Earlier chapters start here: Chapter one
Chapter six: The dead of winter
In some ways, it reminded Ronon of his time as a Runner. Like then, he had no proper home to go to, and he lived on what he could forage and kill. Like then, he had a goal. But then his goal had just been to live. Now his goal was specific, and appeared to be growing more unattainable with every day that passed.
And then he had been alone, and now he was with friends.
It made it easier, and it made it harder, being with other people. He had people to protect, and that honed his will to survive. Teyla, it was true, needed little protection, although he couldn't stop himself from wanting to try. McKay, at least, needed a bodyguard, although he was resourceful in ways that Ronon was not. There were times – had been times, and would be many more – when Ronon had owed his life to the scientist's tenacity, brains… yes, and courage, too.
McKay's task was to keep them hidden. The cloak only had limited power, he said, and he tinkered with it endlessly to make it last as long as possible. Whenever they were confident that they were hidden, they decloaked, but several times they had been forced to move the jumper to a fresh hiding place. McKay had another task, too, of course. He scanned constantly, trying every contrivance he could think of, trying to find evidence of Sheppard, or evidence of anything out of the ordinary.
Teyla was the one who made contact with the inhabitants. She had been reluctant to steal - "even if John is here, the ordinary people are not our enemies" - but had consented to steal clothing. She looked like a stranger, her hair dyed dark with boiled roots, and wearing a long red gown kirtled up to her knee. She spent days and nights talking to people on the streets, infiltrating taverns, and discovering the places frequented by the servants of the great ones. She had discovered many secrets, but none of them led to Sheppard. Watching her return one evening – a stranger, until she came close – Ronon was suddenly struck with the impression that she felt less hope than any of them, although she was always the most optimistic one, when they talked.
Ronon's job was to keep them alive. That, at least, he could do, and would do, with every drop of breath in his body. He had lost too many friends. And so he hunted, and brought them food. He slept just enough to keep himself alert, but no more than that. He kept watch during the long nights, and through the rain and wind of the short days.
McKay still counted the days, marking them off on the page of a notebook. "Old-fashioned, I know," he said, "but Keller wouldn't let me have my laptop in the infirmary. I started then." Teyla had kept it up, Ronon discovered, when McKay had been lost in fever for several days. He felt obscurely disappointed that he had not known about this. Still, he found McKay's markings meaningless. A day was shorter here than on Earth, so McKay waited for a day and a night to pass, and only made his mark half way through the following day.
"Time's running away from us," McKay said once, gazing at the notebook in his hand. "It feels as if the days are going faster and faster…" He ran his hand across his brow. "I'm sorry. I… uh… I'm tired. Speaking nonsense." So Ronon told him to sleep, but he didn't think McKay did.
When it was Teyla's turn to watch, Ronon started awake from a nightmare. Teyla didn't say anything about it, but he knew that she knew. Rather than feeling exposed, he felt… Loved, his mind said. Part of something. Protected. He had always known that he was their protector; he had seldom stopped to realise that they protected him, too. But they had come after him when the Wraith had taken him. They had fallen into place so quietly around him when his old friends had betrayed him.
We're still a team, he thought, the following morning, but he had never felt Sheppard's absence more keenly. What should have been four was only three. They were stumbling in the dark. It was not enough merely to survive, not this time. It was not even enough to kill his enemies. No, they had a goal now, and every day – every day that McKay marked off in an uncompromising black in his notebook – brought them no closer to achieving it.
They had left Atlantis ready to take on the universe, but this was slow death.
After that, Sheppard discovered that he had been right not to imagine that his team was coming for him. Hope, once awakened, became a torment.
When footsteps came, he warred between readiness and expectation. Homer brought food, but weren't those footsteps so very like the footsteps of Rodney McKay? George was Teyla, and Hank, who prowled with a long stride, could be Ronon. Sometimes, in his dreams, he was.
Once, he fell onto his dinner with both hands, suddenly convinced that there was a file or a knife hidden in it. They couldn't get to him directly, but they'd infiltrated the base and were communicating with him in the only way they could. He strained to hear Morse code in the distant sound of water in the pipes. He listened for messages in the irregular beat of footsteps in the hallway.
