Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

SGA fic: Born in the Barrens - part 8 of 11

Born in the Barrens – part 8 of 11

Chapter one and all header information is here


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Chapter eight
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Life went on, because life had to. On his first morning back in Atlantis, Rodney awoke to a bleak room, and stood for a while looking at possessions that he had forgotten that he owned. He dressed in his old uniform, and found it looser in places than he remembered it, but tighter in others. He found a small phial of fixing in a pocket, turned brown with wasted potential. The mirror was thick with dust, but when he wiped it, he didn't think he looked any different from the way he had looked in the city of the Genii. It was just that the clothes and the backdrop had changed.

He made his way to the alchemists' communal workroom, and nodded at people whose names he had forgotten, or perhaps had never known. Radek was already there, surrounded by a crowd. "Rodney." The man's eyes were shining. "It's good to see you. I've told them what I can. It's safer, now that they know, but we need to write it down."

An alchemical textbook, with Rodney's name inscribed on the cover. Vital wisdom that would make a difference for centuries to come. "We do," Rodney said, suddenly lacking the inclination to say anything more.

He followed Radek into the study, where pale drapes covered the windows, filling the entire room with a warm golden glow. "Is dangerous, of course," Radek said, "now that we have the secret. The Wraith know that we have it."

The drapes stirred with sudden cold. The Wraith had seen them disappear through the portal, and they had to have realised the scale of the advantage that mastery of the portals had bestowed on their enemy. They would be seeking to renew their offensive now – to strike decisively before the people of Atlantis had chance to capitalise on their new ability.

"We've doomed ourselves, haven't we?" Rodney gasped. "We shouldn't have done it." Obtain the secret, yes, but perfect the skill back in Atlantis, then use it to launch a stealthy infiltration of the Wraith's heartlands. By the flame, he hadn't realised! They'd waved their half-developed weapon under the very noses of the Wraith, like an invitation for them to attack.

"If we hadn't," Radek said, "we would have died there, and the secret would have been lost."

And Sheppard would have died, too – couldn't forget the most important part. Couldn't risk losing their precious Sheppard.

Rodney let out a breath. He hadn't slept well, and tiredness scraped at his eyes. Coming home was supposed to be easy, wasn't it? It was a triumphant return, and then a happy slotting back into a place that, yes, he had missed. It wasn't like this. He had come here ready to embrace Atlantis as his home, but Atlantis refused to embrace him.

"It might not happen," Radek said, "but we all need to have mastery of the portals, just in case."

All of which was useless without someone like Sheppard to open them. Rodney passed a weary hand across his face, and picked up his pen. "Let's get to work, then. There's still plenty that we don't know." He flapped an angry hand. "No, go away. I work better alone."

He had been alone in the city of the Genii. The light changed outside, growing brighter, then fading towards afternoon. When he moved to the window and pulled the drapes aside, he saw sunlight sparkling on the canals, and beautiful pale pinnacles, a hundred times more lovely than the Genii's harsh lines.

Hunger drove him from the study at last, when he had written everything that he needed to write, but not as much as he could. Out in the communal workroom, people fell silent as he approached. They hadn't been talking about him, though, he thought, but about Sheppard; he caught the tail-end of the man's name, a last falling syllable.

How is he? he wanted to ask. Have you heard?

Something twisted inside him when they talked about Sheppard, but it felt worse when they didn't. He walked through the hallways, but overheard nothing that gave him any news.

The refectory only had a handful of people, scattered across the room in twos and threes. He thought they watched him as he came in, and a few of them might have smiled at him, but he didn't know their names.

He sat down alone, and tore apart a crusty white roll, spreading it with butter and covering it with thick spicy meat.

The smell struck a chord. He was in his kitchen in his home in the city of the Genii, and Sheppard sat opposite him, asking questions in that quiet voice of his, and Rodney had his legs stretched out in happy contentment, imparting knowledge, and sometimes, very occasionally, Sheppard had smiled.

And sometimes – moments just as rare – Rodney had smiled, too.

