Sholio (sholio) wrote in sheppard_hc,

The Deepest Cut (sequel to Kodiak's Mercy Variant)

Title: the deepest cut (leaves no mark to bear)
Author: sholio
Word count: Erm, 8200 words. It was supposed to be short.
Rating: R, for violence and the lingering effects thereof; gen.
Summary: A burden shared is not necessarily a burden halved.

Note: This is a sequel to kodiak_bear's story the mercy variant and what wrongs thee has wrought. You should read that one first. And thank you, Kodiak, for letting me play too! Also, trying to give this thing a title that sorta went along with yours was hella difficult. How do you come up with them?

Earth people seemed to think that the worst part of getting badly hurt was the injury itself and the day or so of "wait to live or die" that followed. Ronon had no idea how anyone could believe that; he supposed it must come from the impossible softness of the world where they grew up -- a world without Wraith -- or maybe from their faith in their medicine, which was the best he'd ever seen.

But either way, it was a silly belief. Naive. Those first critical hours might the worst for everyone else, but you ... you were too out of it to notice, usually. No, the worst by far were the days and months that followed, days and months of slowly rebuilding strength, of enduring pain without breaking and learning to accept the new limits your injury had placed on you -- some of them temporary, others permanent.

"It's going to be a long uphill road for you, Colonel," Beckett was saying.

"Never play the violin again, Doc?" Sheppard's voice was light and drawling, though much softer, much weaker than Ronon liked hearing it. However, he could feel the tension in Sheppard's muscles, locking them rigid and probably contributing to the light sheen of pain-sweat on the man's face.

Ronon was helping prop up Sheppard while he ate, careful not to touch the thick bandages covering his back or to disturb the IVs and shunts. Due to the location of Sheppard's injury, it was very difficult for him to maintain a position in which he could do anything; he couldn't lean back, but was too weak to sit unaided. So Ronon (and Teyla when Ronon wasn't around, although her smaller size made her less well-suited for the job) had gotten in the habit of propping him up so that he could eat cups of broth, watch DVDs or just look at something other than his pillow for a while.

"It's not your violin playing I'm worried about," Beckett said dryly. "But you're going to need a lot of physical therapy, and it won't be pleasant."

"Am I going to be doing that on Earth, or here?" To someone who didn't know him, the tone might have sounded playful. Ronon knew better.

From the look in Beckett's eyes, he did too. "There's not a lot they could offer you on Earth that we can't here. Dr. Cole is a top-rate physical therapist, and sad to say, she's had a fair bit of experience since she's been here. If we need equipment, we can requisition it."

Ronon could feel Sheppard's body unwinding against his. "So I'll fly again," he said, and it wasn't a question.

"Eventually," Beckett said, and he looked away. "Probably. There aren't any guarantees here. Your back was ..." He paused. Swallowed. It was easy, sometimes, for Ronon to forget how sheltered these people were, how thin the stuff of their nightmares.

Sheppard set down his plastic spoon, having lost interest in the soup, but his attention was still fixed on Beckett. "Give it to me straight, Doc. Gimme the odds here. I'm not talking immediate recovery; I'm talking long-term. Can I get it all back?"

Beckett's eyes flicked up to Ronon himself, but not quite to his face -- a silent question, that Sheppard answered with a slight nod that brushed his unruly hair against Ronon's chest. Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of him.

Beckett cleared his throat. His eyes didn't quite meet Sheppard's. "I expect in the long run, you'll lose some range of motion in your shoulders and arms. Nerve damage is going to be an issue as well; the preliminary tests are showing a lot of neural trauma, which seems to be largely a problem on the left side, where the damage was worse."

Ronon didn't mean to, but he couldn't help flicking a look down at Sheppard's left arm, resting across his lap; Sheppard hadn't been moving it much. The Colonel's head moved slightly as he looked down, too. "Lucky I'm right-handed," he said, in that light tone that wasn't really light at all.

"Yes," Beckett said, seriously. "It is. We won't know for certain until the swelling goes down and you've had a chance to do some healing, but I can say with almost one hundred percent certainty that you won't regain full functionality in that hand and arm." He tried to smile; there was pain under the warmth, and when he spoke again, Ronon was reminded of just how well this man knew them, knew what drove them. "It shouldn't affect your ability to fly the puddlejumpers at all. But craft that don't have that mental component to their technology -- I'm not really sure. I'm not saying you can't, but it might be harder. We'll just have to wait and see."

Sheppard's body against Ronon's had gone tense again, wound up like a coiled spring despite the painkilling drugs blunting his usual edge. But that wasn't where most of Ronon's attention went -- instead, he alerted to a soft sound from the doorway. A half-glimpsed movement. Footsteps, quick and careless, walking away.

The other two hadn't noticed. Even Sheppard wasn't as alert as Ronon always felt that he should be, especially not here, not in Atlantis. So only Ronon knew that they had been overheard, and he also knew who it had been, because he wasn't nearly as dense to nuance as people sometimes thought.

That had been McKay.

