Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

SGA fic: Second Life - part 3 of 3

Second Life - part 3 of 3
by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)

Summary etc. in part one.


___

There was no escaping the infirmary this time. The calendar moved on another day, but John didn't remember what he'd been doing in the other reality when that date had been showing on the calendar. Probably standing on balcony, finding the right words to stop people asking questions. Probably wanting people to be with him, but only the right people, only them.

Keller cleaned the wound on his arm, and John tried to leave when that was over, but Keller didn't like what she saw on the routine check. The older injury was discovered in due course, bringing with it all its implications.

"When did this happen?" Keller wanted to know. He had obviously received medical attention, she said, but there was nothing on his medical records to suggest--

"I spent two weeks on vacation in another reality," he told her. He focused on the empty bed on the far side of the room. "Haven't you heard?"

She had heard, it seemed - Rodney didn't know the meaning of the word 'discreet' - "but no-one reported that you had been injured." She said it sharply, as if the omission was his fault. He guessed it was, really.

He let her examine him, lying stiffly on the bed. She found too many things that caused her to purse her lips. "You're run down, Colonel. You're running a slight fever. You don't seem to be healing as I would expect. Two weeks, you say? When were you injured? Half way through that time? Near the end?"

"At the start," he had to say. "Three weeks ago." He managed a smile. "Or last week, if you want to count it that way."

She shook her head, clearly disliking it. And so he was back where he had started, confined to the infirmary.

But this time… This time, almost every time he opened his eyes, the chair at his bedside had someone in it. Once it was Rodney, tapping on his laptop while firing stray phrases at Keller as she worked. Teyla brought Torren to see him, and Torren cried. Ronon was there most of all, although he never said a word about their conversation on the tree log. With his long legs stretched out in front of him, he spent hours confined inside, just so that John would see him when he awoke.

Did Ronon know that sometimes, in the split second after waking, John knew beyond all doubt that his team was dead? Did he know how fast John's heart was racing as he opened his eyes?

Probably. He said nothing, though.

******

His team couldn't always be with him, but he wasn't a child, to need them at all times. Woolsey made two visits, and Lorne came by to give his reports. John had a laptop, and was able to work one-handed, sitting up in bed.

Woolsey sat in the chair this time. John wondered why he had chosen not to, back in the other reality, when John's team was dead. He wondered why people found it easier to get closer to him this time, now that he needed it less.

"They're called the Kinosians," Woolsey said. "Teyla knows very little about them, just vague rumours." He cleared his throat, adjusting his glasses. "It appears that they kept a deliberately low profile to avoid drawing the attention of the Wraith. Now that the Wraith threat is lessened, they want to become major players. It was one of their exploration parties that you encountered. We haven't found their home planet yet."

John shifted on the bed. His side hurt. He had no memory of any Kinosians from the other reality.

Woolsey cleared his throat again. He tugged down his jacket, and started again. Between them, he said, John and Ronon had killed four Kinosians--

"Who were laying an ambush," John pointed out. "Who would have killed us, if we hadn't killed them first."

Woolsey nodded, acknowledging it. The Kinosians, he implied, were less understanding. "They've been quick to spread tales of our violence and perfidy."

It was enough to make John focus entirely on the here and now; to blot out that other reality completely, if only for a minute. "Can they really be threat to us? If they've hidden from the Wraith for so long, who's going to listen to them?"

"There are many people out there who are inclined to listen to such stories, as recent events have made abundantly clear," Woolsey said. "The tribunal found us innocent, but the verdict was hard won."

"They didn't show up on the life signs detector," John said, remembering it suddenly; at the time, other things had seemed so much more important. "They must have the ability to shield their presence. That's… not good. Not good if we have to go up against them."

"No," Woolsey agreed, shaking his head. "Let's hope that it won't come to that."

And after he left, John sat up in his bed and thought about what he had said, and the other reality didn't intrude on him once.

******

But in the middle of the night, they brought in a scientist, grey-faced and covered with blood. An accident in the lab, he heard them say. As they wheeled the man into the curtained area at the end, he woke up, screaming. Then someone pulled the curtain across, and the screams died away. John lay very still, and heard the faint sound of Keller issuing orders.

A long while later, Keller emerged, her shoulders slumped. "He didn't make it?" John asked her.

She was slow to respond, as if she hadn't really heard him at first. "Oh. Doctor O'Reilly? No. No, he didn't."

John hadn't known O'Reilly, but he remembered his face. He remembered seeing him in the lab when he had sought out Zelenka in that other reality, just before returning to the ruins. Five days from now, in another reality, the man had still been alive.

In this reality, he was dead.

John let out a breath, stiff against his pillows. "Are you in pain, Colonel?" Keller asked, but he shook his head, barely hearing her.

