An epilogue-of-sorts to On the Road to Come What May
Several people asked for a short piece set on Atlantis, following the events of On the Road… I did dither long and hard about whether to write it – and, having written it, whether to post it – since the entire concept of the original story was that we never saw events through the eyes of our main SGA characters. However, here it is.
Huge thanks to (in alphabetical order) sholio, valleya, wildcat88 and wraithfodder for taking a look in advance, and giving their opinions and making suggestions. Also thanks to the other people who volunteered, but I had to stop somewhere!
Please do not read this unless you've read On the Road to Come What May right through to the end. You can read that here in a single file (ETA: Briefly disabled because bandwidth exceeded, but back within half an hour, cos I forked out cash. I also question their claim that my bandwidth was exceeded, since my usage stats say otherwise. But, anyway...), or in 16 parts on LJ, starting here.
The smells struck him first.
People pressed around them, asking questions. "Is it really you?" "It's been three weeks." Sheppard turned from person to person, wondering how they could look quite so vivid, and yet so hazy. "It's good to have you back, sir. All of you." Eyes said we were worried. Posture said we're not quite sure what to do. "We were afraid you were…"
"Hey, that makes two of us," Sheppard said, with a shrug and a smile, thinking suddenly quite sharply of Kit.
"I was shot!" Rodney protested, but only quietly, as if he was protesting only for form's sake, his heart not really in it. His eyes were flickering around the Gate room, as if hungry to absorb everything all at once.
"A medical team's on its way." "We never gave up looking; I want you to know that." "I'm sorry to have to say it, sir, but you look like crap."
The smells grew sharper. Sheppard swallowed hard. Everything else was intensely familiar. Everything else shouted home. Atlantis hummed in the background, as constant and familiar as his own heartbeat. The faces belonged to people he knew, speaking in accents he understood, dressed in the sort of clothes he had dressed himself in every day for the last four years, holding weapons that he knew how to grip even in his sleep. It had all been about this, about getting home.
"What happened to you?" "The fashion choice is… interesting." "Perhaps you should sit down, sir."
He had leant on that console. He had sat on that step. He had shot Kolya there. There he had stood at Carson's memorial. He knew that shade of lightning, and the texture of that wall. There he had paused as lights had started to come on all around him, the sleeping city stirring into life. And that face had almost died in his arms. That face had wanted to leave Atlantis after only two days. That face had once kicked his ass while sparring. That voice had screamed when faced by a Wraith. That voice had cracked so many jokes in the rec room that no-one had been able to speak for laughing.
"We're home." He hadn't meant to say it out loud. Rodney echoed it out loud, too: "We're home." Ronon grunted, and Teyla moved a little closer. No, they all moved a little closer, the four of them together.
"Where's that medical team?" "What happened? No, tell us later. You know we will have to question you all, after you've rested. I'm sorry." "You really should sit down, sir."
"Yeah. I think I…" The faces around him were growing flatter and fainter with every breath, and less and less like anyone he knew. He moved forward, and the real people came with him. He didn't really mean to sit down on the bottom step, but he found himself there somehow. The circle of strangers was blanked out by the swing of Ronon's coat.
Home, he thought. He looked at his own hand in front of him, engrained with the dirt of another world. Throughout it all, it had only ever been about getting back to Atlantis. They'd walked halfway across an alien world, and now they were home. Get back to normal. Resume real life. Forget what had happened. It was just another mission gone wrong; just another day in the life. He would take a moment, then stand up, disperse the crowd, and resume his duties. He… God! He hadn't even asked what had happened in their absence.
"Nothing much has happened, except looking for you." "I can do your job for a little while longer, sir." "Strange how the crises don't happen when you're not around." "Don't worry about us. Let them…"
Everything shifted, then. The next thing he knew, no-one was quite where they had been just a moment before. Ronon was now on the step beside him, holding him up, and Teyla was on his other side. Someone was trying to look at Rodney's arm, but Rodney was pulling away. Everything else, though, was fading into grey. He half expected to hear Annis' voice. He looked for Kit and Jasper, but they weren't there. Of course they weren't there. He was back on Atlantis now. He was home.
