Earlier chapters start here: Chapter one
Chapter eight: After
"So…" Sam looked up at him, mildness deceptive in her eyes. "Rodney."
She was sitting in Elizabeth's office. Rodney hovered in the doorway, one foot in, and one foot out. "Is this going to take long? It's just… Places to go, people to see… A hot shower… Do you know what it's like to spend four weeks washing in ponds and rivers?"
She folded her hands. "I have an idea."
"And there's my work… Do you know how much damage those idiots could have done in my absence? Uh…" He flapped his hands uselessly. "You're going to tell me I should have thought about that before leaving. Uh… How did it go with the hive ship, by the way? No certain death, I take it, because… well… you're all here."
"No certain death." She sounded suddenly very like Elizabeth, or maybe that was only because of where she was sitting. "They went away, probably to counter a Replicator attack elsewhere. We think it was only coincidence that they came so close."
"Oh. Ah. That's good. You not being dead, I mean."
"Yes. It's good."
Silence stretched between them. Rodney remembered how people had smiled at him in the hallways, all the way from the jumper bay to the infirmary, and then, when he was told that he couldn't see Sheppard right now, back to his own room, and then here, summoned to report to Sam. Even people who didn't know him had smiled at him. How they must have missed him! You only appreciated something properly when it was gone, didn't you?
"You know we have to talk, Rodney."
"Yes. Ah. Yes." He closed the door, and sat down, hands restless on the desk. Only hours before, he had almost been convinced that he had made a mistake in leaving Atlantis. He had been all ready to return to Atlantis with his tail between his legs, because Sam had been right, and he had been wrong, and Sheppard was still missing, and he had failed. But he had been vindicated, hadn't he? If he hadn't defied her, Sheppard would still be languishing in whatever place he had been in that could make a man like him look like that.
"Are you aware of quite how difficult a position you put me in, Rodney?" Her voice was still mild, but there was steel beneath it.
"But we got Sheppard back." He stood up, pushing the chair back noisily. "And if we're talking about difficult positions, mine wasn't exactly a bed of roses. It wasn't easy for me, but I did it. Noble, actually. Heroic." He remembered the smiles from strangers in the corridors. "Suffering deprivation–"
"Rodney." Her voice was a snap of command.
"Yes. Ah. Yes." He sat down again.
"It wasn't just the diplomatic situation with Dareon, though that was bad enough. In his eyes, you committed a terrorist act against his people, and he knew you were still out there, and, for all he knew, plotting to do more. You landed me with an impossible situation."
She held up her hand, and he subsided. "No, Rodney, the worst of it was that you went against my orders, and many people on Atlantis thought you were right. And now you've been proved right, haven't you? You risked everything, and came back with him. I gave up on him. That's how it could seem."
"Ah. The smiles." She looked at him sharply, so he had to explain. "People were smiling at me just now. I thought it was because they'd missed me. Of course it wasn't. It was because of him. I saved his life. I'm a hero."
He knew he was racing headlong along a path that he really shouldn't walk, but he couldn't stop himself, he couldn't stop. "I was right, Sam, and you were wrong. After everything you've said… I was right, and you were wrong."
He stopped; cleared his throat. Sorry, he thought. I'm sorry. But he couldn't say it, not yet.
"It's not just about you and me," she said. "It's not about scoring points. I'm their commander. Some of them were already inclined to distrust me because I'm new. Yes, I've got more experience in many ways than any of them, but Atlantis is a family – if I hadn't realised that before, I realised that within days of coming here. And, if Atlantis is a family, I'm… I guess I'm the new step-mother. I need to win their respect – and, Rodney, this isn't selfishness or vanity talking. What if the Wraith attack, and I give an order – an order that can save lives – but the person who hears it hesitates because he remembered when Doctor McKay was right, and I was wrong?"
Doctor McKay was right, he heard. He tried to hear the rest of the message, but only yesterday he had been wrestling with despair and ultimate failure. I was right, he thought. I made the right decision. I did.
