Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

Practise to Deceive - part 17 of 17

Chapter one, summary and notes are here



Here we are – the final chapter. It's a long one, I'm afraid. There was a lot of fit in, and it really didn't lend itself to being split into two.

Chapter seventeen: Surfacing

He became aware of distant voices very far away. He thought he might be underwater, and wondered if he should swim towards the voices, but he couldn't seem to find his body. The voices faded, but the sensation of being underwater did not. He drifted in blue sky and the endless ocean, and there at the middle it was a silver city.

The voices grew louder. He saw greens and white, and he tried to move again, and this time his hand obeyed. The voices ebbed and flowed, though, and soon he was sinking slowly back down to the bottom of the ocean, to a place where there was only darkness.

One voice came in, louder than the others, right at the end. "Everyone's fine," it said, "and you're back on Atlantis."

Back on Atlantis. That was good. Everyone's fine. That was better. He tried to smile, but the darkness grew thicker and the water was too deep.

Then nothing.

******

Memory was a jumble. He wasn't sure why he was here, or what he had been doing. He tried to sort through the fragments, to work out which memory was the most recent. There was too much, too real, too soon, but at the same time strangely far away. He didn't know…

"Open your eyes." That was Rodney. "We know you're awake."

Sheppard opened his eyes. I was trying to work out if I was really on Atlantis, he thought, or if you were Carrick. Best not to say it, though. It already felt stupid, because he remembered everything now, and he knew that this was real.

"How is…?" He cleared his throat. It hurt, though he had no memory of doing anything that would make it so hard to speak. "How's everyone?"

"Fine." Rodney flapped his hand impatiently. "We've already told you, like four times. "

"Oh." He had vague memories then of swimming through water, and sinking back into the darkness when a voice told him what he needed to hear.

"So are you awake for real this time, because I don't want to waste my time telling you things if you're only going to fall asleep again and forget them."

He still felt a little as if he was floating, but he knew that feeling well enough by now to know that it was due to drugs. It was best not to try too hard to move at the moment, he decided. Moving might send him back beneath the water. "For real, I guess."

He looked at them around his bed. Ronon was sitting, his arm in a sling. Teyla stood behind him, an arm on the back of his chair. Rodney was his usual restless self. They all looked tired and drawn and haggard, but they seemed suddenly to be the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. I missed you guys. He had had to pretend he hated them, and from then on he had been entirely on his own. Home had felt so impossibly far away when he had lived with Carrick, pretending to be someone he was not.

"So everyone's…" He cleared his throat again, swallowing. "Everyone's okay?"

"Yes, yes," Rodney said. "We won. The bad guys are defeated. All living happily ever after, etcetera etcetera."

"I thought…" The Daedalus hadn't come. The lights of Atlantis had flashed in a distress signal. "I thought it had all gone wrong."

Teyla started to say something, but Rodney spoke over her. "No. Everything went right. Everything went according to plan. By which I mean that everything fell apart round here while you went off without a thought… without thinking that…" He stopped, scraping his hand across his face. "You know, colonel, you just expect us to wait for you, but it's not… I'm not doing this any more. I'm not."

Sheppard swallowed. The water wanted to claim him, but this was real. "Rodney…" he began, but Rodney ignored him, walking away without another word. Sheppard subconsciously tried to start towards him, but sudden pain pinned him to the pillow.

He closed his eyes. He felt Teyla touch his arm, and when he opened his eyes again, she was looking at him gently. He tried for a smile. "What's gotten into him?"

"You have to understand," Teyla said, "that it was difficult for us. I… think you were not aware of how hard it would be. It was not easy to have those fights with you. It was not easy to sit and wait. It was not easy to have to pretend…" Her eyes lowered, then rose again, and he felt her grip tighten. "To have to pretend not to care."

"It was just…" Just an act. The words died on his lips, because he understood. Saying those things to Carrick… Pretending to hate everyone… Lying to Manning…

"You are loved, John." Teyla squeezed his hand. "Not just by us, but by many on Atlantis. Your… absence has affected many people."

He felt he ought to say something. Hell, he wanted to say something, but he couldn't find the words. And so he took the coward's way out, and closed his eyes. It was a while before he slept, though.

******

After that, he thought that he had a procession of visitors, and that he dozed a little between each one. It was only afterwards that they told him that the whole thing had covered several days, and that he had slept for hours between each conversation.

