Feedback: Please.

Acknowledgements: murron, Auburn and dzurlady for the beta. Also, koschka (who asked for a sequel from the beginning and finally got this one rolling. Careful what you wish for is all I'm saying.)


In his dreams, he was walking. More stumbling, really. Barely holding himself up, fighting his way through dense vegetation; through vines, strong as ivy slings, thorns on them like roses. They left scratches along his face, ripped the skin from his arms, made it almost impossible to move forward. When he finally cut through the thickets, he fell - a sickening plummet down, down, down, never-ending freefall, the sensation making his stomach revolt. He hit water, plunging in deep, And then the sensation of falling was replaced by that of drowning, the fall knocking the wind out of him and now his lungs were screaming, but he couldn’t come up and couldn’t surface and couldn’t breathe and was heavy, so heavy, and it would have been so easy to just let go, but he needed air, air, air; blood rushing in his ears, panic climbing higher and he only needed to kick his legs to breach the water’s surface, but it was surrounding him and cocooning him and luring him, up and down had lost their meaning and he was tired, so tired and just breathing in would be so easy …

When Rodney woke up gasping for breath, with the feeling of water in his lungs, he understood the metaphorical quality of those dreams, didn’t need Heightmeyer to explain them to him. Heightmeyer, who wasn’t around any longer to do any explaining.

The Wraith had taken many. She had been among the first.

After the nightmares started, he avoided sleep even more. It was overrated anyway. Nothing some fake coffee and a good dose of stimulants couldn’t fix.

Those left of his team shied away from him now. He had overheard two of them talking about Major Sheppard’s sacrifice and had manhandled them out of the lab they’d been working in, yelling at them to not enter it again until they had left their personal feelings at the door. He had never been the most patient of men, but this was unusually harsh behaviour, even for him. Part of him knew this. The other part snarled angrily and told him to stop being such a sensitive fool. There was work to be done here.

Things went progressively worse from that moment on.


Two days ago, Beckett had finally pulled rank, and not nearly as reluctantly as Rodney had expected him to. Medical rank was a funny thing - not even Elizabeth could have vetoed it. If she had wanted to do so.

Once Beckett decided that Rodney should take a medically required “break” on the mainland, there was no use in fighting his decision. Zelenka was put in charge of the science team, the Athosians were briefed about his arrival and then Rodney was hurried off Atlantis quicker than he ever would have thought possible.

That first night, Rodney sat by candle-light in an Athosian tent and hated Carson. Hated Elizabeth. Hated Sheppard the most. For dying, for leaving them to deal with so many problems themselves. For not being around to celebrate their victory, no matter how small it was.

He knew it was unfair to Sheppard in a way, but Rodney didn’t care. He hated. He despised. He raged. Threw his shoes across the tent. Kicked boxes. Slammed his fist on the hard ground next to his mattress and ignored the pain.

Athosian cloth was finely woven. The bedside appeared comfortable, the mattress functional but soft. It was the last thing he wanted to see. He didn’t want to rest, didn’t want to sleep. He knew the outcome.

When his traitorous body finally refused to hold out any longer, bathed in cold sweat and craving the stimulants even as his eyes slipped closed, he lay down next to the bed on the floor, shivering. His body succumbed to sleep while his mind was still stubbornly trying to elude its grasp.

The screeching was deafening, the feeling of freefall making his stomach revolt. Everything around him was covered in smoke that made it nearly impossible to breathe, his lungs burning and a violent cough shaking him. He couldn’t hold it, it was out of control and despite all his skills, he couldn’t stop the inevitable. The air outside rushed, a high keening wail accompanying his descent. Impact was inevitable. He was not going to survive this. Flames appeared from out of the smoke, licking, closing in on him, caressing his flesh, burning away his uniform, meeting skin and tasting, scorching, eating him alive but there was nowhere to go, nowhere to escape the flames and the descent was getting quicker by the minute, the sound shrill and impact unavoidable and the flames had reached his hair now and it hurt, god, it hurt

He woke screaming and flailing, impulsively touching his clothes and skin and hair for burns. He still felt sick to his stomach, the memory of the sensation of falling causing him to flee the tent and empty his stomach under a nearby tree.