******

His master had carved his mark with a knife, then rubbed salt in the open wound. The pain blazed, and the slave knelt there with his head bowed, fingers digging into his thighs. Don't scream. Don't make a sound. But no-one was watching. That meant… No. When you were alone, you could let yourself fall apart, but not often, not often. Do it too often, and it became habit. Every time you did it, it was harder to gather yourself back together. Every time…

Something touched him. Light flooded into the darkness. "I'm sorry, laddie." Carson snatched his hand back, looking mortified. "I didn't think." And the slave was staring up at him, heart racing, breath rasping in his throat, hands gripping the sheets…

"You startled me," he managed to say. He. The slave. John Sheppard. John. Names shuffled in his mind like cards. Who was he? No, he knew who he was. He was John Sheppard. The rest belonged only to the realms of nightmare.

"You…" Carson seemed to be standing carefully back from him. "How are you, er… feeling?"

"Fine," he said. "You've been busy with your magic, I can tell."

Carson opened his mouth as if to say something, but no sound came out. He would always argue fiercely that his healing gifts weren't magic, but came from talent and 'bloody hard work'. John had enjoyed baiting him about it, and Carson had always responded.

The things from the nightmare shambled forward. You're not really back, they said.

He looked at the square of light that was the window. "What time is it?"

"Late afternoon."

Late afternoon of what day? He couldn't remember it getting from evening to morning or from morning to afternoon. Time marched on, and he couldn't remember it. You woke up in the barrens one day, and your whole life had gone. Days passed in blur and confusion. The collar, that had been the collar. The collar was gone. It was safe to sleep. He wouldn't forget anything ever again. He knew who he was – a slave, dangling from a hook on the ceiling. No, no, John Sheppard, and this was the bright afternoon after the nightmare.

"When're you going to let me out of here, doc?" His face managed a smile.

"A few days yet, and that's if you're good."

Carson looked awkward. John had awakened in the healers' wards three times before, and Carson had been stern and lecturing, and soft and kind and competent, but never awkward… and that scar on John's hip came from crashing a skimmer, and the line across his upper arm came from their first encounter with the Wraith, and the mark on his chest came from the day that Carson had brought him back from the dead, and… and scars told stories, and the missing pages were now filled in. End of story, and time to wake up.

He smiled. "Hey, doc, when am I anything other than good?"

Kolya stalked in the shadows behind Carson. The slave closed his eyes, and memory stole another chunk of the day. He woke to the fiery red of sunset. Stupid, he told himself, when he had managed to stop shaking. The collar had dulled his thoughts. The memories weren't even coherent ones, just vivid impressions in a mass of fog. If you didn't know your own name when something happened to you, then it didn't really happen. In the nightmare, a slave had submitted, but John Sheppard had slept for three years.

Footsteps sounded, clicking like Kolya's. Ford paused nervously in the doorway. He smiled when he saw John looking at him, then stood to attention, saluting.

"Ford." John's voice sounded rusty, as if it hadn't been used for three years. As he cleared his throat, he saw the badge on Ford's chest, quickened steel sparkling in the shape of a flame. "Commander Ford," he corrected himself.

"Yes, sir," Ford said, and the slave almost laughed to hear himself called 'sir', and John…? John felt a ridiculous urge to weep, because it was familiar, and it hurt. "I hope you will be pleased with the job I've done, sir."

John's hand was aching beneath the sheet, and he realised that once again he was gripping a handful of fabric in a trembling fist. He released it; managed a smile. "Atlantis is still standing. That's a miracle in itself – testament to--"

"Testament to many things, sir," Ford said firmly, "and to many people." There was a chair beside the bed, but he didn't sit down.

"What's our status?" John asked.

"Difficult," Ford said, "but holding on." He flashed a brief smile. "Just as we always do."

"Just as we always do," John echoed.

The fell into silence for a while. Eventually Ford shifted awkwardly, clearing his throat. "The healers said… only a few minutes, you know, sir. I have to…"

"Yes." John concentrated hard, and managed to uncurl his hand. He waved it with a smile. "Go do your… commanderly things."

Ford stopped in the doorway, his hand on the frame. "Sir…"

Nothing after that, though. The slave slept, and the nightmare came out to play.

******

For the first time in many days, Ronon dreamed of his time on the run.