He had fought for this reality. He had begged Zelenka to find a way to undo what had happened. He had gone back to M8T-173 because he had known - no, because he had desperately, fervently hoped - that the death of his team could be undone.

A man was dead. A life exchanged for a life? No, of course not; nothing as dramatic as that. He didn't believe in… "No," he said, shaking his head. But in the other reality, there had been no McKay, ordering his scientists to work late into the night to try to solve the problem of what had happened to John. In this reality, there had been no memorial service. Shifts had not been rearranged to accommodate a funeral. Missions had gone out that in the other reality had been cancelled. Missions had been handled by John's team, but in the other reality John's team no longer existed.

A hundred tiny changes, but each change led to another change… and now a man was dead, who in another reality had stayed alive.

******

Rodney had made little progress. "I've brought back what I can to Atlantis, but that slab you keep talking about--"

"I mentioned it once," John pointed out.

Rodney flapped his hand, as if it was unimportant. "That's obviously the key to it, but it's rooted deep in the earth and I can't remove it." He looked irritated, but beneath that he looked lost, because he couldn't find his answers.

"Why not use C4?" John said.

"Oh, yes, I should have known: explosions are the solution to everything in Sheppard world." He shook his head, frowning. "I can't risk destroying it, Sheppard. You might not appreciate such things, but there's a time for touching things carefully."

John remembered the white light. "Or not touching them at all."

"True," said Rodney, perhaps lost in his own memories. Then he recovered, snapping his fingers. "But I have found something. Ancient writing, very faded, strange script, cryptic phrasing, but I… Well, someone else translated it, actually, but only because I asked them to."

"So you get the credit, Rodney, I agree," John said. "You planning on telling me what the writing says?"

"Well," said Rodney, frowning, "here's the thing: it doesn't say anything. At least, it's not clear what it says - what sort of linguists do we employ, anyway? But there's one word, quite clearly: 'trial.' So I'm thinking… What if it was a way to test a scenario - to… to--" He waved his hand in a circle, as if winding up his words. "--explore the possibilities of a decision, and then go back and try again, if you didn't like the results."

"Or it could be a punishment," John found himself saying. "First the trial, then the punishment." Rodney turned to him, mouth open to speak, but John pre-empted him, trying to erase what he'd just said. "It's a bit of a stretch. Creating a whole timeline just for that? If they could do that…" He shook his head. "It's too much."

"But it happened," Rodney said. "It happened to you, and I need to know why." He leaned forward, his eyes intense. "Nothing special happened in the other timeline? Are you sure? Because it would be really helpful if you could say that it did. If it was created to test important decisions… Although it's always possible that you triggered it entirely by accident, of course, and got a free extra two weeks of tedium."

Tedium? John thought. You died. But he couldn't bring himself to say it. He thought it would affect Rodney badly, knowing that.

******

On the third day, Keller decreed that John could leave the infirmary. He scoured the hallways of Atlantis, trying to learn what everybody was doing; trying to remember what he'd seen in that other reality, when his team was dead.

He overheard two scientists having a fight, spitting hatred at each other in deliberately hushed voices. He saw a woman crying. A sergeant was taken to the infirmary with a broken leg. Zelenka went down with a cold.

Had these things happened in the other timeline? Was anything the same?

A man was dead, who should have lived. Just one legible word, Rodney had said, and that was 'trial.'

A man was dead.

He walked through the dark places, away from people. He stopped on empty balconies. He wove through the refectory, catching snatches of conversations from each table. Several people nodded at him, and others smiled. He remembered those same people avoiding his eyes as he walked towards them in the corridor, deadened with grief.

Then came the news that Major Lorne's team had failed to return home.

******

He can't die, John told himself, because Lorne had been there right at the end, when John had gone back to M8T-173 to undo what had gone wrong. That was still four days in the future. Lorne was alive in four days time.

But so was Doctor O'Reilly, who was dead.

"I'm going after him," John told Woolsey, but Woolsey shook his head, and spouted the usual, expected things about medical clearance and fitness for duty. Woolsey didn't understand how things were on Atlantis, John told him. "Those are my men missing out there. I'm going after them. I'm leading this."

Because they hadn't gone missing in the other reality. Because if they died in this one, it was because John had reset the timeline. Because he would have done the same anyway, in whatever reality he was in, because that was who he was.

Woolsey was adamant. John repeated himself more insistently, although he was careful to keep his voice quiet, shouting without raising his voice. This was his job. This was his responsibility. He'd been inactive for far too long already, while everything went to hell around him.

"They were investigating the Kinosians," Woolsey said, which just proved John's point, because John and Ronon had fought them already, and knew more about them than anyone else. He said that, too.