Keller came first, telling him that he was lucky to be alive. The bullet through his shoulder had caused him to lose too much blood, but the one that had lodged in his side had almost been the killer, and all of it had been exacerbated, in Keller's stern opinion, by the fact that he had moved around too much after being shot. "But I had to," he tried to tell her, but it seemed that doctors were all the same in having a dim view of necessity. As it was, she told him, he was damn lucky not have permanently compromised the mobility of his arm.

"You look as though you wish I had," he told her, and she smiled then, all sternness leaving her face, and said how pleased everyone was to have him back. "I'm not good at lying," she said, "really I'm not. I… I just… can't. I mean, not that… I mean, I don't mean I'm only pleased because I don't have to… to lie. It's not that. I…"

Perhaps she did something with his drugs, because he didn't remember the rest of that conversation. The next thing he remembered was Teyla, but he was asleep again before they could say much. Lorne appeared and kept him up to date with things he couldn't remember the next time he woke. Even Zelenka came by, but Rodney never came. Ronon came, though. Sheppard opened his eyes once to find him standing beside the bed. He wondered afterwards how long Ronon had stood there waiting for him to wake up. "I didn't mean it," Ronon said, when he saw Sheppard awake. "What I said. About not respecting you."

Sheppard blinked. His thoughts were sluggish on waking, but some things he understood immediately. Some things he would never forget. "Of course you didn't. I know that."

"Just wanted you to know." Ronon moved closer, as if he wanted to give Sheppard a one-armed hug, then stopped himself. Instead, he clapped Sheppard awkwardly on the uninjured shoulder.

"I didn't mean what I said either," Sheppard managed to say, before he drifted away again, but the sleep after that was a little easier.

There was still no Rodney next time he awoke, but Keller was there, and the time after that, he saw Colonel Carter, halfway through saying something to someone else. Someone out of sight must have signed something, because she turned round, smiling. "I'm glad to see back on Atlantis, John, and still in one piece."

She moved on to more than greetings, though, and soon he was struggling to focus on business. It was true that nobody had died, although there were many injuries, "but you grabbed the starring role as far as injuries are concerned," she said, with a wry smile. "If you hadn't managed to call the Daedalus, it would have been much worse."

"See?" he said. "I told Keller I couldn't just lie down."

The prisoners were still in custody, she told him, but he decided not to think about that for now. Then she told them about their traitor, and the things he had confessed. She told him about the bombs that had derailed their plan, and how Rodney and many others had worked tirelessly to repair the damage, but how for the most part the defence had been conducted blind.

"What's going to happen to him?" Sheppard asked.

"Cameron? He's in custody. He will be sent to trial, of course."

Cameron had betrayed Sheppard's city to the enemy. Only a week before, perhaps, Sheppard would have hated him more than anyone else alive. But then he had stood over Manning with a gun in his hand. He had wrestled with the choice of killing one man, or risking hundreds of lives by his refusal to do so. He had chosen not to kill him, and to hell with the consequences. Would he turn traitor in order to protect a team-mate from torture? Probably not, but it was not as clear-cut as that. The way he saw it now, there was precious little black and white in the issue, only shades of grey. His own decision had been on one point of the continuum, and Cameron's had been on another, and that was all.

"Go as easy on him as you're allowed to," he said. It would be easier on Manning, too. Cameron had sold Atlantis for Manning's sake. There was bound to be guilt there, and the man had already endured far too much already.

"I don't think we can, John."

"Please." Pain put a raw edge to his voice. Then he stopped, knowing that if he spoke again, he would say things that shouldn't be said.

She seemed to be about to say something, stopped herself, then spoke. "John, given the circumstances, perhaps you should be cautious before speaking out in support of someone who betrayed Atlantis."

He had no energy for a retort, but he managed to shake his head, and managed to set his jaw stubbornly, and saw how she sighed but smiled faintly at the same time. He would do what was right, and to hell with the consequences.

No, he thought, a moment later, before he slept. Perhaps not that, not any more.

******

"Do you think we will recover from this?" Teyla found herself asking.

Colonel Carter thought about it for a moment. "I think so. Everyone who chooses to come here is strong in their way."

"But we lied to them."

"Because we had to."

But I fear that they will not see it like that."

When you lived in the shadow of the Wraith, you needed perfect faith in your leaders. You needed perfect loyalty, too, when the price of concealing some knowledge could be the devastation of your people. Trust, once lost, was often difficult to regain.