But the smells were wrong. The lights were too bright and artificial, and the air was too dry and too still. He could smell aftershave and perfume and oil and detergent. He could smell deodorant and polish and soap and shampoo. All those things that normally he couldn't smell at all felt harsh and unnatural, almost unpleasant.
It was as if home had moved on while he had been away. No, he thought, as his head sank lower, as someone pulled at his shoulder and spoke words that he couldn't understand, it was as if… It was as if he…
"Let it go," Ronon said quietly, and he at least was real. "We're back," and Teyla added, "Safe," and Rodney said, "Yes, yes, in a minute," flapping at someone.
He had brought his team safely home. "Home," he murmured, and he felt it give way inside him, the thing that had kept him going for so long. The shadows raced in after that, and then there was nothing.
"There you are," Teyla said quite unnecessarily, taking her place at the balcony rail.
"Yeah." John shrugged. "Doc let me take a walk."
She had been quite worried when she had found his bed empty, but she chose not to tell him so. His infection had proved resistant for a while, but now they had all been assured that he was well on the way to recovery. It was hard to surrender the responsibility of care, though. For days, the three of them had watched him deteriorate and had done what they could to keep him alive, but now there were others to do the job. The world had expanded again, and it was no longer just them.
"What are you looking at?" she asked, because his face had been turned upwards when she had found him, looking at the night.
"Stars." He was silent just long enough for her to think he had finished, then added, "I keep expecting to see the old ones, from the old planet, you know?"
Wind took a strand of hair and blew it over her eyes. She pushed it back. "It takes a while to get used to change."
"Yeah." She saw his hand tighten on the railing, as he looked up at the stars, faint light falling on his profile. "I wonder which one it is."
There was no need to ask what he meant. Not their old home – that one he already knew – but the world they had just come from. "Rodney might know, perhaps."
"Yeah." She saw the side of his mouth smile. Again she thought he had finished, but again he surprised her. Sometimes his best moments of honesty were beneath the stars, when faces were hidden by the night. "You know what? I keep expecting to see those stars – the ones from there. Stupid, huh?"
The air was cool, and she wrapped her jacket tighter around her body. "You want to go back."
"Hell, no." He hunched over the railing, leaning on it with both forearms. "Why should I want to go back to a place where we were hunted halfway across the world? There's showers here; I'm surprised anyone could bear to stand near us when we got back. I was captured – twice, no, three times, if you count Annis' men – and I don't like worlds that torture me, not as a rule."
Even in the starlight, she had not expected him to mention what had happened to him in the Citadel of Myr, but she knew from experience that he could refer to it, but they were not allowed to question. "But you want to go back," she said, for he was scanning the sky again. "You want to help them resolve their conflict."
"Hey, it's what we do. We don't leave things unfinished." He let out a breath. "I can't help but wonder… Now they know about the Gate… More to fight about, you know?"
She, too, had found it hard to sleep the night before. She had woken from a dream about Jasper and Kit, dead on opposing sides. But, "Kit was right," she said, "when he told you it was none of your business. I say this as one of the indigenous peoples of the Pegasus Galaxy." Because it was John, she managed to say it without bitterness. "We are capable of running our own lives. We are not children."
"We don't poison everything we touch, Teyla," he said stiffly.
"No." She scraped the hair off her face, pushing it behind her ear. "There are many worlds that have benefited from your involvement; I know that. I know that everything you do is with the best of intentions, but--"
"Then why did you leave your people and join us?" he demanded. "Why do that unless you thought that we were the best chance to save your people?"
She closed her eyes for a moment. It was true, of course. It was entirely true. She had no idea where right or wrong lay in this case, and no matter where it lay, the heart told a different story. It was difficult to live so closely beside someone for so many days, facing the same life and death battles, and then walk away. There were issues to discuss here, but not now, not when they were so newly returned, and not yet fully healed. "I would like to go back, too," she confessed, laying her hand on his arm. "And I have little doubt that we will. You told them how to find us."
"And warned them not to," he said bitterly.