When he closed his eyes, the fire was still there; he could see the city burning. He could feel himself burning.

The ocean welcomed him as he waded into the water, still fully clothed, intent on quenching the fire that refused to be extinguished. The water’s cold seeped into his bones but didn’t relieve the sensation of burning.

Halling - who was on watch - pulled him from the shallow surf half an hour later, wordlessly guiding the shivering and fatigued man back to his tent. When Rodney slept this time, he didn’t remember his dreams.

His tent was outside the main village - as much due to his choice as to precaution on behalf of the Athosians.

An Athosian woman, the grandmotherly one he had seen Teyla with before, provided him with food and drink but didn’t try to make conversation, for which he was quietly grateful.

One day, he found a pair of crude stick-figures painted on one of the equipment boxes he had brought with him for his personal belongings. One of the children had painted it “for the sad man from the city of the Ancestors”, Charan explained.

He hid it in a dark corner, out of sight. He wasn’t sad, after all. He was just damn angry. At least that’s what he told himself each time his eyes started stinging.

He had too much time to think here. Which, of course, was exactly what Beckett - clever son of a bitch that he was - had wanted.

He remembered. Oh, he remembered well. And maybe that was the main problem. With a sinking feeling he recalled the look on Beckett’s face. That mixture of disbelief, sympathy and anger. Kicking a puppy couldn’t have been worse, and Rodney couldn’t get the picture out of his mind.

“Will you finally listen to me, Rodney?” The Scottish accent was grating on his nerves, rough sandpaper over skin - it was annoying, almost painful. The determination in Beckett's voice didn’t help.

“I don’t see that you have any news, so the answer is no. Come back when you have something important to tell me, because I for one am busy.”

“When did you last sleep?”

Rodney turned, a sneer firmly in place: “After you and Elizabeth drugged me. You remember that backstabbing, don’t you?”

Beckett winced but stood his ground. “Someone has to take care of you and you’re definitely the wrong man for the job.” He took a step closer, laid a hand on Rodney’s keyboard, effectively stopping him from typing. “Your stock.”

Rodney pushed the other man’s hand away impatiently. “What are you talking about?”

“I want the stimulants that have gone missing from the infirmary.”

“You think I took them? And if I did, do you really think I’d admit it and give them back like a good little boy-scout?”

“Do I need to remind you that --”

He cut the other man off viciously, voice quiet and dangerous. “I don’t want you to remind me of anything, Carson.” He glared at Beckett. “Especially not you. Not anyone. My mind is replaying the events in technicolor splendour whenever I close my eyes. So, thank you, but no thank you.”

Confusion flickered over Beckett’s face. “What do you mean, especially not you?”

“Have you lost your grip on the English language? Disinfectant addled your brain?”

“Rodney.” It was infuriating that Beckett refused to be riled by his comments.

“I don’t see why I need to explain anything to you here.” Hostility reverberated in his words.

Beckett looked tired, dark rings under his eyes, his posture screaming fatigue. “A class A descent into a stimulant addiction should be reason enough.”

Rodney felt the blood leaving his face. “Out.” When Beckett didn’t move, he grabbed the other man’s arm forcefully and pushed him toward the door. “Get out. Out.

Up until that moment, he hadn’t known that under all that gentle and caring attitude Beckett usually radiated, there was steel hidden. Beckett easily freed his arm out of Rodney’s grip and his eyes flashed a minute warning before he shoved Rodney against the wall behind him. Blocking his way, there was no way out.

“You will listen to me McKay, as I’m not going to say this again.” People said that Carson’s accent grew thicker when he was angry? They had obviously never seen the man angry. He switched into a hard-edged, unpleasantly pronounced upper-class English. “One: you will bring back the stimulants you stole from the infirmary within the hour or I will have your sorry hide thrown in the brig for theft and later on for de-tox. Two: you will listen to medical council and take a break from work. Three--“ His features hardening even more, his invasion of Rodney’s personal space becoming uncomfortably threatening, “What happened to Major Sheppard was not your fault. He made a decision and faced the consequences and there was nothing you could have done to prevent it. But ultimately, he saved us all. So stop belittling his sacrifice by making this all about you.”