"I think they will," Carter said. "The people of Earth… And this sounds bad, but they are used to their leaders keeping things from them. Every soldier on Atlantis has been trained in a system in which he takes it as read that the officers know things that he or she does not. It doesn't stop them from having faith in their officers, if they prove themselves to be good. And in this case, there was a reason for the lies. They will understand that."

"But it did so much damage." Teyla had been optimistic when talking to Ronon and Rodney, but here with another woman, another leader, she could show her concerns. There was Jessica, coming to Teyla in guilt and torment. There was Chris Hudson ranting against John in the mess-hall. There was Lieutenant MacDonald, threatening them in the training room – a thing that she had promised to tell nobody about. And then there was her own team, fractured and angry, and Rodney storming out of the infirmary, wrapped up in fury and misery. There had been physical damage, too. The plan had gone wrong. People had been injured and Atlantis had almost fallen, all because of what they had done.

"It did," Carter said, "but they know the truth now. In time, they'll remember the happy ending, not the days of fear and uncertainty that led to it. They'll forget that they ever doubted Colonel Sheppard. You wait and see. Lots of them will already be convincing themselves that they suspected the truth all along." Her expression faltered. "No, the thing that will do most damage is the knowledge that they were betrayed by one of their own. That will strike hard."

Teyla seldom now felt out of her depth on Atlantis, but every now and then something happened to remind her that she was not one of them. She was not from Earth. She had not signed up for a mission far away from home – a mission that she could get out of at any moment. She had heard many things about Earth, but she could never fully understand what it felt like to be from there. Teyla thought she understood people. Earlier, she had been the one to understand what Colonel Carter could not. Now she could only hope that Colonel Carter understood the people of Earth better than she did.

"But they should be told the truth about his motives," Teyla said, because she understood that much. "I believe that will help." Cameron had been foolish, but he had been a victim, too. He should have told somebody, but in his own way, he, too, had been acting out of loyalty. He had expected his leaders to solve things for him, before anyone got hurt.

Carter nodded slowly. "You're right." She touched Teyla briefly on the arm. "They're resilient, Teyla. They know they're here as an outpost to protect against enemies that threaten Earth. They'll pull together. They might even been stronger as a result, after being tested."

And that, at least, was a thing she had seen before. That, at least, was something that she knew.

******

Rodney knew he had been behaving badly. He spent a few days concentrating on fixing Atlantis, and supervising teams who could probably do it perfectly well without him, but you never knew, did you? Things could go wrong at the slightest warning, and then everything came crashing down.

"Have you spoken to him?" Teyla said once. No need to say who the 'him' was. Between the three of them there was never anyone else.

"I tried," Rodney said, "but he was asleep." It was not entirely a lie. He had visited several times, but he had kept his distance. He had interrogated Keller insistently, too, asking if Sheppard was really going to get better, because he didn't look comfortable there on the bed, and he looked too pale, and it wasn't natural for him to be so still.

"Perhaps you should try again," Teyla said. He said something about work, about important work, but she interrupted him firmly. "There are more things in need of repair than just the fabric of the city," she said, and what was that supposed to mean, he asked her, although of course he knew.

He slept badly that night. The following morning, he sauntered into the infirmary as if he just happened to be there, and it didn't mean anything at all, and…

"Hey."

No choice now. He edged to Sheppard's bedside. "Hey." His eyes flickered from side to side. There was no sign of any doctors. "Is anyone doing their job round here?"

"Perhaps they heard you were coming." Sheppard shifted minutely; Rodney saw the slight stiffening of pain around his eyes. "Don't worry. Breakfast's coming soon."

"Very funny."

They were silent for a little while. Rodney tried several times to say something, but stopped each time, the words drying up before they could reach his mouth.

"So are you…?" He swallowed. "Does it hurt?"

"Like a bitch," Sheppard admitted, which surprised Rodney, "but they've given me good drugs. I'll be out of here in a few days."

"They probably want to get rid of you."

"Yeah." Sheppard gave a quick smile.

Another silence. Rodney was about to speak when he noticed the dressing on Sheppard's upper arm. "Is that…? Did I…? Is that where I…?"

"Where you shot me," Sheppard said. "Yeah."

