Chapter one and all header information is here
Elizabeth Weir could still remember the day she had realised that the Atlantis expedition had been meant to fail.
Two years ago, it had been, on a bright spring morning, when the portal had shimmered into existence and a crowd of people had come through, smelling of autumn and of home. She remembered rushing to the portal chamber, thinking that at last, after two difficult years, they had finally been sent the reinforcements that would transform everything. No-one could replace the dead and the missing, of course, but with new soldiers and healers and sorcerers, they could at least have a chance of winning their deadly impasse with the Wraith.
Instead, she had received yet more alchemists and scholars – people with prickly personalities; people who didn't like working with others; people with controversial opinions; people who refused to take orders.
She had been sent the unwanted. She had been sent outcasts. Perhaps that was all they had ever been – that first expedition that had departed in such a blaze of hope five years before. Perhaps her battle-weary, experience-scarred band of survivors had been bundled off through the portal because they were an inconvenience.
After three years in Atlantis, she had realised that she would very probably never return home again. After four years, she had realised that she no longer wanted to. The north had been abandoned by their ancestors thousands of years before, and those in power wanted it to stay abandoned. When the portal had been discovered, still quickened with ancient alchemy, an expedition had been prepared, and she had been thrilled and honoured to be asked to lead it.
They had been the sacrifice. How could you call a place home when it had sent you away to strive, to struggle, to grieve, to suffer… to die?
Her people were dwindling. That single wave of unwanted reinforcements was to be the last, or so she had been told. "The quickening weakened markedly after you all went through," one of the newcomers had told her, "and none of those jumped-up idiots has worked out how to renew it. It'll be completely spent by now. We're all you're getting." He had said it in a way that implied that he alone was enough.
Alchemists, when they already had alchemists. Historians, when the north had changed beyond recognition. Linguists who knew languages no-one spoke any more. No soldiers, no healers, no sorcerers. No-one who could save lives or keep the injured from dying. No-one who could take the fight to the Wraith.
But, two years on, they still endured. Two years on, they still had… perhaps not hope, but a dogged determination that they would survive. Two years on, and many of those unwanted reinforcements – those prickly, awkward outcasts – had become friends, who loved Atlantis the way she did.
She stood on the balcony now, looking down at the ripples on the silver canal. The air was colder here than it ever was in the south, and she was wrapped entirely in clothes bought from local cities with the salvaged ancient treasures of Atlantis. There was little of the south about her now, except perhaps the cold, harsh taste of bitterness because they had been abandoned.
Far below, she saw a small group of her people returning from the bay, poling their boat towards the deserted plaza. Frost still clung to the shadows of the towers, and the air was crisp on her face, the wind trying to drag her hair out of the tail she had twisted it into. Light dazzled her as the sun caught on a flapping window on the far side of the canal, but daylight was already fading, the shadows turning long and dark.
How long, she thought, would they survive? How long really? A leader had to ask herself those questions when she was alone, although she no longer had anyone she could voice them to. How long--?
"E--Elizabeth?" She heard footsteps behind her on the balcony.
She smiled to herself; it had taken her years to cure Chuck of his habit of addressing her as 'Ambassador Weir,' and he still hesitated before saying her name. "What is it, Chuck?"
"The portal's active."
Her smile faded. Tightening her grip on the balustrade just for a second, she hurried to the portal chamber. By the flame, was it more reinforcements, after all? "It feels… different," Stackhouse was saying, surveying the shimmering ring with the dark-flooded eyes of a sorcerer. "It's strong, though. It just… it doesn't feel so distant as it did last time. It's almost…" He frowned, shaking his head. "No..."
"What?" she asked, because she had learnt the hard way that it was always good to chase the half-finished thoughts of those who had power.
"Familiar," he breathed.
Should that have been her warning? All she did, though, was wait, and ask Chuck to summon some soldiers to the portal chamber just in case. As far as they knew, no-one in the north had mastery of the portals, but the Wraith were constantly surprising them, constantly one step ahead.
But it was not a Wraith that came through first. "Oh, thank the flame," the man gasped, looking desperately from side to side, "I haven't been vaporised. I'm back on Atlantis."
McKay. It was Adept McKay. Elizabeth took a step forward. "What--?"
"No time!" he snapped. "Fighting for lives. Deadly danger. Where--?"