"I appreciate your point," Woolsey said, "but it would be irresponsible of me to allow you to lead a rescue mission when you weren't well. I owe that to Major Lorne, as well as to you. If your team were missing, would you want me to entrust your rescue to someone who wasn't at his best?"

John turned away; nearly smashed his fist into a wall. He'd done it before, he said, going after Teyla onto Michael's ship. He'd gone through the Gate just three days before, when he'd been much worse than this. God damn it, but he had--

"There's no time for this, Colonel," Woolsey said. "I'm sorry, really I am."

"Woolsey!" John shouted, but then Ronon was there, quietly appearing at his side. Ronon touched John's arm - a surprisingly subtle gesture - and encouraged John to lower it. Rodney hovered behind him, his hands clasped nervously at his chest, his eyes settling on John, then darting away from him, as if he was scared of what he saw.

"You don't look well, buddy." Ronon said it solemnly, as if it carried the meaning of many things.

John's heart was pounding; his palms were sweaty. This was supposed to be the good reality, he wanted to say, the one where you guys didn't die. He couldn't say it. He smiled instead, a cracked smile. "Not projecting the best image to help my case, huh?"

Rodney shook his head. "Not so much."

Captain Nicholson's team went out in the end. John gathered together the tattered pieces of his mind, and briefed them as a proper commanding officer was supposed to do, issuing them orders and sending them on their way. As they walked into the pool of blue, he dug his nails into his palms behind his back, but said nothing; nothing at all.

******

Nicholson's team came back in pieces, bleeding and wild. The first man dragged the second. The third was ferocious with adrenaline, coming in backwards, shooting behind him. The fourth didn't come through at all. A grim face and a shaking head: "Duval didn't make it, sir. I'm sorry. I--"

This time John insisted; refused to take no for an answer. Another man dead, who hadn't died in the other reality: the reality John had rejected.

But he pressed his hands down on the table to keep them still, and mustered a whole raft of arguments. He even managed to present them in a calm voice. They were living in a war zone, he said, and were sometimes forced into less than ideal situations by necessity. His injury wouldn't affect his performance. They were taking a large force, and that sort of thing needed to be commanded from the top. This was a new enemy, and one wrong step could trigger a war, so it was only right that he took the responsibility for those choices. And I can't lose another man while I sit back and do nothing. I can't lose another man. I chose this reality. I made this reality.

I killed those men.


"If I say no," Woolsey said, pushing his glasses up as he rubbed his eyes, "you'll just go, anyway." His voice rose a little at the end, but it wasn't really a question. "I couldn't let that sort of insubordination pass."

"No," John agreed, keeping his voice level even as his heart was racing. "But if you said no, I would…"

He couldn't complete the threat; didn't even know clearly what it was.

******

They went through in force, acting on every scrap of intelligence gained by Captain Nicholson's shattered team. John flew the first cloaked jumper, taking it low to check out the terrain. They found over a dozen armed men, ready to ambush anyone who walked through the Gate.

Ronon took out two of the enemy by himself. John led the force that secured the DHD, and fought off several attempts to regain it. They took some fire. Several men went down, although the shouted reports that followed indicated that the injuries weren't serious. "Hurry up, McKay!" John shouted, partly because he was burning up with impatience, and partly because he knew that Rodney worked faster when he had something to complain about. "Working as hard as I can," Rodney snapped. "Do you realise how many--?" He dropped to the ground as a fresh attack was launched, but kept on working, his hands reaching up above his head.

The enemies didn't show up on the life signs detector, but there were no life signs detectors back on Earth, and every one of his men had learned to fight there. They weren't blind, John reminded himself, and they had infrared detectors, which helped. There was no reason why…

"Got it!" Rodney gasped, and they fought their way back to the jumpers, and dialled the address Rodney had retrieved. It was clear from the moment they emerged that this wasn't the Kinosian home world, either, just a place they were using as a convenient base. It was a place of grey ruins, deserted for at least twenty years. It reminded John of Sateda. Ronon stared straight ahead.

"Got them!" Rodney cried, jabbing a triumphant finger at the monitor. The signals from three subcutaneous transmitters showed up on the screen: Lorne, and two of his men. Just two? John thought, pressing his lips together. There should be three. There were no other visible life signs, but John had to assume that his men were well guarded, and issued his orders accordingly.

It came down to gunplay in the end. John had to leave the bulk of his force outside, holding off the enemy from a well-defended position, while he slipped into the building that held his men. It was damp, and brought memories of past prisons. Water seeped down the stone walls. Footsteps echoed on stone floors, so he pressed his back into the wall, took several deep breaths, and wondered how to remove the nearest guard without alerting the rest of them.

