Cross Country, Part Four
Title: Cross Country, part 4
Rating: borderline R/NC-17
Pairing: John/Rodney, Jim/Blair
Date written: December 2006-February 2008 (whew!)
Length: ~20,000 words (whole story)
Summary: Salvage of equipment, people, and relationships.
Notes: This is the fourth story in my Criss-Cross series (thanks to jya_bd_cp_ttgb for the name suggestion!). Read the other stories first, or continue at your peril. You can also read a summary of the series, which does contain some spoilers for the stories.
Back to Part One, Part Two, Part Three
John pushed the little ship to its limits as he popped up above the atmosphere and then back down for landing on Atlantis barely more than half an hour later. They were within the 'Golden Hour' that had been drummed into his head for evac, but it still seemed like a damn long flight, with Ellison patiently squeezing every breath into Blair from a bag while he talked to Beckett over the radio, his voice tight and emotionless.
And then they got to sit in uncomfortable chairs in the infirmary for hours on end. Rodney jiggled his leg. John looked at the floor, not at Rodney's face with the lines springing out so it seemed suddenly older. Ellison paced at first, then sat next to them and stared at the wall as if his vision could bore right through it -- which, for all John knew, it could.
It was starting to sink in, that nasty feeling: This is going to hurt. This is going to be really, really painful. Last time had been bad because he was half in love with Rick Holland, and worse because he'd gone in to save Rick and ended up leading him straight to the enemy instead. This time John hadn't messed up significantly, had killed the Wraith and found the Gateship, and he wasn't even in love with Blair, but he still liked the guy and he could see what was coming. It was going to be long, and it was going to be painful, and it was going to be hard to keep Ellison from imploding completely. John remembered what Blair had said about the time he nearly died, and Ellison wouldn't give up until he was revived. And how the sentinel probably wouldn't do so well in the long term if Blair wasn't around to help him.
And through it all, his mind kept throwing up images at him: the Wraith throwing Blair down into the trees and Rodney up into the rocks. If it hadn't been for the shield, if it had gone down just a little differently, that could be Rodney in there with three doctors scratching their heads over him. And breakup or not, tens years together or three months, John would be feeling about as shitty as Ellison looked right now.
Actually, Ellison looked . . . sort of vacant. He had his mouth open again, which at least meant he wasn't grinding his teeth together, and he was staring off into space with a faint frown between his eyebrows. He was probably listening, John figured. It was one of those zone-outs Blair had told them about, where Ellison concentrated so hard on one sense he forgot everything else. They weren't harmful in themselves, Blair had said; it wasn't like Ellison would forget to breathe or anything, but he could get a nasty headache if he stayed under too long, and he wouldn't notice approaching danger, like when he had ignored the Wraith about to feed on him.
John swore, remembering, and got up to stand in front of Ellison. The man didn't react as John bent down and parted the tear in his shirt.
There was no mark underneath from the Wraith's hand.
"I don't get it," said John. "Didn't they tell us there should be a mark?"
Rodney frowned. "Maybe the Wraith didn't have him long enough?"
"It was only a few seconds, but it definitely had a hand planted on his chest. Look what it did to his shirt. But no feeding mark?"
"Let me see," said an accented voice behind him, and Dr. Beckett was leaning in to look at Ellison's chest.
"What's the word, Doc?" Ellison rasped, hoarse but evidently back in the real world.
"You'd a run-in with a Wraith?" Beckett straightened the torn flap of shirt to reveal a neatly excised oval from the Wraith's hand-mouth.
Ellison pushed him away and stood. "I'm fine."
"Aye, but the question is, why?"
"No, the question is, how's Blair doing?"
Beckett stepped back and bit his lip, choosing words carefully. "We've got him stabilized, for the moment. He's got a concussion, and there was a bit of swelling in his brain, but we got that under control soon enough --"
"I know the injuries," Ellison snapped. "What's the prognosis?"
