Title: Deep Water
Spoilers: None, set Season Two
Notes: Prompted by seldear’s Change is the Road from Childhood and the phrase 'I hope you're not thinking about jumping.' Sorry for the wait. Real life is such a pita. On the other hand, this sucker went a lot longer than I intended. I swear, the next one is going to be an honest-to-God ficlet.
When presented with the choice between the river below and a Wraith warrior, hoisting up the weapon that would stun her, incapacitate her, leave her vulnerable to his hungry hands or that of his masters, Teyla unhesitatingly chooses the river. She steps back, off the cliff and into the void, watches the presumed surprise in the creature’s eyeless, featureless face—
— and hits the water with such force that she wonders wildly if the river was in fact coated with ice, only it seems colder than ice, closing over her head, pressing in on her lungs, blinding her when she dares to open her eyes. The water is white and gray and very deep, and she sinks quickly, buffeted by currents, knocked against anonymous debris. Her chest burns with the cold, then prickles for want of oxygen.
As a child she learned to swim the same as she learned to run, to hide: instinctively, with an eye towards surviving to adulthood. Perhaps it was only a legend that the Wraith disliked water, her father had remarked, but then again, perhaps it wasn’t. But the calm rivers and shallow lakes in their part of Athos had been positively tepid by comparison, never so deep and wild, and never so close to the snowcapped mountains as to be filled with fresh runoff.
She notices bubbles, bubbles racing all around her as she thrashes against the river’s embrace, but most of the bubbles departing in one specific direction. Disoriented and struggling against the urge to inhale, this direction seems to be headed down, not up, but Teyla knows that it is her only chance. She pulls herself after them anyway.
And breaks the surface with a strangled gasp.
She begins to wonder if she shouldn’t have taken her chances with the Wraith. The river is every bit as hostile in its mindless way, eager to suck her back under, pulling at heavy boots and sodden clothes too well laced and fastened for her to shuck off easily. She has been drawn into the center of the wide channel, and both narrow shores seem to be many miles away.
The point at which she entered the river is difficult to establish, and it is impossible to know if any of her teammates saw her go in. She might easily be dragged along by the current for miles, until she’s too exhausted to keep her head above water. Her body might never be found; Sheppard and Ronon and Rodney and the others would be forced to assume that she had been taken by the Wraith.
No, she decides, ineffectively swiping water and hair from her eyes, she will not die here. Not like this.
Salvation suddenly introduces itself in the form of a large boulder that juts out from the water’s surface, one of many such protrusions that turn the wide course into frothing rapids. It is shrouded by a white boil of foam that does nothing to cushion the blow; she is slammed against its smooth flank with enough force to make her cry out in pain, and the river takes this moment of weakness to try and fling itself down her throat. She coughs it up, sputters, clings to the surprisingly warm surface and tries to acclimate to the sensation of unmoving stone on one side and the unceasing pummel of the current on the other. The boulder is too slick and tall for her to scale it; all she can do is cling like a barnacle.
She thinks about praying, something she has done less and less of since meeting the team from Earth and coming to Atlantis. Back in her pastoral, fear-ruled life on Athos it had been easy to imagine that the Ancestors were watching over all of them, perhaps powerless to stop the Wraith or perhaps engaged in some form of celestial warfare that prevented the carnage from being worse than it otherwise might have been, but still caring about the fate of their descendants. She’d had an image of them that was no doubt based on the stories from the elders, old and wise and looking down over all their Creations.
Now she has lived in the city of the Ancestors for almost two years, and she has read the histories and heard the clinical descriptions from Rodney and Carson, and seen the hologram that tells of the Ancients’ last stand. She knows the truth, and she can no longer blithely consider them worthy of her reverence. Respect, yes, for all that they did during their time and the legacy they left behind – both for ill and for good – but not worship.
She may pray now, and they may hear her, but if what the others have said is true the Ancestors are at best unable to interfere, and at worst ambivalent to her pain.
The biting chill of the water has been secondary to the fight to keep her head above water, but now that she is no longer moving – generating heat or at least the illusion of heat – the bitter chill is beginning to sink into her bones. Maybe she will not need to drown from sheer exhaustion. Maybe she will become incoherent from the cold first, and simply slip unawares beneath the surface.
No. No. Damn the ambivalence of ascended beings – it will not end like this.
She lost the grip on her weapon when she stepped back into the abyss, and the radio has been torn from her ear underwater. She cannot see around the side of her anchorage and does not dare move closer to the edge, to look for other safe harbors. A stray eddy, if it was powerful enough, could easily rip her away, back into the churning current. She turns her head from side to side, looking longingly at the riverbanks. And that is when she sees him.
At first Sheppard seems to be an apparition brought on by too much river water and her hard impact with the boulder, but there he is, descending from the upper cliff at one of the shallower spots, skimming down the embankment to the lower, narrow beach. He holds his weapon ready in his hands, wary as much as watchful, but his eyes stray to the river too often for it to be a coincidence. He is looking for her.
