Drawing the Line – part 4 of 4

Sheppard was not entirely faking. Staying awake was hard. Staying focused was even harder. If McKay hadn't been there, perhaps he would have given in and let himself drift. Because that's how it goes, Rodney, he had thought, but would never say. It's not just me protecting you. It's the other way round, as much as anything. He fought more fiercely when he had others in his care. When others depended on him, whether team-mates, subordinates or strangers, there was nothing that he would not do. It was as simple as that. It was his choice, not their burden.

"Both your lives are forfeit now," he heard someone say. "You, Doctor McKay, for the original crime; Colonel Sheppard for perverting our justice by snatching you away."

"Disembowelling, I presume?" He could hear the panic fluttering beneath McKay's voice.

"Our laws seem harsh to you," the man said, drawing closer, "but it is our way. Had you accepted your punishment, we would have held no enmity towards you after the sentence was complete. Our harshest punishment is reserved to those who deny their crimes or attempt to escape justice."

"Crimes?" McKay echoed. "Well, then, I admit it. Mea culpa, and all that. I'm an arrogant man, too fond of my own voice. I wasn't listening, all right? You did that greeting speech and I just heard 'blah blah blah.' I didn't hear you talk about your sacred whatever it was… red flower… thing. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to sit on the grass. My bad, as they say. Can't we put this thing behind us. What do you say?"

"Ignorance is no excuse."

"Oh, please!" McKay made an audible effort to restrain himself. "No, no. You're right. It's isn't. I didn't listen to your laws, so accidentally broke one–"

"'Ridiculous superstition' I believe you called it." The man's voice was cold, and the tone was enough for Sheppard to recognise it as the voice of the village priest and headman. "'As if a god would care about stupid flowers,' you said, 'if he existed, which of course he doesn't.'"

"Ah. Well." McKay gave a nervous bark of laughter. "It sounds bad. I'll accept the punishment. But not disemboweling, please. I was going to face my fate. Sheppard's the one who dragged me away. I was kicking and screaming, but you've seen how he can get. It was his fault."

"And he will be punished."

"No!" McKay cried. "Listen. Wait. What I mean is this. There's the crime and then there's the running away. I did the crime but not the running away. He did the jail break, but not the crime. That's one strike each. It's not the disemboweling. It's not… Oh! No! No! Please, no!"

Sheppard opened his eye just a crack, and saw McKay ringed, but no-one had yet laid hands on him. Very minutely, Sheppard tightened his grip on the knife.

Then he missed a bit, carried away by pain. He drifted back through the red waves to hear only the strangers' voices, speaking only meaningless sounds, not words. Rodney! he thought. Where's McKay? The air seemed colder. How much time had passed? His heart started to beat very fast, each pulse of it stabbing his side with liquid fire.

"–so you can't." The pulsing stole the words again for a moment. "Because," he heard. An animal howled below him, in the valley. "Please."

His mouth was dry. His hands were cold with air-dried blood. He grasped the knife and readied himself to act. A dozen of them; he had seen that in the last sliver of vision before his eyes had slid shut. A dozen of them, armed. He wouldn't stand a chance. Unless, perhaps, he could take the priest. Unless the priest was so important to them that he could be used as a bargaining chip. Unless… Unless…

"But you shot him," he heard McKay say, clear and distinct, "so that counts as pretty much a branding, anyway. And I was mauled. Call it quits?"

"Your fate is sealed."

"No!" McKay's voice moved very close. "It was my mistake, my crime. He just did what he did because… well, he's like that. Likes to play the hero. Always risking himself because of the stupid things we do. We've been through… things lately. I nearly lost my sister, and… But, no, you don't want to know about that. He did… Well, it amazed me and terrified me, what he was prepared to do for me. I didn't know what to say, but I said thank you. Because it helped me. Like this. He's made it worse, but he wasn't to know. He couldn't watch one of his team suffer like that, for something so stupid. He just couldn't. I hadn't realised that before, not until… Well, not until now. It's not fair to kill him because he wanted to help me. It's not… I didn't even know he was hurt – did you know that? He didn't tell me. He–"

"So you will give yourself up," the cold voice said, "and accept full punishment of the law, as long as we let Colonel Sheppard go free?"

