Earlier chapters start here: Chapter one
Chapter seven: Two halves
He knew that he had split into two. One half lay on the bed, his clothes filthy, his hair and beard knotted. The other half floated above that body, looking down.
The second half knew about the razor. "Just use it, then. Giving up is just another form of suicide, anyway. It's better to make it quick."
The body on the bed raised a heavy head. "I'm not trying to kill myself."
"Well, it looks like it from where I'm standing."
"No. The razor…" The razor, under the pillow, offering such sharp, sweet pain. "It's so I can fight them. It's so I can… with pain… when I… if I… if I need…"
"That isn't who you are." One time before, he had floated on the ceiling and watched as the man called Sheppard held a razor to his skin. Then, he had said nothing. He wasn't entirely sure why he was speaking up now.
"It's a weapon," said the man on the bed. "It's my only weapon."
The man on the ceiling laughed. "It's their weapon. That's why they gave it back. They want to break you. Everything they've done - the footsteps, the hook, the irregular meals - has been to test you. They want to see how long you last. Maybe they're making notes. "
The man on the bed laughed, too - a high, shrill sound. He groped under the pillow, and emerged with the razor. "Then if I hurt myself, they'll think I've broken. Experiment'll be over. Done. Then they'll let me go."
"Then you will have broken. No pretence about it, but true. And you'll never be free. Because you'll always know. If they let you know, you'll know it was only because you broke. You'll see the scars, and know that they were put there by your own hand."
"Does it matter?" But his hands were trembling, and his voice cracked.
"Yes," said the man on the ceiling softly, and he drifted close. His hands closed round the other man's hands, but there was nothing to grip, because he is me, and I am you.
When he moved, he moved as if he had not done so for a very long time. With a shaking hand, he scooped the dried food into his mouth, and forced himself to chew it. He told himself that strength would soon start flowing through his veins, but the food sat heavy in his stomach, like a stone.
"Come on." The man from the ceiling led the other man by the hand, although they were almost the same now, like two images that were supposed to be superimposed, but had been misaligned.
"Where?" said the man from the bed, but he already knew. They stripped off his clothes, and they climbed into the bath. When they were clean, they got dressed in fresh clothes, and as he did so, something clicked, and he knew that he was whole again, ceiling and bed united into one.
But there was still the razor. He held it to his face, and this time he did what he had lacked the courage to do before. The beard slowly fell away, and sometimes his hand slipped, and blood covered his chin as if he was a teenager again, clumsily shaving for the first time. The accumulated story of days and weeks fell to the floor. And when his chin was smooth again, he realised that he had been wrong, anyway, because he still bore a calendar of time's passing on his face. It was there in the shadows under his eyes, and the sunken thinness of his cheekbones. It was there in the pallor of skin that had not seen the sun, and in the length of his hair.
"I am John Sheppard," he told the stranger in the mirror, and the unseen watchers beyond. "I won't let this break me."
And, after that, he told himself stories, and concentrated fiercely, nails digging into his palms, until he had finished each one.
They decided to give it two more days.
Barely hours after they had come to this decision, someone pulled Teyla to one side in the tavern, and told her about a place.
Two hours after that, armed with everything that they had, they set off from the jumper, all three of them together.
"What if it's a trap?" Rodney worried.
"Then it's a trap." Ronon's voice was level. "But we are ready for it."
Then they stopped bringing him food. He had recounted all six Star Wars movies, but he had never quite stopped listening for footsteps. None came.
When the hunger became so bad that he could hardly stand, he went to the door and hammered against it, beating it with the heel of his hand. "Hello! Hello? Anybody?"
At the fifth blow, the door swung slowly outwards.
He gaped at it, seeing the white painted hallway, as wide as seven trays. He felt cooler air on his cheeks. His heart lurched, and he grabbed the side of the door, as spots danced across his vision, and he felt himself close to panic. How long? his heart hammered. How long has it been unlocked?
"Stop that." He tightened his grip on the door frame, then pushed himself free. He took two steps, then stopped.
Going back was one of the hardest things he had even done. As he stepped back into the stale air of his prison, his heart was fluttering fast enough to hurt, and he was sure that the door would close again, and that the whole thing was just some fresh torture. He snatched up the razor blade desperately, and plunged back towards the door. It remained open.
Outside, he turned right, because that was where the footsteps had usually come from. The hallway was silent. He passed other rooms like his own, but their doors were open, and their insides completely bare.
At the end of the hallway there was a flight of stairs. He climbed it, and, heart hammering, tried to door at the top. It opened. On the far side, he found a small hallway, like an airlock between two doors. He opened the door at the end, climbed some more stairs, opened another door, and found himself outside.