Adept Zelenka staggered through, terror and joy warring on his face. "McKay," he gasped, "we--"
"Down!" McKay shouted, throwing himself down on the floor. "Wraith," he hissed. "They can--"
Something struck the wall behind her. Elizabeth stifled her gasp, pressing her hand to his chest. "Stackhouse," she said, "be ready if--"
Teyla came next, already looking back desperately the way she had come, as if the shimmering golden portal could show her what she had just left. A shadow darkened the golden glow, and Ronon burst through, half-dragging, half-carrying someone else. The moment they were clear, Teyla moved to help, and the two of them closed around their stranger, as if nothing else and nobody else existed in that moment but the three of them.
"Yes, it's a touching homecoming," McKay said, looking up from the floor, "but the portal's still open. Wraith? Rampaging? Need to stop them?"
Zelenka was on his knees. "I can't…"
"Sorcery!" McKay all but screamed. "Now!"
Elizabeth stood there, looking from one to the other, and in that instant felt completely lost, as if Atlantis was spiralling away from her in chaos. Stackhouse's eyes were flooded with black, and his hand was outstretched, but, "I don't know how to," he was saying. "I can't…"
Something smashed into a window, shattering it. Elizabeth turned instinctively to look at the damage, so she missed the moment when the man in Ronon's arms reached his blood-stained hand towards the portal. By the time she turned back, the portal was already fading, and she dimly heard a scream; dimly saw a faint impression of a pale hand being snatched back on the other side. Then the portal winked away, becoming just a ring of cold, dead metal. The stranger's arm slowly fell back to his side. His other hand was gripping a fistful of Ronon's coat, holding onto it as if it was the only thing keeping him up.
His hair was shoulder-length, covering his face. It was only when he collapsed – only when Ronon gently eased him to the floor; only when Teyla followed him down to cup his cheek softly, and then to urgently, so desperately call for a healer – that Elizabeth saw his face.
Rodney had been waiting for a ridiculous amount of time, but still nobody had come and worked their primitive healing magic on him and eased away all the pains he had accumulated in his desperate escape, not to mention the hideous diseases he had picked up in the Genii sewers and in the barrens. He had fallen out of a window, for crying out loud!
Somebody had brought him tea, though, which was a start. It was hot, and that was good, because he found himself suddenly unaccountably cold, cold right through, almost shivering with it as he sat on the edge of the bed, quite alone.
The tea was almost gone, bleeding the last of its heat into his trembling fingers, when Ambassador Weir appeared. She looked older than the last time he had seen her, as if three or four years had passed, rather than just one.
Rodney cleared his throat. Weir started, as if she hadn't noticed him there, as if she had been about to walk past him, oblivious to his presence. She covered her surprise in a rather fragile smile. "By the way that you returned to Atlantis," she said, "I take it that your mission was successful."
"More than successful." Rodney put the mug down; its warmth remained on his hands. "I discovered the secret of the portals, as you've already seen. I need to write it down, of course – maybe I should turn it into a book. But there's something even better than that." He waited for her to prompt him to continue, interest shining in her eyes, then continued anyway, without it. "I mastered a piece of Wraith metal-magic."
She nodded, but was slow to do so. "That's good news, Adept. We need all the weapons we can get."
She looked deeply tired, he thought, and he knew, too, that he would never have noticed such a thing just a year before. Sheppard, of course, was still being treated. Urgent shouts sometimes echoed through the walls, from the inner sanctums of the healers' wards.
"Is he…?" Weir asked, looking suddenly younger, for all that her face was etched with lines of worry. "Have you heard…?"
No need to ask who 'he' was, of course. Rodney shook his head. "Nothing."
Weir leant against the adjacent bed, not quite sitting on it, but not fully standing, either. "How did you find him?"
"He was a slave," Rodney told her. "He'd lost his memory. I was given him as a reward for making the Genii leader's throne room sparkle. And here's a funny thing: it kind of indirectly… uh, sparked a coup. The slave – Sheppard, I mean Sheppard – was shot when we were escaping the city. They'd used him as their plaything – their outlet for all their anger and frustration – and he… well, I guess he finally had enough. He stabbed Kolya – that's their new leader – and we ran. I… I didn't know he was Sheppard, of course. I just thought…"
Weir made a low noise in her throat. Rodney stopped and looked at her, but her face was perfectly composed. Her hand was gripping the blanket, though, with knuckles as white as bone.
