Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

SGA fic: Second Life - parts 1 and 2 of 3

Second Life - parts 1 and 2 of 3
by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)

Rating: PG-13 for angst
Words: 17,300 words, complete
Characters: Sheppard plus team plus season five cast
Genre: Angst, h/c, gen
Spoilers: References to episodes all the way through to late season five

Warnings: The story contains non-permanent major character deaths. (This is not really much of a spoiler, since the bulk of the story deals with the aftermath of "fixing" these deaths.) However, at the time, the emotions surrounding these deaths are very real to those left behind. There are also some permanent deaths, but only of background OCs.

Summary: When the unthinkable happens, Sheppard is given the chance to erase the past and start again. And that should be the end of it. Shouldn't it?


__

The last thing John remembered was the world ending.

He opened his eyes to a sky as grey as slate, smeared with specks of white. White; he remembered white. White light, driving through him like knives. White light, ripping through to the heart of him, tearing it out, and--

His eyes drifted shut again. There was something cold on his palm, so he closed his hand with great effort, and realised that it was snow. Snow, he thought, and he remembered the endless reaches of Antarctica; remembered snowball fights with his brother on the lawn; remembered hurtling down a hill on an inverted tray, and deciding in that moment that he would die unless he flew above the clouds one day. Distant memories, but they felt real, more real and more recent than…

Than what? He opened his eyes again, and tried to sit up, but pain tore through him, robbing him of breath. He tried again, rolling over onto his stomach, then pushing himself up on his hands and knees. His head sagged. His vision wavered, silver dots dancing against the sudden black. When he could see again, he saw a dark pool of blood beneath him, slowly melting the snow.

I can't remember what happened, he thought, but even as he thought it, snapshots came back. Arriving on M8T-173 to find the Gate almost entirely surrounded by silver trees. An Ancient ruin, well preserved. Huge solid arches made from roughly-hewn black stone. Rodney with a furrow between his eyes, talking rapidly about how the readings made no sense. "Yes, but is it dangerous?" John had asked him, and Rodney had said no, at least no more dangerous than everything else in a galaxy that was out to kill him in the most hideous way possible, and could you please take Ronon away and stop him glowering like an over-protective guard dog, Colonel, because I can't work unless--

"Rodney," John said out loud. His voice came out cracked. He cleared his throat, and the pain sent him down to the ground again. "Rodney?" He tried again, calling with his eyes screwed tightly shut. "Ronon?" Again it cracked in the middle. "Ronon? Teyla?" The names scraped against his throat as if they had hooks.

No sound, just a soft whisper that might have been trees. He pushed himself onto his side, and brought both knees up, curling around the pain. He saw his hand pressed into the thin layer of snow, streaked with fresh blood. Gotta get up, he told himself. His team wasn't answering, so that meant…

No. Won't think about what that means. Can't.

He managed to raise himself up to his knees, but the idea of standing felt as impossible as climbing a mountain. He saw a tree just half a dozen steps away, and he crawled his way towards it, then pulled himself up by gripping its lowest branches. Twigs broke off in his hands. Leaves crumbled and turned to dust, wisping away on the breeze.

He remembered Teyla smiling in wonder as she saw the silver trees. Rodney had scoffed, but the leaves had been thick and downy, and they really had seemed silver in the sun. The bark had been white and papery, and the pale blossom translucent, glowing with light. Now the blossom was gone, and the trees were wrapped in winter. The ruin had turned to a few scattered blocks of black rock, and the morning sky had turned to dusk.

"Guys?" he called, but his voice was like the leaves, just dust on the wind. "Ronon? Buddy? Anybody?"

He started to walk, not knowing where he was going, just that he had to try. He concentrated on his feet, on putting one in front of the other. He kept one hand pressed against his side; blood oozed between his fingers, and it felt shockingly warm, as if he was burning up, or maybe it was just that the snow had turned his hands to ice.

He remembered the smells of spring. He remembered sunlight slanting in through a great arched window. He remembered the shadows cast by stone carvings of leaves and flowers. He remembered standing there with Ronon, neither of them saying anything at all. He remembered Teyla leaning out to pluck a sprig of translucent blossom for Torren. He remembered cocking his head, feeling a sudden urge - a sound, a voice, a memory, a scent on the breeze - to investigate a dark corner. He remembered a plain stone slab, and he remembered touching it--

He remembered the world ending in a blaze of white light.

He found Teyla first, lying as if she were sleeping. Her lips were blue. Snow covered her like a blanket, and not even the smallest flake was melting on her skin. His hands fluttered over her. He touched her throat, her cheek, her wrist, her chest, her hair, her throat again. "Teyla," he said, voice cracking, and then there was blood on her cheek and great smears of it on her throat, and he wiped it away gently with snow and his sleeve, but then he touched her again, and lifted her up, registering the pain that tore through him as no more than a distant nothingness.

"Teyla," he said, "Teyla." Just twice. He had seen enough death before to know… Oh God, he thought. Please. No. The sprig of blossom was still fresh, tucked in her clothes. Snow fell like a shroud. He felt the ice consuming him.

The sky turned darker, spreading grey. He laid Teyla down again. "Got… gotta find the others."

He fell three times before he managed to stand. Every ten steps he turned around, and saw Teyla growing fainter and smaller and further away, but bound to him by a cord made of footprints and spots of blood. He hoped to see her moving; to see her standing up and calling after him. But the cord between them stretched and stretched, and she was just a shadow in the snow, and then she was gone.