And then Ronon was there, and Teyla, and Rodney just behind them. "Why did you come in here by yourself?" Rodney whispered fiercely. "Are you crazy? Why do you always have to do these ridiculous one-man rescue missions?"

John hadn't thought about it; had just taken the chance when it had come. It had seemed natural, once, long ago, to rush off and do things alone. Over the years he'd grown used to working as part of a community, as part of a team. But I don't want you to die, he thought. I don't want…

No words, though. Tightening his grip on his gun, he nodded at them, accepting their help. Ronon's weapon proved invaluable in the end, and Teyla knew how to kill without making a sound. Rodney opened the locks, but John went first, pressing ever onwards, as soon as each room was cleared.

"Sir," Lorne said, looking up from the floor of his cell. "It's good to see you, sir."

Rodney fumbled with the lock, until Ronon shoved him aside and shot it repeatedly with his gun. The metal door swung open with a creak. John went to help Lorne to his feet, but Lorne waved him away. "I can walk," he said. "Help Harris. He…" His face clouded. "Garcia didn't make it. He--"

"Someone's coming," Ronon said sharply. He disappeared, melting into the dark.

It became a desperate game of running and shooting. They emerged outside to find that it had started to rain. "Go!" John shouted, and struck the controls of his radio, issuing the orders there. "We've got them. Back to the jumpers. Go!"

He saw Rodney hunched over his gun, shooting wildly. He saw Ronon bearing down on an enemy, his face implacable. Teyla rushed over to Lorne, and Lorne waved her away at first, then relented with a sigh. The rain was like an assault, falling hard enough to hurt. John had no spare hands to wipe the water away from his eyes. "Go!" he gasped. "Go!"

A bullet snagged his vest. His arm was around Harris, but Harris was walking slower and slower, weaving so much that he almost pulled John over with him. John's right leg hurt from the strain of it, a sharp pain in his thigh. "Sir," he heard someone say, coming back to him through rain and gunfire. "Let me--"

No, John told him. No, he was fine. He just had to--

They passed through a fallen archway, and then out into an open space. He saw a broken statue, lying on its side without its head. He saw the tracery left by a long-dead creeping plant. He drew his pistol, and fired with one hand. Then Harris collapsed, a dead weight, and John went down with him. "Harris." Pulling at Harris, he struggled up onto his knees. "Harris, get up. This is an order, Harris. Get up. I know it's hard, but you're almost there, you're almost home."

Nothing. His right hand was stained with fresh blood. "Harris." He pulled harder. Then he rolled the man onto his back, and felt for his pulse. "Don't do this to me, Harris." He tipped Harris's head back, and prepared to breathe into his mouth; to save him as he'd been unable to save Ronon.

"Sir," he heard, and "Sheppard," and "John, please…"

Something was wrong with his leg, he realised; it tipped him off balance and made it hard for him to keep Harris alive. The rain was everywhere, as cold as snow. Harris's face was pale, far paler than John's hands. "Harris," he said, and "No!" when someone tried to drag him away from the man. He had to, he told them. Couldn't they see? Harris was dying, but he shouldn't be dying. None of them should be dying. This shouldn't have happened. This wasn't happening. This wasn't real. If only he could get Harris to breathe again…

"It's time to stop, buddy," he heard. He looked up, struggling to see through the rain that blurred his vision, and saw Ronon crouching over him, covering him with his gun. He saw the rest of his men, spread out ahead of them, many of them stopping and coming back. He saw one of them stagger, shot in the arm. He saw them fading away in the ferocity of the rain.

"Go," he rasped. He waved his hand, ordering them away, but it felt inexplicably heavy. "Go!" he shouted. "Go!"

"You too?" Ronon asked, as someone else tugged Harris away from him, and began to carry him away. John's hand stayed on Harris for the longest possible time.

"Yes," John said, blinking, struggling to focus. "Yes."

******

The chair beside his bed was no longer there. There were too many injuries, and too many anxious team mates jostling for news. People with minor injuries grabbed whatever chair they could find, and sat patiently, waiting for their turn. Comrades and friends stayed close, holding bandages in place, cracking jokes, keeping people smiling through the pain.

When at last the infirmary lay quiet, John could count the cost. Three men had died at the hands of the Kinosians, and eight more were injured. Lorne lay in the bed beside him, his face turned away, his shoulders tense even in sleep. In another reality, Lorne had stood behind an empty chair and given reports to a commanding officer who had lost everything. Now Lorne was the one who had lost two men from his team. Lorne didn't work with a permanent team, not like John did, but it could rip your heart out, even so, when…

John stopped that thought; shifted painfully on the bed. Keller had pursed her lips when she had received him back again so soon. The bullet had missed the artery, or John would have died back there on the planet without even realising that he had been shot, but he had lost a lot of blood. His memory of the last minutes on the planet were hazy. His memory of trying to bring Harris back to life…? That… that was clear.