Dreams came, often not waiting for him to fall asleep. Sometimes his team-mates were still on the run, still searching for him, still injured, growing weaker and weaker. Sometimes they thought he was dead, and were grieving for him, while he endured here, buried alive. Sometimes they found him, but were cut down on the threshold, all three of them together, and he had to live on like this for years afterwards, seeing nothing but the memory of their dying faces.
Once, he thought he lived for a hundred years, but when he opened his eyes – the white room of the dream becoming the white room of reality – his food was still moist, and he knew he had lived a century in the space of a few minutes.
The marks on the wall rose into the thirties, and continued to climb. At thirty-five, though, he lost count again. He was slow eating, and fell asleep several times, and when he'd almost finished, he couldn't remember if he'd marked the meal before eating, or if he'd been so weak with hunger that he had forgotten.
Losing count didn't seem to matter as much as it once had.
When the footsteps came, he started to talk to them, calling them "Rodney" or "Ronon" or "Teyla." He was almost entirely certain that it wasn't them, but it never did any harm to try. They never spoke back, though.
Once, he woke up to find the door wide open. "Come on," McKay was urging him, beckoning from the door. "Don't just sit there. They'll be back any minute." Sheppard rose from the bed and went with them, and they were grim at first, shooting when they had to, but there were jokes once they were back in the jumper, and jokes again in the infirmary, with the undercurrent of things that could not be said out loud.
Waking from that dream was hard, but the next dream was even worse. Then, McKay beckoned him from the door, but Sheppard couldn't move. He tried to rise from the bed, but his body had become as heavy a lump of lead, fused to the bed, incapable of moving. As he strained, desperate to move, Ronon shouted from somewhere out of sight, saying they couldn't stay any longer. McKay ran off with a look of apology, and Sheppard screamed after them, screamed after them, and tore himself free from the bed at last, in time for the door to slam shut in his face and be locked forever.
When he awoke from that dream, he immediately passed out again. The next time he awoke, he told himself that the solution was simple: he didn't let himself fall asleep again. But dreams came even when he was fully awake, and it was impossible not to sleep. Although he never slept enough to feel rested, he suspected he was sleeping for well over half of his time. Whole swathes of time were swallowed up in sleep. If it seemed like weeks, it must have been longer.
"We're still looking for you," McKay told him. He looked anxious, now.
"I can't let myself believe that," Sheppard told him. Hope was the worst thing of all to endure.
When they had lost Sheppard, brown leaves had been cascading down from the tall trees. Now the trees were bare, and the air was cold enough to hurt. Night after night was clear and starless, and the sparse grass was covered with frost.
Although he marked off each day, Rodney felt as if he was losing his grip on the passage of time. Seasons went faster here, and the days were shorter, and they were already at the heart of winter. He didn't like to think too much about the prospect of Sheppard still missing by spring.
As the leaves fell, the buildings grew clearer. They all knew the city by now, with its old-fashioned fortress-like buildings, and its distant factories, shrouded with smoke. There were far too many life-signs to investigate every one, but they did what they could. Teyla talked, and found nothing. Ronon threatened and interrogated, but found nothing. Days and nights passed, and Rodney felt less like himself with every one of them, but still they found nothing.
One night, low behind the trees, the horizon blazed red with flame. "Wraith!" Ronon hissed, but Teyla came back from the city then, and told them. It was the celebration of midwinter, when fires were lit against the dark, and to celebrate the triumph of the returning sun. "Wouldn't the anthropologists like that," Rodney said. He thought of Christmas, though, and childhood bonfires in the dark.
After that, his thoughts turned increasingly towards Atlantis. Had the hive ship reached the city? He thought of the scientists, scurrying around their labs. "If only Doctor McKay was here. We'd have a chance if only McKay was here." No, no, he told himself. Radek was more than capable. And chances were, the hive ship had never reached the city at all – had never even known that the city was there.