"Although I have made no statement," she went on, "I have quietly encouraged the belief that you were acting on orders all along – orders that had to remain secret because of the diplomatic situation with Dareon. I trust that you will say nothing that contradicts–"
"What?" He was out of his chair again. "You want to take the credit–?"
"No." For the first time, she looked angry. "I want to ensure the survival of Atlantis. I trust that you want the same."
Her anger shocked him into apology. "I'm sorry. Yes. Yes, I do. I… uh…" Didn't think. He remembered the despair of the day before, when he had known that the time had come to give up. He pressed his hands on the surface of the desk, because that was the only way to stop them trembling.
"I know." Her eyes were soft again – Sam, not Carter. "You told me you'd changed, and I know that you have. You're not used to caring for people, are you? And, in just a few months, you'd lost several people you cared about, and in most cases you were powerless to do anything about it. I understand why you felt you had to do what you did. I can see how hard it was for you–"
"Hard?" His hands fluttered to his face. This reaction was easier. "Have I lost weight? Do I look sick? Oh! Shall I call a doctor?"
"You will, of course, need a medical check-up," she said, "and I want you to attend sessions with Doctor Heightmeyer."
"But I don't need–"
"That's an order, Rodney," she said gently.
"Oh." He felt suddenly impossibly tired, and Atlantis had all the strangeness of a home you returned to after too long away. He wanted a shower. He wanted to sleep in his own bed. He wanted none of this to have happened. He wanted Sheppard to be normal again…
"What's wrong with Sheppard?" he blurted out.
"I can't answer that," she said, "but if you're a good enough friend to go after him, I'm sure you'll be a good enough friend to help him through this." Her eyes bored into his own, daring him to disagree. "It isn't over, Rodney. Don't expect everything to go back to how it used to be."
He curled his hand into a fist. "But we're good, aren't we – you and me? We're good?"
She smiled. "I hope we will be."
"Good. That's good." He remembered how she had become 'Carter' to him; how he had almost hated her for a while. "If it's any… You know… Actually…" He took a deep breath. "We were going to come home. We'd been out there for four weeks, and we were no closer to finding him. Everywhere we went, you'd been there before us. You really did look for him, didn't you?"
"Yes, we did." She nodded.
"I know. And we couldn't find him. We'd given up. We only found him because someone told Teyla where he was. And even then, he'd managed to get out by himself. We just bumped into him on the street. And I think… I can't help but think…" Another deep breath. "What if they were playing with us? What if they were waiting for us to give up, and then gave us that tip-off and let him go…? If we'd given up earlier, would they have–?"
"I don't know, Rodney." She reached over the desk to squeeze his hand.
"We have to go back," he told her.
"And if I order you not to?"
"Don't. Please. Don't." He almost sobbed it. "We need to find out… We need to punish those… those…"
"Yes." Her hand squeezed tighter. "I'm sorry. That was wrong of me. Yes, we'll go back, and if we find out that Dareon was involved in this…" Her voice and her eyes completed the threat.
"When?" He stood up, ripping his hand from hers. "Now?"
"When Colonel Sheppard is well enough to tell us more," she said, "and when you and Teyla and Ronon are rested. Colonel Sheppard isn't the only person to have gone through an ordeal. " She smiled. "I can't condone what you did, and it can't happen again, but you know something, Rodney? I think that I like the Rodney McKay who did this thing a whole lot more than I would have liked the Rodney McKay who didn't."
He left her office with the memory of her parting smile. Strangers smiled in the hallways, but there was no pleasure in that, not any more. He had expected to face her anger, and he had been prepared to fight – heroic, martyred McKay, who had risked his career for a cause that had proved right in the end. Instead, she had given him understanding, and against that, it seemed that he had no defences.
He had slept, in the end, after all. Four hours and five minutes, for the first time. He then watched twenty-three minutes pass on the clock, before he lost track of time again. The next time he saw things clearly, four more hours had passed. He was almost falling asleep again when someone came with breakfast.