"Well, not full punishment. I'd rather not have that." Sheppard could clearly imagine the expression on McKay's face. "But if… Yes. Yes, I will."

"Rodney." Sheppard opened his eyes. "No."

"Sheppard," Rodney hissed, but relief was unmistakable in his eyes. "I had a plan. Well, I would have come up with a plan soon. That is, I hoped…"

Sheppard forced himself upright, easing himself up with hands against the surface of the crag. One hand still held the knife. "Don't listen to him. I'm his team leader, and his actions are my responsibility. I made him run away."

"And you were the one who killed the hound? Who left my son for dead?"

Oh, crap, he thought. But he kept his head high. "Yeah, that was me."

"Left him for dead?" McKay echoed. "Oh no. Oh no. I didn't mean… Is he going to…?"

The priest ignored him, his gaze still on Sheppard, still cold. "And you say, as Doctor McKay does on his behalf, that you should bear the whole punishment, and he should go free?"

He nodded. "No!" he heard McKay shout, almost scream. He looked sick and furious and horrified… and betrayed; perhaps even that. But one day, whether now or in the distant future, it had always been going to come to this. One day… But he still had his knife. He had to mean it, and he did mean it, but that didn't mean that he was giving up the fight just yet.

"What are you hoping to gain here?" The priest seemed genuinely interested. "Do you hope that I will be so impressed by your self-sacrifice that I let you both go?"

"Are you?" McKay asked, hopeful, despite the horror.

"No." The priest raised his hand, signaling orders to his men. "Take them, but keep them alive for their deaths on the scaffold."

Sheppard threw himself forward then, knife in hand. McKay, he saw, was dropping to the ground. And there was noise and shouting… and then light, nothing but light.

Rodney sat in the back of the jumper and watched them work on Sheppard. Ronon and Teyla were on either side of him. "Did you find…?" he managed

"No," Teyla said. "It was a false report. My people are still missing."

"Oh." He looked at his hands, the broken chains dangling. Something else was required, but he couldn't find a way to say it.

Barring complications, Sheppard would be fine; they had told him that much. The cloaked jumper had shown itself just in time to put an end to any deciding confrontation. They were rescued. End of story.

"But it doesn't feel right." He looked at Sheppard's face, lost in unconsciousness. "It isn't like this in the movies."

"Like what?" Ronon asked.

Perhaps the time for saying things was already over. They were heading back to the light, back to Atlantis, back to business as usual. Just as he always did, he could lose himself in work. Thoughts would be the preserve of late nights alone in his room. Soon, perhaps, even they would fade.

But the jumper was still out in the darkness, and he could still taste the dust of the mountain on his lips. "The cavalry turning up," he said, "just in the nick of time. It's supposed to be the happy ending."

But a rescue curtailed things before they were properly ended. It plucked you free before you had to face the consequences of your actions. It cheated. He still had no idea how far down the path of heroism he was prepared to walk. Sheppard knew. During the Wraith siege, Sheppard had been on the point of sacrificing his life for the city, until he had been saved by a rescue that he had never expected to arrive. Countless others – Carson, Grodin, Griffin, Gaul – had made that final choice. Rodney's choices kept on getting plucked away. And he was still alive, while so many others had died.

Perhaps he was just a coward. It was easy to volunteer to be disemboweled when you knew that a rescue party would almost certainly arrive before you could be dragged back to the scaffold. It was easy to decide to sacrifice yourself to the Wraith, and then tell the one person who you knew would move heaven and earth in order to keep you from doing it.

"It leaves things unfinished," he said, "and then you don't know…" He stopped, chewing his lip, tasting stone. "Someone else does it, when it should be you."

"Would you have preferred us not to have rescued you?" Teyla asked him.

It had ended with lights, and the enemy running; Ronon with his blaster, and Marines with their guns; medics pushing him away, saying, "Leave him to us now, Doctor McKay." And sinking down in the jumper, safe and relieved. Rescued and saved; everything finished.

"No," he said, and gave a mirthless laugh. "Of course not." And perhaps that was the worst thing of all.

"Know how you feel." Ronon clapped him on the shoulder unexpectedly, and Rodney suddenly remembered how Ronon had wanted to kill that big Wraith by himself, but how he had hugged Carson when he had stepped in and done it for him. "But it's how things are. We look out for each other."