Rodney was next, and John found himself on his knees in the snow, face turned up to the sky, mouth open, throat scoured as if with screaming. Rodney was lying on his front, his arm outstretched as if he had died trying to stop death from taking him. John closed Rodney's eyes, leaving blood on his eyelids. His hand shook. The memory of Rodney's voice rang in his ears; talking, Rodney was always talking. He remembered a hundred different expressions on Rodney's living face. He remembered…

His vision turned cloudy. He knew it was tears.

Scraping them away, he pressed his lips together and tried to stand again, but in the end he had to crawl. When he came to a tree, he pulled himself up again, but he always fell after two steps, three steps, four, five. He found himself once with a handful of dying leaves. "Gotta find Ronon," he told Rodney, although Rodney was far away now. "I'll come back when I've found him." But the silence of the world proclaimed that Rodney was dead. Even the trees were silent now. The only sound was his own rasping breathing, that cracked sometimes almost into a sob.

Ronon was not entirely cold when John found him. His chest was still and he wasn't breathing, but his clothes were wet with melted snow, and John hauled at him, pulling him into the right position, then poured all the breath that he possessed into Ronon's lungs, and pounded on Ronon's chest until the whole world fragmented into shards of red and black. He counted, counted; counted again. Wake up! he screamed silently, but after a while, he couldn't even remember what he was doing, just that he had to keep on pressing down here and breathing air there, right there, or the world would end, and everything in it.

But when he woke up, a long time later, Ronon was cold and dead.

"I'm sorry." His hands shook as if palsied, because this time he remembered everything. If he'd found Ronon first… If he'd walked faster… If he'd spent less time self-indulgently holding Teyla, who was already dead… If he'd started out earlier… If he'd been stronger, better, quicker…

Couldn't think. Couldn't think of what he'd lost. Couldn't think.

He wrapped himself in armour of snow. He let his tears turn to ice. Struggling screaming to his knees, he grabbed Ronon beneath the arms, and started to drag him through the snow. Soon nothing existed but this. Sometimes he forgot what he was carrying; remembered only that it was something precious and that this had to be done. The pain surged until it filled everything, but then he stepped out onto the other side, and blinked with confusion when his body failed him and made him fall full length in the snow; and when he couldn't understand why he couldn't stand, or why his team hadn't come to find him, because you didn't leave people behind, not now, not ever.

It was almost dark when he brought Ronon to Rodney's side. He slumped down, arms limp at his sides. "There," he said. "Together. Gotta… Back soon. Teyla's not here. Gotta wait for Teyla." He wondered why Teyla was late. He wondered why Ronon and Rodney weren't helping him, "because I don't feel that good, guys," but of course he knew the reason, it was just that his mind was wandering. Stupid. Stupid, John! Perhaps if he forgot again, it would give him the strength to get Teyla, and then… and then…

He crawled away from them, deeper into the darkness. He found Teyla by following the churned-up snow, but he had no memory whatsoever of bringing her back. Even at the time, each step disappeared from his memory as soon as he took it, leaving him with an endless present of carrying Teyla through the snow. He hoped she would wake up soon.

No stars came out that night. In darkness, he gathered his team together, then fell down at the heart of them. What now? he thought. Wait for my team to find me, but that was stupid, stupid, because…

The DHD wasn't far away, just a mile or two. He could go for help, but what help was there? He could talk to Atlantis, but why, when all his life was here, and Atlantis was no more real than painted scenery, and this, only this, was real?

"Stay positive," he murmured, in a voice like dead leaves. "Never say die. Never give up. There's always hope. Keep going. Always keep going."

Perhaps they would come for him, and if they didn't…?

Sinking back in the snow, he closed his eyes. Snowflakes fell cold on his face.

******

He knew upon waking that something dreadful lurked outside the soft forgetfulness of dreaming, but he couldn't remember at first what it was.

He was surrounded by the familiar sounds of Atlantis, and that was good. The city hummed all around him, telling him that he was home. He knew that he had been badly hurt; knew that he was waking up in an infirmary bed. He floated on a sea of drugs, but he moved first his hands and then his feet, and he could see the ceiling above him, so he knew he still had his sight.

The heart monitor beside his bed started to beep faster and faster. Perhaps his body knew the truth before his mind remembered.

And then Doctor Keller was at his side, and the truth was in her face. She looked at him as if he were fragile porcelain that would crack if anyone as much as touched him. She spoke to him, but the truth lay in all the gaps between the words, and in the vast spaces underneath them.

He turned his face away so she wouldn't see him, and tried to find the darkness again.

******

The truth lay in so many little things, but the truth lay most of all in silence.

It was the silence that came from waking in the infirmary without hearing the soft tapping of Rodney's laptop. It was the silence that didn't contain Ronon's snoring. It was the silence without the whisper of Teyla's clothes. It was a silence without the quiet banter of his team as they kept watch beside him. It was a silence broken only by the beeping of the monitors, and then by a doctor's hurrying footsteps, with no-one shouting out, 'He's awake, Doctor! Come quickly!' It was a silence that, if he lay very still and slowed his breathing right down, nobody broke at all, because there was nobody there to break it.

******

Truth was an empty chair beside his bedside.

"You were lucky," Doctor Keller said, standing beside his bed, never touching the chair. She carried the truth around with her in her face, her eyes rimmed with red and shadowed with sleeplessness. "You had a piece of shrapnel embedded in your side, and you lost a lot of blood. You exacerbated your injuries by…" She pressed her lips together, silencing the rest of it, pushing the truth back into the silences where it lurked. "I see no reason why you won't make a full recovery," she said, her smile brittle, "but it'll be a slow process. Don't jeopardise it by doing anything rash."