The rest of his words died, leaving him with nothing. He swallowed hard. "I didn't actually treat him as a slave, you know? I didn't… order him around. I didn't hurt him. He…" He bit his lip. "He's going to be all right. He's got his memory back now."
But Weir was no longer listening to him. She pushed herself off the bed and hurried forward. "Carson," she said, "is he…?"
The chief healer looked exhausted, barely able to stand. "Still alive." He scraped his hand across his face. "It's… By the flame, Elizabeth, I'm seeing so much injury here. It's…" He sighed, his shoulders slumping. "Terrible," he finished. "Shocking. What in the name of Shadow were they doing to him?"
"He was a slave," Rodney offered. Neither of them seemed to hear him.
Weir's hands were clenched tightly at her side. "Will he live?"
"I hope so," Beckett said, but his face was bleak and shattered. "Most of his injuries are old ones. The fresh one was critical when he was brought to me, but I think I've finally gained mastery. Of course, when you have continuous trauma like that, you have to worry that one day the body will just say 'enough.'"
"John wouldn't give up," Weir said, her hand tightening.
Beckett touched her arm, perhaps offering comfort, perhaps receiving it. "A body tells only part of a tale. He has been… I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but the lad's been tortured for three years. Even if he recovers, he won't be the same John Sheppard. He can't be. I… Normally, when you perform a healing, you get a sense of the patient's spirit, even if they're unconscious. John was always a cautious fellow, and it was always hard to reach him, but this time… This time I felt nothing, just walls."
"Then we will help him," Weir said, "in every way that we can."
"Why?" Beckett asked. Then, when Weir made as if to respond angrily, he held up his hand. "Forgive me, Elizabeth, but is it Commander Sheppard that you want to help? Do you want your military leader back? Do you want your strongest sorcerer leading an attack on the Wraith? Do you want the person who helped you make decisions – the person you could confide in? Do you want this for Atlantis? For yourself?"
Rodney found his mouth opening as if to say something, though he had no idea at all what to say. He snapped his mouth shut again, and lowered the hand that had drifted up.
"Atlantis needs him as he was," Weir said, "and forgive me, Carson, but I'm leader of a failing expedition, and I have to think like that. But if that can't happen… If he's been too badly hurt… We take care of our own, Carson. Quite apart from anything he was to Atlantis, he was my friend."
And her words made Rodney feel obscurely sad, for some reason.
The healers tried to stop him, of course, fluttering around him with shrill prohibitions, but Ronon strode straight on through. He only stopped when he was in the central chamber, where white drapes floated in the warmth of alchemical fans. His steps grew slower then. Sheppard, this was Sheppard. Ronon edged forward, and saw a scarred hand resting on the sheets. Another step, and he saw an arm. He pushed the gauzy drapes aside, and saw Sheppard lying on white pillows, surrounded by healers' filaments. Was he breathing? Ronon's hand looked so large next to Sheppard's as he checked the pulse at his wrist.
There were scars even there.
"We try to keep people out for a reason, you know," he heard Beckett say from behind him.
Ronon didn't turn round. His hand closed on Sheppard's wrist. "But I--"
"Needed to come in for a reason, yes. I understand." Beckett sounded tired. "There's been a whole string of you. Our reassurances are meaningless, I know. You need to see how things start with your own eyes. You need to see him with your own eyes."
Ronon was not a fanciful man, but he had come to fear that the whole thing had been a dream. Even as he stood with Sheppard's hand in his, it still felt like a dream. Sheppard strode through his memories, confident and full of hope and always in control. Sheppard was many things, but this scarred and traumatised unmoving figure was not him. Ronon had recognised him in the barrens, feeling a jolt of recognition so intense that it had hurt, but there was too much dissonance between memory and reality.
It was inevitable, of course.
"And now you have," Beckett said, "so go, please. There'll be a time for you later, but the healing's at a delicate stage right now."
Ronon squeezed Sheppard's hand, and walked away, because sometimes you had to. But he moved to the nearest balcony, where he smashed his fist into the stone, then leant out into the night, letting the wind scour his face, chasing away tears that he felt no shame for shedding.
McKay found him as he was leaving. "Are you…?" McKay faltered, his hand curling back against his chest.