He thought of Katie Brown, the woman he so seldom made time to see, but who was always so sweet and forgiving when he did. He hadn't said goodbye to her; hadn't thought to say goodbye to her; had barely thought of her in weeks. "I don't deserve you," he wanted to say to her. Then he imagined what Sheppard would say if he heard him being so uncharacteristically modest. Then he thought of Katie again, and then he looked at the stars, and he was still there when Teyla came to look for him, calling him in.
"I wonder what they're all doing," he wondered out loud, but neither of the other two would play that game, although it was a better game than wondering what was happening to Sheppard.
He remembered faces clearly – faces of people whose names he hadn't realised that he knew. He thought about his quarters lying empty, and the work that was lying undone. But it was the people that he thought about most – people, that he didn't care about; people, who were unimportant to him; people, far less important than facts and words.
Then, one day, he saw Sam Carter. He was slipping out of the city – and he still hated visits to the city, and spent the whole time sure that a hand would fall on his shoulder, and that he, too, would be dragged away and never return, but he had to do it, didn't he? Returning home – if a jumper could be called home – he saw Carter and a small group of Marines being escorted into the city. He pressed himself against a building, paced up and down, headed for the trees, wandered back. Several hours later, he saw them leave again. They were too far away for him to see her face.
The next day, though, someone tried to contact him on the radio. He sat there, watching that blinking light, and didn't move for quite a while.
"What if he's back on Atlantis?" he asked the others, when they returned. "What if they've found him? What if he's been back for weeks, and he's living there in luxury while we camp out here like… like beggars? What if…? Oh no! Oh no! What if they've found out for sure that he's dead?"
The others said nothing. Afterwards, though, he wondered if Sam had glanced his way as he had quivered in his hiding place. He found himself hoping that she had. And that night, his dreams were all of Atlantis.
He stopped counting meals. Then, in sudden fit of fury when still half lost in a dream, he wiped all the marks off the wall, and then he had nothing at all to count.
Then a meal came – he had no idea which meal it was – that contained a razor blade.
He looked at it lying there, half-covered with blood, hard and silver and lovely next to the washed-out vegetables. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, but it was still there. "Rodney?" he whispered. It was too close to his dreams. "Ronon? Teyla?"
"It wasn't us," McKay told him, hovering at his shoulder. "It's them. It's a test. They want to see what you do with it."
"I know that, Rodney." His voice shook, just a little. "Of course I know that."
He picked it up, held it delicately between his fingers; wanted to grasp it as tightly as he possibly could, but there was no safe place to hold it. Stumbling to his feet, he attacked the hinges of the door, scraping and slicing. Metal screeched. White paint came off in flakes, and the metal beneath it was untouched. The blade bent slightly in his hand. He felt slashes go deep into his fingers and hands, and blood fell on the metal, replacing the white paint.
"The blade will break well before the hinge does," Ronon told him.
"Or go blunt," added McKay.
He dropped the blade, and managed to make his way to the bed. Leaning his head against the wall, he closed his eyes. At least the pain in his hands kept him awake. At least it stilled the dreams. At least it was something to focus on, something to marshal his strength against. At least it was here and now, not some distant fear of an imagined pain yet to come.
Those thoughts were going to places he couldn't let them go. He stood up, and snatched up the blade again. In the bathroom, he washed away the blood, and found that the cuts were less deep than they could have been. The blade must have been blunted already from his work on the hinge.
When he looked in the mirror, the face that looked back at him wore something that could only be called a beard; it had stopped being stubble many meals ago. "Shave it off," McKay told him. "Perhaps they're trying to give you a hint."
He brought the razor to his face. The eyes in the mirror looked into his, wondering what he was going to do. If he shaved the beard, he would no longer look like a stranger. He would look like himself again. It was one last tiny thing he could hold onto. He wore their clothes, ate their food, but he looked the way he wanted to look.
"So it's all about pride, then, is it?" McKay wondered.
"No," Sheppard told him. "Symbols are important. Ronon knows." But Ronon was silent, and offered no opinion.