He wanted to say I'm sorry, I'm sorry, because she had been fast on her way to loving Rodney, too, but all he said was… What did he say? Even as the words left his mouth, he couldn't remember them.

Lorne came to report on the security of the city, standing behind the chair, but throughout the entire thing, his fist was clenching and unclenching at his side, and his eyes looked everywhere but at John's face. In the end he broke off, half way through a report that John wasn't even listening to. "I'm so sorry, Colonel. If there's anything--"

No, John told him, there was nothing; nothing at all.

Woolsey came and cleared his throat a lot, and made false starts. His hand gripped the back of the chair. John should take as much personal time as he needed, he said at last, staring at a point a few inches above John's head.

"I'm fine," said John's voice. "I want to return to active duty as soon as Doctor Keller clears me."

"If you need to…" Woolsey cleared his throat again. He carried on, saying something about a trip home.

What was home? Assigned quarters in one war zone or another? A cockpit? A large house, empty of everything but memories? An apartment stripped out of half its possessions? A grave with two names carved on the stone? A brother you no longer knew? A world you'd left five years ago without looking back?

Or a city on the ocean? Leaning on the railing with your team at your side. Playing chess. Sparring. Watching movies and eating popcorn. Laughter over breakfast. Stepping through the Gate with three others at your side. Waking up in the infirmary, and knowing even before you opened your eyes that they would be there beside you.

"No," he said, "there's no need. I'm staying right here."

Woolsey's hands tightened on the empty chair.

******

He remembered the memorial service. They made him attend in a wheelchair, but he remembered getting dressed for it, struggling into his dress uniform, as if the right clothes could make the tiniest bit of difference to the vast aching absence of his team.

He stood up for the service itself; gripped the back of the wheelchair, and remembered a winter tree crumbling into dust in his hand. Woolsey gave a speech. Keller was openly weeping, and Zelenka had the shell-shocked look of a man trying not to cry. Torren wailed on Kanaan's shoulder.

There was an empty space around John: a circle of silence formed by the truth. He stood at the heart of it, and made his own speech. What did he say? He had no idea, but it was nothing, nothing, compared with what he felt inside, and yet it was so much more than he would ever allow himself to say again.

Teyla went home to her own people, committed to the flames. Rodney went back to Earth. Ronon they took to Sateda, and gave him a warrior's pyre in the ruins of his home. That part of it was John's idea, and he suggested it dry-eyed, even as he was screaming inside that Atlantis was Ronon's home now, and he should be put to rest here, here, not in a place of dust and ashes.

But he remembered none of that, afterwards. Keller said it was a relapse, but John knew better. He was a coward, hiding from the truth.

In dreams, they lived.

******

When he could walk, but long before he was allowed to return to active duty, he spent endless hours on the balcony, looking out at the ocean and up at the stars. He watched the birds, and remembered when the only thing he had thought he needed to be happy was a plane and permission to fly it.

Lorne came sometimes to give reports. Woolsey appeared to be worried about John, but lacked the ability to say so. Doctors fussed around him sometimes. One doctor hovered around him so insistently that he concluded that she must have psychiatric training. She probably wanted him to talk to her.

And so he told her, just as he told everyone, that everything was fine, that he would be back on duty soon, that he wanted them just to leave me the Hell alone, because you aren't them, and you'll never be them, and I don't know how… Oh God, I don't know how…

"Fine," he said out loud. "I'm fine." His face felt stiff. Out there on the balcony beneath the sun, he felt cold, as if he were shrouded in snow.

******

He fought with Keller about his return to duty, but he didn't raise his voice at all, just spoke levelly, stating it as plain fact. "I'm not sick. I'm not intending to go off world. I'll limit myself to desk work like a good little boy."

"Colonel…" She looked weary and harried, and she scraped her hand across her face. "You aren't ready. Not physically, and definitely not--"

"You're saying I'm crazy?" He said it quietly, quiet and low. He wrapped the shroud of ice ever tighter around him, pressing his lips together in a tight line, clenching his fists at his side.

She spoke about loss and grieving. She wept.

Soldiers knew how to handle death, he told her. They'd lost so many since they'd arrived on Atlantis. He'd lost friends in Afghanistan - I'm so sorry, Holland. Mitch, buddy. Dex - but there'd been no time for the luxury of grieving for them. It was a soldier's way, to carry on. It was best for everyone, really. Believe me. Walk on by. Don't look too closely. Don't touch me, because I don't know if I can…

"Colonel…" she said, but perhaps she saw something in his eyes, because she nodded once, and then walked away.

He heard her sob, just as she reached the door. His own eyes were dry, always dry.

******

Truth was an empty railing on the balcony, as he stared at the sea alone. It was the silence of his room at night, when no-one called him to the science labs to inspect some late-night finding. It was a model car, gathering dust. It was a pair of Athosian fighting sticks, propped up in a corner. It was a picture that had once been Ronon's, turned with its face towards the wall.

He told himself that his life was still here. He reminded himself that hundreds of people depended on him for their protection. He stood in front of the mirror and he repeated back the lies that he had told Keller.

Truth was endless corridors in which people subtly changed direction to avoid meeting him face to face. It was a sergeant clearing his throat in embarrassment. It was a database full of personal files, and the knowledge that one day, one day soon, he would have to choose another team, and step through the Gate with them, and pick up the threads of his shattered life.