He managed six steps. He managed twelve, fourteen, nineteen, twenty-three… Above him was silver moonlight, and stars… and, oh! the stars, but he couldn't turn his face upwards to bathe in the night's sky, not yet, because he was still not free, and he wouldn't be free until he was back home on Atlantis, and perhaps he would never be free.
There was so much to sense outside. He heard the wind moving in trees, and an animal cried out. The air was richly nuanced, bringing a different sensation every second. He had forgotten what darkness looked like, or how subtle light could be. The ground crunched softly beneath his feet, and when he reached a gate in the low wall that surrounded him, the texture of its wooden surface was miraculous.
He opened the gate, then whirled round, bringing the razor up, but no-one was following him. And there, on the brink of a freedom that could still turn out to be a lie, he paused, afraid to take the next step. But he took it, even so. The gate closed behind him with a thud. He walked on, and soon there were buildings around him, and then, walking ahead of him in ones and twos, there were people.
He seemed to be incapable of stopping his feet from walking. The people, too, were walking, and soon their paths crossed. He heard a woman croon a compliment to the man on her arm. Someone was gossiping about a colleague. Someone else was hoping for a good bargain at the market the following day.
He wanted to shrink in on himself. He wanted to press his hands to his ears and shut them out. He wanted to slash at them with the razor, and reveal them for the hallucinations that they were. Then one of them looked at him, and asked him if he was well, and he turned and fled, almost drowning in the panic engendered by the thought of answering them.
And it was then that someone grabbed him. It was then that someone cried out in amazement, and someone else cried out in horror, both at the same time. He fought, but the hand on his arm was too strong, and the razor fell from his hand, and someone was saying, "Sheppard, it's us," and someone else said, "Oh God. What have they done to him?" but he fought still, even with the last of his dwindling strength, because it couldn't be them, it couldn't be them, it couldn't be them…
"John." That sounded like Teyla, strong and firm, and he blinked, moonlight raking across his vision, and saw McKay, wearing clothes like the ones he was wearing himself, and not looking at all like the McKay he would have imagined.
He stopped fighting, because, really, he had no choice.
"Where are they?" Ronon growled. "Where are they?"
He thought of all his dreams of violence and revenge. He imagined himself turning around, going back to that place, finding that all of this was a trick, and he was still a prisoner. He closed his eyes, then opened them again. He shook his head. "Not now. Please. I want to go home. Please." But that was too pleading, so he said it again, without the 'please.' "I want to go home."
Ronon said something, his voice low and furious. Teyla hissed something firm.
"What have they done to you?" McKay said again, his hand moving forward as if to touch Sheppard, then drawing back.
It was over. This was it. This was the end. "Nothing," Sheppard said, and he laughed. "Nothing," he said again, and this time it was closer to a sob. The third time, though, he said it a low voice, without emotion. "Nothing."
For the first part of the walk back to the jumper, Rodney could hardly believe that it was real. He kept shooting glances at Sheppard, as it to reassure himself that he was really there.
During the second part, he was suddenly convinced that people with guns would start to chase them, because surely there was no way that they could stroll away from this, all four together, all unhurt. That was when he started hissing at Ronon and Teyla not to forget that dark patch there, and to watch that person behind them, right there, and was that movement behind that tree? That was when he pressed a pistol into Sheppard's hand, "because you're a better shot than I am, and I really don't fancy dying right at the end of the final act of this show."
For the third part, which took them through trees whose branches hung low, he had a sudden, ridiculous urge to laugh. They had fought for so long, had looked for him for so long… had even come close to mourning him in the end, for God's sake. And here he was, and it had all happened without a fight. They had waited until dark, crept towards the hidden prison… and there was Sheppard, strolling out towards them.
And then he was back to the unreality again. If they had had to fight to free him, the whole thing would be easier to believe. He would never be one of those macho soldiers who lived for a fight, but he had been ready. His heart was still racing, and his hands were moist on his P90. His body had still not accepted that it had all ended so quietly.
They reached the jumper, and he pressed the button to uncloak it. Sheppard was the first one in, though he paused at the hatch, his hand pressed lightly against the wall, as if he was not entirely sure that it was real. A few steps behind, Ronon and Teyla conferred in low voices, then Ronon set off a jog. After he was gone, Teyla looked at Rodney, her face unreadable, and gestured to him to go in. Once he was inside, and the hatch was closed, Rodney had a sudden moment, close to panic, when he realised that he had no idea what was supposed to happen now.
"You should sit down, John," Teyla was saying.