Suddenly nothing felt quite the way it had felt for the last few days. It felt like months ago, but it had been less than a week – short enough for a wound to still be unhealed. "I don't know what I was thinking. I know we talked about it, but… I didn't mean to, and when–"

"Can't shoot a barn door at twenty paces, right?" Sheppard quirked a smile. Rodney tried to speak again, but Sheppard spoke firmly. "It's okay, Rodney. After all, I've shot you before."

"But…" Rodney raised his finger. "Yes! Yes, you have."

"Of course, you shot me during that adventure with Thalen and Phebus, so you're two-one up."

"That doesn't count!" Rodney protested. Then he let out a breath. "Look, about the way I acted the other day… I… I'm not very good at this, but I'm sorry. I… I don't know what I was thinking. It was all… It's just… It's been hard."

"It's okay, Rodney."

He barely heard it. "And there was Cameron thinking he could get the better of me and… and taking out half of Atlantis, and other people did the important part of fixing it, not me – though that doesn't seem to matter half as much as it should do, which is strange, because you know what I'm like – an arrogant man. I can't help it. But I just feel that we did it and it doesn't matter that much that it wasn't me…" He passed his hand over his face. "But that's not the point. You'd gone. You'd gone, and we didn't know… and, of course, I'd shot you. I… I… It’s just… I'm not good at this, you know? It's…"

"It's okay, Rodney."

"But…"

"Rodney." Sheppard said it firmly, then let out a breath, clearly still in pain. Rodney twisted his hands in his lap. "And… uh…" Perhaps it was the pain that made Sheppard's voice slightly rough. "I'm sorry. About… uh… everything. The way this thing turned out."

Breakfast arrived then, and neither of them spoke while a nurse arranged it on Sheppard's tray, and studied the readings from various monitors.

"Yes, Rodney," Sheppard said, afterwards, "you can have what I don't want, but not yet." Rodney's hand froze in the air.

He had to sit and watch while Sheppard ate. "It really isn't fair, you know."

"No." Sheppard looked entirely unrepentant. "Want to play chess later?"

"Sure." Rodney stood up, and did his best tough guy impression. "I'll kick your ass."

"In your dreams."

And that was that. It was only later, during the chess game, that Rodney suddenly found himself asking, "We're good, right?" Sheppard looked at him as if he was an idiot for even to need to ask, but repeated patiently, "We're good," and nothing seemed quite so bad after that.

Some things, it seemed, were best when you didn't talk about them.

******

Sheppard tired easily, which he would normally have found frustrating, except that it was so damn boring in the infirmary. He woke from one light sleep to find Carter standing beside her bed. "Sorry to wake you," she said.

"Was awake anyway," he told her, knowing that she knew it was a lie, but knowing, too, that she wouldn't call him on it.

She tried to do the usual platitudes – enquiries after his health, and so on – that people always seemed to feel the need to do to someone who was in the infirmary. Instead of answering, he looked her in the eye. "Cut to the chase," he told her.

She sat down, looking stiffer than she often looked. "Carrick's men," he said. "Do you want to see them?"

He knew what she was asking. That was the other thing about being hurt. People were so careful of your feelings. They seemed to think that you were fragile, that you needed some professional to talk to, that the slightest thing could cause an open wound and stop you finding closure.

"Carrick's men," he said, avoiding an answer for now. "Not Carrick. Yeah, I noticed that." He let out a breath; pressed his hand down on the bed beside him. "He's dead, then."

"Sergeant Manning killed him."

He blinked for a little bit too long, closing his eyes for a long moment. He remembered seeing Carrick approaching from behind Hudson, outside the ship. Had he followed Hudson there? Had he realised he had made a mistake leaving Sheppard alive? Had he been a coward all along, leading his men from the back? They would never know, and perhaps it didn't really matter. What did he feel about Carrick being dead? Surprisingly little, he decided. It was only in the movies that things became okay only after you killed the bad guy who had caused them. Nothing would change about the past if he confronted Carrick one more time, or even killed him. Alvarez and the others were still dead. Sheppard would still be changed.

"John?" Carter said quietly.

He was not ready to speak, not yet. With Carrick dead, the torturer and Everard were the only ones that he had had any sort of dealings with, but even that had only been slight. Did he want to see them? The answer he wanted to give was no. What was done was done. It was over now. If he asked to see them, if somehow implied that he needed to.