Woolsey came by for a report, looking awkward and grim. "You brought our people home, Colonel," he said, but he had the look of a man who had endured a sleepless night, and anticipated many more to come.

No, I killed them, John thought. He didn't say anything. Lorne's eyes were closed, but perhaps he was awake, hearing this.

Woolsey cleared his throat. "The Kinosians have made contact. They have accused us of killing many of their people. They were not--" The muscles of his face tightened in a quick, mirthless smile. "--friendly," he said.

No, John said, he guessed they wouldn't be.

There was talk of war, Woolsey said. They still had no idea where the Kinosians lived, but they appeared to have a presence in many places. There was the prospect of a long campaign of surprise attacks on any world. No off-world team was safe. Until McKay had discovered why they didn't show up on the life signs detectors…

Pain was radiating in waves from John's leg. "We should have examined the bodies when we met them that first time," he said. "Find out what they're equipped with. See if they're…

Yes, said Woolsey. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. He clenched and unclenched his hands at his side. He looked uncomfortable, almost in pain. But, "Get well soon, Colonel Sheppard," was all he said. "We need you."

******

In the morning, he woke to find Lorne awake and looking at him. "Sir," he said. "Are you…?"

John shrugged. "Nothing bad. Bullet scraped my thigh." He breathed in and out, hand gripping the sheet. "You?" he asked.

"Doc says I'll be here for another day," Lorne said, "but I'll live."

A doctor walked past, soft shoes squeaking on the floor. She glanced at them as she passed, but didn't interrupt. John watched her until she'd gone. He didn't want to have to look at Lorne again, but there was no choice about it, really.

"Thank you for coming for us, sir," Lorne said, and he didn't look away; that was the strange thing. In the other reality, he had stood beside John's bed, and his eyes had been all over the place, afraid to look too closely and see too much.

John couldn't shrug; couldn't do the usual dismissive thing, deflecting everything with a joke. He looked at Lorne's shoulder, at his pillow, at the IV stand at his side. "I wish…"

"So do I, sir," Lorne said. He blinked, his eyes staying shut for longer than they needed to.

There was an empty chair beside Lorne's bed. Once John saw that, it was hard to look away from it.

******

Keller was not happy with John. His temperature was elevated, and the wound on his thigh was swollen and inflamed. "Hey, it's not my fault, doc," John told her, with the grin that he could still do effortlessly, without even thinking.

No, Keller told him, but it was his fault that he'd gone gallivanting through the Gate with his previous injury still not fully healed. "I know why you had to do it," she said, her face softening, "but I do wish that one day, someone in this city would just take it easy when I tell them to, rather than insisting on playing the hero and undoing all my hard work."

"That's just the sort of place Atlantis is," John told her.

Yes, she agreed, as she worked on him, cleaning and binding his leg. There were too many crises round here, and people didn't get the chance to rest when they needed to. "And it's the personality types of the people who choose to come here," she added. "I guess they're not the sort of people to stand on the sidelines. It's hard to get used to, when you're used to dealing with--"

"Normal people?" John finished for her. He was lying very still, not wanting to move his leg. He heart was racing, fluttering in the hollow of his throat.

******

Not the sort of people to stand on the sidelines, he thought, as he floated somewhere between being awake and sleeping. He saw the empty bed where Lorne had been. He saw people walk past, fading like a dream. Ronon was there sometimes, and Teyla. Rodney never came, but they told him that he was well, just working like a man possessed.

John wanted to ask more about Rodney, but he found himself asking about Lorne. John had been in Lorne's position, in another world, another choice.

The Kinosians struck again. A woman was rushed in to the infirmary, desperately injured in a surprise attack on her team. They'd been engaged in peaceful trade and botanical study. She was a botanist - she studied flowers, for God's sake - and now…

He tried to get out of bed, but Marie told him to stay where he was. He lay on his back, and saw the truth in the shadows on the ceiling above him.

******

The woman survived the night, but Keller looked unhappy every time she walked away from her bed.

John asked Marie to get a message through the Rodney, to ask him - order him, beg him - to come to the infirmary as soon as he could, "because if you don't, I'll go find him myself, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop me."

Her hand felt cool on his brow. The glass of water she handed him was colder than ice, with condensation pouring down the outside like snow.

"What do you want?" Rodney snapped. He looked dreadful, as if he hadn't slept for a week, but he had come when asked.

"Nothing," John said. "Just to…" See you. Make sure you're alive. Find out what happened to me.