She smiled. "What choice is that? What choice is that for two young men?" He had told her once how every person on the base was only here because they had chosen danger and knowledge over the safety of ignorance, and had told her how he had flipped a coin and flipped it again until it gave the only answer he could accept. "We will see them again, I am sure of that."
"Yeah." He gave a sharp laugh, and turned towards her, his back to the ocean. The light on his face was the sign that honesty was over. "They won't recognise us, all groomed like this."
Sometimes she hardly recognised herself. It had been less than three weeks, Atlantis time, but that had been long enough for Earth-style clothes to once again feel stiff on her, for the weapons to feel brutish, for the sheets to feel too sterile. In those weeks, she had hunted for food as her father had taught her, and slept beneath the stars, as her people often did in summer. On Atlantis, she moved further and further from her roots with every passing month. And just a few moments ago, she had said 'you' to John, grouping herself with Jasper and Kit and all their people.
She had to remember who she was. She had to see her people more. She had to ensure that she remained Teyla, daughter of Tegan, as well as Teyla, member of Colonel Sheppard's team. Kanaan's smile had been different on her last visit, but she had hurried back to Atlantis. Next time, perhaps, she would take time to find out why.
When you were far away, struggling to survive, you realised where home was.
But when Jasper had asked her to describe her home, it had been Atlantis that she had described without a moment's thought. And that, too, she would never forget.
Ronon ran alone. There were no other feet pounding along the bare walkways beside it. There was no-one to talk to when he stopped, his heart pounding. He went to places he didn't normally go, and when he reached an intersection, he chose his route at random, without anyone saying, 'Hey, buddy, maybe we should go that way?'
He only stopped when he was on the further pier, far away from the inhabited towers. He decided to walk back, rather than run, but he caught himself being watchful of shadows, and checking behind to make sure that he wasn't being pursued.
He was in Atlantis, he told himself. A few days on the run was nothing. They had been chased by ineffectual bad guys, and now they were back. There was no reason to be jumpy. Stupid, he told himself, but his voice in his head didn't feel like his own, but like somebody else berating him, smiling as they did so.
Sheppard was lounging against a wall halfway along his route home. "You didn't wait for me."
"Doc says you're not supposed to run," Ronon told him.
"Didn't she say the same about you?"
Ronon shrugged, caught. Doctor Keller had been fierce on both accounts, and for the first time he had begun to wonder if there was more to her than her frail exterior suggested. "Only a mild concussion," he said.
"Only a mild case of wound-fever," Sheppard countered, perhaps unconsciously using Annis' term. "At least, it is now." He let out a breath. "Sorry. You need to--"
"No," Ronon interrupted. "I'm good." He didn't share the Earth people's desperate need to bathe after physical exertion; it wasn't something you had the luxury to do out in the field or when running for your life. Fresh air would cool him as well as anything else.
Without either of them appearing to make the decision, they made for the nearest pier, their steps chiming in perfect synchrony on the metal walkway. Neither of them seemed to make the decision on where to sit down, but they sat down anyway, Ronon with his legs stretched out and his arms behind him, and Sheppard with one leg dangling over the ocean, and the other tucked beneath him.
"It's no fun running alone," Ronon said, because life was too short to keep silent about things when they occurred to you.
Sheppard looked up at the clear sky, where an arrow-head of birds was travelling to some unknown place. "No," he said quietly.
For seven years, Ronon had had no choice about it. For a short time after that, he had told himself that he had a choice, and that this was his choice. He'd joined Sheppard's team, but had resolved not to give anything more of himself.
That felt like a lifetime ago. They'd proved that they could be trusted, and he had come to accept that life was infinitely better when you had friends at your side. But only Sheppard; Sheppard and Teyla. McKay, perhaps, over the last half-year, but no-one else.
"I liked him, you know." He leant back further, resting himself on elbows and forearms, opening himself up to the sky and its cold breeze. "We worked well together."
Sheppard didn't ask him who he was talking about. "I know," was all he said.
He hadn't thought to work well with anyone else, least of all a stranger. Kit had been infuriating at first, hiding behind masks of bravado and lies, but in the end, they had fallen into a natural working relationship. Ronon had been engaged in the business of staying alive while being hunted, but this time he hadn't been engaged in it alone.