Beckett swallowed. "His spinal cord was almost completely severed between the second and third cervical vertebrae. We've repaired what we can, but . . . there will be some loss of nerve function, both sensory and motor. We won't know exactly how bad it is for a few weeks, after the swelling goes down --"
"That high in the spine, that's really bad, isn't it?" said Rodney. "I mean, upper body paralysis, not just lower?"
Beckett rubbed his own neck and grimaced. "Aye, some of that, to be sure. We'll do what we can, of course, but it's not likely he'll have use of his hands."
"Will he even be able to breathe on his own?" John asked.
"Not at first. Perhaps later on, with therapy . . . or perhaps never."
"Shit," John murmured.
Ellison just stood still, staring over Beckett's shoulder.
"Now look, this doesn't have to mean the end of everything," Beckett said firmly. "Blair will be needing your support. This injury, it's similar to what happened to that actor fellow, Christopher Reeve? And you know he's led a full life even so --"
"He's dead," John said shortly.
"What's that?" said Beckett.
"He died a few years back," Rodney filled in. "Not too long after the Atlantis expedition left Earth. I remember since I was having, erm, some neural problems of my own at the time." His hands moved together nervously, checking each other's motions and sensations.
John glanced at Ellison, still motionless, and tried to think what would move the man. "When can we see Blair? Is he awake?"
"We've got him sedated, but sometimes people can hear and remember things that occur while they're --"
Ellison turned around and marched out of the infirmary without a word.
John blinked. This was even worse than he'd expected. He glanced at Rodney. "You think I should, uh . . . ?"
"Yeah, yeah, you go with him," said Rodney quickly. "I'll stay with, uh, with Blair."
John barely caught up before Ellison made it to the nearest transporter. He wasn't sure what to expect: a high balcony, the edge of a pier, the gym where they'd rigged up a sandbag for punching. But instead, Ellison charged down the corridor to his office. He lifted a metal box down from a high shelf and dialed a combination into the padlock, pulling something out and holding it thoughtfully for a minute.
John watched in puzzlement; what was the point of grabbing up some fancy jewelry -- was that a necklace or a bracelet -- now, of all times? It was a clunky thing, with big jewels that had to be fake, and John couldn't imagine either Blair or Jim wearing it. "Listen, uh . . ." he began, but he was really bad at this sort of thing. The talking thing. "You know you'll have the support of everyone here, right? And, uh . . ."
It probably didn't matter how bad John was at this, since Ellison didn't appear to be listening. His hand spasmed around the necklace thing, and he charged right back out through the door, pushing past John as if he weren't standing there struggling for words. Once more John was scrambling to follow, and completely clueless about what was going through his team leader's head.
Ellison led the way straight back to the infirmary, where Rodney was still talking to Beckett.
Rodney took one look at the jewelry held out in Ellison's hands and went pale. "Where the hell did that come from?"
"It was in with some of your science equipment when the expedition first shipped out."
John frowned. Rodney had been supposed to go with the first wave of the expedition, but he'd been pulled out at the last minute.
"No, no, no," Rodney was saying, with hands held up to fend the jewelry off -- hands that were actually trembling. "I have no idea how to use that thing."
"You were implanted," Ellison insisted. "You have naqadah in your blood."
"It was only for a couple of days!"
"That's almost as long as Carter had, and she can use one of these."
"Yeah, but, but that was a Tok'Ra actively trying to share information with her! Dyb-- my -- the one that -- he was trying to keep things from me."
"But he must have known how to use this, or he wouldn't have packed it!"
John had to step in. "Now, wait a second. Is that some kind of, of Ancient device or something?" he asked with a wave at the jewelry. Maybe he could operate the thing and save Rodney whatever unpleasantness he was expecting.
"Not Ancient," Ellison snapped. "Goa'uld."
Rodney had been pulled off the expedition because he'd gotten infected with an alien parasite that took over his brain. And apparently while it was in control, it had sent this device along to Atlantis.
"The device can be used for healing . . . " Beckett filled in uneasily. "But only someone with naqadah in their blood can use it. A Goa'uld host, or former host."
"A former host with knowledge of how it works! Seriously, I hardly remember anything from those few days!" Rodney pleaded. "I can't . . . I really can't do this."