"Because I'm busy, I'm very busy right now." Rodney paced at the bedside, his voice loud in the quiet of the infirmary. "I don't know if it's slipped your mind, but hello? Mysterious piece of technology that can reset time?"

"I remember," John told him. "I was there."

"Yes." Rodney sat down on the next bed, the bed that had once been Lorne's. "It's…" His shoulders slumped. His hand twitched as if he wanted to wave it around to emphasise his words, but lacked the energy. "I don't understand how it happened," he said. "I… I don't like not understanding something, you know?"

No, John said, he knew.

"And you keep getting yourself injured, and people keep dying, and…" Rodney pressed his hand briefly to his eyes. "And I can't do anything to stop that happening, not the way you and Ronon can, but this… This is my thing, you know?"

Yes, John said, he knew.

Rodney raised his head. "And I can't have Zelenka working it out before me, can I? That would be completely wrong. I mean, Zelenka! He's able enough, I'll grant you, but if anyone's going to get the credit for figuring this out, it'll be Doctor Rodney McKay, PhD, thank you very much."

Yes, John said, he knew.

He knew.

******

Hours began to blur into one. When he saw the calendar, he realised how many days had passed since they had first encountered the Kinosians.

Seven days. In the other reality, on this very day, he had gone back to M8T-173 with Lorne and Zelenka. The other reality had existed for two weeks, and then…

He threw off the blankets, shivering in the cool air. It was the middle of the night, and the infirmary was silent, the lights dimmed. It hurt to stand on his injured leg, but he gradually forced himself to put more and more weight on it, then managed a step. He had to bite his bottom lip to keep himself going. The cold was the worst problem, he thought. Shivering hurt him. He could feel sweat dripping down the side of his neck.

Nobody stopped him as he left the infirmary. Nobody even saw him, as if his time in this reality had already come to an end. He made his way back to his quarters, and dressed himself with difficulty. The mirror showed him a man who looked exhausted, hardly recognisable as himself at all.

Which reality was real? Which John Sheppard was really him?

Chuck was on duty in the Control Room, manning the night shift by himself, but the Gate itself was guarded by more soldiers than normal; John dimly remembered suggesting that security measure to Woolsey, a few days before. "I'm going to M8T-173," John told them. "Dial the Gate."

Chuck protested - "Colonel, you don't look…" - but John still had the power to issue commands. The wormhole opened, and John stepped through it, back to the place where a world had ended.

******

The planet had gone from spring to full summer in the two weeks he had been away. John went from night on Atlantis, to the full daylight of a summer wood. The Gate was surrounded by trees, impossible to get a jumper through. This time they looked more gold than silver, shining in the sun.

It was almost a mile to the ruins. John walked as fast as he could, gripping the low branches as he passed, pressing his hand flat against the trees. Even in the sunlight, he felt cold, as if the summer was just a painted façade, and behind it, it was snowing.

The ruins were still there, just as they had been that first time, tall and black. He was dragging his leg now, barely able to put any weight on it. His throat hurt as if he had been screaming, although he knew that he had been silent throughout, swallowing hard to keep himself that way.

The inside was colder still. He blinked, struggling to adapt, then pulled out his flashlight. The darkness was full of ghosts. When he swung the flashlight around, the shadows moved, as if Rodney were pacing up and down, taking his readings; as if Ronon were moving towards the window arch, to look out silently; as if Teyla were reaching out for flowers to take to her son.

He found the slab; almost fell down beside it. Two weeks, he thought, and now those two weeks were over. He had been given his team back for two weeks, but what if this reality was the wrong one, and the other one was right? He had feared that his team was a dream at first, and that they would fade away and disappear like dust. What if they were? What if they had to be?

Rodney had no answers, because there were no answers to be found. This wasn't real. John hadn't reset the past; had merely been granted a vision of what might have been.

No, he thought, as his hand hovered over the slab. This was real… but sometimes real things had to come to an end. Four men were dead, and a woman was fighting for her life. Lorne and Nicholson had lost people from their teams. Atlantis had made a new enemy, and the future for everyone in the city was darker than it had been in the other reality, when my team was dead, he thought, not wanting to finish it, but knowing that he had to.

"When my team was dead," he said out loud. Three people had died, but in this reality…? Four, maybe five… and more, how many more? How many more before this was ended, because he had been unable to live with the death of three friends?

His fingers almost brushed the stone, then recoiled, as if the slab was made of flame.

Not the sort of people to stand on the sidelines, he remembered. The sort of people who made hard choices. The sort of people who considered their own comfort less important than the needs of others. The sort of people who worked without sleep. The sort of people who made sacrifices. The sort of people…

Who don't leave people behind, he thought, and bit his lip so hard that he felt it draw blood.