He listened to the pattern of their footsteps as they walked away, and tried to fix that pattern in his mind, attaching it to the image of their face. One meal, he thought, as he began to eat the plate of food. Then he told himself that it was ridiculous to think that way. He was free now. Everything was normal. That was why he ate everything up, even though the last few mouthfuls almost choked him. That was why he smiled when Doctor Keller came to see him. Her head blocked the clock, and that was bad, but when she stood just so he could see the time on her wrist watch, though the hands were upside-down.
"How are you feeling, colonel?"
"Fine," he said. Fine.
She did the tests that she had to do, and her touch was still fire. He fought the urge to grab her wrist; he fought the urge to slap her away. If she noticed how fast his heart was beating, she said nothing. "I don't see any need to keep you here much longer," she said.
"That's good," he said. "Not that there's anything wrong with your hospitality, doc, but…"
"I know." She flashed a quick smile, with nervousness capering underneath it like a monster. She was trying to be serene, but her eyes were as noisy as McKay's. "Nothing beats your own room, does it?"
His own room – another cell. "No." He smiled. "I bet the girl next door forgot to feed my cat." He ran his finger up and down the blanket. "So, am I back on active duty?"
She shook her head. "You need to gain weight first." Her hands fluttered like McKay's, dizzying him with movement, so he had to look away. "You will also need to talk to Doctor Heightmeyer–"
"You, too?" McKay strode up behind her. "Sam's making me see her, too. Hey, we can go together."
He felt himself retreating towards the ceiling. Part of him saw everything from a very long way away. "I think she'd need a shrink herself if she had to deal with both of us together. Though you by yourself would do that."
Keller slipped away. "Can I…?" McKay looked suddenly unsure. "Yesterday you just wanted Ronon."
His old self – the man he had once been, not so long ago – pointed out that he should smile, so he did. "Sit down, McKay." He settled down deeper in the pillows. "Don't mind me if I close my eyes."
McKay humphed. Nearly an hour passed, but Sheppard was fairly sure that his eyes had been open all the time, after all. He had watched the hand move slowly around the clock. The person who lay on the bed had even spoken a few times, reacting to the things McKay was saying. He had no idea what he had said, though. McKay said so many things, and it was just too much, just too much, and it all blurred into one, into nothing.
Heightmeyer came, too, some time after that. He smiled, and told her that he'd make his own way to her office later, because they didn't do anything to me, doc, and everything was back to normal now, wasn't it?
Ronon came in once, and Teyla, but not together. McKay was still there. "Haven't you got a home to go to?" Sheppard asked him.
"Not really," McKay said, looking as if he'd been startled into honesty. "I've been away for a month. I expect they're used to working without me now. I'm not sure… uh…" His eyes spoke of things too overwhelming to understand.
Then someone brought lunch, and he knew from their footsteps that they were not the person who had brought his breakfast. He watched the food emerge through a crack in the curtain, and after that, he asked for the curtain to be opened a little more.
He learnt that he could cope with McKay as long as he didn't look directly at him, and as long as he saw him only from the ceiling. McKay had managed to scrounge a meal of his own, and was eating it off a tray on his knee. Making sounds of appreciation, he spoke with his mouth full. "The food's the best thing about being home, you know. I don't know what those furry things were that Ronon kept finding, but… ugh." He grimaced. "This, though, is almost excellent."
The colours of the meal seemed unnaturally bright, and the flavours exploded in his mouth, until he felt as if he was drowning. He ate it, though, fluid and flavour pouring into his stomach, tendrils of warmth seeping through his veins, reawakening him. It was horrible, but he felt a little better, after.
Colonel Carter came by, and McKay made quick excuses to leave. Carter spoke to him, and he replied. Afterwards, that was all he remembered.
Some time after that, he knew that he needed to shower. "I need clothes," he told McKay.
"Oh. And you expect me to get them for you? What am I – your servant?" But McKay stood up and started to move away. "Believe me, I draw the line at your underwear drawer."