He woke long before dawn and pressed his face into his hands, accepting the memories. Then he put on his clothes and ran to the far edge of the city and back. His route took him over narrow bridges and through frosty, forgotten plazas, and he remembered running through wilder places, with the Wraith at his tail, and he remembered early training runs with his first platoon. He remembered running this route with Sheppard in his early days in Atlantis, and he remembered how they had stopped on a bridge – on this bridge here – and how they had stood side by side looking out over the canal, hardly saying a single word.

By the time he returned to his room, the sun had fully risen. He washed and dressed, then headed to the healers' wards.

He found Sheppard on the terrace outside, propped up with cushions and looking out at the city below him. Ronon approached loudly, because he thought that a slave and a hunted man might have the same reaction to people who tried to approach quietly.

"I hear you've been promoted," Sheppard said, turning round only slightly. His voice sounded no different from the way Ronon remembered it.

Ronon nodded. "Yeah." Too many people had died, and there were vacancies. He had been in the city long enough, Ford had implied, for any lingering doubts about his loyalty to have disappeared.

But Ronon had known all along where his loyalty lay.

"Congratulations," Sheppard said, "I guess."

Below them, a boatload of alchemists went by, presumably heading off to gather fresh raw materials for their fixings. Their voices were audible, but their words were not.

"McKay," Sheppard said. "He…" Ronon saw his hand clench, before it disappeared behind the cushions. "He's new. There were reinforcements?"

"Only a few," Ronon said. "No soldiers or sorcerers."

"Huh. Stands to reason."

The silence stretched between them. It was fragile, in a way that silence between the two of them had never been fragile before.

"The healers let you go?" Ronon asked.

Sheppard shook his head. "They've still got their eye on me." He gestured towards the thin filaments that emerged from his clothes. His robe was open at the neck, showing the edge of jagged scars. "It won't be long," Sheppard said, "before I'm ordered back in." There was the faintest hesitation before the penultimate word.

Ronon said nothing. Sunlight sparkled on windows, and a flag hung limply in the cold, still air. The flag was new in the past year, Ronon realised. He saw Sheppard watching it. Sheppard's pulse was beating fast, visible at the open throat of his robe.

"Atlantis hasn't changed," Sheppard said, as a stray gust of wind took the flag and raised it, the quickened metallic threads blazing in the sun. "A few things are different, but mostly it's the same."

"Been too busy," Ronon said, "to spare any time for decorating and refurbishment."

"Yeah." There was a faint wisp of a smile. Sheppard's pulse raced even faster, but perhaps Sheppard became aware of it, for he pulled his robe closed, hiding pulse and scars alike.

Ronon leant on the railing, deliberately turning his back on Sheppard. Sometimes, he thought, it was better not to think too hard, but just to say what felt right. "I still remember my first sight of the city," he said, "after you brought me in. I was wild, then – crazy. I'd lost everything – didn't know how to live."

And Sheppard had helped him, not by talking to him about what had happened, but by treating him as if he was whole in every way. Perhaps Sheppard had known that this was what Ronon had needed, or perhaps he had just been afraid to say anything that might lead to messy talk about feelings.

"And now I'm here," Ronon said, "second-in-command of Atlantis' military," with all his old comrades and subordinates dead on a field of ice, not forgotten, never forgotten, but… moved on from, he thought. Changed into a scar that he would always bear, but which didn't stop him from walking tall.

He meant to say more, but words were not his strength, and how could he preach a lesson about survival to a man who had been tortured for three years as a slave?

Perhaps Sheppard understood the gist of it, even though Ronon did not say it. When Ronon turned back, Sheppard was staring straight ahead, his face a rigid mask. "Sheppard…" Ronon said, and the mask shattered, but only a bit.

"It isn't the same," Sheppard said, forcing the words through lips that barely opened. "You… By the flame, Ronon, you lost everything. I… It wasn't even me. The scars are on my body, yes, but it wasn't me. It wasn't--" He touched his brow, jabbing it hard with two fingers. "--me."

"It was," Ronon said quietly, hating the fact that he had to.

Sheppard whirled on him, almost screaming his retort, but at the last moment he snatched it back, his hand rising to the fabric at his chest. "It wasn't me," he said, as his clenched fist twisted his robe, showing scars at his throat.