But time was caught up in the hair on his face. Minutes and hours and days and weeks were entwined in every hair. He had no way to count days, and he had stopped counting meals, but the beard told him that time was passing. The beard told him that all of this was real. It anchored him in time. It anchored him in reality. If it went… If he looked the same as he had looked when he had left Atlantis…
"Then it's as if none of this happened, and I have to know that it happened, because I feel different. If I don't look different, then it's all a lie."
"Which is a good thing, isn't it?" McKay was just a voice. No other faces were visible in the mirror.
Sheppard clenched his fist, and smashed it into the mirror. "You don't understand."
But he left the blade where it had fallen, and walked back to the bed without touching it again…
They told each other stories, sometimes, in the evenings. Teyla was the one who started it. Rodney scoffed, of course. "Do you think for one moment that fairy tales will make us forget the true awfulness that is our life?" Ronon, however, encouraged her. Whenever she thought she had come to know him, he surprised her.
She avoided stories that touched on their own situation. Tales could hold moral lessons, and were often used that way with children and with adults alike, but this was not the time for it. She told no stories of lost loved ones who returned with the spring. She told no stories of fidelity repaid, or of healing that came after a long winter of grief.
No, she told childhood tales, and made even Rodney smile – although he tried so hard to disguise it – with the antics of young animals outwitting the wily ossa. "Which I believe you would call a fox," she told Rodney, afterwards. "It is a different creature, but fills the same role in the stories."
Ronon told a tale, then, of a young soldier experiencing his first battle. "He had expected it to be glorious, but it just seemed like so much noise. He was afraid."
"What's the point of that story?" Rodney demanded. "It's got no ending."
Teyla suspected that the story was true, and that Ronon was that soldier, but she knew Ronon well enough to know that there were some things that a friend could not know about him, or could not ask, anyway.
Rodney, grudgingly, told them all about a man called Batman, but he was not a good storyteller. His story reminded Teyla of a ball of yarn, with strands going everywhere, getting increasingly more tangled. Not that it mattered. It was good to hear his voice, and good to see his smile. His eyes shone, and she knew that this tale was important to him.
Another night, the stories moved to childhood memories. Ronon talked about his first gun – "Well, you would, wouldn't you?" Rodney said. "You're a walking stereotype." He then told them about his first science prize – "And yes, yes, I see the irony in this. Point taken, and all that." Teyla's childhood was full of the threat of the Wraith and the wisdom of her father. She told them how she had become lost in the fog, when she had gone out without permission, trying to keep up with the older children. "I remember how scared I was," she said, "but I always knew that he would come for me."
It was a bad choice of words. None of them said what all of them were thinking, though.
The next night, they spoke of more recent memories. "Do you remember…?" and "what about that time when…?" and "and then he said…" The stories were dark with the names of the dead and the disappeared, but there were smiles, too, in remembering them.
On the next night, Rodney started to talk about the future.
There were no more stories after that.
…until much later, after another meal had come, and another set of footsteps had departed.
His hands were hurting. The pain was flashes of light and colour in the unrelenting whiteness. It was something to resist. Ronon had said something like that, once, hadn't he? Something about how a blade needed to be used in battle, because if it sat untouched in the sheath, it grew dull and blunt.
He thought of the razor blade, so full of promise in the bathroom.
When he heard the footsteps, he hurled himself at the door, and then he was hammering against it with bloody hands, begging, demanding, that they come in right now and started to hurt him. He wanted the pain; he needed the pain. He needed an enemy. He needed a cause to fight.
No-one came. When he fell to the floor, exhausted, he managed to gather together to tattered remains of his mind, and to realise that there had probably never been anyone outside, anyway. He was so attuned to sound, now, that he heard sound where no sound was.
The razor called to him.
He stood up and moved to the bathroom, his head high, and his hands at his sides. He saw himself in the mirror, moving in as if in a dream. He watched himself from outside as he picked up the blade. From somewhere on the ceiling, he watched the body of a stranger called John Sheppard, and saw him return to the bed. He saw him sit almost serenely on the bed; saw him place the blade against the skin of his forearm.