McKay hadn't come around much since Sheppard had turned the corner. Teyla and Ronon spent much of their time with him; Ronon really had no clue what Teyla did when she was alone with Sheppard, but as for him, he just spent a lot of time with his boots up on the edge of the bed -- ignoring the nurses' dirty looks -- while they watched movies or talked about knives and guns. Or, often, he just sat there and sharpened knives while Sheppard slept. Ronon figured, after what the guy'd been through, spending most of his time asleep was probably a good thing. Beckett said it'd get better, and Ronon trusted him.

But McKay had gone back to the labs. He dropped by once or twice a day, bringing things from Sheppard's quarters and, if Sheppard was awake, ranting a bit about the idiots he was forced to work with, before disappearing off again. He said he was busy, and Ronon believed him. He would have written it all off to that, as well as that whole weird Earthling mindset about the relative unimportance of convalescence, if he hadn't happened to walk in on Teyla and McKay arguing in the gym.

"-- that you are selfish, Rodney McKay!" Teyla's voice said, and Ronon stopped, startled, in the act of reaching for a towel.

No one else was around; colored light striped the gym floor through its stained-glass windows, casting long bars of blue and amber through the door of the men's locker room. Ronon had entered through the opposite door; he hadn't thought to check if anyone else was around. Now he paused in the shadows, wondering if he ought to leave. He missed the next part of the argument, but got its gist --

"-- and furthermore, you have no idea what you're talking about! What's your degree in, Advanced Stickology?"

"I do not need a degree in anything to see that you have allowed your own guilt --" she said it like an epithet "-- to overcome your concern for Colonel Sheppard's well-being."

Ronon couldn't help a slight grin at the frustrated sputtering he could hear from the other side of the wall. Teyla seemed so very sweet most of the time, which made it all the more startling when you ended up on the receiving end of her tongue ... or her sticks. He didn't hear any whacking sounds or screams of pain; McKay ought to count himself lucky that she was venting with words only, at least for now.

"Oh, thank you, Heightmeyer, and you're basing this fantasy on, what, exactly? I'm a busy man. I have work to do, vital work that keeps this entire city from sinking to the bottom of the sea. Colonel Sheppard has nurses to mop his fevered brow, not to mention you and Conon, so I fail to see why I need to waste my time playing nursemaid --"

"Kindly do not speak to me again today," Teyla snapped, and Ronon heard an ominous thunk, as of a bantos rod striking a wall. McKay made a small squeaking sound. "I feel the need to continue my workout. You may certainly stay and help," she added, ominously.

Ronon peeked around the corner just in time to see McKay literally run into the doorframe in his haste to escape. Teyla was just sliding gracefully into a ready pose with the sticks, and while he watched, she attacked one of the practice dummies with enough force to send stuffing flying across the room.

Perhaps this wasn't a good time to work out. At all. Ronon beat a hasty retreat before he was noticed.

Teyla and McKay fighting was weird. In subsequent days, a frosty silence descended between them. They would still sit with Ronon in the cafeteria, but on opposite ends of the table, very pointedly not speaking to each other. It creeped him out, and he ended up spending even more time sitting with Sheppard and feeling a vague guilt, as if in Sheppard's absence he should really be able to stop this sort of thing from happening.

"So what's up with Teyla and Rodney?" Sheppard asked, in between squeezing a rubber ball that Dr. Cole claimed was supposed to help with his recovery somehow.

"Don't know what you're talking about," Ronon said, looking up from the knife that had long since passed razor-sharpness.

Sheppard just grunted and turned his head to the side; he was lying on his front, as usual, with one arm dangling down. A light film of sweat plastered his hair to his forehead, even though what he was doing wasn't remotely stressful. When Ronon looked up at the continued silence, he saw that Sheppard had fallen asleep again, the rubber ball curled loosely in his fingers.

Ronon took it from him, very careful not to disturb him, and placed it on the bedside table; then he sat back again to see about catching a little sleep himself. It was night, the lights of the infirmary dimmed; nothing moved except the night duty nurse, filling out paperwork in a pool of light at her station.

Well ...also, a slight furtive movement in the doorway, which had Ronon tensing briefly before he recognized the footsteps as McKay's. Small rustles let him know that McKay was working up the nerve to come in, so Ronon closed his eyes and obligingly pretended to be asleep.


After a few repetitions of the soft, desperate hissing sound from the doorway, McKay gave up and tried a slightly louder, "Hey, Ronon!"

Huh. It was him that McKay wanted, not Sheppard. That was unusual. Ronon unfolded from the chair and loomed over to the doorway. McKay flinched backwards.

"This important?"

"Um ... kind of?" McKay's eyes darted everywhere except to Ronon's face, and he whispered, "Can we go somewhere that we can, you know? Talk?"

McKay, Ronon noticed, was kitted up for a mission, in tac vest with a P90 clipped to his chest. His curiosity engaged, Ronon followed his teammate down the corridor at what was a slow amble for him, but a brisk walk for McKay. A brisk, purposeful walk: they were heading for the gateroom.

"Where're we going?"

"Um ..." McKay turned around, walking backwards, and almost ran into a pillar. "I need to go back to M3X-482," he said in a rush. "And I need to you to come with me."

Ronon stopped walking as the Atlanteans' name for the planet sank in. "You mean Nechea?" Anger rose in him, a slow steady wave that tightened his hands into fists; a little bit of it was aimed at McKay, but mostly at the bastards on that planet. "Why?" he said. It was all he could say.