It was, Ronon thought, but he knew that to say so again would be too cruel.

"Nothing's really changed," Sheppard said, looking out at the sparkling city. "I… don't want your pity, Ronon."

"You're not going to get it," Ronon said with utmost honesty. One scarred warrior knew another. But Sheppard… His weren't scars yet, but bleeding wounds.

But even the worst wounds turned to scars in the end.

******

Another night passed in stalking nightmare.

His bed was like chains. The watchful eyes of the healers were the eyes of his masters, refusing to let him go. People walked by on silent feet, checking on him, and every time he heard that first whisper of approaching footsteps, he instinctively stiffened, readying himself for pain.

He needed to get away. John Sheppard had never liked to be inactive in the healers' wards. "Can I…?" he asked, when he thought that his voice could manage it. "You know, doc. It's boring in here."

Watched. Imprisoned. Subjected to rules. The nightmare would go away once he was free. He'd pick up his old life again and this…? All this would fade. John Sheppard knew how to deal with nightmares.

"I don't see why not," Carson said. "I've had you here for three days, and physically you're doing well." But shadow remained in his expression, and he still looked tired. "I want you back in a few hours. I still want to keep on eye on you at night. And no doing anything stupid, mind. No running with Ronon. No joy-rides on the skimmers. But I'd be happier if someone else went with you. Shall I send for--?"

"I'll be fine," he said, managing a smile.

Back in a few hours. Back for the night. Orders. Prohibitions. Kneeling when a master commanded him to, lowering his head to receive the knife. But John Sheppard was a soldier, and soldiers had to follow orders, too. Not that he had ever been very good at it, of course. Not that he had ever…

Feet stirred behind him. Carson cleared his throat. "I'll be fine," John said, as he headed for the infinite possibilities of the open door.

Nothing special, he thought, just Atlantis. Just home. He had walked these hallways a thousand times before. Every step would banish the nightmare. Every step would bring him closer to the past. Every step would make him become more thoroughly John Sheppard.

He could do anything that he wanted. Do what you like, his last master had said. Do what you like.

His steps faltered.

John Sheppard had always known exactly what to do.

******

Teyla did not need spirits to tell her when John entered the refectory. His presence was like a drop of dye in clear water, spreading everywhere until it filled the bowl. People halted their conversations, then carried on, stiff and self-conscious. Some openly stared. Others whispered.

Teyla fought the urge to rush over to him and physically help him to her table. Instead, she caught his eye and smiled, letting him see the empty chair beside her. He smiled back, and the smile at least was the same as it had often been – John Sheppard in cautious mode, hiding things behind a smile. His gait was unrecognisable, though. He moved as if he was in pain. He moved as if he did not want anyone to notice him.

"Carson let you out, I see," she said, when he was sitting beside her.

"Only for a few hours." His hands were stiff on his lap, long sleeves covering his wrists.

She wondered what to say. He looked thin and pale, and his hair was longer than he usually wore it, hiding many things. "I missed you, John," she said, settling for honesty. Atlantis had lost its military commander, its strongest sorcerer, its chief purveyor of optimism and hope, but Teyla had lost the first person who had made her feel welcome, after she had taken the enormous step of leaving the only home she had ever known.

"Well…" He shrugged, his hands uncurling, fingers digging into his thighs. "I'm back now."

She blinked back sudden tears. "Yes. You are back."

He looked at her sharply, hungrily. "You see it? Because the others… Carson… He's tiptoeing around me; thinks I'm going to break. Just because I… It wasn't me, Teyla. I didn't know who I was. I can't even remember it clearly. There's no reason why it should affect me."

"No reason," she echoed. The spirits here were quiet and content, enjoying sunlight and good company, but she kept them distant. Too many people were watching John, most of them trying to pretend that they were not.

"I'm going to carry on," John said, "just as I was when I left. I don't know why people expect me to be different. It wasn't me, any more than a dream is me. There's no reason why it should affect me. It shouldn't affect me. It can't affect me."

She could almost see the emotions bleeding off him. "I understand," she said, because she really did. "But if it does affect you," she said carefully, "there is no shame in that."