Sheppard stood still for a moment, frowning, then sat down rather stiffly at the back of the jumper. Rodney sat down opposite him. He felt flat, he realised. If Sheppard had been terribly injured, there would have been the fierce awfulness of trying to save his life. If they had fought through and saved him in the nick of time, there would have been joy. This just felt… wrong.
He let the wrongness spill out in the only way he knew. "What did they do to you?" he demanded.
Sheppard blinked, his eyes staying shut for an unnatural length of time, before opening again. "Nothing."
"Nothing?" Rodney was still clutching his gun, and his knuckles were white. "All this time, I thought… I mean, they thought… We thought… We were afraid…"
"Nothing." Sheppard was plucking at the hem of his shirt. His eyes were strange, too. Although he was looking at Rodney, his gaze was off, as if he was focusing slightly to one side of him. "They didn't touch me. They fed me. I had clean clothes. I had a bathroom. They didn't touch me." His eyes flickered briefly towards Rodney's. "Nothing that should affect me, right?"
"A bathroom," Rodney echoed. "How nice. We had a hole in the ground." He knew he was being unforgivable – knew it in the way that Teyla said his name, low and warning – but he couldn't stop. "We've suffered… Do you know how little I've eaten these last four weeks? And all for you, because we thought they were hurting you. Dammit, Sheppard, we thought you were dead, but we didn't stop, as long as there was a chance, a tiny chance, that you were still alive."
"Rodney." He thought it was the fourth time Teyla had said his name. Her hand closed on his shoulder.
"Four weeks?" Sheppard's lips framed the words, but very little sound came out.
"Four weeks. Yes. Or no. No. Four weeks since we left Atlantis. You've been missing for six."
But Sheppard was already speaking, the words coming out sharp and urgent. They clashed with the end of what Rodney had been saying. "Six weeks," he said again, when there was silence.
Sheppard closed his eyes.
Teyla's fingers dug into his shoulder. "What?" Rodney demanded, but he knew – of course he knew. But even with that knowledge, he could feel his heart beginning to return to normal, feel his fingers begin to unclench on the gun. He wondered if he could manage to frame an apology, but as he was wondering, Sheppard opened his eyes.
"Was Ronon here?" he asked. His eyes were doing that darting thing again, never quite looking at anyone.
"Of course he was," Rodney told him. "He was only there, right in front of you. Oh. Oh no. Oh no no no. You're blind, aren't you? 'They didn't do anything,' you said, but that's just Sheppard-speak for unspeakable torture."
"They didn't do anything." His voice was dull. "I'm not blind. Where's Ronon?"
"Ronon has gone on foot to the Gate," Teyla said. "He will tell us when the way is clear. We had to… use force to get through when we first arrived."
"Oh." Sheppard looked at his hand, curled loosely into a fist. "I wondered why we weren't flying."
"But where to go when we do take off?" Rodney said bitterly.
"Atlantis." It was just a breath of sound, like a sigh.
"If they'll let us back."
Sheppard's eyes settled on Rodney's for a little longer this time. "What's this?"
"When we left Atlantis," Teyla told him, "we did so without permission."
"We're AWOL," Rodney said. "Outlaws. Fugitives from the law."
Sheppard did not smile. "Of course they'll let you back." His hand returned to the hem of his shirt. "I want to fly the jumper."
Teyla moved towards him. "Are you sure…?"
"Yes." His eyes shied from hers. "They didn’t do anything to me. I'm fine. I want to go home now."
She turned away from him, and as she turned to face Rodney, he saw the reassuring smile fade away, to be replaced with grim concern.
Everything became simple when he started to fly. The jumper started up when he asked it to, and then there was nothing but that pure, clear stream of communication flowing through his mind. It moved in response to the deepest wishes of his heart, and he was free. There was nowhere that he could not go. He could fly among the stars, or dive beneath the ocean. It was simple, and it was constant. It was unchanged, and it was real.
He soared up into the stars. He was standing on his toes on the top of a hill, his arms stretched, leaning into the wind. Light bathed his face like soothing water. He soared like a bird, and everything was simple, everything was unfettered.
Sounds came from a distant place. Someone asked a question. "Sheppard's decided to take us on a joy-ride." He knew that the person who said that was called Rodney, but the words were too far away for him to hear them as anything other than sounds.
He headed through a bank of clouds, dipping in and out like a stone on the surface of a lake. The moon was silver, beckoning him on. He was a child again, watching planes from the yard, and knowing, with more certainty than he had ever felt about anything, that this was what he wanted to do. He was flying his first flight since his disgrace in Afghanistan, when he realised for the first time that everything would be okay, as long as they never took this away from him.
"I'm sure this is all very moving – John Sheppard reunited with his beloved puddle-jumper – but you're going the wrong way."