He stayed like that for a very long time. The Sheppard who watched had no idea what was going through the mind of the Sheppard who sat on the bed. McKay and the others watched in silent expectation, and sometimes whispered things to each other, but he couldn't hear what they were.
At last, the man on the bed moved his lips, speaking in a voice that Sheppard no longer recognised. "No," those cracked lips said. "That's not who I am."
He stood up, and moved stiffly towards the door, where he lowered himself to his knees, and flicked the blade through the gap at the bottom of the door. It skittered across the floor, the sound louder than a shout, but then he lay full length on the floor and reached through the gap, straining as hard as he could, and when his fingertips encountered the blade, he flicked it away even further, until he was certain that he would never be able to reach it again.
Then the man who was called John Sheppard returned to the bed, and sat there until the next meal came, his eyes wide open, staring into the white.
Ronon never told the others about his dreams. Many things came out to play when he closed his eyes. He saw fragments of his old life, sometimes mixed up with the new. He saw himself running, endlessly on and on, always alone. He saw friends become enemies, but he also saw all the usual nonsensical stuff of dreams.
Now he saw Sheppard, too. Several times he woke up sharply in the night, sure that they had found him. It was never easy to get to sleep again after that, after he had rolled over and found himself still in the jumper, and still with only two companions.
More often that that, though, he dreamt that they found Sheppard dead. He also dreamt of Weir with sightless eyes, and felt bones crunch beneath his fists as he slaughtered people who had once been closer than family to him. Then he would wake up, and lie there, half way between sleep and waking, and imagine what he would do if he caught those responsible for taking Sheppard from them.
He had already done what he could. He had captured a close aide of Lord Dareon, and questioned him until he was satisfied that he knew nothing about Sheppard, and then had questioned him some more. He had found a gunman who guarded the Gate, and pinned him down until he admitted that yes, they did have orders to fire at uninvited guests, but "only to drive them off – maybe wound them a little – so they don't come back. We don't take prisoners."
Lord Dareon remained too well guarded. "I wonder why that could be," McKay said harshly. "Could it be…? Oh! I know! It's because we blew up that building! And they know that we're here, enemies in their midst. I can see no reason at all why they should be… edgy." Ronon had glimpsed Dareon at a distance, though, but they needed answers, not a kill. They couldn't storm in, guns blazing, since there was no obvious place to storm.
All this he saw again in his dreams, but warped terribly. He killed the whole lot of them, but Dareon died with a smile on his face, because now they would never learn the secret of Sheppard's location. He watched Sheppard drained by the Wraith, as Kolya watched. They burst triumphant into a cell, to find that Sheppard was dead, but when he rolled the body over, its face was McKay's, and when he blinked, it was Teyla's, and then Weir's, and then Tyre's.
He killed in revenge, and he killed in justice, but they kept on rising up, and he killed them again, but they still didn't die.
The good dreams were the worst, though. Sitting in the mess hall, the four of them together, baiting McKay and watching him splutter. "Thanks for coming for me, you guys," Sheppard says, and Ronon smiles, because not everything is well - the Wraith are still out there, and his old home is gone - but, for now and in this moment, he is content.
He woke up sharply. The next time was worse, and clearer. "Let us in!" McKay and Teyla were shouting from outside. "We've got him." And Ronon opened the hatch, and in they came, supporting Sheppard between them, but he looked tired, really, rather than badly hurt, and he smiled his crooked smile, and said, "Thanks, guys. Now let's get the hell out of here."
He must have gasped upon waking, that time. Teyla was on watch, just a voice in the darkness. "I have them, too," she said.
At some point, he stopped putting on the fresh clothes. He stopped washing, too. What did it matter what he looked like? Putting on clean clothes was perpetuating the lie that the normal rules still held. Of course they didn't hold. No-one was coming for him. He was never getting out.
He still heard the footsteps, but no longer moved in response to them. He ate the food, but often not straight away. A distant part of his mind whispered that he should just stop eating, because then they'd be forced to act, if they didn't want him to die. Sometimes he even tried to carry out that resolve, but in the end, he remembered the razor blade, and found himself eating, after all.