But he was tired enough, and he hurt enough, to be honest with himself. He didn't want to see them not because they didn't matter, but because they mattered too much. He had become something he didn't like while he had lived with them. Yes, it was all an act, but try telling that to Manning. He had denied his friends. He had acted all along not as he wanted to act, but as he thought the person he was playing ought to act.

"No," he said. "I don't want to see them."

She didn't ask for reasons, and merely nodded. That was good.

"So…" He still didn't look at her. "What's happening to them?"

"The Daedalus is taking them to a world without a Stargate," she said. "One has been chosen that is… not a death sentence. They'll be able to make a life there, just not bother others…" She paused. "I don't know whether to be disturbed at how easily we can do this, without the need for a trial, or whether to wish it could be like this on Earth, too."

"It's a life sentence," he said. Perhaps some of them had families. Perhaps some of them had only enlisted with Carrick because they were desperate, or because they wanted a better life for their children. He might not have thought of that, but for a while, in a way, he had been one of them.

"Yes." She looked troubled, and they were both silent together for a while.

******

Some time later, Sheppard managed to get himself a wheelchair. Normally he would have argued fiercely against it, but he knew there were things that he needed to do.

He found Manning first, in a bed not too far away from his own. He looked listless, but when he saw Sheppard approaching, his face woke up, as if he was trying to stand to attention while lying down.

"At ease, sergeant." He hated the need to say it. After the things they had been through together… After the things Sheppard had put him through…

And then he found that he had very little to say, and no idea how to say what needed to be said.

"They're sending me home," Manning blurted out. "They say I need therapy."

He'd been tortured for weeks; of course he did.

"And after that…" Manning's voice trailed off.

Sheppard knew how he would feel if he was being sent home to recover. "Do you want to come back?" he asked.

Manning said nothing, but he looked miserable.

Hell! Sheppard thought. I'm not a shrink. I'm not good at this. But too many things were still close to the surface. He remembered how Manning had reproached him for joining Carrick, but how in the end he had begged to join, too. And now Manning presumably knew that Cameron had betrayed Atlantis for his sake.

"You still have a place here," Sheppard told him. "When you're recovered, I'll pull strings and make sure you're assigned back here, if that's what you want." Not that he had any real strings to pull, of course, but he thought General O'Neill would understand.

"But I…" Manning swallowed. "I… About what I said. About doubting you."

"I'm the one who should be apologising," Sheppard said. It still hurt to remember the things he had been forced to say to Manning. He would always regret that they had been necessary, but they had been necessary. "You got caught up in things. I couldn't tell you the truth."

"And then I almost blew your cover." Manning continued as if he hadn't spoken. "They had cameras in there, didn't they? I didn't think… People here are all usually low tech and.."

"No," Sheppard told him firmly. "You did nothing wrong. You were sick. Hell, I've done some crazy things when I've been sick."

"But I doubted you. And then, in the end, I…" He looked away. "I asked if I could join you."

"Because you knew the truth," Sheppard said firmly. "You knew I was undercover, but knew you couldn't say. You behaved in an exemplary fashion. You obeyed orders when you had to. You saved my life."

"But…"

"You did nothing wrong," Sheppard repeated, meaning it absolutely. "You have nothing to be ashamed of. If you want a place on Atlantis, it's yours, and I…" He fought the urge to mumble, knowing that Manning needed to hear this. He had been able to say this in the cell, when everything had been different, and he could say it now, even though things were already trying to change back. "I'm proud to have you under my command, Sergeant Manning."

Manning appeared to think about it for a moment. His face was still lined, but Sheppard saw the moment when those lines began to ease. He saw the beginnings of a smile, and saw how it reached the man's eyes. "Thank you, sir," he said.

******

The others he expected to be easier. He had discussed it with Teyla, and they had decided that even now, not all truths should be told. "Damage has been done through lying," Teyla said, "but in this case, I fear that worse damage will be done with truth."

He was to make out that it had all been an accident. The three people who had overheard their staged fights had been carefully chosen. They were all new enough to Atlantis that they would be inclined to believe what they saw, and they were also people who seemed desperate to fit in, and keen to have something that would gain people's attention. They had been manipulated, and if they had been made miserable by it – and Teyla was of the opinion that they had – it was entirely Sheppard's fault.