They were only sounds. The white room faded away and became the endless expanse of night. There were no footsteps here. There were no faces with a thousand messages and meanings painted on their flesh. No doors were ever locked here. No question was without an answer. No, there were no questions at all. It just was.
"John." That sound, at least, had meaning. "John. Stop." It came again, and he knew that this was Teyla. He felt a touch on the back of his hand, and it dragged him back, shattering the peace. He turned away from the freedom of the night, because he had to. Why were her eyes moist? "I understand," she said, "but Ronon is waiting at the Gate. We need to get back."
"To Atlantis?" he asked, for Atlantis, too, was freedom, of a kind.
He turned back, but the puddle-jumper continued to sing around him, and the night was still without walls and boundaries. He descended through the clouds, following the snapped instructions of the one called McKay. They made him pause, hovering near the ground, and Ronon leapt in. "It's clear," he said. McKay dialled the address, and the wormhole was ahead of them, shining and infinite. Here, too, there were no limits to where he could go.
"We should use your IDC," McKay said.
Sheppard did what he was told. Numbers, at least, he had never forgotten during his captivity. There was a short silence. He imagined the technician calling out a report to whoever was in command. He tried to imagine what their expression might be, but he had no idea. "Colonel Sheppard?" a voice said at last, through the radio. "Is that really you?"
He painted a smile on his face. Then, when the voice repeated itself, he remembered that he was supposed to answer. "In the flesh," he said. "Alive and well."
He listened to the echo of those words. "Yes, we do," Teyla said, leaning over him, and he realised that another question had been asked.
"The shield is down," said the voice on the radio. Radio voices were simpler. They were just words, wiped clean of inflexion, and without any complications. The people beside him were almost more than he could bear to look at. Teyla and Ronon knew how to be still, but McKay's face and hands were always moving, and every movement was as loud as a shout. He had never noticed before how loud someone could be, even when they were silent. McKay was a cacophony of conflicting voices. A dozen messages shouted in his eyes. A voice shouted in the movement at the corner of his mouth. There were demands and questions in the slightest shifting of his hands.
"Welcome home, Colonel Sheppard." Then the radio voice was no longer just a voice, but a smiling figure at the controls. Sheppard stared through him, and guided the jumper into the bay.
No-one else moved. He wondered why, frowning, then remembered that they had said something about leaving without permission. All of McKay's silent voices came together and spoke of something that was probably nervousness.
The hatch opened, and then there were a hundred other sounds, a thousand, a million. The hatch was a window onto a world of movement. People were hurrying towards it, many of them talking. Beyond that were all the normal sounds of Atlantis, but rolled up together and concentrated into one overwhelming ball of sound.
The chair pressed against him, like a white wall at his back. And there was Doctor Keller breaking through the screen that was the open hatch, but it was Carson who had come to him in his cell, not her. "How are you feeling, Colonel?" she asked.
He felt himself separate. Part of him was on the ceiling, ready to flow away like mist, and fly through the stars. The man who had pinned himself to the chair in the jumper looked terrible - a core of panic, papered over with a fragile veneer of bravado. "Fine," that man said. "I'm fine. They didn't do anything to me." The veneer grew thicker. Didn't do anything, so I can't be feeling like this. There's no reason not to be normal. Everything should go back to how it was before.
"Don't believe him." McKay's many voices had changed yet again. "He's clearly not… not well."
"I can tell that he's been half-starved, if nothing else," Keller said. "I'll take care of him, Doctor McKay. Don't worry."
That person can't be me, thought the man who floated on the ceiling, because they're talking as if he's not there.
"It's more than just starvation." It hurt to look at McKay's face, so expressive, so complex. "Lack of food doesn't make anyone look so… so traumatised."
No-one had done anything do him, and that meant that things were normal. "It does with you, McKay," his lips said.
And then Colonel Carter was there, too, and she, at least, was someone he didn't know very well. If there were messages on her face, he didn't know how to read them. She was easier to look at than McKay, though, because there was a degree of silence about her, and she didn't expect him to understand her. "John," she said, and he closed his eyes, erasing them all and replacing them with darkness. "Colonel Sheppard." He opened his eyes, and managed half a smile in her direction. Perhaps he said something about reporting for duty.
"Are you able to walk to the infirmary?" Keller asked.
He swallowed. There were too many people People in medical uniforms stood near the hatch with a gurney. He saw technicians beyond them. They all came with sounds and movement and meanings. Too much, whimpered that core of him, wrapped in its cracked veneer. He wanted to press his hands to his ears and hide from them, but the thought of them all going away was beyond all bearing. Even a puddle-jumper could be a solitary prison.