"Of course I'll do it," he told Woolsey. "Give me a week."

It was waking from dreams thinking they were still alive. It was letting your head sink into your hands as you realised that they were not. It was a minute hand slowly crawling round on the clock. It was being glad, suddenly, when your injury pained you, because at least physical pain distracted you from the other thing.

It was catching yourself with your hand about to dig into your still-healing wound. It was catching yourself, and stopping yourself, and wondering what you had become.

It was finding the right words to say when people talked to you, and it was about smiling at times, so they wouldn't stare at you; so they wouldn't see more than you wanted them to see.

******

How many days had passed? Sometimes it seemed as if years had gone by. Other times it like seconds: as if he had only just taken his hands away from their ice-cold flesh. The calendar told him that it was not quite two weeks.

Sometimes it seemed as if he drifted through Atlantis like a ghost. Someone who wasn't him was saying the requisite words; was playing the part of John Sheppard. Wrapped inside his shroud of ice, he raged and screamed, but none of that broke free. It was imperative that none of that broke free.

But other times, he shattered.

"What was the cause of the death?" asked the person playing the part of John Sheppard, because that person was strong enough to hear the answer.

They didn't know, Keller said. It was a complete mystery. None of his team had any obvious medical cause of death. There were no physical injuries. They had just… died. "As if they just fell asleep," Keller said, her face a pale mask, "and never woke up."

He clenched his fist. The ice cracked. "Why wasn't I told?" he shouted. "Why didn't anyone tell me this?"

Keller's mouth opened and shut. Words came out, but he heard the truth of them. They'd been afraid he was too fragile. They hadn't wanted to burden him with details. They'd told him, but he'd been shutting out words and hadn't heard them, and they hadn't tried again. They'd been protecting him from the truth.

He hadn't asked. Even now, he could hardly bear to hear their names.

Something smashed. When he found the blood on his hands much later, he realised that he had thrown it.

******

He woke up in the middle of the night with the burning need to talk to Rodney, and because he was alone and no-one was watching him, he pressed his face into his hand and sobbed, almost, over the irony of it.

He chose Zelenka in the end. Zelenka's eyes were bleary with sleep, and his hair was disordered, but he let John lead him to the lab. He's afraid to say no to a man who's gone crazy with grief, John thought, and he raked his hand across his face, and clenched his fist, but he managed to keep his voice level, at least at first.

They shouldn't have died, John told Zelenka. There was nothing medically wrong with them. "Rod-- Mc… McKay… He was talking about anomalous readings. There was a white light."

"An explosion," Zelenka said.

"No. No." He shook his head; scraped his hand across his face again. They'd been inside a ruin, he said - a large, dark building as big as a cathedral. But afterwards…? Just a few, scattered pieces of masonry. "And the snow…" He snapped his fingers, and explained how the trees had turned from spring to winter, and how he had woken to snow, when before it had been as warm as summer.

"Something went very wrong," he said, grabbing Zelenka by the shoulders and holding on. "You have to find out what it is, so you can make it better."

"I can't," Zelenka said. "They're gone, Colonel. I can't--"

"You have to!" he screamed. "It wasn't meant to happen. You have to--"

He didn't remember anything after that. Afterwards, they told him that he had fainted. Passed out, he remembered Rodney protesting, and so he pretended to be unconscious again, so they wouldn't see his eyes.

******

Zelenka looked wary when John sought him out again. "Are you sure you're well enough to be out of bed?"

John flapped his hand, dismissing it. "I need to go back," he said. "I need to you to do whatever tests Rodney was doing, and do them again. I need to find what went wrong."

Zelenka opened his mouth; closed it again; moistened his lips; tried again. "We've already been, many times. We sent a team to search for answers; of course we did. The readings were indeed…" He flapped his hand as he searched for the word, but, "unusual," was all he said. "But I don't believe it can have any bearing on their…" He couldn't say the word, but John heard it in the silence. He heard it in all silences.

"I need to go back," John said, knowing it suddenly as absolute truth. "I want you to come with me."

Rodney would find the truth, he wanted to say, if you were the one who was dead.

Perhaps he did say it, because Zelenka looked stricken.

******

Everyone had an opinion on whether he should go back. Keller thought he wasn't physically well enough, "because you're not healing as you should do, Colonel, and any undue stress--"

Undue stress? he wanted to scream at her. My team's dead! But he just kept his arms on the table and his face like a mask, and said nothing.

The doctor with psychiatric training clearly thought that it would help him with his grieving to revisit the scene. Lorne was worried that they hadn't found any cause for the explosion, and was afraid that it might happen again. Zelenka looked unhappy, as if anticipating a tomorrow of bitter disappointment. Woolsey said little, but his face showed his fear that John wouldn't want to come back, but would just lie down there and die.

They let him go, but he would have gone anyway, even if they hadn't. A team went with him, but they remained a dozen steps behind him, and there was no-one close enough to see his face as he looked once again at the place where his team had died.

It was just as well.

He saw the trees, still bare with winter, although it was no longer snowing. The blood had all been wiped away, perhaps with rain. The ruins were gone, but he could see now the vague shape of them: the base of a pillar; the corner of a room; a lump of black rock covered with carved flowers.

Everything's wrong, his mind told him. The knowledge called to him like a voice in his mind. This wasn't meant to happen.

He couldn't remember the route he had taken; couldn't remember exactly where each of them had died. But sometimes he caught a glimpse of a tree or a lump of rock, and remembered seeing it before, and remembered what he had been doing when he had seen it. When that happened, he clenched his fists so tightly that they shook, and walked on, swallowing hard.