"I'm not the alchemists' guard-dog any more." Ronon's voice sounded harsh. It didn't matter.
"Oh." McKay pressed his lips together, then tried again. "Are you…?" He stopped; walked a few steps in silence. "It never crossed my mind that it was Sheppard, you know. If I'd known…" He stopped again; Ronon had never known McKay so tongue-tied. "Was he…? I mean, I get this whole hero-worship thing that everyone's got going, but was he… for you…?"
Could McKay see the mark of tears on his face? It didn't matter if he did. There were more important things in life than worrying about hiding your feelings. He was my friend, he could have said, but was more than that, wasn't it? "He found me," he said, remembering Sheppard as a black-clad stranger who appeared from the fog to cut down the Wraith that had cornered Ronon. 'I could have taken them,' had been Ronon's first breathless words to Sheppard, and Sheppard had just looked at him, and said, 'I know,' and then had shrugged, but said quite seriously, 'but I couldn't stand and watch that. You could have done it by yourself, but it's easier with two, you know?'
It went far further than that, of course. Ronon remembered those early days in Atlantis, when he had startled at every noise, had attacked people who approached him too silently, and had slept on the floor rather than in the bed he had been given. He remembered the way people had looked at him. He remembered packing his bag and preparing to walk away.
"He saw me for what I was," he said to McKay now. Everyone else had seen a barbarian, but Sheppard had seen what he had been. Sheppard had seen what he could be.
"Oh." McKay looked away. "He…" He cleared his throat, changing the subject. "So you're not guarding…"
Ronon shook his head. "I'm Commander Ford's second in command now," he said, and that was another legacy of Sheppard's treatment of him. The untamed barbarian, brutalised by his years on the run, had once been an officer in a disciplined army. Sheppard had found that out, and had made sure that those under his command had known it, too. Sheppard had extended a hand of trust to someone who might have lived his entire life as a savage outcast, and that was something that was impossible to forget.
"Oh." McKay stopped walking, and turned to face Ronon. "Sheppard… Is he…? I… I saw what they did to him – bits of it, anyway. I didn't know how to treat him, out there in the barrens. No-one will tell me anything, because I didn't know him. Is he…? I mean, I know he's probably going to be fine physically – if you can trust anything a healer says, with his primitive magic – but…" He blinked, his hands working convulsively at his side. "He was a slave. He was so… traumatised. But he's got his memory back now, thanks to me. That's going to make a difference, right? He's going to be…"
"No," Ronon said harshly. McKay's eyes widened, and he looked stricken, but Ronon didn't soften it. "He's never going to be the same again."
Experience always changed you. Experience had changed him. He wore a uniform again, and he issued orders and obeyed them. He slept in a bed again, and he ate with a knife and fork, but he had spent four years alone in the barrens, struggling to survive as the Wraith had hunted him for sport, and he had seen everyone he loved wiped out by the Wraith. Sheppard had seen what Ronon once had been, and what he could be, but those two were not the same. Ronon would never be that eager young officer again.
But neither would he be that broken, half-wild survivor, who clung to life only because he was too damn stubborn to admit defeat. Sheppard had seen to that.
And now Ronon would do everything he could to repay the favour.
There were very few spirits in Atlantis. Atlantis had once been a thriving city, but it had been abandoned so long ago that the old spirits from that time were little more than a comforting murmur. New spirits were always being born, of course, but the city was vast and the expedition was small, and five years were not enough to create any more spirits than a sprinkling of pebbles on the floor of the ocean.
It was, perhaps, one of the reasons why Teyla loved the city so.
Her own birthplace – Athos, with its shining towers of glass – was ancient, its streets and buildings thick with spirits. It was hard to rest there. It was hard to be still. It was hard for her to find a place where her mind was truly her own. Teyla's people revered her as someone in touch with the wisdom of their forefathers, but they feared her, too, because they thought that someone who could see spirits could see too deeply into the hearts and minds of the living.
None of it was true. She knew no ancient wisdom, and people's hearts and minds were as closed to her as they were to anyone. But preconceived notions were impossible to overturn. She had lived in honourable isolation until a small group of men and women had wandered into the marketplace, bearing ancient treasures and looking for allies.
On their third visit, she had asked if she could return with them as an envoy.
She had never left.