John winced, knowing how much it pained Rodney even to think about having that alien in control of his mind and body. But healing? That sounded pretty cool, and useful.
"McKay . . . Rodney," said Ellison in a low urgent tone. "This could be Blair's only chance." He held Rodney's gaze for several long seconds. "Please."
It was obvious that wasn't a word Ellison used often. Rodney picked up on that as well, because his face crumpled. "I don't know what I'm doing! What if I make it worse? I could kill him with that thing!"
Ellison took a deep breath. "We'll take that chance. I know Blair would want it. Just . . . give it a try."
Rodney turned to Beckett in appeal, but the doctor just shrugged. "It may be the best option we have right now."
His brow creased unhappily, Rodney took the cluster of jewelry from Ellison and slipped his left hand into it. It draped like a sort of fingerless glove, with the biggest, fakest-looking jewel in the center of his palm. Beckett led them back into a room where Blair lay face-down with his back, shoulders, neck, and head all braced by various equipment. With all that and a breathing tube taped in place, it seemed half of Blair's head was obscured in plastic.
Beckett pointed to a computer display. "This is the most recent scan of his neck. You can see the damage in this region, here."
John could make a couple of vertebrae that weren't quite in line, and various other things highlighted in red that he supposed were not how they were supposed to be, but he wasn't completely sure what he was looking at. Rodney just looked over the scan with his shoulders drooping.
"Now, Colonel Carter hasn't been able to tell us much about how these devices work, but what she described sounds a bit akin to what we feel when we work with Ancient devices. Just . . . reach out with your mind and try to connect to the thing."
Swallowing hard, Rodney held his left hand out over Blair's body and squeezed his eyes shut.
John shifted and glanced at Ellison, who was watching intently.
"Try to relax, Rodney," Beckett coaxed. "Just let it flow . . ."
Rodney gasped and stiffened, and the big jewel on his palm began to glow. He moved the hand to hover more closely above Blair's neck, the jewel lighting the skin warmly.
A piece of equipment started to beep, and Beckett peered at it, then silenced the alarm. He tapped quickly on a computer, and a green grid of light began to play over Blair's body. "Aye, that's it, you're doing the right thing. Keep it up."
Rodney's breath was coming in great heaves now. John stepped up behind him, wanting to help but not sure how. He rested a cautious hand on Rodney's shoulder, then ended up grabbing him under the arms and supporting half his weight as Rodney rocked back against him.
"That's it!" Beckett was saying. "Looks like you've repaired most of --"
"Concussion," Rodney choked out between pants.
"Eh? Oh, y'mean Blair's head injury. It's here, on the left occipital lobe."
Rodney moved his hand up to the area Beckett indicated, held it there for a few seconds while the light pulsed, then started to reach down to the braced shoulder. Suddenly the light went out of the jewel and Rodney sagged in John's arms.
"Doc," said John anxiously, easing Rodney down to the floor.
Beckett was already there with a penlight to shine in Rodney's eyes. He took a pulse from Rodney's wrist, grimaced, and jerked his head to indicate John should help get him up on one of the beds in the other room.
"He'll be fine in a few minutes," said Beckett, disentangling the alien device from Rodney's hand. "Going to have a nasty headache, though, and I'd like his blood pressure to come down before I let him out of here."
"How about Blair?" Ellison asked, hovering between the two beds.
"From what I saw, the repair work looked good, but let me do an in-depth scan to be sure. I need to extubate him, as well."
John stayed with Rodney, rubbing a soothing hand over his shoulders as he curled on the bed. A nurse came by with a painkiller and a muscle relaxant and put a blood pressure cuff on his arm. John took one look at the numbers and winced; if even he could tell they were bad, Rodney was in trouble. But the next reading a few minutes later was already coming down.
Beckett headed back their way with Ellison. "With the sedatives wearing off, he should be conscious in an hour or two, and then we'll know for sure -- but I think we'll find his neuro function is good. I want to keep him overnight for observation, and he should wear a sling for a week or so, but it seems Rodney did a bang-up job on his neck and head."