He found the place that had once been a window, and he saw the slab of stone, sitting untouched in the stunted grass. "It wasn't meant to happen," he found himself saying, as he grabbed Zelenka by the shoulders and wouldn't let him go. "Make your measurements, damn it. Find out what happened. Put it right."

"Sir," he heard Lorne saying, and he realised that he'd been screaming it.

His hands fell to his sides. He took a step back, and another, and another. Realisation blazed inside his head. It wasn't meant to happen. It wasn't meant to happen. It wasn't meant to happen.

"It's natural to think so," someone said. Who? He struck them down with a fist to the jaw, then snatched his hand back and pressed it to his chest, as the world swirled around him in angry red and black.

"The readings…" Zelenka said. He sounded shaken. "There's something. I haven't seen anything like it. It's… it's impossible."

John knew he should gather himself together; that he should shroud himself in ice and speak the right words and do everything he could to stop them from looking at him. Instead, he gave a low cry, close to a sob, and sank down onto the stone slab…

And there, in a flare of white light, soft and sweet, the world ended.

******

end of part one

******

The last thing John remembered was his world ending.

He remembered an empty chair, and the vast chasms of truth that lay beneath every simple word. He remembered waking to silence in the dead of the night. He remembered stepping through the Gate with Zelenka, so sure that death was something that could be erased if you wanted it badly enough.

He opened his eyes to a dark ceiling; to black stone arches far above him. "What happened?" he heard Rodney say. "Did anyone else see it? A white flash? Or was it…? Oh, wait, of course it was. It was just me. It's--"

"I saw it, too," Teyla said. "There is no need to fear, Rodney. It was probably lightning."

"From a clear sky?" Rodney's voice rose higher. "As bright as that, inside? Oh no. Oh no, no, no. It wasn't lightning. I think we should--"

"McKay," said Ronon sharply. "Sheppard. "

And that was the end of him. He pushed himself up, fingers clawing against the floor, and turned his face away, pressing his cheek against the cold stone. He felt himself falling apart; was aware of it happening, but was no more capable of stopping it than he could stop his heart from pounding. A fist closed around his throat, choking him. The tears on his cheeks stung like barbed wire.

"Sheppard." Ronon reached him first. Teyla was next; he felt her fingers touching the side of his neck. Rodney hovered over him, asking what was wrong with him, if he was badly hurt, if he'd been struck by lightning, "because it can kill you, lightning. It can stop your heart mid-beat, and we need to get him back to Atlantis right away, or--"

John turned further away from them, pressing himself into the darkness. He blinked, and blinked again. He swallowed and swallowed, trying to stop the tears. Alive, he thought. Alive. It should be a time for laughter. It should be a time to smile as if the sun were rising on a new world, and--

Teyla's fingers brushed his cheek, and he couldn't turn away any further, God help him, but he couldn't. He turned his face blindly into her soft, her living touch. Ronon gripped his wrist, callused fingers feeling his pulse. Rodney didn't touch, but his incessant chatter surrounded John like a caress.

"He is very cold," Teyla said, and of course he was, because he had been wrapped in winter until such a short time before.

"Sheppard?" Ronon said. "You all right, Sheppard?"

"Of course he isn't," Rodney snapped, but John opened his eyes, and looked at them, one after the other, and said, "Yes. Yes, I'm fine. I'm good."

He pushed himself to his feet, and walked to the smooth arch of the window. Gripping the stone pillar, he looked out at the silver trees, at the blue sky. His vision swam. He pressed his lips together, and blinked until he could see clearly again.

"Good," he said, as his hand trembled against the solid black stone. "I'm good."

******

They wanted to help him back to the Gate, but he told them that he was well enough to walk by himself. His steps faltered, as if all the energy had been sucked out of his body. He often found himself at the back of the group, but that was good, because it meant that he could see the others at all times. He devoured them with his eyes. When the path narrowed and Rodney ended up behind him, John stopped walking until Rodney pushed grumbling past him. When Ronon scouted ahead, John felt his heart start to beat faster and faster, and even when Ronon returned, he could still feel it racing in his chest.

Sometimes he smiled, a grin cracking his stiff cheeks. Sometimes he had to swallow incessantly to keep himself from crying. What is happening to me? he thought.

"John," Teyla said, "are you sure--?"

Yes, he told her. Yes.

"No, really, you don't look…" Rodney's hand faltered around him, making abortive gestures. "We can't rule out--"

"Maybe I bumped my head," John told them, "when I fell."

Then Ronon grabbed his shoulder to hold him still, and examined his head, pushing aside his hair. He was easy with touches, was Ronon. John swallowed, and swallowed again.

"Nothing," Ronon said, squeezing his shoulder tightly, then letting him go. John almost fell. A furrow appeared between Teyla's eyes, so perhaps she noticed.

They carried on walking, but with Teyla on one side and Ronon on the other, John had to turn his head constantly from left to right to make sure of them. Rodney was ahead of him, tethered there by a string of words.

It was a dream, he told himself. It was just a dream. But dreams were never that long, that coherent, that easy to remember afterwards. A virtual environment, then; he'd experienced such things before. He'd touched something that had thrown him into a virtual environment, but none of it had been real. His team had never died. The whole thing had taken less than a second. But none of it was real, and that meant that the emotions… The emotions weren't real, either. There was no reason why he should remember them. There was no reason why he should be affected by them.