It was quiet in Atlantis. Even after five years, there were distant towers where not a single living soul had walked in ten thousand years; where even the soft murmur of ancient spirits had faded to silence. It was an old place, a relic of the distant past, but to Teyla it was shining and new. There was no weight of past generations. The here and now mattered. Every spirit in Atlantis had been left by somebody she knew. With each year, it built up its own roll of the dead, but it was still a place where the weight of the now was heavier than the weight of the past.
If the distant towers were silent, the healers' wards were thick with spirits. When a person experienced intense emotion, they left behind an echo of themselves. I hope he lives, the echoes whispered. Please don't let her die. I hope…and Please, please…and joy unparalleled as good news was delivered, and grief and despair when a healer said 'I'm sorry.'
I hope he lives, she thought herself, and wondered what echo of her own was bleeding out into the air, to appear as a spirit to anyone with the gift who came after her. The spirits came whispering back, bringing an impression of white pillows and a pale face upon them; of a healer with his head bowed, his face carved deep with weariness.
"Is it true?" a voice asked – a young soldier, daring to approach. She banished the spirits, leaving only the faintest echo of those that spoke of hope.
There was no need to ask what the question meant, of course. "It is," she told him. "Commander Sheppard has returned, but he is badly hurt. Healer Beckett and his circle are taking good care of him."
Simple words, so easy to say. Curiosity and hope made spirits, too, of course; she felt them stirring throughout Atlantis as the rumours flew.
I hope he lives, the spirit whispered, and she let even that one go, letting it become just a wistful stirring in the back of her mind. She had too many fears of her own to bear the echo of others' hopes.
She started to walk, heading for places that were more silent. The air shimmered around her. Watch, she begged them. Let me know if he…
Dies? they whispered, rippling with shadow, and Wakes up? they shouted, sparking silver. The healers had left echoes of their own, and she asked those spirits to strengthen Carson's hand and to ease his exhaustion, and to watch John, always to watch.
"The air's shimmering. You're talking to spirits again." Rodney emerged from a doorway. He looked almost as shattered as Carson. "It's freaky," he said. "Is it… Do you know which one's which? Am I one of them?"
She shook her head. "They are not traceable to any individual. The…" It was hard to express it. "The emotion takes on a life of its own," was the nearest she could manage to frame it in words.
"Oh." Rodney bit his lip. "So it isn't like… like speaking to someone after they've… gone?"
"No." But she had wondered, sometimes – of course she had wondered – if any of the young spirits in Atlantis had originally flowed from John, and if, in a way, he was with them still.
It was foolish to wonder, of course. Her power was one that nobody fully understood, and only a few accepted. Even John had been wary of her at first, until she had convinced him that she was incapable of eavesdropping on those emotions that he kept so tightly hidden behind his smooth façade.
Rodney walked along beside her for a while, his hands twisting nervously in front of him. It took no special powers for her to know that he was nervous, wrestling with something. Her mind was overflowing with thoughts of John – still sleeping, the spirits whispered, surging back to her. Still no change – but she stopped and turned to Rodney as gently as she could manage to.
"Rodney, are you…?" Rodney had never known John, of course. "…well?" she finished.
Rodney sighed, his hands falling heavily to his sides. "I realised something," he said, "and you know how hard it is for me to realise things? Alchemical insights are easy, of course, but…" He sighed, as if whatever was troubling him had eaten his usual scathing fluency with words. "Anyway, it's the usual thing: you only realise what you've got when you've not got it. I missed Atlantis, and I… I didn't really tried very hard to fit in, did I? But it felt like coming home, earlier, but now…"
He moved! the spirits whispered, and some of them soothed him, and some despaired at the glimpses of scars on his chest.
She thanked them and let them go, but by then Rodney was already walking away.
It really wasn't fair, Rodney thought. He'd come back to Atlantis with the secret of the portals, which could well be the turning point in their deadly impasse with the Wraith, and he'd mastered a piece of Wraith metal-magic, which could turn the turning point even further, but far from honouring him, nobody really seemed to have noticed.
It was Sheppard, all Sheppard, his name whispered through the corridors, and shouted by people who shouldered past Rodney to stand in doorways, to lean in and breathlessly shout that Sheppard had been found. It was quiet anxious whispers – a stream of people who made their way to the healers' wards to ask if there was any news.