"Because I -- there's something I have to do there." McKay didn't back away, his body stiff with a sort of stubborn defiance. Ronon didn't usually find McKay hard to read, but right now he couldn't read him at all. "I'd just go, but it's one of the most fundamental rules in the city, the ones we drew up the first few weeks we were here -- nobody goes offworld by themselves. So there's you, and there's me -- can we just go?"

"It's the middle of the night," Ronon said, schooling his tense muscles to stillness. Just the name of the planet made him want to scream, hit something -- kill someone.

"I know. This has to be done now."

"At night."

McKay's face twisted. "It's not night there. It's morning. But yes, now."

Reluctantly, a victim of his own curiosity and McKay's puzzling desperation, Ronon began to walk again. "You tell Sheppard you're going back?"

"No!" McKay's voice was a sharp bark. Softer, he said, "No. I know he wouldn't agree."

"But you're going anyway." Something deep inside Ronon coiled into a tight knot at the disloyalty.

"Yeah," McKay said softly, to the wall. "I have to, like I said. I -- this would be a lot easier if you were there."

"Me." Not Teyla, not a team of Marines. Even though McKay and Teyla were somewhat on the outs right now, Ronon still would have expected that McKay would've gone to her first.

McKay shot him a glower. "Yeah, you, but don't let it go to your head. I just need muscle that doesn't talk much."

Ronon let the insult ride over him. "They aren't gonna be happy to see us."

"I know," McKay said, not looking at him.

The gate tech on duty wasn't anyone Ronon knew. When McKay gave him the gate address, he said in a puzzled tone, "Sir, that one's been locked out."

"I know. I overrode it. There's something on that planet I need to get." McKay jerked a thumb at Ronon. "I've got security. I won't be gone long."

Still the gate tech's fingers hovered over the console, not dialing. "I'm sorry, sir, but I have to ask: Does Doctor Weir know about this?"

McKay snorted. "Of course she does."

"It's not on the roster of scheduled gate missions."

"Sure it is. Last-minute addition, see?" McKay's fingers moved quickly, drawing up a display on one of the laptop screens that meant nothing to Ronon. The gate tech peered at it, still looking uncertain. "Look, you can wake up Elizabeth to ask her if you want -- or just let me dial the damn gate and I'll be back in half an hour."

"I'm going to have to log this," the gate tech said, uncertainly.

"Yeah, fine, log away, just dial the gate. Chop chop! Time and wormholes wait for no man."

A minute later, they emerged from the shimmering blue puddle into a crisp Nechean predawn, and Ronon said, "Weir doesn't know about this, does she?"

McKay's restless hands moved across his gun and the front of his tac vest, and he didn't say anything for a moment. "Village is this way," he said at last, and started walking briskly through the dew-wet grass.

"McKay --" It only took a couple of long strides to catch up. Ronon grabbed him by the vest, halting him in mid-step and forcing him to turn around against his will. Not too long ago, Ronon would have cheerfully helped turn this planet into a smoking crater. And he still didn't give a damn if everyone on this Ancestor-forsaken mudball was culled tomorrow. But after everything Sheppard had sacrificed to keep these people safe, the possibility of what McKay might have in mind left him sick to his stomach. "I'm not gonna help you do something Sheppard wouldn't want," he said, low, and punctuated it with a little shake to McKay's vest.

McKay stared up at him, and understanding dawned along with a blush of anger. "You think I came here to -- Jesus, Ronon! What do you think I am?" He struggled to get free; Ronon loosened his fingers, deliberately let him go. "I don't believe you," McKay muttered, resuming his determined power-walk towards the village.

Ronon followed him, more puzzled yet. Something was clearly wrong; he wasn't sure what McKay had in mind, but he could read the man well enough to know that he was scared. Terrified, even. The bravado was a mask over a stinking pit of fear.

The Nechean village looked just as it had two weeks ago, when they'd last been here. Ronon averted his eyes from the pole at the center of the village. In the shafts of early sunlight slanting between the houses, the dark stains on the packed dirt around it were all too clearly visible.

Children's cries alerted the rest of the village to their presence, and in moments, people began to circle them. Ronon reluctantly thumbed his blaster to the stun setting, but he was ready to flip it back at the slightest hint that lethal force might be necessary. Just because he hadn't come back and razed this place to the ground didn't mean he wouldn't enjoy killing a few of the sonovabitches.

McKay's hand rested on top of his P90, but he made no move to point it at the crowd. "I want to talk to Doatac," he said. His voice had that peculiar tightness which meant he was speaking through clenched teeth. After a moment, Ronon realized that McKay's teeth were set together to keep them from chattering.

The crowd parted; Doatac stepped slowly through, face set like stone. "You are not welcome here."

McKay tilted his chin back. "I want to talk to you," he said, in that tense and measured voice. Casting a withering glare at the crowd around them, he added, "Alone."

"You are child-killers, and we owe you nothing."

McKay sucked in a breath. "I think you'll want to hear this."