Nothing was wrong. Nothing was wrong. Nothing had ever been wrong.

He repeated that thought all the way back to the Gate. The others went through first, and he followed them an instant afterwards, his hand reaching out to them into the blue.

******

On Atlantis, the calendars displayed a date that his brain told him was two weeks ago. They displayed a date that made his chest hurt with the sheer misery of those numbers, because it was the date on which his three closest friends had died.

He refused to go to the infirmary. He trailed round Atlantis obsessively, and tried to remember what the status of every team had been, that morning two weeks ago, just before his team had gone out. Nothing had changed. He found no cracks in the appearance. He heard things reported that he dimly remembered Lorne talking about, standing beside that empty chair by his bed. Everything was exactly as it had been, as if his team had been away for no more than a few hours.

Because it was a dream, he reminded himself. None of it was real.

But his side hurt, and he had no strength left in his body. Everything was swaying as he walked the hallways just before dark. Ronon found him there, sweaty from sparring. "You didn't join me." Ronon stated it like a fact, and John nodded. Because I forgot we'd arranged it. Because it all happened two weeks ago. Because you can't spar with a dead man. "Feeling tired, you know?" John said. "I think whatever happened…" His hand rose to his brow, but Ronon clapped him on the back, and said, "You look rough, buddy. You sure…?"

He was sure. He said so.

He hunted down Rodney in his lab, and dragged him to the mess hall for a meal. Teyla joined them, and Ronon came later, and then they all moved somewhere else, where John almost fell asleep, dozing to the sound of their voices. Then he woke with a start, his heart racing, because it was in dreams that they died.

He never wanted to go to sleep again. What if today were the dream, and the two weeks that had gone before had been the real thing?

It was crazy to let himself get so messed up because of a virtual environment, he told himself, and repeated that, almost saying it out loud: virtual environment. Only real things had the power to harm you. He wasn't a child, to run snivelling from a nightmare. Once he'd imagined Rodney dead, and it hadn't affected him afterwards. Kolya had cut his hand off, but afterwards, he hadn't let it bother him one little bit. He hadn't…

His thoughts came to a halt, as if they had run completely out of strength.

But it hadn't hurt afterwards, then. His evil other self had hurled him around the Gate Room, but there had been no injuries afterwards. There'd been no phantom pain from his severed hand. It wasn't like today, when the psychosomatic pain from an imaginary injury throbbed incessantly, draining him of strength. It's not real, he told his body, but then he stumbled and almost fell.

Back in his quarters, he stood in front of the mirror for long minutes before he began to undress. His hands were shaking.

The wound was still there, raw and red, and two weeks healed.

Of course it was.

******

Ronon's picture was no longer propped against the wall of his room. The Athosian sticks were untouched, but there was less dust on the model car.

He sat on the edge of his bed, his shoulders slumped, his hands on his knees. He was intensely aware of his radio. He wanted to call Rodney, to hear his voice. He wanted to drag Ronon from his room, to run silently beneath the stars. He wanted to talk to Teyla and see her smile.

He needed proof that they were still there.

Truth lay in the absence of Ronon's picture, he told himself, but it was such a fragile thing to build your hope on. He called Rodney in the end; didn't remember deciding to do so, just found himself doing it. "Something's happened," he said. "I need your opinion."

One became two, and two became three. They gathered in Rodney's lab, long after everyone else had left it. "That flash of light," John said, because he really didn't know how to begin it. "It happened two weeks ago. Two weeks went by before… today."

Rodney started to protest - it was ridiculous, crazy; that knock on the head must have been harder than we thought, Colonel - but Ronon stopped him, stepping on his feet. Rodney yelped a loud "ow!" of protest.

It gave John time to gather his thoughts into words. He had seen a flash of white light, he told them, and had woken up in the shattered ruins in winter. Then, two weeks later, he had become convinced that the reality he was living in wasn't meant to exist. He had returned to the planet, touched the slab again, and was back where he had started, two weeks in the past.

Simple. Simple.

Truth lay in silences; in the gaps between words.

"You hallucinated, you mean," Rodney said. "Complex dreams can last just a second or two of real time, you know."

No, John told them, shaking his head. He had proof. He didn't want to do it, but he raised his shirt - "No, Sheppard, don't, please don't; I don't think any of us want to see you naked" - and showed them the healing wound on his side. "From the initial explosion," he said. "From when I woke up."

Rodney had a lot to say, snapping his fingers, incredulous. There were attested incidences of timelines being erased. "You did it yourself, when you went far into the future." Elizabeth had undone the destruction of the Atlantis expedition, mere hours after their arrival. "But that sort of thing requires a vast amount of energy. And you're saying you experienced both timelines consecutively? That you lived through them both?" Rodney frowned, pressing his fingers between his eyes as if he could suck the truth from his brain. "You're showing the physical symptoms. Of course you are. Are you sure…?"

Yes, John told them. He was sure.

But if I close my eyes, you might turn into dreams again, and disappear.

"We need to go back," Rodney said. "This could be entirely new technology. The possibilities… We could…" He snapped his fingers again and again. "We could test out a scenario, then go back and try again if it all went hideously wrong. We could..." He stopped; looked John full in the face. "If you're really sure…"

Sure, he said. Yes, he said. Again, he said, sure.

"Did anything happen," Teyla asked, "in those two weeks? Anything… big?" Her fingers floated over the back of his hand like a ghost's.

No, he told them, nothing big. Nothing at all, really.

"You should go to the infirmary," Ronon said. "Get them to check you out."