"Colonel Sheppard," Carter was saying. He wondered how often she had spoken his name. "Were you kept in solitary confinement the whole time?"
"I never saw them," he told her, "not once. I thought they were going to hurt me, but…" Then he remembered that these people were real, and not hallucinations, and that meant that there were things – so many things – that he could not say. "They didn't do anything to me." If he repeated it enough, his inside reality would come to match the outside.
Carter turned away, and said something to the others, but his mind was drifting, and he didn't hear it. The next time he was able to focus, most of the people had gone. Teyla and Ronon and McKay were still there, but even McKay was still. "Can you walk to the infirmary, or do you want a ride?" Keller asked. Her eyes flickered briefly towards Carter. "You won't see anyone on the way."
He remembered how he had slumped on the bed, stinking and unkempt, ignoring food. He remembered the razor on his arm. He had stood up in the end, and told the mirror that he would not be broken. He had shaved himself, dressed himself in clean clothes, and walked out of his prison on his own two legs. "I'll walk," he said.
He heard McKay let out a breath. "Do you want someone to walk with you," Keller asked, "as well as me?"
Sheppard managed to stand up, though it felt a little as if he was ripping himself from the seat, leaving a bit of himself behind. McKay was trying to be still, but he was still overflowing with messages. Teyla exuded too much concern. "Ronon," he said.
Keller nodded. Ronon rose, and together they followed her from the jumper. Behind him, he heard McKay start to speak, but he was cut off before he had managed anything other than in incoherent sound. Everyone who had been in the jumper bay had vanished. Perhaps they had never existed, and had just been a dream.
Ronon was silent. His footsteps were firm and steady, and not so very much like Hank's, after all. He walked close enough to Sheppard to catch him if he fell, but not close enough to make any demands. He spoke only once, when they were over half way there. "We never stopped looking. Just so you know." And Sheppard nodded, and after that he was able to keep his eyes on Ronon for five full seconds, before anxiety clutched at his stomach and made him look away.
Walking was a little like flying. He could speed up to a run, and never stop until he was on the further pier, between the ocean and the stars. Ronon would run with him, never demanding, just understanding. By putting one foot in front of the other, he was taking himself places. No white walls could contain him. With Ronon here, he had the comfort of not being alone, but the comfort, too, of knowing that there would be no hard questions.
But the walk ended, and then he was in another place with hard walls and open spaces. Keller guided him to a bed, and the pillow was nothing like the pillow in his cell, and the blankets were completely different, and the wall was not white, but it was still not his own bed.
His steps faltered, and he stood there, clenching and unclenching his hands. Ronon looked at him, just once. She's trying to help you, stupid, Sheppard told himself. She'll tell you nothing's wrong, then you'll be normal again.
He lay down. "Do you want the curtains closed?" Keller asked, and he did, because sometimes there was safety in a prison cell.
He had no memory of her asking him questions, and no memory of any tests. White walls claimed him, and he knew that all this – the whole escape, the flying, the sounds – was just a dream. Then he awoke to find her snatching her hand away from his arm. "I'm sorry," she said, and the place where she had touched him burned. It was contact, and he yearned for it. It was contact, and it terrified him.
"I've never known anyone fall asleep and remain so tense." There was nervousness in the voices of her smile. "Your heart was racing."
There was nothing he could say. The person he had once been – the person he knew he had to remain – wanted to make a light reply. The man who had spoken to hallucinations wanted to tell her that, in prison, he had had no choice. His whole life there had been about the expectation of pain, but he had still had to sleep. The man on the bed wanted to beg for help. The man on the ceiling watched, to see which way the thing would go.
"I can't see anything much wrong with you except for malnutrition and exhaustion," she said.
There, he thought. Normal. Nothing wrong.
"You'll need a special diet, and lots of rest."
Yes. He nodded. And then back to normal, because they didn't do anything.
"I can give you something to help you sleep."
But time passed when he slept. Six weeks had passed in the blankness of a white room. He shook his head, but he asked her to open the curtains, just enough for him to see the clock on the far wall.
End of chapter seven
On to next part
Note: I am very happy to finally get to post this chapter. Chapter six was so dark and depressing, I was desperate to be able to add a note saying, "Don't worry! He gets out next chapter." The only hint I allowed myself was in the chapter name. "The Dead of Winter" was meant to imply that this was the very lowest point. Sheppard disappeared at the end of autumn, surrounded by dead and dying leaves, but right at the end of the last chapter, McKay saw the very first flower of early spring – one sign of hope in the middle of the most depressing part of the story so far. Crude symbolism, yes, but I hoped at least someone might draw some hope from it.
On to next part