After a moment, Doatac nodded and jerked his head towards the largest house in the village, the one where they'd sat in negotiations with the Nechean people before everything went to hell. Rodney hesitated for a brief moment, then fell in step behind the Nechean leader, Ronon a silent and hostile shadow at his back. Doatac's guards moved to flank them.

Doatac didn't speak until the door of the house had closed behind them. Four of his guards had accompanied them inside; two of them carried swords, while two had old-model, single-shot Genii guns in poor repair. No one had tried to disarm Ronon, which was just as well, since they'd most likely have died if they'd done so.

Unlike the last time, Doatac did not offer them food, drinks or a place to sit. Turning, he regarded them from flinty eyes. "I've given you audience; it's more than you deserve. Speak, and you had best have good reason for coming back."

McKay sucked in a sharp, convulsive breath. "The last time we were here... " He hesitated, darted a look at Ronon out of the corner of his eye, then stepped away, putting distance between them. Ronon, startled, moved to follow, but McKay shot him a look, and he stopped, his fingers sweating where they curled around his blaster. The walls felt too close; the amount of effort that it took not to just start shooting these bastards was overwhelming, and only thinking of Sheppard kept him under control. He hated this.

"The last time we were here," McKay started again, and again he hesitated but this time he nerved himself to continue. "Sheppard, ah ... Sheppard was punished -- maimed -- for something I did." Clear self-loathing curled around every word, and Ronon found that he himself had gone still, listening.

Doatac cocked his head to the side. "Your leader explained that your actions reflected on his honor, and therefore, as an honorable man, it was to him that the price of your crime should fall."

Despite the increased distance between them, Ronon was still able to see McKay flinch as if he'd been slapped. "That's his code of ethics. Mine ... mine is a little different. I --" His fingers curled on the P90, twitching convulsively. "My, um, code of honor doesn't allow other people to be punished for things I've done."

Ice-cold horror raced through Ronon's stomach in a quicksilver flash. Because suddenly he knew, knew why they'd come here, and oh, Sheppard was going to kill him. Except he couldn't believe McKay would -- anyone else, maybe, but not McKay --

But McKay was still talking, his words spilling out in a cascade, shaking with the fear that Ronon finally, horribly understood. "I'm not saying the full, uh, the full forty is really necessary, but I mean, I'm not saying you shouldn't either, I guess it would be up to you, whatever you think is appropriate ..."

He trailed off. Doatac stared at him for a moment. So did Ronon. Finally the Nechean leader said, "After what you have seen, after what happened to your friend, and knowing that by our laws the punishment has been meted out and the family's honor satisfied, nothing further required -- you are still volunteering for this?"

McKay's mouth opened and closed a couple of times, before finally he managed to squeak out a small, terrified, "Yes."

"No," Ronon growled at the same time, and he raised his gun, not sure whether he intended to shoot the guards or to stun McKay and drag him home -- maybe both. "Not a chance."

McKay spun, his face white and glistening with fear-sweat, but his eyes blazed blue fire. "What would you do?" he spat. "If it was you? What would you do, Ronon?"

"I wouldn't do this." But in a flash of memory, he felt again the sharp edge of the blade he'd held to his own throat, demanding that Sheppard and Teyla shouldn't suffer for the crime he'd committed -- willing to open his veins if it was what it took to make his threat understood. McKay's silence and distance over the last couple of weeks made a lot more sense, from this angle.

What would you do?

And he knew, now, why McKay had brought him here, and not Teyla, not Lorne. Because McKay was right: Ronon did understand.

Slowly he lowered his gun, but still held it ready to go back up at a moment's notice. McKay's frozen mask of fear and anger softened just a little; the edge of his crooked mouth quirked up. "I figured that if anybody'd be a sucker for this stupid machismo crap, it'd be you."

Ronon's stomach roiled with anger; he hated being helpless, hated the feeling that he'd been used by someone he trusted. It was like that first time with Sheppard, two weeks ago, all over again, with an extra layer of bitterness because Sheppard had to do what he did; McKay just wanted to. "Don't know if I'll forgive you for this," he said, because there wasn't room in his heart for anything more than brutal honesty, not right now.

McKay swallowed, his eyes bright. "I know. I can pretty much guarantee you that the Colonel won't either." He turned back to Doatac, who had watched the entire confrontation with unreadable gray eyes. "So?"

Doatac rubbed a hand over his mouth, then he said, "There is no reason why it has to be done in public. That part has already been satisfied."

Ronon saw McKay sway a little, his knees almost buckling; it was one thing to make such an offer, but entirely another to have it accepted. "Okay," he said, his voice almost inaudible. "Okay. Not in public. That's good."

"This way." Gesturing, Doatac led them through the back door, into an alley between the house and the stables where the Nechea kept their domestic herd beasts -- large, scaly things that looked like a cross between lizards and rhinos. The sun was higher now, but shadows cloaked the alley. Somewhere distant, the voices of children could be heard, crying out in play.

An entire rack of different-sized whips hung on the wall of the stables. Ronon heard McKay's small intake of breath, a sound halfway between a gasp and a sob. Doatac reached up and ran his hand down the wrapped-leather butts of the whips, finally taking one down that was a bit finer than the one that had been used on Sheppard -- the one that Ronon remembered all too well.

