What? What? I can't!" But McKay moved even closer, hauling at the collar – a glimpse of his face, red with exertion – then cried out in pain as the creature twisted round towards him. He didn't relax his grip, though. It gave Sheppard the freedom to let go with one hand. As the teeth closed only inches from his throat, he reached down to his boot – and it hurt! Oh God, how it hurt! – and dragged out the knife that was hidden there.

He felt the hideously small resistance that living flesh always made to a sharp knife, and then he was through, in and twisting. Warmth flowed over his hand. He hauled the knife out, and stabbed again, and the creature screamed, almost human in its pain. Another stab, and it pulled itself away, curling in on itself, snarling, whimpering. "Get back!" Sheppard shouted, but he was too far gone to follow the threat up with violence. The knife was a line of scarlet in his hand as he gestured with it limply. "Rodney!"

McKay's face was slack with horror. Sheppard struggled dizzily to his feet, and lunged at McKay, only narrowly preventing it from being a fall. "Come on."

"But it –"

"McKay…"

"It's –"

He dragged McKay along the track. "Dying animals are dangerous. It wasn't wild. It had a collar. They're close."

"It winged me," McKay said. "That… that's the right word?"

No time to smile. Rodney's arm was bleeding, but Sheppard thought it wasn't too bad. He knew he'd collected a few scrapes himself, but the arrow wound had exploded into an agony that flowed out into everything, filling the sky with pulsing red and white. Even deep lacerations would have been nothing against that.

"You killed it," McKay said. "Stabbed it. Where did you get the knife? I thought… You said… I thought you didn't have any…"

"Can't spend… so much time… around Ronon–" The pulsing eased a little when he spoke "–without picking up… a few tips on… how to hide… a knife."

McKay glanced down at his own sleeve. "You okay?" he said in a quieter voice.

Even real things seemed unreal, jerking around to the rhythm of their steps. Sheppard saw his own two bloody hands, one of them still on McKay's arm, dragging him forward. "It's his blood." It was not entirely a lie.

The ground started to slope downwards, and he could see that they were heading into a small depression, like a jagged bowl. If they went down there, they would be hidden from anyone further away, but to anyone standing on its lip, they would be sitting ducks. He changed direction, skirting the depression instead, heading for a few sparse trees.

"You killed it," McKay said again. "Left it writhing in agony. A pet dog."

"It was trying to kill us."

"I'm a cat person myself." McKay's voice was broken up with the rhythm of his breathing. "But you can't… You shouldn't… It's just…"

"Wouldn't hear you complaining if it was a Wraith. It was him or us. Simple as that."

"But…"

"If you're going to be squeamish, McKay, then why are you here?"

He realised that he was effectively shouting – hissing the words out through gritted teeth. The pulsing was fading, but everything around him was beginning to sparkle with hectic colours. He could hear the sound of pursuit, but it faded in and out, like the tide.

"Yes." McKay tore his arm away. "Why am I here? Because you broke me out. Because you made the decision for me and dragged me out on this ridiculous adventure. You should have left me there."

"To get branded?" Sheppard spat. "Rodney, they were going to string you up in the middle of the square, strip you naked, and brand you three times – cheek and chest and back."

"It was only a small brand."

"Then they were going to leave you hanging by your wrists for an hour, fair game for anyone to do anything they wanted to–"

"As long as they didn't injure me," McKay said faintly.

"Yes. And if you don't know the possibilities that that entails, then I can give you some ideas."

"No." McKay swallowed. "I…"

"And, no, I couldn't go back to Atlantis to get help, because there was notime and I wasn't going to turn my back and leave you there in their hands."

"I…" McKay turned his head away. "I could take it."

"I couldn't!" Pain buffeted him, and he lurched sideways, and grabbed at the tree, at empty air, at McKay, but McKay had moved away. He held himself upright with excruciating effort, but couldn't suppress a small moan.


How he hated this! His sleeve was soaked with blood, and there were bloody hand-prints all over his cloak. He could still hear the dying screams of the creature, coldly slaughtered by Sheppard… and his eyes, as he had done it; his eyes.

"I could take it," he said again, as his arm throbbed, and turned fear into fury.

This time Sheppard said nothing. And Rodney almost hated him in that moment. What right did Sheppard have to decide this for him? It had been Rodney's punishment, but Sheppard had pushed forward, demanding the right as his team leader to take the punishment himself, and then, when that was denied, committing them to this stupid course of action.

"You just assumed I couldn't cope," he said. "Assumed I needed rescuing. Assumed I was weak. Well, colonel, I'm stronger than you think."

But his voice wavered, and his arm was hurting so much, the pain like claws at the back of his eyes, almost enough to make him cry. Because he had been terrified in that cell, facing something terrible, with absolutely nothing he could do about it. Sheppard will come up with something. Sheppard won't let this happen. It had been there, silent inside him, like a mantra. And Sheppard had. And in that first moment of escape, the joy had been like nothing else he had ever felt, as fierce and vibrant as the terror had been.

So Sheppard was right, and he had needed rescuing. Sheppard was right, and he had been too weak to take it. And he hated Sheppard for knowing that. And he hated himself, because it was the truth.