"He went out of his way to try to make us dislike him," Sheppard said. "Guess we know why he did that now, huh? But he wasn't a bad kid, really."
Ronon pushed himself up, bringing his knees up, wrapping one arm around them. "He betrayed us."
No crime was worse than betrayal. At first, he'd thought that he might leave Atlantis to live alone, but in the end, the only thing that could tear him aware was the lure of older friends who depended on him. And they had betrayed him. Betrayal was Tyre and Ara and Rakai. It was a smiling Wraith. It was the ruins of his home.
"He regretted it," Sheppard said, after a while. "He set things right. People make mistakes. People… get caught up in things and can't see a way out."
But Sheppard thought the same as Ronon did, didn't he? Sheppard prized loyalty above all things. "You're defending him?" Ronon demanded, because if Sheppard could defend Kit, then what did it mean? If Sheppard could defend him, then…
"Like I said…" Sheppard shrugged. "People make mistakes." His gaze was distant, though, as if he was remembering mistakes past. Of course, Ronon remembered, Lieutenant Ford had turned rogue not long before Ronon had met Sheppard. Sheppard always reacted to Ford's name with a look more of guilt than fury.
Ronon leant back again, letting the breeze cool the sweat on his brow. Yeah, he thought. People made mistakes. Tyre and the others… What they'd done was unforgivable, but it wasn't worth ruining his life for. It shouldn't make him reluctant to trust others, or reluctant to forgive lesser crimes.
"He wanted us to tell him we forgave him," he said, realising it suddenly. "He looked up to you, Sheppard."
"He liked you."
It was a strange thing to hear in association with himself. "We should go back," he said. Say a proper goodbye. Perhaps lay some things to rest that he hadn't realised had existed.
"Teyla won't let us," Sheppard said. "No, that's not fair. Teyla says--"
"That we'll see them again." Ronon stood up. You couldn't make a proper friend, not in such a short time, especially not when he was keeping secrets. But perhaps you could make friends when you saw him again. You could make other friends. Over two years on Atlantis, and Sheppard and Teyla were the only people he'd bothered getting to know. He'd try harder with others. It didn't weaken your existing loyalties just because you talked to new people.
He hadn't run truly alone for over two years. Perhaps he never would again.
"We didn't come back a moment too soon," Rodney told the others, as he tried to decide which of the three slices of cake to start on first. Chocolate, he thought. He took a mouthful, and waved the encrusted fork around. "Zelenka and the others… They were on the brink of disaster. They were headless chickens in a china shop. It's lucky for all of us I came back when I did. Crisis averted, and all that." He took another mouthful. "Though it'll take me weeks to get things back the way they were before I left."
"Glad to be back, then?" Sheppard asked.
"Of course." He wiped crumbs from his chin. "I mean, the food… Look at it. Simple it may be, and frequently lacking, and they put citrus in far too many dishes – I think they do it deliberately, you know? – but at least it didn't used to be alive just a few scant hours before, before it was charred over a camp fire. I never want to eat roots again."
"Leave you to starve next time," Ronon said, but he grinned as he reached over and grabbed a slice of carrot cake from Rodney's plate.
"Oh!" Rodney protested. "Oh! Did you see what he did? I've only got one arm – look at my sling! Look! You can't just take it!"
The others ignored him. Teyla was moving her hand on the table, her finger tracing deliberate patterns. "You do not find yourself… wondering," she asked, "about Jasper and Kit and their world? About how they are getting on?"
"Of course not." He watched as Ronon, still smiling, returned his carrot cake to his plate, but, eww, it had had hands on it now. "Jasper was a snivelling idiot and Kit was a snake. He told me you were all dead, you know, quite maliciously when you came out of the Citadel. He robbed me, and Jasper was completely useless, with all his poetry talk, and so self-centred."
"I guess you brought out the worst in them," Sheppard said.
"What?" Rodney placed his fork down. "What do you mean by that? Just because I didn't have a special relationship with one of them, like you three had, like Daddy Sheppard and Mommy Teyla and Ronon, the big hunter buddy."
"Or maybe they brought out the worst in you."