Bile rose in his throat. He swallowed it back down, and concentrated on watching Doatac run callused fingers down the flails, to the sharp bits of metal embedded at the ends. The whips, Ronon realized, were designed for use on the herd-beasts, not specifically for human beings. No wonder it had torn Sheppard's flesh and muscle to ribbons.

"You do realize," he said to Doatac, his voice emerging ragged and harsh, "that Sheppard's not here to stop me this time. If you kill him, I'll kill you."

McKay didn't react to that; he was mesmerized by the whip, his face drained of all color. Doatac, however, looked up at Ronon. "I think you might actually do that," he said softly. "But I propose that Dr. McKay himself should set the duration of his sentence."

"I, um ... what?" McKay looked up from the whip, blinking.

Doatac handed the whip, butt-first, to one of his guards. Another reached for McKay's tac vest; both McKay and Ronon tensed up, before McKay swallowed and made himself still and rigid, allowing them to strip off his vest and shirt.

"All you need to do is tell us to stop, and we will." Doatac stepped back, out of the way. "We are not a cruel people, and our honor in this matter is satisfied. This, as you said, is for your honor and that of your people. At your word, we will desist and you will be free to go."

Ronon felt himself relax, just a little. This was McKay, after all: one blow, maybe two, enough to expunge his guilt, and they'd be free. He wouldn't be dragging yet another broken, half-dead body through the Stargate this time. Assuming that the Nechea kept their word, of course -- and he tensed up again, flipping the blaster to kill with an semi-unconscious flick of his thumb, when the guard brought out a set of shackles.

"Easy," Doatac said shortly, not taking his eyes off McKay. "This is to hold you in position, nothing more." He held out a hand, palm up, and showed them both the key. "At your word, you'll be unlocked."

"I don't like this," Ronon growled as McKay's wrists were shackled. He could still feel the loathsome chill of the iron, a vivid sense-memory of being chained, straining, forced to watch as Sheppard -- He shook it off, the healing cuts on his wrists stinging and burning. Every instinct told him to just blast this bunch, grab McKay and drag him home before this went any farther.

"Ronon, stay out of it." McKay's voice was a rough whisper; he swallowed repeatedly as the iron chain was looped over a large hook on the stable wall, perhaps intended for tethering beasts or hanging butchered carcasses. It forced him to stand upright, stretched to his full height, his cheek against the cobble wall of the stable.

One blow, maybe two. He won't hold out any longer than that, Ronon reassured himself. Stiffly, he thumbed the blaster back to stun. He was literally trembling with fury -- at McKay, at the Nechea, at himself for standing here and allowing this to take place. "Remember," he told Doatac, pouring all his rage and hate into the words and seeing the Nechean leader blanch slightly as the menace came through. "You kill him, you die."

Doatac recovered his composure and inclined his head in a nod of acknowledgment. "And you, by your honor, will abide by your friend's wishes."

"For now," Ronon said shortly.

"Begin," Doatac murmured to the guard.

The whip moved almost too fast to be seen; McKay staggered, grunting at the impact, too startled to cry out. Ronon had received similar blows, and he knew how you didn't really feel pain at first -- it was more of a shock, like having a bucket of cold water thrown over you.

The pain would come in a moment, whiplashing back from shredded nerve endings.

Ronon could tell that the guard was pulling his blows somewhat, whereas with Sheppard they'd hit him with all the force they could muster. Still, by the fifth, blood was pooling around the waistband of McKay's pants and puddling on the ground at his feet. From where he stood, Ronon could see McKay's face in profile: blood streaking his chin where he'd bitten through his lip or tongue, tears running silently down his face.

"Is your honor satisfied?" Doatac asked quietly.

Yes, McKay, the answer's yes, you idiot, Ronon answered for him, in his head. He could smell the coppery tang of the blood, heavy on his tongue; Sheppard had been rank with it, and slippery from head to toe where he'd sagged limply over Ronon's shoulder.

Maybe similar memories were running through McKay's head, because he choked out, "No," and then finally lost control and screamed when the next blow landed, laying open skin and fat and muscle from shoulder to waist.

Ronon couldn't keep quiet any longer, either. The effort of making himself stand still was almost physically painful. At least the last time, he'd been shackled; he hadn't had to do it by choice. "This is stupid, McKay. You know Sheppard wouldn't want this."

McKay didn't answer, but he screamed again as the next blow landed.

You're throwing Sheppard's sacrifice back in his face, he wanted to say, but he knew that it wasn't quite right, not really. Both men were adults; neither was responsible for the choices of the other.

Except when Sheppard tries to be. And there was something presumptive in that, even though he'd never thought about it that way before. Maybe McKay did have a right to be angry about it, after all.

Another blow fell; McKay curled forward against his bonds, gagging with pain.

Ronon looked over at Doatac. He'd watched the Nechean leader before, when Sheppard was scourged -- even through a red haze of anger and hate, he remembered how the older man's face had been impassive, a stony mask of condemnation for Mayflower's death. This time, a slight frown creased Doatac's forehead.

"Lemme talk to him," Ronon said.

Doatac hesitated, then nodded, and made a small gesture. The guard with the whip lowered his hand and stepped back; the flails hung to the ground, dark with blood, the metal tips dulled and trailing bits of flesh.