"It's not a matter of strength." Sheppard's voice sounded strange. "No-one does that to one of my people."

Rodney brought his blood-stained hand up to his face, the other hand trailing behind it. "So you'd have done the same for Ronon, then?"

Sheppard just nodded.

Rodney let his hands fall. The anger was still there, and the misery, but they were out on the open moor, hunted by people who wanted to kill him. How loud had they been talking? Not loud, he thought, but rather gasping things with the force of a shout, but no louder than a whisper. "Got to keep running," he said, "now you've committed us to this course of action."

They moved on, Rodney going in front, but Sheppard leading from behind. We're not done, he thought, but he wondered if he'd ever get the nerve to talk about these things again, without pain and urgency to show him the way. Normally it was Sheppard who said that they had to focus on the bigger picture, that they could talk about whatever issues had come up after the mission, after they'd finished running for their lives, after the hordes were defeated. Then, of course, the 'after' never came. The mission ended, but they talked about easy things, and life moved on.

Light was leeching from the sky. The air was growing colder, and everything looked as if it was fading ever so slowly into an uniform grey. Not far away, he heard the shouts of men, and the howling of animals. One went on longer – a slow, ululating cry that made him think of the Hound of the Baskervilles, and death stalking on a moor.

"They've found the body," Sheppard said.

"If it's dead yet." He remembered how it had writhed.

"It is now."

He thought of men with cold eyes, slitting the throat of an animal to save it from a worse death. If it comes to that, I'll kill you myself. He shivered. Not so different, after all, Sheppard and these hunters.

"It's not going to work." As the light faded, it became harder and harder to keep his footing.

"We're already overdue. They'll send someone after us soon."

"We're not going to last that long." He chewed his lip, then tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. "I had to shut my eyes duringBraveheart when they cut him up."

"That's not going to happen."

Oh God,he thought. It was so tempting to believe. It was so easy to believe. His own eyes told him otherwise. There was so little cover, and the enemy was so close.

"Can we… go to ground?" he stammered. "Do a last stand? Fight off all comers?"

"You watch too many movies, McKay. Geek."

"I'm the head of the science department," Rodney protested. "Geek is in my job description. Unlike yours. I bet your men don't know what you watch in your spare time. Geek yourself."

It didn't make anything better. He couldn't clutch the injury on his arm, because the chain wouldn't let his arm go that far. There would be all manner of infections…

"Up there," Sheppard said, from behind him. "Towards the rocks."

Rodney looked at the dark rocks rising from the moor, as foothills gave way to mountains. "You want us to go up?"

"Animals won't follow. Then we can shake them off. No scent."

The ground was damp at the foot of the crags, and there were tiny star-like white flowers between the cracks. A long-legged bug clambered out of a crevice, onto the back of his hand. Rodney snatched his hand away. "I can't climb, not without my hands."

"It's not proper climbing. I'll get you started."

I'm going to die. I'm going to die, he thought. Why on earth was he going along with this? Why on earth was he stepping on Sheppard's locked hands, was he letting himself be heaved up, was he scrabbling with tethered hands to find something to hold on to? The next few minutes were awful. He was exposed on the rock surface, an easy target for anyone to shoot. Several times, he almost slipped, and rock dust fell down onto his face. He inhaled the sharp scent of stone, and soon he began to hate that little white flower, that filled up cracks, and made them slippery.

Then he was there, his lungs screaming, his chest scraped, his arms tearing with agony. He lay on his stomach, hands stretched above his head, then rolled onto his back. Sheppard dragged himself across the ground beside him. "Low," he whispered hoarsely. "Got to stay low."

They weren't even high above the moor. Far higher crags rose behind them, and the mountain top was out of sight, far beyond even them. They were on a thin expanse of grassy ground, like a ribbon between the first tier of crags and the second. Here, at least, fallen boulders gave them cover.

"They'll have seen where we came up," he said.

Sheppard said nothing.

"You're going to tell me we need to keep going. I know that look." He swallowed, tasting stone. "Sheppard…"

Sheppard pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, but it seemed to take him several attempts. He crawled to the lea of a boulder, then tumbled sideways, his shoulders and head resting awkwardly against the stone.

"Guess there's no good time to tell you this…" Sheppard began.

Rodney looked at Sheppard's blood-stained hands, then at the smears of blood on the edge of the crag. He saw the strain around Sheppard's eyes, and the pallor of his lips.

"Took some fire," Sheppard said, "during the escape. Thought I could…, but I can't, not any more." His eyes closed, then opened again. "I'm sorry, Rodney." This time they did not reopen.

"Oh no. Oh no no no no no." Rodney scrambled towards him, but his cuffed hands betrayed him and pulled him over, and he landed on his shoulder, and cried out at the pain in his mauled arm. "Sheppard. Oh God, Sheppard…"

"Not dead yet." Sheppard's lips moved barely perceptibly into a smile.

Rodney touched his throat with both hands, feeling both the pulse and the rapid breathing. Then with both hands he pulled the cloak aside, and saw the blood-soaked clothes beneath it. "Arrow head's still in," Sheppard whispered.

But Rodney knelt there with his head turned away. He brought up his hand, palm outwards, urging Sheppard to be quiet.

Someone was climbing the crags below them.


end of part two