He clung to the memory of his team as they had been in this place before they had ceased to exist. I can't, he thought, but he knew that he had to. He had brought them back to life not because the universe needed them, but because his own life had been intolerable without them. He had brought them back not because Atlantis needed them, but because without them he was nothing, just a gaping hole. And he didn't know how it happened, because once he had needed nobody - he had gone to another galaxy, for God's sake, and hadn't even sent a message home when he had thought that he was going to die there - but now…

"I've got to do it," he said, but normally he came to the hard decisions so quickly, so easily. It had taken him barely a second to know beyond doubt that he had to fly the nuclear weapon into the hive ship, that first time, so long ago. He had accepted death without hesitation because it was the right thing to do, but this… But this…

His fingers almost touched the slab again. He snatched them back, cradling them to his chest.

Trial, Rodney had read, just that single legible word. It was a place to show you the selfishness of your own desires. If you acted out of the sheer, screaming pain of your own emotions, without thinking about the consequences, then…

He leaned back against the wall, the flashlight rolling from his hand. It made the shadows lurch, as if the ruin were crowded with all the people whose lives had been affected by his need to bring his team back to life.

"I can't," he moaned, and he thought of Holland, when he had willingly thrown away his career to save one man; and he thought of Sumner, and still believed that trying to rescue him had been the right thing to do, even though it had ended with the Wraith waking up. And then - a sudden vivid flash of memory of something he hadn't thought about in years - he remembered sitting at a table and debating whether it was right to save ten people by diverting a train into the path of a baby.

As military commander of Atlantis, he had to put the well-being of the city first. He had to choose the ten.

As military commander of Atlantis, he had to show every last person in the city that he would risk anything to save them, if they needed him to. He had to choose the one.

How could you follow a man who sacrificed his own team?

How could you follow a man who refused to?

He closed his eyes, his hand clenched tight at his side. He opened his eyes sluggishly when he heard footsteps approaching him. By the time his team reached him, he had gathered himself together, thrusting all the scattered emotions down within him, and covering them with the necessary mask. But he felt as if his skin was too tight, barely able to hold what roiled within.

"Hey," he said quietly, looking up at them. It was too soon to stand, though.

Rodney ranted at him. Had John really thought that nobody would follow him here? Chuck had obeyed John's order, but had rushed to report it immediately afterwards, sending the cavalry after him. What was John thinking? It was the middle of the night, for crying out loud! And now they'd all been dragged out of their beds and away from their very important work to track down an errant colonel who thought that it was a good idea to go for a hike when his leg was blood all over.

Ronon just knelt down beside him, then touched him, his hand on the back of John's neck. Teyla worried at his leg, and the dampness of her touch showed him that Rodney was right, and his leg was bleeding again.

"Why?" Rodney demanded. "Why now? If you were hit with a sudden insight about what happened here, you could have - oh, I don't know - told the expert?"

John hadn't meant to say anything at all. But when his mouth opened, he ended up telling them everything. He said more than he had ever said to anyone. He felt himself splitting open, and everything inside him poured out and would have escaped for ever, but his team was there to catch it all, and they held it close.

"You died," he said, and he told them how it had felt, to be facing life without them. He told them about how wrong that reality had felt, and how he would have done anything to bring them back. "But four people have died as a consequence of that choice, and now…" He told them about the Kinosians. "They weren't there in the other reality." There was no war. The future was brighter and more safe.

"So you were… what? Going to kill us again?" Rodney said.

"Was thinking about it," John admitted. Talking was suddenly easier, as if some constriction had loosened in his throat.

"But you couldn't," Ronon said. It was not a question.

John shook his head. He held his right hand loosely in his left, as if his hands might touch the slab by accident unless he took care of them.

"But what does that make me?" he found himself saying. He had once admitted to Teyla that he would do anything for any one of his team. "How many people will die before the end, because I couldn't--?"

"And how many more will live?" Rodney interrupted. "Think about it, Sheppard: I was dead. How many people would have died in the future because I wasn't there to save the day with some last-minute breakthrough? Yes, I admit it, I'm an arrogant man, but…" He jabbed at his chest as if to say, Have you seen me?

"And is there any guarantee that it would work?" Teyla looked up at him, her hand resting on his leg. "Not even Rodney understands how it works--"

"But it will only be a matter of time," Rodney interjected, raising one finger.

Teyla acknowledged him with a smile, before carrying on. There was no certainty whatsoever that touching the slab again would result in a return to the previous reality, she pointed out. "It could create something far worse than either of them."

"Then I'll just try again," John said. He was feeling light-headed, crazy, to be sitting here discussing the creation and erasing of whole realities.

"I hate to add an element of common sense to these wild fancies," Rodney said, "but I don't think it works like that," even though until now he had been the one arguing the wild possibilities of the new technology. "You can't just revert to the saved file whenever you don't like what you've done."