Ronon went to lean a hand on the cool stone wall of the stable. McKay was shivering, sagging against his bonds. "How many was that?" he asked in a hoarse whisper without opening his eyes.

"Eight," Ronon answered honestly.

A shudder ran through McKay. "Eight. God. Sheppard, he ..." and he fell quiet again.

Ronon didn't think it was a good idea to mention that these were lighter blows, as well; in overall effect, probably closer to four or five of the blows Sheppard had received. But up close, he could see how McKay was trembling, his limbs twitching uncontrollably in mini-seizures of shock and pain.

And, of course, unlike Sheppard, McKay could have stopped the torture with a word. He could, but he hadn't. As stupid as the whole thing was, Ronon found himself at least as impressed as he was angry. He remembered the man he'd met on Ford's planet. That man would not have done this.

"How long are you planning on keeping this up?" he asked quietly. "Till you're as bad off as Sheppard? You think he'd want to know he got himself in that state for nothing?"

"Shut up," McKay slurred, slumping against the shackles.

"You came here to find out what it feels like. Now you know. Only thing you can do from here is get yourself killed, McKay. You think Sheppard's gonna be pissed at you for doing this, that's nothing compared to what he'll do to me if I come back through the Stargate without you."

A full-body shudder ran through McKay; after a moment, he raised his head a little, and mumbled, "'m done."

Doatac unlocked the shackles and Ronon caught him -- for the second time in too few days, his hands were slick with a teammate's blood. McKay was a heavy boneless mass, flailing feebly as he tried to get his legs under him and help prop himself up.

At another nod from Doatac, one of the guards handed back McKay's folded shirt, vest and P90. Ronon slung the other gun over his shoulder and tucked the bundle of clothing under the arm that held the blaster. He could drop it and fight at a moment's notice if he had to.

"Should you wish to return here," Doatac said quietly, "you may find us willing to negotiate on trading matters, if you are still interested."

Ronon looked up, over McKay's sweat-matted hair, in mingled anger and disbelief. He understood the newly won respect in Doatac's voice, but the pain was too sharp, the scent of blood much too fresh to even consider something so insane right now.

"All we want to do is leave," he growled.

Doatac and the guards stepped back, clearing a path. Ronon hooked one of McKay's arms over his shoulders in preparation for the trudge back to the Stargate.

"So which of us you think Sheppard's gonna kill first, you or me?"

He felt more than heard McKay's laugh, a soft puff of air against his cheek.

When they stepped through the gate, considerably later than Ronon had said they'd be, it was to find a small battalion of Marines with Lorne at their head, and Elizabeth at the top of the gateroom stairs, looking furious. Fury changed to shock when she saw the trail of blood they were leaving on the floor, and she came trotting down the stairs even as the Marines fell back to give them room.

"Ronon? Should I call for a medical team?"

The thought had not even occurred to him that he could have radioed back to have one waiting; the way that these people so naturally, so unconsciously relied on their support system didn't come easily to him. "Nah. I can get him down there faster." As he spoke, he gave up on playing crutch and swept McKay up in his arms, ignoring the feeble, irritable protesting sounds that this caused.

"Ronon, are you injured?" Elizabeth demanded as she paced his long strides, half-running to keep up.


"Let Carson be the judge of that, please. And I will see you when you're cleared." Her eyes were dark with the promise of a thorough tongue-lashing to come.

Beckett stumbled blearily out of his office just as Ronon dropped McKay on a gurney, with a frustrated and sleep-blurred, "Oh bugger, what have you lot done to yourselves now?"

"I'm not hurt," Ronon said, stepping back.

"That's his blood, then?" When Ronon nodded, Beckett looked around for a nurse. "Jason, get him in scrubs and check him out, would you?"

"Said I'm not hurt," Ronon repeated, dropping McKay's shirt and vest in a heap on an empty bed.

"I heard you the first time, now shut up and let the lad check you out," Beckett snapped. Ronon decided there were times to fight back and times to just be silent and take your medicine like a man, so he shut up and shrugged out of his blood-stiff vest.

Beckett's string of instructions to his nurses was interrupted with a hissing intake of breath when he saw the exact nature of McKay's injuries. Spinning around, he gave Ronon a look much like Elizabeth had. His mouth opened.

Ronon wasn't a quick man with words, but this time he managed to speak first. "His choice. Not my story to tell."

"It better be a bloody good one," Beckett muttered, turning away to bend over McKay's clotted back.

All the commotion finally woke up Sheppard, which Ronon had been very much hoping wouldn't happen. "What's goin' on?" he mumbled, turning his head to the side, and then stiffened visibly when he saw Ronon, and started to push himself upright, only to fall back with a gasp of pain.

"Don't do that," Ronon said, unnecessarily, bending over to peel off his bloody pants.

"Thanks for the tip," Sheppard muttered, writhing in an attempt to prop himself up so that he could see what was going on.

"You know, you could have a privacy curtain for that --" the nurse began, nervously watching Ronon undress.

"Don't need one." There was nothing like being on the run for seven years to strip away foolish notions of modesty.

Sheppard was glaring at him sideways, as propped up as he could get in his awkward face-down position. "What the heck happened to you?"