Ellison nodded briefly and stopped next to Rodney's bed, looking down at him. "McKay."
Rodney squinted up, aware enough but apparently not wanting to speak.
Ellison swallowed, his jaw muscles jumping. "We owe you. Anything you want -- anything. You just ask." With one more, stiff nod, he headed back to Blair's bedside.
John gave Rodney's shoulder a squeeze. He would have liked to hold his hand, but that might seem too personal. "He's right," he murmured. "I'm really --" Proud, he wanted to say, but that wouldn't sound right. "Really impressed with what you did. Hey listen, I hear there's a Jell-O-like substance in the mess today. Want me to bring you some?"
Rodney just closed his eyes and turned his face into the pillow. Maybe he didn't want John's attentions.
"Okay," John whispered. "I'll stop bugging you, then. Hang in there, Rodney."
"Blue," said Rodney weakly.
"See if they have any blue Jell-O. Red's okay too, but blue is my favorite. And some dinner to go with it -- I'm hungry. Maybe a sandwich, or a muffin?"
John grinned. "You got it, buddy!"
That night, John stood in the corridor outside Rodney's room, undecided if he should knock or just go in or maybe just go away. He'd actually been standing there for a couple of minutes already, but he wasn't getting much closer to a decision. A couple of times he'd turned away and turned back.
The door slid open, and Rodney stood there looking cranky in a worn T-shirt and boxers. "Will you come in already? You're driving me nuts, pacing around out there."
"I wasn't pacing," John objected, but he went in anyway. "How did you know I was there?"
"Because I heard you pacing," Rodney grumbled. He was squinting as if his head still hurt, though it had been hours since Beckett released him.
John shuffled his feet. "I, ah, was wondering if you needed anything," he said. "For your headache, maybe? I could run down to the infirmary for you."
Rodney waved irritably at his desk, and John blinked to see it piled with stuff. One of the lumpy pot-fruits was there, and a dish with some traces of blue jello in it, and a plate of --
"Are those brownies?" John asked in amazement.
"Made with the coffee-carob stuff, yes. Though I could wish it had more of the caffeine characteristics of coffee, in addition to the taste."
On the corner of the desk was a little cup with some pain pills in it. There were also some more exotic items: a Gameboy with several cartridges, a small embroidered pillow, a hat that appeared hand-knitted from some local yarn, a bottle that John suspected held a potent hooch, and another bottle behind that.
"This can't be real," he murmured, picking up the Coca-Cola bottle -- glass, with the cap still firmly stuck in place.
"It is. Bottled in Canada, so it has real sugar instead of that poisonous corn stuff Americans drink. Sergeant, um, whatsisname gave it to me." Rodney plucked it from John's grasp and put it back on the table.
"Why? Not the Coke, I mean -- why all of it?"
Rodney waved in a throwing-away gesture. "I think people asked Ellison what they could do for Blair, and he directed them to me."
John smiled. "Yeah, Blair's pretty well-liked around here. I stopped by the infirmary earlier; he's sitting up, talking to visitors."
"Yes yes, I know I'd never be this popular on my own merits," Rodney snapped.
"What? No, that's not what I meant. I mean, that's a hell of a good thing you did there, buddy. I know it was rough, but it turned out good. And hey, look, positive reinforcement!" John pointed at the presents.
Rodney made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a snort, but he picked up the little pillow and clasped it to his stomach. "Half of them are probably just trying to soften me up so I'll use the device to heal their bunions and hangnails."
John blinked. He hadn't really thought about the ramifications. "Is that likely?"
"For minor problems? No. I wouldn't do it, and Beckett would back me up. But he's already talked to me about trying to help some of his worst cases, like Colonel Caldwell, and that other guy -- Sloane, Dorn? No, Lorne. Him. And I'm dreading the next time a gate team comes back with injuries."
Yeah, John could see how that could get pretty bad, if every use of the device flattened Rodney for a few hours to a day. "If it's too much for you, just tell me. Us. Ellison and Blair and I will keep them off your backs. So will Beckett, I bet."