But this part of it was not to be told. They were to think that it was just chance that had led them to the right place, and given them a part in the drama. It was better that way, Teyla said. To each one of them in turn, then, he apologised for the fact that they had been given a starring role in the charade without being aware of it. He stressed the fact that their part had been pivotal to the eventual success of the plan, and he thanked them.

It seemed so inadequate. Just a few weeks ago, he hadn't spared a thought for how these people might be feeling, but then he had spent a few days in a cell with Manning. The plans they had so blithely made had a cost, and Sheppard and his friends were not the only ones who had paid it.

The engineer, Jessica, looked embarrassed to be talking to him, but said she was glad she could help. "I… I felt bad for a bit," she said, "but now I know…" She played with her hair. "I'm sorry I believed–"

"You were meant to believe it," he said, then cursed silently, thinking he'd blown it already, but she appeared not to notice his slip. He covered it with a smile. "If you hadn't believed it, then I'd be worrying. All those acting lessons gone to waste…"

The scientist, Robert, seemed subdued. He accepted both apology and thank you, but he seemed slightly listless. "Ewan…" he blurted out at last. "Cameron… He was asking me questions. I didn't know… I thought you could trust people round here."

"He was meant to ask questions," Sheppard assured him, "and don't judge everyone by what happened here. This was a one-off. It'll only get better from here." Well, apart from the life-sucking aliens and the Replicators, he thought, but it was best not to say that.

Private Hudson was the hardest. Sheppard had known all along that the man didn't like him – it was one of the reasons why he had been chosen – and Teyla had told him about what Hudson had been saying in the mess-hall. But Hudson had been there at the end, too, and had been the one to call for help.

He started with that, thanking him. He moved on to the rest, but Hudson said nothing. He said even more, but still nothing.

"I want to request reassignment," Hudson said, when Sheppard had said everything he could.

Sheppard looked at him. "You want to leave Atlantis?"

Hudson nodded. He must have had reasons, but Sheppard realised that he was not going to hear them, just as he would never have poured his soul out to his commanding officer twenty years ago.

"If that's what you want," Sheppard said, "I'll support your request, but…" To hell with it, he thought. "I wish you'd reconsider. Don't judge us by what you've seen these last few weeks. Things aren't normally that… crazy."

"I know, sir." He said it without a smile. "I just don't think it's for me." But when he added the 'sir', there was a certain warmth there. Perhaps that was enough.

******

He made it to the mess-hall with his team one evening, as the sun was sinking into the sea. The talk was about nothing much. Ronon baited Rodney without Rodney appearing to realise it. Rodney teased both Sheppard and Ronon for having to eat one-handed. Teyla rolled her eyes, but gave as good as she got.

Talk continued, but Sheppard faded out. He looked at the sun, and the freedom of the skies. You could be yourself, there – utterly yourself. Even here, you had to wear a mask…

He stopped.

"John?" Teyla was looking at him with those deep eyes of hers. Rodney turned to him impatiently, his fork halfway to his mouth.

There were things that he had not said. You are loved, Teyla had told him. It had been hard for them all to pretend to hate him. But it had been hell to pretend to hate them. And it had been so hard to play a part.

"I thought it would be easy," he found himself saying. Only now, he thought. Only in this moment. If he held back now, he would never say it, and perhaps that would be a relief, but perhaps it would be…

"Playing a part, I mean," he said, "because I'm used to it. At least… uh… I thought I was. But it was hard. And I realised–" He looked at the red sunset, and the sea. "– that with you, I don't, not really." Because there were so many things that never got said, but these people understood them anyway. He didn't need to say them. It only counted as playing a part when you fooled people.

"We know." Teyla closed her hand briefly on his, awkward on the table-top.

Ronon said nothing. "Do we?" Rodney said. "Uh… I mean…" He jabbed his fork into his mouth, as if he was deliberately silencing himself. Perhaps Teyla had kicked him.

"I didn't realise how it would affect people," Sheppard admitted. Or how it would affect me.

"Told you it was a stupid plan," Rodney said, his mouth still full.

"Yes," Sheppard said placatingly, because the sun was sinking, and he was through with confessions now. "Your plan was better. What was it again?"

"Huh. I'd have come up with one."

"Just as Carrick was taking over Atlantis and selling you into slavery."

Rodney squawked, but Sheppard barely heard his outraged words. In this moment, all that mattered was that he was here, that he was talking, so typically Rodney, unchanged. And there was Teyla and Ronon, and around them, the rest of Atlantis. Sheppard had played a part. Perhaps there was nothing like playing a part to show you how much it meant to you just to be you.