"I'm fine," Ronon said absently, picking up the edge of the sheet on the nearest bed to wipe down his bloody chest. The nurse made a small dismayed sound and handed him a towel.

"Yeah," Sheppard said, looking him up and down as he mopped off the worst of the gore, "you look great, all right." It was obvious that the drugs were still slowing down Sheppard's thought processes, because normally, Ronon knew, it wouldn't have taken him this long to realize what was missing -- and the change in his face was obvious, even before he said with a sharp note of alarm, "Rodney and Teyla?"

Sheppard didn't take the news well.

"You let him do what?"

Ronon took a certain amount of exception to the implication that he'd had some kind of choice. Eventually the discussion got loud enough that Beckett came storming out of the operating room, bloody to the elbows, and furious. Sheppard blanched and shut up at the sight of Beckett's bloodstained gloves. Ronon got kicked out of the infirmary for disturbing the patients (which Ronon thought was unfair, because he wasn't the one doing most of the yelling). He went back to his quarters and took a shower, watching McKay's blood spiral down the drain as he'd watched Sheppard's before.

He couldn't help feeling that he wasn't doing a very good job at keeping watch over his adopted people lately.

Elizabeth called him over the PA just as he was toweling himself dry, because he wasn't answering his radio -- and he ended up in her office, feeling like a wargutta fish writhing on a fisherman's spear. After a very uncomfortable hour or so, she dismissed him and he slunk out of her office and skulked down to the cafeteria to grab a sandwich, fervently hoping not to run into Teyla. The morning breakfast crowd startled him along with the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows; he hadn't even realized that the night had passed by.

He picked up a sandwich for himself and a bowl of soup for Sheppard, along with a small bowl of chocolate pudding as a peace offering -- Sheppard not being allowed solid food yet. The cafeteria had a batch of fresh cookies and out of habit, he started to pick up a couple for McKay -- then paused, and put them back, since he wasn't sure if McKay was in any state to eat anything or would be willing to accept anything from Ronon even if he was.

Beckett didn't seem to be around when he walked into the infirmary, which was just as well; he'd pretty much had it with people yelling at him. Teyla, however, was sitting by Sheppard's bed, and he came near to turning around and skulking right back out again, except that she looked up and gave him a quick smile. A bit reluctantly, he joined them, offering Sheppard the food he'd picked up.

"Didn't know you were here, Teyla, or I would've got something for you too."

"I have eaten."

"Yeah," Sheppard said, not quite meeting Ronon's eyes, "me too; Carson's seen to that." He eyed the pudding in Ronon's hands for a moment, though, and then sighed a little and reached out to take the plastic carton, accepting it for the offering that it was.

"You wanna sit up?"

"Nah, I'm happy here." Despite his forced flippant tone, Sheppard's eyes were shadowed and his hand on the plastic pudding spoon trembled slightly. Clearly, he'd overexerted himself earlier; just as clearly, he should be asleep now, but wasn't.

Ronon was pretty sure he could see the reason: McKay, on the far side of Teyla, asleep or unconscious on his stomach with assorted tubes and wires hooked up to him. His head was turned away from them, so Ronon couldn't see his face.

"He has not yet awakened," Teyla said in response to Ronon's questioning look. "They brought him out a little while back. Dr. Beckett said that he will continue to sleep for now."

"I can't believe he did that," Sheppard muttered, jabbing the spoon viciously into the pudding cup -- Ronon had set it down beside his head, so that he could eat one-handed without having to lift his head too far. "I can't believe you let him do that," he added.

"John," Teyla said warningly.

But Ronon was suddenly sick of it all: the frustration and fear and uncertainty. First they'd all hovered around Sheppard waiting for him to die; then he'd ended up circling around McKay and Teyla like they were twin minefields waiting to go off; now the minefield was Sheppard, and he'd had enough. Maybe Teyla thought they should just keep tiptoeing around the problem, but as far as he could tell, she was part of the problem too.

"Yeah, he came and asked me to back him up offworld, so I did. That's what teams do, Sheppard. You taught me that."

"Ronon," Teyla said in the same warning tone. He ignored her.

Sheppard pushed himself up onto his elbows, trying to hold his back rigid and not twist anything. "No, damn it, don't turn this around! I rely on you to protect them when I can't!"

As true as Ronon knew it was, he saw Teyla's startled look darkening quickly towards anger, and spoke up for her as well. "So what'd you do before I came along, then?"

"We are not children, John," Teyla said over the end of Ronon's words, quick and, for her, almost harsh. "We all survived for many years before we met each other, and you."

Sheppard groaned and turned his head towards her; his frustration was obvious as he tried to focus on both sides of his bed at once, with his limited mobility. "Come on, Teyla, I know that; I didn't mean it that way."

Ronon saw the tense arch to Teyla's spine, and because he had come to know her so well, he could see her make the conscious decision to let it go, to release her anger the way she hadn't been willing to do with McKay. The tense lines of her body relaxed, and she put her hand over Sheppard's. "I know, John," she said softly. "But you should not ask other people to take on burdens that you are not willing to carry yourself."