"This is huge," Rodney said. "This is… If it's true, of course. It's…" He stopped, raising his finger in sudden realisation. "Did I beat Zelenka in the chess tournament next week? Did Jennifer--?"

"I don't remember," John managed to say. He even managed a smile. "Asleep in the infirmary for most of it, remember?"

"Oh." Rodney looked irritated, as if John had done it deliberately to annoy him. "Well…" He raised his head again, struck by a new thought. "You said you became convinced that the reality you were living in wasn't supposed to exist. What did I say when you told me about it? Did I know the answer at once?"

"I don't know," John said. "You didn't say much about it. I don't think…"

"That I believed you?" Rodney snorted, as if to express his irritation with another version of himself, or perhaps with John, for not telling the truth more clearly.

John shook his head. He let that mean whatever they wanted it to mean.

******

Rodney made repeated visits back to M8T-173, and brought back more and more of the ruins each time, but still had no clear explanation for what had happened. It bothered him. He talked about it all the time, as if John's experience had now become his.

Beneath his shirt, John pressed his hand against his healing injury, and reminded himself again and again that this was real. Doctor Keller had checked it out, he told his team, and had said that it was only a shallow injury, already well on its way to healing. It was a lie, of course. He didn't believe in taking chances with your health - other people could die if you over-estimated your abilities - but the more he ignored the injury, the faster those dreadful days would be forgotten.

Real. Forgotten. He wanted them both. He needed them both.

Woolsey knew the truth, or as much of the truth as John had told his team. But words said nothing at all. Nobody else knew what it had been like to be alive in Atlantis long centuries after everyone you knew had died. Nobody knew what it was like to lose your hand to Kolya. Reports were mere words. Reports had to be mere words. You couldn't let them affect you, not if the things they described were no longer real.

But he took to calling his team on the radio at all hours of the day. Sometimes he had to fight to stop himself from calling them in the middle of the night. He haunted Rodney's lab. He watched Ronon spar with the Marines. He had breakfast with Teyla and Kanaan, and he held Torren gingerly on his lap, and smiled down into the boy's solemn eyes.

Often he dreamed that they were dead again. Often he woke in the morning and couldn't remember which reality was real.

His wound wasn't healing properly. He thought he was running a low-grade fever, but he told himself that he was glad of it. His emotions were crazy, and it was harder and harder to corral them behind the usual façade. At least a fever explained that. Nothing else could.

******

One afternoon, he found himself in Rodney's lab, just watching him. Rodney was talking, pacing around the room, snapping his fingers, shouting random snatches of half-finished sentences.

Nobody else was reacting to him in the slightest way. Zelenka was hunched over his computer, hair springing up from between his spread fingers. Two women were gathered around a screen, talking in low voices. Someone walked past with two mugs of coffee, passing dangerously close to Rodney's waving hand.

They can't see him, John thought. He isn't real. He's never been real. I've been imagining him all along.

"Colonel?" Zelenka said, looking as wary suddenly as he had looked in that other reality, when John had begged him to put things right. "Colonel Sheppard, are you--?"

John nodded, and answered in the expected way. Can you see Rodney? he wanted to say. Can any of you…?

But then he imagined Rodney fading away like a ghost because the others had denied him. He imagined facing the final, inescapable truth that he had lost his mind completely.

"It's nothing," he said. "I'm good."

And then somebody gave Rodney a coffee, speaking to him by name, and Zelenka called Rodney over, clearly wanting him to hurry John out of the lab so he would leave them all in peace.

John didn't wait for it to happen. With a brisk nod, he left the room, staring straight ahead of him, his back straight.

******

In another reality, that sometimes seemed more real than this one, John had stood up from his wheelchair and spoken at his team's memorial service.

In this reality, at the same hour of the same day, John stepped through the Gate with his team at his side.

"Are you sure…?" Teyla asked, and he nodded, and said yes. He said it a lot. If you said something enough, it became true.

"I shouldn't be here," Rodney said. Sheppard gave no response at all, just kept on walking straight ahead. "I should be back on Atlantis, or better still, back where it all happened. Doesn't Woolsey realise just how important a breakthrough this could be? If we can rewrite the past at will…"

"I don't think it works like that," John said. Nothing had been right about that other reality. At the start of it, his childhood had felt more real and more recent than things that had just happened. The ruin had disappeared. The season had changed. Time was out of synch. From the very start of it, it shouldn't have been real. All he had done was reset an error.

"But we won't know, will we," Rodney said, "since I've been dragged out of the city to tramp through this lifeless wilderness?" He gestured in disgust at the knee-high undergrowth, dead and brown as far as the eye could see. "I don't see why we need to come, anyway. Can't you just tell Woolsey what we found in that other timeline of yours? And talking about that, you've been quite remiss about giving us helpful hints about what's going to happen tomorrow."

"We didn't come here then," John told him. "Things were different. Butterflies flapping their wings and causing an avalanche, you know?"

"Which is a theory that is grossly misunderstood by ignorant minds," Rodney said. He had much more to say about the subject, and did so.

Perhaps he had just needed to leave the city again, John thought. He had to lead his team on a successful mission, leaving Atlantis and getting back to it without incident. He needed an enemy to fight. He needed a crisis. After he'd come back from the future, he'd thrown himself straight into rescuing Teyla, and there hadn't been time to think. It was only because he was injured that he'd been finding everything so difficult. It gave you too long to dwell on things. The pace things on Atlantis normally moved, you had no time to look back. You had to keep going; you always had to keep going, or--

"Sheppard?" Ronon was looking at him, he realised.