Then he thought of Manning and Hudson and Alvarez, and the other soldiers who had died at Carrick's hand, and those who had been hurt in the defence of Atlantis. He thought of Cameron, awaiting trial and an uncertain future, and Carrick's men, sentenced without a trial to no real life. He could not pretend it had been an entirely happy ending. Atlantis had been saved, but the whole affair had left scars.

"But next time I come up with the idea to go undercover," he said, "remind me not to, right, guys?"

"Certainly," Rodney said with feeling.

Perhaps only people without roots could pull off the undercover thing. Until not so long ago, Sheppard would have thought that description matched him. Now he knew it was wrong, and if he hadn't tried – if he hadn't embarked on this whole crazy plan – he might not have known. These last weeks had changed them all, he thought, and some of that change had left scars, but some, perhaps, had left them stronger.

I'm glad I'm back with you guys, he thought, but didn't say it. Then – for the sun wasn't entirely set yet, and the sky was still beautiful and free, and he had spent too long underground, and lost – he decided to say as much of it as he could. Perhaps he was not through with confessions, after all. "I'm glad I'm back on Atlantis."

Teyla smiled. Ronon nodded. Rodney jabbed with his fork, as if to illustrate some unspoken point.

"And we are glad you are back, John," Teyla said, and at length even Rodney nodded.

The sun sank into the ocean. Sheppard leant back in his chair. "What I mean is," he said, "I'm… uh… glad I'm back with you guys. Anywhere. It doesn't have to be here."

"We know," Teyla said, and that was enough. It meant that he would never have to say such things again, because they knew. No, he thought, a moment later, perhaps he would say them occasionally, even if they were hard. He thought of Manning, hurt so deeply with words, and the way that rumour had left Atlantis divided. He thought of how difficult it had been to say the words that had broken Manning. Compared to that, speaking the truth ought to be easy.

He opened his mouth; closed it again. He shifted position painfully. "Let's have a drink," Ronon said, as if he knew the truth of that. "A real drink."

"Got beer in my room," Sheppard told them. He felt a small weight lifting.

"Aren't you supposed to avoid alcohol," Rodney said, "what with the medications?"

"Then let's make sure no-one tells the doctors," Sheppard said, although he had no intention of drinking, not really, just of sinking into the fellowship of his team.

"Oh, please, no." Rodney looked alarmed. "Not another conspiracy."

You knew you would get over something, Sheppard thought, when you could laugh about it, even though it still hurt. He watched Ronon haul Rodney to his feet, but then his eyes moved away from his own circle, and he saw other people at other tables. Many of them were watching him. He saw things in people's eyes that he had never quite expected to see applied to him. He knew how to deal with disapproval, but this… He remembered how warmly people had greeted him on his first trip out of the infirmary. Some had been shy, and some had been vocal, and some had said things he would never repeat. He saw them in their tight groups around their tables now, closer, perhaps, than he remembered them being.

Outside the window, the towers of Atlantis shone as the sky faded into night. Surrounded by his people and flanked by his friends, Sheppard smiled.

******

END

******

Note: Well, it's over. I normally add lots of notes to the end of a story, in which I go on about my inspiration and talk about the ideas I was trying to explore, but I seem to have already done that along the way.

This was a tough story for me. The actual writing – which I did in just over four rather frenzied weeks – went really well, but the posting did rather overwhelm me. I'm not entirely sure why, since (with only one exception) I've always posted my long stories this way – i.e. finish it first, then post one a day while editing. This one just seemed to require a bit more editing as I went along than most of my long stories. I've barely opened a book for the last two weeks, and have barely read a single fanfic. Even new episodes of SGA have barely registered in my brain. I have a few ideas vying to be my next long story, but before I start that, I just need some time to enjoy reading and watching other people's creations. (And before even that: chocolate and wine!)

(By the way, as I was nearing the end, I hoped this would end up being 16 chapters. 16 is a good number. I like square numbers. 17 is a prime number, and I don't feel that stories should have a prime number of chapters. However, Entertaining Strangers had 23 chapters, and White Walls had 11, so I seem to be doomed to write prime numbered long SGA fics.)

Anyway, thanks to everyone who's left comments. They are all much appreciated.

Should anyone wish it, here is a link to the entire story in a single file
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