His team no longer appeared to him, but before that, they had each had one last visit. Ronon had told him he was pitiful, because he had been reduced to this by enemies who hadn't laid a finger on him. Teyla had said he should have accepted his situation weeks ago, and found a fresh understanding of himself through solitude. McKay didn't want to be near him because he looked a mess, his nails bitten down and jagged, his beard tangled, and his clothes stinking.
"But there's no point," he said, as his hand plucked threads from the blanket, again and again. "What's the point?"
The razor blade shone in his dreams, but it was never returned to him. When he dragged himself to the bathroom, the stranger looked down on him, and reminded him that he could smash the glass and get what he needed there. Once, when the gap between meals stretched into an eternity, he found himself striking the mirror again and again, just to silence that stranger and hide from his eyes, but the glass didn't break. Perhaps it wasn't glass at all.
He stopped returning the trays. He started counting meals again in a desultory fashion, but stopped after three.
Once, he thought he heard someone speaking to him from the hallway, but he turned his head away, and knew that it was only his imagination. The next time the footsteps came, he tried to tell himself that those, too, were not real, but he knew they were. They brought food, but they refused to bring pain.
The clean clothes lay untouched in the centre of the room. He washed his hands, and he splashed water onto his face, but he did nothing else.
Then came a meal that he didn't eat. He didn't think he'd actively decided not to eat it, but he just… didn't. It was still there when the next one came.
Then came the razor blade, returned to him. He picked it up and put it under his pillow, then curled up loosely on the bed. The food dried on the plate, untouched.
Rodney McKay hated to give up. Sure, he often talked loudly about how doomed they were, but that was just his way of goading himself into doing something about it. The more you talked about certain death, the more you were inspired to do something to stop it for being quite so certain. And Rodney was often in an excellent position to do just that, what with his doctorates and his awards and his great brain and his experience and the fact that he had saved the world – no, the galaxy – more times than some people had had hot dinners, and…
"But none of that counts for anything, does it?"
The others didn't attempt to buoy him up, to keep his spirits up, to offer false comfort.
"It's been too long."
He had seen a tiny pink flower today, emerging between two skeletal leaves.
"We shouldn't have come."
"Yes, we should." Teyla said it fiercely.
"But why?" he asked her. "We're no nearer to finding him." And we've been too long away from Atlantis, and I never expected to find a home there, but I have, and people that I care about. "It was all a colossal waste of time."
"A waste of time?" Ronon growled. "You call it a waste?"
He shook his head, spreading his hands uselessly. Not a waste if they had found him, oh no. He'd risk anything to save a friend – and count that another miraculous, impossible thing that the Pegasus Galaxy had done to him. But to search for so long without finding him… To leave Atlantis for so long, and in such a way… And I even doubted Sam, but she was right all along.
"I do not believe it was ever entirely about John," Teyla said.
Rodney looked at her. Ronon did, too, and he seemed suddenly so much more familiar than he had seemed only weeks before.
"We needed to do this," Teyla said.
"Why?" Rodney gave a bark of laughter. "So we can learn the bitter taste of ultimate failure? Am I suppose to feel that my character has been developed through adversity? Am I a better person now? Or are you saying we were selfish all along, and only came in order to make ourselves feel better, and not for him at all?"
"You're talking as if we're giving up." Ronon was leaning forward, his forearms on his knees.
"We have to one day," Rodney said. It was the first time he had as much as thought it.
When did you stop? You made a decision, and perhaps it wasn't even the right decision, but it was the decision that you had made. That decision led to other decisions, and days became weeks, and you couldn't stop, because that invalidated all the days that had gone before. If you went home again, you were admitting that yet another friend was lost forever, and that there was nothing you could do about it. If you stopped searching, then you admitted that there were things that even you could not fix.
"It was right that we tried," Teyla said.
Afterwards, they stood side by side, watching the clouds moving in from the direction of the Gate. Rodney thought of home. It was easier to do that than to think of Sheppard, who was gone.
End of chapter six
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