"Once things happen," Ronon said, "you're stuck with them."

"I believe that it is easier that way." Teyla turned to Ronon, touching his arm. "If you could erase past mistakes at will, when would you ever stop?"

They were all silent for a while. Pain was pulsing in John's leg, but it didn't seem to matter much any more. He watched the play of light on the distant arches. Trees whispered in the window.

"It probably wouldn't have worked," he said, with a shrug.

"Speaking of that…" Rodney raised his hand. "I keep meaning to drag you here and make you touch that slab of yours, because nothing works when I touch it, and I wanted to find out if you and that over-sized gene of yours…" His voice trailed off. "Being quiet," he said, perhaps in response to Ronon's look.

"It is best not to touch it again," Teyla said firmly, "until Rodney has discovered how it works. Which he will, in time," she added, with a smile.

It was better this way, John realised. He had shown them things he didn't like to show anyone, and instead of responding with hugs and tears, they had been themselves. Rodney had talked too much, outwardly thinking of nobody by himself, although the truth was so very different. They had offered him sound reasons why it was unwise to do what he had come here to do.

"It's just hard, you know?" he found himself saying. You made so many choices in your life, when you were in a position of command, and sometimes people died. Sometimes hindsight told you that you should have acted another way. Sometimes you lay awake at night and wondered what would have happened if you'd changed that order, if you'd made that decision a little earlier, and phrased it another way. But he had been shown the consequences of a decision. The world had gone two different ways because he had willed his team to live.

"It is hard," Teyla said. "All choices have consequences," and it was Rodney's turn to look away, perhaps remembering the decision to alter the Replicators' base code. "All we can do is make decisions based on what feels right at the time."

"And if they have unforeseen consequences?" Rodney asked. His face was pale, with deep shadows.

"Unforeseen," Ronon said. "Means you can't predict them, right? Can't see how anyone can blame you for that."

John had brought his team back because everything inside him cried out that he needed them back. But if he had been calmer… If he had been entirely well and sane and sober, and had thought everything through… He would still have done everything he could to bring them back. Atlantis needed a genius like Rodney McKay, and it needed the friendship of the Athosians and the doors that Teyla's presence opened on worlds that were still inclined to distrust the strangers from Earth. Even if he had debated the situation for hours with Woolsey and Lorne, he could never have predicted that O'Reilly would die, and that they would awaken a new enemy.

O'Reilly had died because small changes could have big consequences. John had lived only two weeks in the reality where his team had died. What might have happened after those two weeks were over? Atlantis could have been destroyed because Rodney hadn't been there to avert the crisis, or because John had been too lost in grief to do what was needed. They might have encountered an enemy far worse than the Kinosians, because Teyla hadn't been there to ease the way.

He would never know. And that was just how it was. A commander sometimes had to make a decision in a split second, and you went with what felt right at the time.

"We coped with the Genii," Rodney said suddenly. "We defanged the Wraith. There's no need to look so grim and frowny. The Kinosians are only human, right? And there can't be many of them, if they've kept themselves hidden all this time?"

"You have made many friends in this galaxy," Teyla said. "It will count for much, if it comes to war."

Ronon shrugged, touching his weapon, as if he thought he could defeat the entire Kinosian people with a single shot, without breaking sweat.

And he had all three of them with him, John thought. He had the three brightest, the three best people in the Pegasus Galaxy, and they were right here with him. How could a world without them ever be preferable to this?

"It felt wrong," he managed to say, "losing you." He looked at them all, one after the other. If this whole thing had been a trial, perhaps it was only to show him this. "You guys… I'm not good at… uh, at saying… things like this…"

But he didn't have to say it, because they understood. Outside the arch of the window, the sun moved round onto the trees, making them shine like gold.

******

END

******

Note: This story has been forever in the making. It has been my "next long story" for almost two years. For the first year, it kept getting bumped by newer ideas that pushed to the front of the queue. For most of the second year, I was taking "a few weeks' break" from writing, but even as I drifted ever further away from the fandom, I never entirely forgot that I had a story idea still dangling.

Clearly this has not ended up as my "next long story." In its original form, it was going to be an epic, as Atlantis coped with some huge (and as yet unspecified) threat that emerged in the aftermath of Sheppard "pressing the reset button." However, a few weeks ago, I realised that this was actually holding me back from returning to the fandom, since it was just too daunting. From the very start, the idea was all about emotion. The epic plot was the bit I hadn't worked out yet - the framework on which I would pin the emotional plot. So why not ditch the entire multi-chapter epic, and concentrate on the emotions? As soon as I decided that, I found myself eager to give it a go, I started watching SGA again from the start… and here I am.
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