"It won't," he said, pulse racing beneath his high-buttoned tunic. Even the most contented of spirits were stirring now. "It's… hard right now, you know – stuck in bed, still seeing people for the first time, but in a few days…"

She managed to keep the tears from falling. "We will always be here for you, John."

"In a few days," he said, brightly, desperately, "Carson will let me return to active duty. Ford's got my job now, and it looks like he's doing it well, and I won't fight him for that. I always liked the sorcery stuff more than the paperwork, anyway. I want to help protect Atlantis. And all this… Everything… It didn't happen."

But it did, she thought, but she smiled and she nodded, because she knew that there was a time to argue, and there was a time just to be there, a trusted friend.

******

"You let him go." Elizabeth stared at the empty bed. "Carson, you--"

"How can I confine someone who's been a slave for three years?" Carson's eyes were ringed with shadow. "Elizabeth, the things I…" He passed his hand across his face, rubbing his eyes. "I don't know if anyone's ever told you this, but when you treat an injury as a healer, you learn everything about it: how bad it is, how to treat it… and how it was caused."

"And he has scars." Any anger she might have felt trickled away, and she reached out to steady herself against the empty bed.

"Aye, he has scars. And I examined every one, as a good healer must. The things I saw… I can't sleep at night, Elizabeth."

"He says he can't remember it," she said. "Not clearly, anyway. Surely that's going to help."

"Perhaps," Carson said, "if it's true. It… Don't get me wrong. The wound from the Wraith collar was nasty. It had put tendrils all the way into his brain, and it undoubtedly had an effect. In a very real sense, the person who lived as a slave wasn't John Sheppard. He wasn't thinking the same way, and he didn't have any memories of who he was. But he… he dreams, Elizabeth, and the body still remembers."

Sometimes she hated being a leader. "How long," she had to ask, "before he is in a state to resume his duties? And yes, Carson, I do care, but…" But minor Wraith raids were ongoing, and a large assault was likely to come soon. She was woefully understaffed, and the sight of John Sheppard back at the head of the cadre of sorcerers would be just the morale boost that everybody needed. She would only ask it of him when he was ready, of course, but the John Sheppard that she knew would want to be there, back in the thick of things. He had always hated to sit back and watch.

"I don't know," Carson said. "He's clinging on right now, but…" He scraped at his face again. "John always was a stubborn lad when he was hurting. He pushes things inside and tells himself that he's coping, and he thinks that if he tells himself loudly enough and often enough, it'll come true. And the thing is: it's always worked in the past."

She let out a breath. "But not this time."

"Maybe this time, too, but I fear not. Even if the memories are only faint, he… By the flame, Elizabeth, I only got a glimpse of them, and I can't sleep at night."

She stood firm. A leader always had to think about what to do next, about how to proceed. "What can we do," she asked, "to help him?"

Perhaps unconsciously, Carson shook his head minutely, as if the true answer he wanted to give was I don't know. What he said, though, was, "Be there. And wait."

******

Sheppard was leaning on the railing of the bridge ahead of him, and the only way that Rodney could get to his destination was by going past him.

Rodney carried on walking – one step, two steps… hands sweaty at his sides. This was the lost hero, a man larger than life according to all the stories. This was his slave, who had bent his head when Rodney had commanded him to. This was the man who had gone without shoes for three weeks, because Rodney had forgotten to tell him to put them on.

What on earth could Rodney say? Perhaps wait until Sheppard spoke first. Perhaps slip back quietly and hope that Sheppard didn't notice him. But Sheppard had already seen him; Rodney could tell that. His body language was just like the slave's: taut and tense as he stared straight ahead, but at the same time intensely aware of the person who was approaching him.

"Uh…" It came out as a croak. Rodney cleared his throat and tried again. "I've been working on the portals. That's what the whole charade was about, you know. It was an incredible breakthrough, but…" The air was cold. Rodney shivered, and touched the metal railing, almost recoiling at the cold of it. "There are still many more things to understand, of course. How do you determine which portal you want to travel to? We need to learn how to add that element to the alchemy. The other day… It worked the first time, because Radek and I were both thinking so strongly of Atlantis, and we'd both spent weeks poring over the portal here, trying to get it to work. But we don't yet know how to go outwards to any other portal. At the moment it's just a 'ooh, help, we're under attack, let's get home quick' sort of thing. We're beginning to think that we might need to send out expeditions to each one, to… anchor it, as it were."