And Rodney had meant those things when he had said them, hadn't he? The thought of Sheppard dying for his own infraction had been unbearable, and he would have faced anything rather than that. The thought of Sheppard murdering someone for his sake had been unbearable, and he had stepped in, almost killing the boy himself, not really thinking about the consequences, but almost doing it, anyway. Was it any different from what Sheppard had done, he wondered. Sheppard had broken him out of prison because he couldn't bear the thought of watching him get hurt. Sheppard had done… that, on Earth. There were many forms of sacrifice. Maybe what mattered was not that you walked the path to the end, but that you walked it as far as you needed to.

"I'm not used to it," he said, flanked by two of his team, with the blood of the third on his hands. Not being alone, he added.Having people you're ready to sacrifice yourself for. Having people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for you.

When you cared for nobody and nothing, life followed simple rules. Sometimes he missed that certainty, but would he trade what he had now for what he had lost…?

"Beats being alone," Ronon said.

Sheppard woke up, slept for a while, then woke up again. The third time, McKay was there, but he made his excuses and slipped away as soon as he could.

It was two days before he came back.

"I thought things would go back to normal," McKay said, after he had settled himself on the chair, "and we wouldn't have to talk about it. That's how it works."

"There's nothing to talk about."

"No." It sounded vehement. "It's just…" McKay's hand rose to his face, then fell again. Sheppard could see the faint marks of shackles around his wrist. "You could have died because of me, and you… you would have killed that boy, if you hadn't... if I hadn't…" He let out a breath. "I… I understand wanting to save people's lives, but where do you draw the line?"

Sheppard did not pretend not to understand, but he had no idea how to answer.

"You said you'd do anything, you said, for one of us… But what if we don't want you to? And it's not true, anyway. You didn't want me to… to do… to do what I did… with Elizabeth. The cost was too high, you said. But I did it, and we can see the results of that, and I know you wouldn't… wouldn't put one of us first if you knew it would mean dozens of innocent people dying. So how do you decide? How do you draw the line? One person? Ten? A hundred? An injury? Death?"

Sheppard ran his thumb up and down the edge of the blanket. "I don't know. I don't know if anyone can know."

He saw the true question in McKay's eyes – the true issue that neither of them would ever talk about out loud ever again. You made a man kill himself, for me. But the man in question had not been innocent. He had made a mistake for the best of reasons – hell, reasons Sheppard could understand and empathise with - but ultimately the fault had been his. His fault to make, and his to rectify. You faced up to your responsibilities. It was as simple as that.

Simple? Oh, God, no, of course not simple. Never simple. But…

"He was barely twenty," McKay said, "not even a soldier."

"He wanted to kill you. I thought it was him or us."

"And that makes it okay?"

He said nothing for a long time. Sometimes, at night, he still heard the sound of sixty Genii impacting against a shield. "It's my job," he said at last. His job was to keep the civilians of Atlantis safe. Sometimes that meant he had to kill people whose only crime was to want those same people dead – people who were exactly the same as him, but served on different sides. A soldier had to bear that burden, so that civilians didn't have to. There was nothing heroic about it; it was just was. The day it became easy was the day he would quit. But the day that he could no longer bring himself to do it when it was necessary… That, too, was the day that he would quit.

"Your job?" McKay's laugh sounded miserable. "That's it?"

He nodded, but perhaps he was more than half lying, after all. Sometimes you did things not just because it was your job, but because the thought of a friend dying was more than you could bear. Sometimes you would pay any cost – any cost at all – to save a friend, and you never stopped to think about the implications of that cost. So far, he had only had to kill those who had, in a way, laid themselves open to that fate, but perhaps even that justification was specious. What if, one day, the only way to save a team-mate was to murder an innocent? Would he go that far? A few years ago, he would have said a categorical no, but sometimes he felt the answer getting less clear-cut with every passing day. It scared him, sometimes, to look into the mirror and see himself, product of the Pegasus Galaxy, and a war.

"There are no rules," he said. "You just have to do what feels right at the time."