"Nothing," John said. Then, struggling for a better answer, he added, "It's the heat," because the sun was beating down on the back of his neck, but even as he said it, he realised that the underlying air was cool.

He remembered snow.

"Shall we split up?" Teyla asked, but John shook his head sharply, then shook it again in a more measured way. They would stay together, he told them. They would stay within sight of each other. It was better that way. He came up with some plausible tactical reason; even believed it.

******

It was the day after the memorial service. The new planet was a place of honey-coloured rock faces and deciduous trees, just beginning to turn brown.

Crazy, John told himself. Weak. You couldn't let your life be ruled by fear of something that hadn't really happened. He couldn't lead his team but be afraid to let them out of his sight. He couldn't command the military in Atlantis but be afraid to close his eyes in case his team turned into ghosts and faded away.

"Teyla," he said, "you and Rodney go that way. Ronon, we'll check things out over here, buddy."

He tried not to stand and watch as Teyla and Rodney walked away. He tried not turn around and look for them, long after they had gone out of sight. He kept his hand away from his radio, and managed not to call them.

"Sheppard," Ronon said. "Things aren't right with you." It wasn't a question.

John shook his head, meaning to deny it, but perhaps it looked more like agreement, to a statement like that.

They walked in silence for a while, Ronon focused on reading the landscape. There were footprints, he said, but not recent ones. John looked at the life-signs detector, but saw just the two of them. God, just the two… No, Rodney and Teyla were out of range, that was all. Adjust the display, and… yes. Four dots, two pairs of two.

Ronon was looking at him, he saw. "No other life signs," John told him.

Ronon nodded, but he drew his weapon, and he kept it drawn. Half a mile later, he nodded sharply at John. "Wait," he commanded. "Stay hidden. Don't move till I tell you." He ducked down into the scrubby undergrowth, and disappeared from sight.

John swallowed. He swallowed again. He held his own gun ready, and pressed himself back against a tree. What had Ronon seen?

The gunshots came a moment later. Where? Where? Not Ronon. A gun sounded from ahead of him, sounding different from any weapon from Earth. Ronon's weapon answered it, but John couldn't see… He crouched down, going low. He covered the nearest rock face, seeking movement. A leaf fell from a tree. Ronon fired again, but two guns answered him. A third gun sounded. Ronon didn't fire again.

No, John thought. No. Bending low, he hurried forward. He saw movement, and opened fire on it. A gun sounded. He felt the bullet pass through his sleeve; felt deeper pain than that, but it didn't matter. He kept his finger solidly on the trigger, his body pounding with the recoil of it. A dark patch of shadow on the rock face became a man falling from the heights. Ronon, he thought, and he said it out loud: "Ronon, Ronon, come in." There was no answer. He turned in a full circle, sweeping his gun around. A bullet struck his vest, but it was slow and spent. "Ronon--"

And Ronon was there, pulling him down in the undergrowth, then rising up over him, to shoot over his head. John fought his way up again, and they stood side by side, shooting, until everything was silent, except for the falling of old leaves.

"I thought you were dead," John said.

Ronon shook his head. "Ambush. I saw it."

"I know," John said. He guessed he had ruined whatever Ronon had been planning, but he hadn't known what it was. Even if everything had been normal, he couldn't have stood by and watched. It wasn't who he was.

Rodney's voice sounded over the radio. "What just happened? Was that…?"

"Ran into some hostiles," Ronon told him, while John tried to muster words. "We took them down."

Rodney protested sharply, asking for more details, wanting to know if the bad guys were likely to come after him next. Teyla interrupted him, asking if they were both unharmed. Yes, John told her, as Ronon shook his head at him, jerking his chin at John's sleeve.

John let Ronon lead him into cover and guide him down onto a fallen log. "I thought you were dead," he found himself saying. He said it again: "I thought you were dead."

"I'm not." Ronon worried at John's sleeve. John let him take a knife to it, and looked dispassionately down at the blood that seeped from the gouge across his upper arm. It wasn't serious, he thought, but he was beginning to feel it.

Ronon cleaned the wound in silence. "I died," he said eventually, as he wrapped the bandage around it. "In that other reality. I died, didn't I? It's true."

John opened his mouth; closed it again.

"Or was it McKay?" Ronon said. "Or Teyla?"

John said nothing.

"All three of us?"

John's right hand gripped his gun. He couldn't clench his other hand, because the upper arm was screaming now with pain, sinking claws into his throat. "But it wasn't real," he said.

"Guess it was real for you." Ronon sat down beside him on the log, but didn't look at him. His eyes were elsewhere, watching for attack. "I know what it's like," he said, "to lose people. Sometimes you go crazy, thinking about them. And if they came back… If they ever came back…"

John looked out into the distance, watching for enemies coming back. Ronon sat beside him in silence, but after a while, John felt Ronon's hand on his back, touching just once.

"It didn't happen," John said. "It was erased. It shouldn't--"

"Course it should," Ronon said. "But you'll beat it. Same as we always do."

Another silence. Leaves fell from the trees. Rodney poured questions through the radio, and Ronon answered for John, saying no more than he had to. After a while, John was able to give his own answers. "Yes, I took some fire, Rodney. Yes, I'm still alive. Yes, I'll be fine."

But, "Don't tell the others," he said later, the last thing he said before Rodney and Teyla joined them, unharmed and alive.

Ronon said nothing. It was enough.

******

end of part two

On to part three
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