Sheppard was completely still; it was only because he had lived for three weeks with his unwanted slave that Rodney was able to tell that he was listening, and that he was afraid.

"But we'll master it," Rodney said firmly. "I…" He stopped and corrected himself. "We… By which I mean Radek and myself… and the others… I guess the others aren't that unskilled, either, at least when compared to the Genii…"

"You'll be able to quicken a portal so we can go home?" Sheppard asked.

Rodney remembered meal times spent at the table in the kitchen, the slave obediently asking questions to indulge Rodney's desire to talk. "Eventually, maybe," he said, "but it's a long way. The alchemy's different. We knew that all along. I was looking for a weapon against the Wraith, not a way to go home. We hoped, of course, and we still might…" A sea-bird screamed above him. Even the birds were different here. Metals were fused with a sense of the north, drawn to the distant magnetic pole. Like called to like. The secret of how to break through to a different continent was still hidden from them. Not even boats could get there, because the walls of ancient sorcery were too strong. "We still might go home one day," he finished, though where was home? He was drifting through his days. The only sure thing was his work.

"You've tried?" Sheppard asked.

"Of course I've tried," Rodney snapped. "It didn't work. So we're stuck here, and, oh! the Wraith are probably going to attack, and that might happen in mere days, or maybe not for week, and… and the work I did on your collar helps us immensely, of course, but…"

The bird returned, circled once, and flew away. A gust of wind stirred the surface of the water, and Rodney shivered, suddenly unable to bear the cold a moment longer.

"Well…" he said, peeling his hand from the metal railing. "Important work calls."

Sheppard said nothing, just stared straight ahead. Throughout it all, Rodney hadn't once seen his face.

He hadn't tried to, either, he realised.

******

Atlantis was the only place that mattered. This life was the only life he had. McKay had said that they couldn't go home again. Well, that suited John Sheppard just fine. Right from the start, coming to Atlantis had felt like coming home. Everything else was nothing more than a dream.

He was numb with cold when he left the bridge, even the nightmares frozen and encased in ice. He had no idea how much time had passed, or whether Carson would be searching for him. It was hard to follow the passage of time without chimes to count.

The city was large, and they had only ever used a fraction of the towers available to them. Was his own room still there? His feet took him towards it, and the door opened, creaking into shadowed darkness. He touched the light switch, but the light glowed only dully, its alchemy faded with the passage of time.

The bed was still there, and the chest of drawers and the dresser. The picture over his bed was gone, though, and his clothes were no longer there. The surfaces were thick with dust, but patches of it were smeared clean, as if people had come in here recently, perhaps to sit down for a while in the darkness.

It didn't look like the room of someone who had gone away for just a few days. It looked like the room of somebody who had died.

He sat down on the edge of the bed, and the height was different from how he remembered it. His own face stared back at him from the mirror on the wall. He really didn't want to do it – didn't mean to do it, and fought the urge to do it – but he unfastened the top few buttons, so that the person looking back at him had a body full of scars.

His hair was too long, but when he pulled it back and twisted it into a knot, his face was too thin. Kolya's mark was on his shoulder, and the back of his neck throbbed where the Wraith collar had been ripped from his flesh.

"It was just a dream," he said, but his body gave the lie to that. "Just a dream…" but he had spoken to McKay. McKay was a figure from the nightmare, who lived and breathed and talked. McKay had been his master. McKay had seen him submit. It can't affect you, John told himself, but McKay's presence screamed otherwise. John Sheppard had spoken to the man, finding words to say as he had leant on the rail beside him beside him. The slave had gripped the edge of the bridge, stared straight ahead, and stopped himself from screaming. The slave knew how to do that.

John Sheppard didn't need to.

"Just a nightmare," he said, but he didn't even recognise the person who looked back at him from the mirror.

He smashed the mirror with a single blow of his fist, and then he was bleeding, fresh scars on his clenched right hand.

******

On to chapter nine
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