Rodney understood that; of course he did. He was restless himself, a knife twisting in his chest at the thought that Sheppard would die.
It was just so difficult. He'd come to realisations out there in the barrens. Sometimes, perhaps, he was a little inconsiderate of other people's feelings, and sometimes this had actual consequences. Atlantis was his home. Radek and the others were more competent than he liked to think them. He'd never really tried hard to be liked, but now, perhaps, he'd try to fit in. He'd come home with his precious discovery in his hand, and everything would instantly be different.
But nothing was the way he had dreamed it. He couldn't find Radek. Weir had barely acknowledged him. He had been away for a whole year, but people pushed past him without seeing him, in their haste to tell the news of Sheppard's return. Everything was Sheppard, Sheppard, Sheppard… and how was that even possible? The slave had been timid, tremulous, obedient, softly-spoken, and yet it was his return, and not Rodney's, that had set Atlantis into a flurry of hope and anxiety. It was as if the whole city had subtly shifted on its axis, focusing inwards on just one man.
And Rodney understood it. Of course he understood it. It was just…
He sighed, and entered his own dust-shrouded quarters. His lodgings in the city of the Genii had never felt like home, of course, but this… now this, too, felt cold and alien and dark.
He woke up to pain. His master must have hurt him worse than normal because…
He stopped. His thoughts jolted and reshaped themselves. Atlantis, he was in Atlantis. He was home. He was John Sheppard. He was free. Power flowed through his veins. If Kolya approached him now, he could blast him with fire. No-one would touch him unless he wanted them to.
He saw white sheets with filaments soft against his skin. "John," he heard a voice say, and a moment later recognised it as Elizabeth's. "John, can you hear me?"
He had screamed into Teyla's shoulder. Ronon had carried him home.
He had been away for three years.
He tried to speak, but only a quiet moan came out. No, he thought, and tightened his fist on a handful of blanket, refusing to let himself moan again.
"John," Elizabeth said. She sounded as if she had been crying.
His eyes found her face, but she wasn't quite how he had remembered her. Then he had to tighten his grip even further, fighting a sudden ridiculous fear that this was all a dream, that he wasn't home, that he had come to somewhere else entirely. Her smile was the same, though, even if the lines on her face were deeper.
Her hand took his wrist – chains, he had worn chains there. "You're safe, John," she said. "You're home."
Home. He was home. He turned his head with an enormous effort, and saw Carson hovering nearby, looking scoured by exhaustion. He knew he ought to say something to them, but all words flew from his mind, leaving him only with echoing emptiness.
"Can you speak, John?" Elizabeth's grip tightened.
He felt iron on his wrist. She wanted him to say something; her need spilled over from her eyes and flooded over her face.
Whatever you want me to do, master. He knew what a nameless slave would say, pretending to be submissive, but he had no idea what to say when playing the part of John Sheppard.
"He was very gravely injured," he heard Carson say. "There mere fact that he's opened his eyes is a positive sign."
Darkness swirled, and it wanted him. Elizabeth gripped him with her chain of iron, and wanted him to speak. She wanted to know that he was still John Sheppard. She wanted to know that he wasn't broken.
And sorcery flowed through his veins, and he knew who he was, and those three years with no memory would fade like a nightmare faded. They had to. They would.
He moistened his lips, finding them cracked and hurting. "Elizabeth."
She smiled, her eyes glittering with joy and tears. "You remember me."
"Of course I do." He managed a smile of his own. He pushed himself up against the pillows, and pain impaled him, but the nameless slave knew how to keep agony from showing on his face.
"It's been so long…"
"Yeah." He managed a shrug. "They put a collar on me. I can't remem--" He couldn't complete it. Kolya stalked in circles in his mind, and the slave bowed his head before him. "I can't remember much," he said. Even his voice sounded different now. "Not clearly. You don't have to worry about…" That, too, trailed away. He swallowed hard, gripping the blanket so tightly beside him that his hand was shaking. "I want to resume active duty as soon as possible," he said. "Don't worry about me. I'm good. Everything's going to go back to normal."
Just a nightmare. He hadn't been himself. It hadn't been real. He hadn't known his name. It had happened to someone else, not to him.
Just a nightmare.
And you forgot nightmares and you carried on, staring straight ahead of you as you walked out into the day.
On to chapter eight