Sheppard headed for the small bay of showers. He took his clothes off, and stood beneath the warm water, feeling it stream over his skin. He washed his hair, and soaped every inch of his body. He imagined the touch of the white room flowing away; imagined its memory being scoured away from his skin. There would be no scent, no smear of dirt, no molecule anywhere upon him that had been there in that prison cell. It was washed away. It was over. It was finished.
Someone knocked on the door, and he froze, because he hadn't heard their footsteps over the noise of falling water. He switched the shower off, and reached for a towel, wrapping himself in it thoroughly. He pressed his hand to the door, and tried to hear the sound of person on the other side breathing.
"Clothes?" McKay said. "And never say that I don't do anything for you." Sheppard unlocked the door. "Not looking! Not looking!" McKay's hand passed through a bundle of clothes, and Sheppard fought the urge to grab his hand, to hold on to it, because when it was gone, he would have nothing again, just the white walls of the shower cubicle. Stupid, he told himself. I'm back on Atlantis now.
He got dressed. McKay had brought him his old uniform – black t-shirt, grey jacket. Despite his protests, he had brought underwear – "we don't talk about this, ever," McKay said afterwards, when he emerged. He remembered what it had felt like to get dressed for the first time in the clothes his captors had provided him. That had felt like yielding, like losing a little of himself. Now he was clothing himself in the old uniform of Lieutenant-Colonel John Sheppard, military commander of Atlantis. He was assuming a mantle, and inside he would be just the same as he looked on the outside.
"I thought she'd be furious," McKay said, much later, when they were walking through tunnel-like corridors where sounds swelled and echoed, and people passed with staring faces, many of them cleft with a smile. It took him a while to work out who McKay was talking about, and he wondered suddenly if the shower had been a dream, and Carter had only just left. "Turns out she… Well, you don't want to know about that, do you? There goes selfish McKay, talking about himself." Sheppard listened to the sound of his footsteps. "Why won't you look at me?" McKay blurted out.
Sheppard raised his eyebrow. "Can't bear to see your ugly face."
"No, really." McKay sounded quite distressed. "I'd never noticed how much you do look at people, not until you… well, until you… uh… don't. "
He counted ten steps, then another ten. He crossed the white room, the continued on – on and on, and still on, still going. Like a figure in a mirror, his other self walked on the ceiling, wondering how he was going to respond.
"It's too much," he found himself saying. "I didn't see anybody for six weeks. I didn't talk to anyone. I didn't know if it was night or day. It was just a white room. And you talk so much, and your hands… and your… your face. So much movement. It's too much." He managed to salvage a smile. "And it's your ugly face, like I said."
"Oh." McKay's footsteps stopped. Sheppard drifted to a halt, too, and for a moment there was almost silence – not the silence of the white room, but something that, once upon a time, he might have thought was silence.
Nothing happened, he thought. They didn't do anything to me. He looked directly at McKay, seeing his steady eyes, the twitch of muscle that betrayed how hard he was trying to keep his mouth still, his frozen hands half risen towards his chest. Even when McKay started moving again, Sheppard kept on looking at him. He made it to seven before he had to look away.
The man on the ceiling let out a breath, and gently drifted down, so that he was whole again, only one of him. He glanced at McKay again, and although his heart ran fast, it was also steady. Someone passed him, coming the other way, and smiled broadly. "It's good to see you back, colonel."
Then they were at Heightmeyer's office. "You must be a higher priority than me," McKay said. "I don't get her until this evening."
Sheppard managed a smile as he paused at the door. "Those who are about to die…"
He entered, closing the door behind him. "Colonel Sheppard," she greeted him. "We're all very glad to see you back."
"Yeah," he said. "Glad to be back."
He sat down where she indicated. Her room felt small and alien. Although he could see the towers of Atlantis through the windows, it didn't feel like home. The woman in front of him was just another sort of torturer, wanting to rip out secrets and string them up in front of the world. No, he told himself. She's just doing her job. She just wants to help. It did nothing to make him feel more comfortable, though he hid it with a smile, and leant back comfortably, crossing his legs, right ankle on left knee.