"What?" He tried to pick up his fork again, but saw that his hand was trembling.
Sheppard spread his hands placatingly, and it was hard even now to see him without remembering those days when they had feared he would die. It made Rodney almost angry, because the alternative was worse. "I just mean that strangers aren't your thing."
"That's not true," he protested. It was true that he'd dismissed Jasper and Kit from the start, seeing them only as means to an end – irritating means to an end, at that – but that didn't mean anything. It wasn't real, what happened down on the planet. It had to be endured until they got home, but that didn't mean he had to try to get to know the natives they'd been saddled with. But, "I treated them exactly the same as I'd treat anyone," he said. "Ask anyone in my lab."
That's the problem. None of them said it, but he heard it, even so.
He let out a breath, the sweet taste of chocolate dying in his mouth. The whole thing had been a nightmare from start to finish. Sheppard had been dying, and there had been nothing he could do. He was always the one with answers. He was the one snapping at the others to stop talking, because, hello? genius at work here, and once more it had fallen to him to save the day. But there, on that godforsaken planet, there had been no role for him. His skills had been useless, and he hated that, God, he hated that.
"I don't know what your problem is here," he said. "It's over. End of story. Forget it."
Sheppard shifted position. Ronon's chair scraped, and Teyla's hand stilled.
"You can't," Rodney gasped in sudden realisation. "You want to go back. I mean, it's only to be expected of you, Sheppard, because you've got a martyr streak a mile wide, but the rest of you…" He picked up his fork again, jabbed it into the cake, and left it there, because he felt it, too, and that was the worst of it. Lying awake at night, he remembered.
He had been miserable, and he had failed. Neither Kit nor Jasper had said a special goodbye to him. Neither of them had liked him. Not that it mattered, of course. Not that it mattered at all. He had nothing but contempt for them. He had nothing…
Strangers aren't your thing, Sheppard had said. It was true, of course. Until recently, people hadn't been his thing, but since coming to Atlantis, he had learnt the miracle of having friends. A small number of people had become important enough to him that he'd risk his life and his comfort and his reputation for them. But beyond that circle, nothing. You have changed, Teyla had said to him once, but he doubted his minions would say the same. Even Zelenka…
Maybe they should be, he thought, remembering Kit and Jasper – people he had never made the slightest attempt to get to know. Sheppard had been dying, for God's sake, but even he seemed to have happier memories of that place than Rodney did.
"Yes, yes, okay," he said. "I want to go back. I want to see them again. Happy now?" It was not even a lie, not completely. Perhaps, next time, he would try to like them. Perhaps, next time, he would be useful. Perhaps, next time, they would like him.
But maybe he would start with Zelenka.
It seemed like a stupid thing to say, but they had all had a couple of beers, relaxing on their last night before being returning to off-world duty. "You know, earlier today, I…" He hid it in a long swig of beer.
"What?" Teyla asked him.
Hell, he could deny it tomorrow; blame the beer. "Noticed the patterns on the wall," Sheppard said, "that place near the mess hall, where they're different from anywhere else. Never noticed it before."
"Patterns?" Rodney echoed.
It was worse, though. He had spent much of his childhood gazing at the sky, and he knew how to assess a place for threats, evaluating every detail, but recently, just occasionally, he had found himself noticing things he had never seen before. For the first time in his life, he had wondered if it was possible to put his feelings about flight into words.
It was the beer, he told himself – just the beer. "Like Jasper did," he admitted. Jasper had been oblivious to so many things, but some things he had seen more clearly than anybody else. Sheppard had watched him, sometimes, intent on a flower or a blade of grass. When sick with fever, he had sometimes tried looking as hard himself, and had seen things he had never expected to see.
"Tell me you're not going to start writing poetry," Rodney exclaimed.
"Nothing wrong with poetry." Ronon spoke up unexpectedly. "Used to write it myself."
"What?" Rodney's squawk, Sheppard decided, could probably speak for all of them. But, no, Teyla didn't seem surprised.
"Stopped it when the war started," Ronon said, apparently unembarrassed. "Might start again."
"Oh, please, no, spare me from Satedan poetry," Rodney said, as tactless with beer as he was without it.