Rodney tried to smile, but it slid off his face.
"Still got that headache, huh?"
"What? No, not really. Look -- why are you here?"
"Oh. Um." John looked down at his feet.
"Come on, spit it out already. It's late and I want to go to bed."
"Yeah, I know it's late. I tried to sleep already." John swallowed. "That didn't go so well. And I thought maybe, um . . ."
"Could I stay here tonight? I mean, not for, uh . . . not that I would say no, or anything, but . . . look, I can sleep on the couch."
"There is no couch!"
"Figure of speech. I'll sleep, um --" John looked around the room. "In the chair, that will be fine." It wouldn't, really; he'd have an aching neck and back if he tried it, but he'd probably still get more sleep than in his cold, narrow bunk. He wondered if he could drag a couch here from the movie lounge, or something.
"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!" Rodney objected. "Why do you want to -- oh. You're having those nightmares again."
John rubbed his jaw. "Something like that." Scenes of Blair or Rodney dying because he'd been too slow, too stupid, too directionally-challenged.
Rodney just looked at John, at the chair, at the bed, and back at John.
"Yeah, okay," John sighed. "It was a pretty dumb idea. I'll just go, uh --"
"No, it's not dumb." Rodney took a deep breath. "Okay. There's plenty of room on the bed. Just don't jostle my ribs -- they're still tender."
"Are you sure?" John peered at him. "I wouldn't want to keep you awake, or anything."
"If I can, um, do anything to help you get to sleep . . . " John's face heated as he remembered the last night he'd slept in this room and how he'd helped Rodney sleep that time.
Rodney was apparently thinking the same thing. "No, thanks, the price for that last blowjob was high enough." He padded around to the rumpled side of the bed -- the left side, where he'd slept when they were together, except for the last night -- and climbed in.
John shifted from foot to foot. "Look, um, Rodney . . ."
Rodney glared. "Are you trying to hook up with me again, or something? Because you're not doing a very good job of it."
"I never wanted to break up with you in the first place." John hadn't meant to say that. He covered his confusion by climbing in the other side of the bed and fussing with the covers.
There was a long silence. "I'm pretty sure you were trying to break up with me," Rodney concluded.
"I didn't mean to. I was just . . ." John gulped. "It was too much. I got . . . too close, too involved. Too attached. It scared me, okay? I needed to get away for a while."
"So now, what, your 'while' is over, and you're finished freaking out?"
John leaned back on the mattress -- no pillow, since Bates would only issue one to a person and his was in the other room -- and stared at the ceiling with stinging eyes. "Not really. Still freaking out. Never stopped. But I guess I realized, it doesn't help."
"What doesn't help what?" Rodney demanded with an irritable edge to his voice.
"Being apart doesn't make me any less attached. I still, um, care about you." John's face was flaming now. "It would still hurt like hell if you got injured or killed -- especially if it was because of my mistake."
Rodney was silent.
"But I realize . . . maybe it's too late, anyway. I know I was . . . um, I know you were really hurt and upset, these last few weeks. And you had every right. So um . . . anyway, I'll still . . . either way." This wasn't working; he couldn't say any of the important stuff. "But whatever, I really appreciate you letting me, um, hang out here tonight. I haven't really slept too well lately. Tomorrow you can kick me out, or whatever."
Rodney was still silent, which seemed profoundly wrong. Maybe John had broken him. Or maybe he'd fallen asleep waiting for John to spit out his few pitiful words.
John sighed, willed the lights off, and closed burning eyes against the darkness. "Good night, Rodney."
It was a couple of minutes later and his breathing was just starting to ease without needing conscious control, when something hit his stomach.
"Here," said Rodney. He sounded awake enough.
"What --?" John groped for the object. It was the little pillow from the tribute pile, still warm with Rodney's heat.
"Since you left yours behind. You can go get your stuff tomorrow. And bring it back here." Then, just in case John had any illusions that he was out of the doghouse, Rodney turned onto his side facing away.
A long time after that, John was drifting through the vestibules of sleep, but he was pretty sure he didn't dream the soft words.
"I love you too, John."