She started by asking him innocuous questions, and he answered them, but stayed wary. One day the footsteps outside his door would pause, the door would open, and the torture would begin. He hesitated sometimes before answering, looking for words that could safely be said out loud.
"Is that one of those trick questions?" he asked her once. "One of those questions that's not about what it seems to be about?"
"No tricks," she said. "I'm here to help you."
"I don't need help."
At least she didn't deny it, didn't call him John, didn’t lie to him.
More questions came. Her face seemed washed-out, pale skin fading into pale lips, fading into white, no longer existing at all. McKay and the others had asked him questions in the white room. Like her, they had not really been there, just a construct of his mind, painted on the white walls of his prison.
"No. You just get on and do your job." He found himself saying it; found, though, that he had no memory of what question she had asked. He stumbled over continuing. "No point in looking back. No time."
"But sometimes the past has a way of catching up with you, unless you deal with it," she said. "Everything we see and do has the potential to change us. That's not weakness, that's just life."
"I leave the philosophy to others." He smiled, hand closing round his ankle.
He looked at his watch – not his watch, but any watch would do. He watched the second-hand glide around, and then he was moving with it, drifting in a circle… flying high above the clouds, wheeling through the never-ending freedom of the skies. Somewhere far away, back on the ground in a small white room, her voice continued. He heard his own voice, too, so he knew that he was answering her.
The sky shattered into a thousand pieces, and each of the shards drew blood.
"Deep breaths," she was saying. She had moved close to him, but not to touch him – thank God, not to touch. "It's all right. It's all right. You're safe here." And that was even worse – that anyone should ever have to say such words to him; that he should ever be in a position to need them. He raked his hands across his face, and felt a faint smear of wetness against his fingers.
"Doctor Keller pumped me full of drugs," he managed to say. He even managed a smile. "I'm not myself." She moved fractionally away, and he felt himself able to breathe that little bit deeper. She remained still and serene. "I zoned out," he found himself admitting. "I don't know what I just said to you."
"And that scares you?" But he couldn't answer yes, not to that.
"I'm here to help you," she said, some time later, after he told her in carefully-chosen words that he had no need of her help. "You told me that you see your job as being to protect everyone in this city." He felt his breathing falter; he had no memory of saying that, either. "My job is the same. Perhaps I don't do it in quite such a literal fashion, but people can be hurt by more than just bullets."
"I know." He spread his arm across the top of the seat. "I have every respect for your skills. I've sent people to see you, haven't I?"
"You have." She nodded. "Why do you think you're different? You accept that I can help people under your command, so why are you resistant to talking to me yourself? Is it because you think a leader should be immune to such things? Do you think you're too strong to be–?"
"It's because they didn't do anything to me!" he shouted.
"Oh." Her gaze was still level. "Can you tell me what they didn't do?"
He knew that she would ask and ask until he told someone. He would need to put it in a report, because that was part of his job. Keep his brain nice and distant, and write the words down, so it was finished, done – chapter closed; end of story. So he told her about the hook and the drain, about the footsteps, about the razor. He told her how they would walk up and down, up and down, and about the white walls and the constant light. Nothing about the counting, though. Nothing about the hallucinations. Just the facts. Keep it external. What was done, not what he did.
"That would count as torture in every civilised nation of the world," she said quietly, when he was finished.
"But they didn't…" His voice died away.
"The psychological effects of solitary confinement are well attested," she said, "and very real. Even when the reason for the confinement is perceived as just, there can be serious effects after only a few weeks. The circumstances of your confinement were particularly barbaric–"
"Been doing your homework, doc?"
She did not deny it. "People in solitary confinement often suffer hallucinations. They have heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, and on release, often experience difficulties with social interaction–"
"I don't care what 'people' feel," he told her. "I'm not them. I've been through worse. They didn't do anything to me."
"Yes, they did."