"What are you talking about? I've never --" But his eyes went past her to the blanket-wrapped bundle of McKay, and the fight went out of him as he got her meaning -- the way Ronon had gotten it from McKay down on that planet. Sinking back down into his pillows, he said in a nearly inaudible growl, "So help me, if the bunch of you planned this as some sort of stupid object lesson --"

Teyla and Ronon shared a startled glance over his head. "Ancestors, no," Teyla said. "I had no knowledge of this at all." Her eyes went a little narrow in Ronon's direction. He just snorted; in honestly, he was finding the rapid shifts in the conversation a little hard to follow, like watching a patball tournament back on Sateda -- the ball snapping back and forth so quickly the eye could barely track it. After seven years alone, people were still a hard read for him; he did okay with the body language, but when it started going verbal, it was like his old Ancestors' Script Calligraphy lessons all over again.

"If I go to sleep, neither one of you is planning to sneak off to that damn world again, are you?" Sheppard's face was turned towards Teyla, but Ronon could clearly hear the exhaustion -- both physical and emotional -- in the indistinct words.

"No, John." Teyla's fingers curled more tightly around his. "We will be right here when you wake up."

"You better." The short sentence was little more than a mumble, and then his hand slackened around the pudding cup. Ronon took it and set it on the bedside table. He looked up again to meet Teyla's eyes, a bit warily. She stared at him for a moment, then sighed, and the corners of her mouth twitched up.

Daytime crept slowly into evening, marked only by the changing of nursing staff in the infirmary. Beckett came back to check both patients' vitals, nodding at John's and clicking his tongue softly at McKay's.

"How are they?" Teyla asked, raising her head and uncurling from a lotus position on a nearby bed, where she'd been passing the time in meditation.

"As well as can be expected." Carson finished changing McKay's bag of IV fluids and turned to her. "The Colonel's still on the mend, slow but sure. Looks like Rodney's picked up an infection on the planet, not too surprising. We'll have to watch that."

"He's not --" Ronon trailed off, not quite sure how to frame his question; the memory of Sheppard's terrible days was still with him, as vivid now as his memories of Sateda's fall. "Going to be like Sheppard?" he finished quickly.

"What? No, oh no; his injuries aren't nearly as severe. But that whip wasn't clean, and these extraterrestrial bugs can turn nasty in a hurry. Like I said, we'll just keep an eye on it."

"But he will mend." Teyla slipped from the bed to resume her position in the chair between Sheppard and McKay.

Beckett nodded. "He'll be out of here in a few days, barring complications. Healing will take longer, of course." Looking down at the two unconscious men and then rolling his eyes up to their teammates, he added, "You lot will be the death of me yet," before leaving with a promise to have a nurse bring them dinner.

"I am not sure what to make of the fact that he includes us in this," Teyla remarked dryly, pulling her legs up underneath her on the chair into a modified lotus position.

"Yeah," Ronon agreed, leaning back in his chair and stretching out his legs in the hopes of catching a nap before the nurse came back with their food. "We're perfect."

Teyla glared at him, and he shut his eyes quickly, feigning sleep which quickly turned real.

Even asleep, he was vaguely aware of his surroundings -- it had startled him to discover that the Atlanteans and even Teyla could not do this -- so muted rustlings from McKay's bed, and Teyla's soft voice, stirred him back to wakefulness. Teyla was bending over McKay, whose head was turned their way, flashes of blue showing under his lashes as he struggled against the Doc's heavy pain meds. He focused slowly on Teyla.

"Welcome back," she said, laying her hand over his.

"Mmm." He squinted past her at Sheppard and Ronon, then looked up at her again, clearly half asleep and disoriented. "This mean you're not mad at me?"

"Oh no. I am still very angry at you." Her thumb lightly caressed the back of his hand.

"Oh." Looking confused, his eyelids sagged back into sleep.

Ronon's attention was drawn down to Sheppard's bed by a soft throat-clearing noise. The Colonel had been awakened as well, and was blinking sleepily at Ronon, the direction in which his head happened to be turned at the moment. "Did I just hear Rodney say something?" he mumbled.

"Yeah, he woke up for a minute." Ronon looked across Sheppard's head; Teyla had laid down McKay's hand and was sitting on the edge of his bed. "Think he went back to sleep, though."

"Push me over there."

Ronon looked at Teyla; she shrugged, so he gave the bed some gentle nudges until it was oriented next to McKay's. Without raising his head from his pillow, Sheppard reached over and swatted Rodney lightly across the back of the head.

Teyla glared at him. "John!"

"He deserved it." The tap hadn't been enough to rouse Rodney from his pain-medication stupor, however. Sheppard ruffled his hair lightly, and then withdrew his hand and tucked it down at his side.

"You want to go back where you were?"

"Nah. Right here is good." He squirmed around a little, trying to find a comfortable position without shifting his back too much, and then sank back into sleep almost instantly.

Teyla and Ronon shared another look. "Earth people," Ronon said after a moment.

"I despair of understanding them," Teyla agreed gloomily, and got into her meditative posture on the edge of Sheppard's bed. Ronon watched her for a little while to make sure she wasn't going to fall asleep and topple off onto the floor, and when she seemed stable, he drifted back into an alert catnap, waiting for dinner.
Tags: author: friendshipper, challenge #9

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