But he has not seen her. The river is in too much of a torrent, the water is too wide and the overcast sky is darkening. He will search, but if he does not see her he will move on, and then…
“Colonel!” she tries to call, but her rasping voice does not carry over the cacophony of liquid sounds. Her breath, she realizes, is coming in short bursts. Her legs, kicking out for purchase against the large stone, are quivering with fatigue. She raises her arms over her head, searching for the smallest fingerhold, and finds a minute niche to the far right. It is enough to pull her out of the water perhaps another two inches. She flails her other arm, desperate to catch his eye. “John!”
Some series of factors collude: her new position, her flagging wave, some extra power in her voice gained from fear, or simply dumb luck. He sees her, she can tell, even if she can’t hear him; she watches his mouth shape her name. One hand rises to his ear, to summon the others, and then Teyla’s precarious grip fails and she falls, slipping back underwater.
She’s in no immediate danger of being sucked back into the main current; the river now seems happy to simply pin her to this rock. Blowing water from her lips she bobs back up to the surface, lifting her arms to wave to Sheppard and let him know that she is well enough. But he is not there.
No, he is there, she sees, pulling herself up a little higher. He is on the ground, unconscious.
The warning comes too late, although perhaps it would never have come soon enough to save Sheppard. The warrior – maybe even the same one she escaped mere minutes ago, come looking for his sodden meal – is taking the same path that the Colonel took to reach the shore, his weapon raised. She can see no intent on his face, of course, but she can still sense his hunger.
And something else.
This mindless drone… is not quite mindless. It recognizes the Colonel. It knows that he is not to be fed upon as the others may be. It knows that it is to take this John Sheppard alive, back to its queen.
To be fed upon - while hideous, the very essence of pain and terror - somehow seems preferable to being taken captive… at least to one who has once been held in a Wraith cell, watching her companions being taken away, one at a time, never to be seen again. What information might they seek to extract from Sheppard and what might be done to him – slowly, excruciatingly – during the taking?
Had he been able to contact Rodney and Ronon before he had been taken down? Perhaps, but she cannot bet his life on it.
Teyla finds herself slipping towards the edge of her safe harbor, slowly and stealthily so as not to catch the monster’s attention. She watches it stalk up to Sheppard and stare down at him, and the whispered command again echoes in her brain.
We want him alive.
Carefully she peers around the boulder’s edge, glad to see that no irregular curvature obscures her view. There, perhaps one hundred feet down the beach from the place where the Wraith now stands, a natural jetty of gravel and driftwood extends out into the river. Not even nearly halfway; if Teyla simply let herself be pulled downstream she would be taken right past it. But it’s something – it’s on the right bank, at least, and if she swims hard perpendicular to the current she might…
It’s a small ‘might’. Too small. But it’s the only one she has, and the only one that John has.
With another quick look at the Wraith – it is standing looking towards the sky, perhaps communicating telepathically with a dart or hive ship in the air above – Teyla pushes hard off the boulder, swimming towards the shore with every bit of strength left in her.
It is not much.
She prays to the Ancestors that it will be enough. Prays before she can stop herself.
There are no atheists in foxholes, Aiden Ford once told her.
It is like trying to walk against a driving wind. The river is a monster too, tumbling and arcing around itself, hurtling downstream with mindless ferocity, deafening her with its roar, tugging on her tired legs and aching shoulders. It is too fast… too much… she has made some small gain towards the shore but not enough, not nearly enough. She closes her eyes and kicks, kicks against the pain, the burn in her muscles and in her lungs, against the cold that has now numbed her lips, her nose, her fingertips.
She feels body beginning to fail her, holds her breath as the waves crash over her head, keeps kicking, keeps reaching out with her torpid arms, the last of her strength beginning to ebb…
Her booted feet strike against the earth. Her nerveless fingers scrape gravel.
The jetty extends further underwater, and she has reached it.
Shivering from the cold, shaking with exhaustion, she pulls herself up onto the natural pier, scrambles as quietly as her poor drained muscles will allow across the accumulation of stone and wooden debris and onto the narrow shore. With the cliff face to her right, Sheppard and the Wraith are now perhaps one hundred and twenty feet away and moving further with every step: the warrior is dragging the Colonel face-up, by the scruff of his jacket, towards the embankment. Going back the way it came with Sheppard in tow. Taking him to a place where they can be more easily collected by a passing dart, no doubt.
There is no cover on the beach, which makes her position vulnerable enough. But once the Wraith reaches the cliff face, its advantage will increase. It won’t be facing away from her anymore; it’ll be able to see her coming, and it’ll have the higher ground. She has to get to them first, which gives her perhaps thirty seconds in which to act.