But they hadn't. They didn't. He'd come close to breaking, and he'd had no cause at all. Now he was back, and he had a job to do, and men to lead, and people to protect.
"You won't recover from this, colonel, until you accept that what they did to you was very real. You were tortured."
He saw too many things in her eyes. He saw the images of McKay, Ronon and Teyla, appearing and disappearing in the white room. He saw blood welling from a razor. He saw a stranger's face in the mirror, wrapped in a beard that was made up from days and weeks. He remembered himself crying. He saw himself broken.
"Nothing happened." His voice trembled a little, but not much. "It was difficult, and… and… it won't be easy, not at first, because…" He stilled his hands. "It's overwhelming. You get used to things, don't you, and this is new. But it's not a big deal. I need to get back to normal…" and get on with doing my job. "Everything's going to carry on as normal." Just like it always does. Just like it always has. And there are dreams, sometimes, and memories, but nothing I can't cope with – nothing I haven't coped with before.
She was saying something, but it was just empty movement of the lips, with no real meaning.
Everything's going to carry on as normal, he vowed.
"You're going back," Colonel Carter said, when Ronon opened the door to her knock.
Ronon sat on the bed, pulled out a knife, and started to sharpen it. It was in no need of sharpening, but he was well aware of all the arts of intimidation. Not that this Carter seemed to be one who was easy to intimidate; that he had already learnt.
"When are you planning to go?" she asked.
"Tomorrow morning." He had calculated the hours, and that would be night back on the planet.
"To get revenge?"
He held the knife up, twisting it so it caught the light. Imagination had mostly been scoured out of him by the realities of seven years on the run, but he had enough left to dwell with pleasure on the blood that this blade would shed. "Justice," he said.
"Justice. Ah." She walked away from him, turning her back, and he reminded himself that this was a gesture of trust, and not the sign of weakness in an enemy. "I said this to Rodney, and it wasn't fair of me, but I will say it to you, anyway. What if I order you not to go?"
"You've seen what they did to him." He jabbed the knife back into the scabbard. Imagination was sparse, but memory was vivid. Sheppard, obviously terrified. Sheppard, his mind barely there at all. Sheppard, starved and exhausted, unable to look at anyone, cringing from any touch. "How can we let that go unpunished?"
"I have no intention of letting it go unpunished," she said, "but neither do I want a lynch mob going out in the name of Atlantis."
"Wouldn't do it in the name of Atlantis," he told her. "I'd do it in my name. In his name. For him."
She turned to face him. "Colonel Sheppard needs his friends right now. He needs them to be here, not off-world, committing murders in his name."
Which showed how little she understood, despite her military title. "If I was in Sheppard's position, best thing anyone could do for me would be to punish the guys who did that to me, just so I knew they were dead."
"They will be punished," she said again, "but we will do it properly, with a team, and with Colonel Sheppard's input. Ronon, you are not to go out and do this by yourself." She smiled. "No, and not with Teyla, either, or any other group you can put together. We do this properly, and when I say so."
He looked at the picture over his bed – victorious warriors, triumphant in the face of all enemies… and now dead. "You can't give me orders."
"Actually, I can." Her voice was mild. "You live here, Ronon, and that means that your actions reflect on Atlantis. You chose to leave, and did so with our blessing, and then you came back, and, again, we welcomed you. Then you left again, this time with no warning. If you leave a third time…"
He stepped towards her. "Is that a threat?"
"Not a threat," she said. "Just the truth. We can't have people living here who dance entirely to their own tune, because that endangers the rest of us."
Clenching his fists, he whirled away from her. The picture stared down at him. He needed a new picture, he realised – his new team, to hang beside the picture of his old life. "I don't care," he said. "Sheppard needs–"
"No." She was too close behind him. "You want to do it because you need it."
He moved past her, heading for the door. "I don't care–"
"Ronon." She reached out a hand in his direction, but didn't try to grasp his arm. "We will go back, I promise you that. Trust us. Please."
He pushed past her, and left the room, hating her, because he feared that she was right.
End of chapter eight
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