Silence hung between them for endless seconds and Rodney found it unusually hard to breathe. He didn’t need to look at Carson to see what else there was unsaid. The unspoken: you’re not the only one who’s grieving him. But Rodney McKay wasn’t grieving, no matter what Carson thought. Everyone around him wallowed in misery and that alone made him want to bring Sheppard back from the dead and slap him around the face for the anguish he was causing people. But he couldn’t - for one very simple reason. His hand twitched once, face twisting into derision as he pushed Beckett away. “Belittling? I’m sorry, but last I checked, I was the one who failed to make the remote work so he had to take the jumper in person to deliver the bomb. Oh, you remember the bomb, right? The bomb I built? I as good as killed him with my own hands. So excuse me if I take this a little personally.”

“It was his decision, Rodney.”

“It wouldn’t have had to have been if I had been--”

“It was my decision as well.”

Rodney blanched, memory sweeping him up and taking a choke-hold. Carson had been next up. With the other jumper pilots captured by the Wraith it left only himself and Carson to fly the second jumper. And Carson had decided that he was expendable. True, his flying was worse than Rodney’s, but if anything was supposed to work after he succeeded, if Atlantis and everything it stood for was ever to be saved, Carson had reasoned, Rodney needed to be here. They couldn’t do this without Rodney. They could, however, do without Carson.

Thinking back, the white-hot ball of fury of being unable to argue against Carson’s reasoning swelled up again. It swirled, was nurtured by the memory and the look on Carson’s face - that mixture of reason, fatigue and determination. Back then, there had been fear, also. Fear Rodney had seen and had been unable to fight against. The decision was taken out of his hands, no quick thinking was to save the situation, he had been standing helpless as the events played out in front of him like some ill-schemed Greek tragedy.

He had wanted to punch Carson back then. For the audacity of even offering this madness, for being right, for leaving Rodney behind, for putting the burden of killing his two only real friends on Rodney’s shoulders.

In the end, it had been only the burden of one death.

“Stop it, Rodney. No one blames you. And, knowing him, he would have been the last to do so.” Beckett paused, visibly fighting to keep his own emotions reigned tightly but failing, if only by slipping into a barely comprehensible brogue. “Come to think of it, he would have been the first to ask if you were okay. He would have kicked you before he saw you driving yourself into the ground.”

It was too much - the sympathy, the understanding, the sudden lack of anger, the memory of Carson’s almost-sacrifice, the other man’s grief and the knowledge that this was something he, too, was responsible for… The anger in him exploded with the force of a small nova and Rodney swung his fist hard.

The stunt had cost him two broken fingers from the wall he had hit (Beckett wasn’t only tougher than he looked, but apparently also much quicker), this mandatory trip to the mainland and the memory of Beckett’s face after the failed punch. He wondered which of the three was worse.

He hadn’t spoken to anyone on Atlantis in several days - three days, five hours, twenty minutes, his brain added, uselessly - and it was driving him insane. They’d left him without even a radio: Complete isolation from his usual daily life, doctor’s orders. The Athosians had radios to contact Atlantis if necessary, and if there was an emergency, they’d call it in.

He felt dependent and ineffective and it was driving him out of his mind. There was too much to be done on Atlantis for him to be sitting with the Athosians, doing soul-searching. Nothing was going to happen, anyway, his mind wasn’t going to miraculously work differently because he’d been away.



The trip into the forest resulted from an especially violent dream of fire and burnt, protesting metal. He needed to feel something alive around him, something that wasn’t human or Athosian or sentient in any way.