And sometimes you were proved right, and sometimes you were proved catastrophically wrong. It was wrong to abandon your people to the Wraith, but when rescuing them resulted in the Wraith waking up… When rescuing them lead to millions dead across the galaxy…? But still, knowing what he had known at the time, the choice had been the right one.

"And the fate of the galaxy rests on that?"

He shifted, feeling the stab of numbed pain from his side. "What else is there?"

McKay looked stricken. "I never used to think about things like this," he said quietly. "I never used to think much about the consequences of what I do, but now..." His gaze was sudden, unusually direct. "I guess you've never had that luxury."

He had to look away. "Like I say, I do what feels right at the time."

"Yeah. Well…" McKay moved on the chair. "Even breaking me out of prison and nearly getting me disemboweled as a result."

"Even that." He smiled. "Sorry about that."

McKay's smile was equally fragile. "I guess it's the thought that counts."

He could finish this, he thought. He could say light words, or close his eyes and pretend to sleep, and neither of them would ever talk about this again. That was the sort of thing he did. That was the sort of thing they both did.

"We do what we have to do," he said. "Sometimes we meet a situation, and we know that we just can't let it happen. Sometimes we don't want it to happen, but the cost is too high. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we think we're something for the right reasons, but later find that we weren't. Sometimes we're about to do something, but someone else stops us. It's just how things are."

"Then it shouldn't be."

"Life isn't like physics, Rodney," he said quietly. "It doesn't follow rules."

McKay let out a breath. "I wish it did."

"You can't beat yourself up over every mistake," Sheppard told him. "There's millions of people out there depending on us. We play the best we can with the hand we've been given. We do what feels right, and sometimes we're wrong, and sometimes..." He looked at McKay, who was still alive, and whose sister was still alive, while a guilty man was dead. "Sometimes we're right," he said firmly. And sometimes the right thing felt terrible, but it wasn't any less right for that; and sometimes the wrong thing felt wonderful, but was still wrong.

"It never used to be this complicated," McKay said.

"No." Sheppard remembered when he had enlisted in the Air Force, merely because he wanted above all else to fly. He remembered before that, a child watching planes in the blue. He remembered having no-one he cared about, and when his decisions affected nobody but himself. "But that's how things are, and we're stuck with it."

Rodney sighed. Raising his head, he opened his mouth, as if he was going to continue the discussion, but then he subsided.

The silence stretched. "Want to play chess?" Sheppard gestured at his tray. "Think the board'll fit?"

"I'll get the chess set." McKay stood up. "I won't go easy with you just because you're an invalid. Prepare for humiliating defeat."

"Like last time?" Sheppard reminded him. "When I beat you?"

It was no solution at all, Sheppard thought, but perhaps, in a way, it was an ending. Out here in the Pegasus Galaxy, they didn't have the luxury for anything else. But perhaps, he thought, as McKay turned to give a troubled smile from the door, it was enough.

Note: As I said at the start, I set out to write some self-indulgent whump, full of those all my "guilty pleasure" elements. Before I got very far, it morphed into an exploration of ways of writing flashbacks, prompted by a discussion on LJ a few weeks ago. I wanted to start a story well over half way through, and use various techniques – dialogue, memory, allusion etc. – to show what went before.

However, before very long, it morphed again, and became what you see here – a story exploring some of the outstanding issues raised by Miller's Crossing. I actually wrote most of the story in a single sitting last week, the words flowing out in that way that always feels magical to me. The final two scenes, however, took a lot of careful thought and a huge amount of editing. In my longer stories, emotional and character issues are thrown up by the events of the story itself. By the end of the story, therefore, I like to have resolved these issues (as much as you can ever truly resolve anything in life.) However, in this case, the emotional issues were ones raised by the show, not by the story. It just didn't feel right to me to end with total resolution. Plus, they're big issues which shouldn't really have total resolution. I don't one hundred percent rule out the idea of a semi-sequel – i.e. a self-contained short story that takes place after this one, and further explores the character issues – but I don't have current plans for one.

By the way, I never write deus ex machina endings, but in this case I did it entirely deliberately, because it seemed to tie in better with the emotional themes.

Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to everyone who's sent comments. I'm now going to post this on my website and LJ… and then go off to carouse with a horde of drunken Morris dancers. :-)