Teyla folded her legs, covering them with her skirt. "Jasper's attachment to stories has given me a fresh appreciation of the stories of my people," she said. "There are few of us left. I want to ensure that the stories are remembered."
"In bad verse?"
"Perhaps." Teyla smiled. "The important thing is that they are remembered."
"Think he's going to tell stories about us?" Ronon asked.
Teyla looked at him in all seriousness. "I am sure of it. Probably a song." Her lips twitched. "Rodney's bad verse, all about us."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Rodney actually stood up, actually moved towards the door. "We need to go back."
"To get yourself bumped up the billing?" Sheppard tipped his can towards Rodney in a mock toast. "McKay the Great, the genius bold, who never did what he was told."
"Very funny." Rodney sat down again. "Ha ha, and all that. More beer?"
This felt right, Sheppard realised. It had taken a few days to adapt to being back, but this was home. These were the people he chose to be with. It had just been another adventure, latest in a long line of life-and-death situations. He'd put it behind him, and carry on as normal. Just as he'd done after the thing with the bug, just as he'd done after Kolya and the Wraith, after Carson, after Elizabeth… If people ask, say that nothing's wrong. If shrinks try to get too close, get the hell out of there. Carry on, and don't look back.
But he knew a lie when he met one. Why do you hide what you're feeling? Kit had asked him, understanding him from the start.
Had it ever been true? Like Kit, he'd built a wall around himself, and not let anybody in. The wall was still there, of course, because there were lines that he couldn't cross, and things that he couldn't say, but everyone that mattered knew what lay behind it.
But, at the same time, everyone he spent time with, however fleeting the contact, had the power to change him. However much you tried to pretend that things went on as normal, the things you saw and did changed you. The people you met changed you.
Elizabeth had changed him. Carson had changed him. Ford, and Kolya, and Sumner, and Holland, and his father. Annis. Jasper. Kit. Life went on, and home was home, but they would not be forgotten. None of them would be forgotten.
"To Annis," he said, opening a fresh can of beer. The others answered the toast, saying her name. "To Jasper," he said, and they answered. "To Kit."
The man he was now was part of everyone he had met. The man he would be tomorrow was different because of what had happened on the planet, and because of who he had met, and that was how it should be.
"To friends," he said, and they all drank to that.
"And bad poetry," Rodney added, which suddenly seemed to Sheppard to be the most hilarious thing he had ever heard. Ronon was the first to reach Rodney to swat him, though.
Yes, Sheppard thought, he would blame the beer, but it didn't make it any less true.
Note: The title is from one of my all-time favourite poems: Ulysses, by Tennyson.
My thinking behind this piece was that we were already able to deduce much of what the team was thinking and feeling throughout the events of the story. The last thing I wanted to do was write a really long retrospective in which every character mused on how they'd felt at each point. However, Jasper and Kit were not a position to tell us what, if anything, the Atlantis characters were going to take away from their experience. This is the sort of thing that you're only really aware of afterwards. While away, they were living only for getting safely home, but once home, perhaps things might have seemed a little different.
I also wanted to address what several people brought up in comments: that Rodney wasn't particularly well served by the story. His areas of expertise weren't things that could really come to play in a this particular low-tech world, and I really don't think that Rodney's the sort of person to bond well with people like Jasper and Kit – and, therefore, a story seen through the eyes of Jasper and Kit isn't going to show Rodney in his best light. It was a shame, but I couldn't force Rodney to bond (although I really had hoped that he would.)
Sheppard's experience with the smells is entirely taken from my own experience. I once spent two weeks at a residential sixteenth century re-enactment, and I was amazed how strange and unnatural a lot of the trappings of twentieth century life felt when I returned home. I hadn't noticed myself changing when I was away, but as soon as I left, artificial light seemed really harsh, and I could smell all these things on people – shampoo, perfume, washing powder etc. – that seemed really artificial and strange. It only lasted a few hours, but it was rather disturbing. (I hasten to add that since I'd been using Tudor standards of hygiene during those two weeks, my family probably found the smell of me rather more offensive than I found theirs.)