His pace was quick, the sounds of the village fading into an early morning breeze that ruffled the trees. The serenity of the forest would have been beautiful, if he had had a sense for it. For him, right now, it was no more than shade and refuge, an escape from the children and the elders and the sounds and the looks they gave him whenever he ventured out of the tent. In a way, Charan’s quiet care was the worst. It chafed him, smothered him and he didn’t want it. Just like he hadn’t wanted Elizabeth’s or Carson’s care.

A yawn crept up, tickling the back of his throat.

He missed the stimulants. He missed coffee, even the fake coffee. The sudden burst of wakefulness, of energy, of effectiveness. Missed it painfully. During the past days, he’d been a shadow of himself, walking like a zombie, never really awake, his body in a state of constant fatigue while his mind screamed at him to get a grip. There was too much to be done.

There was no way he was letting his work rest. They might not have allowed him to bring a laptop to this exile, but they had given him pen and paper. Theoretical work was just as possible this way.

Even now, his feet walking by sheer strength of will, he was working on problem solutions and equations. They couldn’t and wouldn’t stop him from doing his work. It was all he had left at the end of the day. It was all they had left.

Lost in thought, he didn’t see the protruding root. His foot caught, inertia took over and he fell, hands flailing and his knees connecting forcefully with a fallen branch on the forest floor. Pain shot through him, glaring and quick, the jolt pumping adrenaline through his veins, its effect none too different from that of the stimulants. Rodney swore, a tirade no one would hear. God, he was tired. He hated being tired. Hated he forest. Hated everyone. Hated himself.

Sat up, rested his head against the tree behind him and closed his eyes, heart beating fast. He willed it to slow down and felt sleep tugging at his mind.

When he next opened his eyes, the surroundings of the clearing seemed peaceful - the trees stood close together, forming a natural wall around the small area where murky sunlight filtered through the foliage. Shrubbery, its leaves a much brighter green, a stark contrast against the dark forest soil. Fallen leaves, brown and dry. Drops of red sprinkling the rustling carpet. Broken twigs hanging limply, the leaves already wilting. A body near him - bloody, scorched, clothes ripped to shreds, face a wash of colours from bruises. Dark hair matted against a gaunt skull. The wind picked up, the breeze turning into more pronounced gusts. High trees, roots protruding, insects bustling between them. Darkness between the tree trunks. The light painted irregular patterns on the floor. A gust of air moved the branches, bringing the smell of rain and resin and burnt flesh.

His gaze turned to the small patches of sky visible between the dense foliage and found it a troubled grey; dark clouds mounting, heralding an upcoming thunderstorm. The leaves shook, treetops swaying in the freshening wind. He turned his head back, already decided to leave before the rain could start, his gaze sweeping over the clearing, unwillingly resting on the impaired figure on the ground again.

Rodney closed his eyes, dug his fingers into the rough bark of the tree trunk behind him hard enough to send splinters under his fingernails, using the pain to will the nightmare to fade. The forest should have been a refuge, but it seemed that even now he couldn’t shake the nightmarish visions.

They were venturing into the light of day.

The being was still there when he opened his eyes again, angled toward him in a seeking motion, mouth moving soundlessly. The familiarity of the lanky body, the dark hair and the bruised face was uncanny, making the fact that he was hallucinating something that hadn’t even been in his dreams so much worse. Among the burns and bruises, the clear green eyes seemed a lurid contrast.

Thunder echoed in the distance. His hair stood on end. Breath shallow, heart pounding, hands cold. It moved, god, whatever it was, whatever had sprung out of his nightmares - it moved.

The first drops of rain found their way through the treetops, shaking him out of his stupor. He scrambled back, hands using the tree to steady himself. Rose, turned on his heel and walked back toward the village, feet unsure, more running than walking.

What made this whole encounter even more terrifying was that the hallucination had looked like Major Sheppard.

An icy hand reached for his neck and ran a cold, caressing finger down his spine. He was seeing dead people. Maybe Beckett had been right. Maybe he was losing it, finally.

Dead people. Just like that kid in The Sixth Sense and damn it, he had never known how that ended and had there been a happy ending at all?

He walked faster, intent on leaving it behind.

Didn’t hear the faint: “Rodney, wait.”

Kept walking.





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