Salvation reintroduces itself in the form of John’s weapon, lying on the beach where he had been rendered unconscious, disregarded by the Wraith and left to rust. Had Sheppard fired off a salvo before he’d been taken down? Teyla doesn’t think so. Had the P90 jammed? Will it jam when she tries to fire it, leaving her standing before an armed Wraith with nothing but a glorified club? She sincerely hopes not.
Teyla takes a deep breath – and makes her break.
At first her muscles seize up, cold and weary; she stumbles once, pushes herself up, continues running. Dirt clomps onto her wet boots. She feels as though she is running in slow motion by the time she reaches the weapon, scoops it up, and keeps going – raises the P90 into ready position, numb fingers falling into place, hooking around the trigger. The closer she is the truer the shots will fall, and the more devastating their impact, and the less chance that she might fumble the weapon and shoot Sheppard instead.
The Wraith warrior is not deaf any more than it is blind, but also not as swift or wily as some of its cohorts. It drops Sheppard to the beach, turns, raises its stunner, not in one fluid motion but in several erratic steps, giving her the time she needs to stop, plant her feet and pull the trigger. The weapon chatters, bucks in her hands in that familiar way – thank the Ancestors, thank the Ancestors – and the warrior’s body jerks in time with the impacts. It falls, almost on top of its would-be victim.
It will heal, and quickly. She crosses the distance between them quickly, snatches up the stunner, and shoots the Wraith with it for good measure. Twice.
Never quite taking her eyes off the creature, Teyla kneels by Sheppard’s side. “Colonel?” He does not stir, but he is breathing. Relief shudders through her as she pulls the communication device from Sheppard’s ear and holds it to her own. “This is Teyla, is anyone there?”
“Teyla?” Rodney’s voice, small and surprised, is the most welcome sound she has ever heard. “Where the hell have you been?”
She cannot help but smile. “In the river.”
“Never mind. Where are you?”
Ronon breaks in. “Sheppard told us to go back to the Jumper. We’re almost there now. Have you seen him?”
She nods, even though they cannot see her. “I am here with him now. He is unconscious, stunned by a Wraith, but well enough.”
There is a pause as though the two men are trying to digest this. “I see you on the sensors,” says Rodney at last, indicating that they must have made it back to the ship. “We’ll come pick you up, then stay cloaked until the Wraith leave, and then—“
“One thing at a time,” snaps Ronon. “Give us two minutes,” he tells Teyla.
“Understood,” she says wearily, sucking in a breath as a cool wind sweeps across the shore, huddling next to the dry warmth of Sheppard’s supine body, watching the Wraith for any sign of wakefulness, watching the cliff for any sign of more Wraith, watching the sky for the nearly undetectable waver of air that signifies the approach of the Jumper, waiting. It is a long, long two minutes.
* * *
Even two days later, Teyla finds herself staying in the shower until the water no longer runs hot. According to the annoyed Sergeant down the hall, that is the first time that has ever happened.
The coffee pot in the mess is empty – obviously Rodney has been through recently – and Teyla takes a mug of hot chocolate from the young man behind the counter instead. Wrapping her hands around the ceramic, breathing in the sweet, fragrant steam, she walks out onto the sun-facing balcony and drinks in the fading light. It will be evening soon, and she shivers just thinking about it.
“Hey.” The voice at her back is startling, but she manages not to jump as Colonel Sheppard joins her at the railing. He is dressed in a black t-shirt and black drawstring pants, a black sweatshirt tied around his waist, creating his own shadow against the amber sky.
From the pace of his breathing and the sheen of sweat on his forehead, she can guess where he has been. “Running with Ronon?”
He grunts. “Invited Lorne along, too. Makes me feel slightly less inferior.” He grins, leaning up against the rail, glances at her and sudden looks less enthused. “You look… tired.”
She sighs. Why do men – be they from Earth or Athos – never understand that that kind of statement is more insult than observation? Easy for him to say; thanks to the Wraith stunner, he spent half the day dozing in the infirmary. “Thank you,” she says dryly.
Sheppard looks flustered. “I just meant that… maybe you’d want to turn in early.”
Teyla shakes her head. “I know it is only in my mind, but when I am inside I am still… cold. The sunlight seems to help.” She nods at the horizon.
He is silent for a moment, perhaps taking in for the first time that she is wearing one of her few long-sleeved shirts, and holding the steaming mug. “Well, just don’t look directly at it. You’ll go blind,” he offers, helpfully.
Smiling despite herself, she says “thank you”.
There is a moment of silence between them that is not quite awkward, but not entirely comfortable either. Sheppard suddenly unties the sweatshirt from around his waist and holds it out to her. When she looks at it askance, he insists. “I promise, it’s not all sweaty or anything.”
Maybe it’s only to appease him, maybe because the offer is genuinely appealing; Teyla doesn’t allow herself to dwell on any other possibilities, handing him her mug while she shrugs into the sweatshirt. It says AIR FORCE across the front in bold white lettering, smells like laundry soap and… something else, familiar and musky and pleasant.
They stand together, squinting into the fading light.
You know what this means.