Summary, warnings etc. in previous parts.
Earlier chapters start here: Chapter one
Chapter nine: Those left behind
Teyla had tried John's quarters, tried the infirmary, even tried the training rooms. He was not back on active duty, that much she knew, but she tried his favourite balcony and some of his known off-duty haunts, and there was no sign of him. In the end, she headed towards Rodney's lab, wondering if he was there, but she met Rodney hovering in the hallway not far away.
"Have you seen John?" she asked him.
"I took him to Doctor Heightmeyer," he said, but Teyla already knew that John had left Kate's office. "After that… I… Have you tried the mess hall? There's cake," he added hopefully, when she was slow to nod.
She walked beside him. It was strange, she thought, that she had spent three of their Earth years with Rodney McKay, but had seen more of him in the last month than she had seen in any of that time. They had lived cooped up in a jumper, the three of them together. They had heard each other's dreams. They had seen each other half-asleep in the morning, before fears had been hidden behind the mask of the day. They had shared stories. But none of us were properly ourselves during that month, she thought, and wondered if they would assume their old ways now they were back.
No, she thought, a moment later, perhaps we were more completely ourselves than we have ever let ourselves be. They had all been prepared to do anything to search for a friend. Never again would be doubt that Rodney McKay was capable of caring deeply and selflessly for others. It was merely that he had no idea what to do with such feelings, and showed them in strange ways.
"Did the science department survive your absence?" she asked him, as they walked.
"You know them," he said. "They need me around to give them direction. Without me, they're rudderless, and they make the most ridiculous, stupid mistakes. Even Radek, who, I have to admit, has come on in leaps and bounds since he's been exposed to my influence –"
"You have not yet returned to your lab, have you, Rodney?" she said, caught between amusement and understanding.
Once, she thought, he might have denied it, but that was before they had spent a month together. "No. No, I haven't."
Scared, McKay? John might have said, sometimes goading Rodney into confessing truths that he would not otherwise have said. "I am sure they will be very pleased to see you back," she said, instead.
"Well, that's the thing. If they're pleased to see me back, that means that they missed me, and that means that they're going to blame me for leaving. And if they're not pleased to see me back, then… No, no, of course they will be. Can't cope without me, you know."
"Rodney." She touched his arm. "We made our choice. We cannot run from the consequences of that choice, but we must never forget that John is back with us now, and that he knows that we never stopped looking."
"Yes. Yes. We… Oh, look! There's only three slices left."
They had reached the mess hall. While Rodney went to secure his cake, Teyla looked around. Despite her words to Rodney, she was not entirely sure what welcome she would receive. She was an outsider, and always would be – oh, not to John, and not to Rodney, but to some of these people, perhaps many. Would they think better of her because she had spent so long searching for Colonel Sheppard, or would they distrust her all the more, for being so long away?
Several people smiled at her, and she gave a cautious smile back. Then she saw John, and everything else was forgotten. "Rodney." She collected him from the line where he was juggling plates of cake, heedless of glares. "Over there." She nodded towards the table on the far side of the room, where John sat, alone, but very much the centre of attention. As she watched, several people greeted him or saluted. Others, further away, were clearly talking about his return.
She headed towards him. "May I sit here?" she asked him.
"You don't normally ask."
She sat down carefully. Rodney appeared a moment later, intent on his plates. He sat down without a word, and started eating. John watched Rodney's hands, she noticed. He had a sandwich and a slice of cake in front of him, untouched.
She opened her mouth to speak, but someone walked past the table, nodding at John as they passed. He nodded back, but she saw that his lips were moving minutely, as if he was counting. "How are you feeling, John?" she asked him, when they had gone. She hated to feel so awkward around him, but she knew that he bore wounds that were not of the flesh; she had seen that much in the jumper, the day before.
"Fine," he said. "I'm good." His eyes rose to Rodney's face, stayed there for a while, then moved away to the heart of the mess hall, where there were the most people. Following the direction of his gaze, she saw a couple flirting. She saw an argument conducted in tight whispers, and the easy laughter of a group of friends. She saw a soldier who had clearly been hurt recently, and a scientist who ate alone, working on a laptop all the while.
"Good," Rodney echoed, his mouth full. "Are you eating that?"
Sheppard's eyes darted back, and down to his food. He picked up the sandwich, but did not eat it. His hand was trembling, she noticed. Perhaps he saw that, too, for he put the sandwich down abruptly, and hid his hands under the table. "It takes some getting used to," he admitted, "being able to eat whenever and whatever I like, and not having to… wait…"
"Whatever you like?" Rodney spluttered. He was onto his second slice now. "The trouble with this place is that people are always telling you that you can't have another helping, Doctor McKay, that you've got to leave some for others, and we won't get any more of that until the Daedalus gets back, so until then it's all strictly rationed. Rationed? So even a… a… a cleaner gets the same amount as me. Food should be allocated according to the importance of the work we do. So I –" He pointed at his chest with a fork. "– should get twice what he gets." He pointed at some oblivious person across the room. "The brain consumes energy, did you know that?"
"Rodney," Teyla hissed, but Sheppard gave a quick smile, almost like his old self, if it was not for the tension beneath it.
"To each according to his ability, huh?" he said.
"Yes." Rodney held the fork aloft in triumph for a moment, then returned to his cake. "You allowed to eat that, anyway?" he asked, pointing at John's food. "I thought they'd have come up with some sort of nutrition plan, or some such nonsense."
"Expect they have," John said. He took a bite of his sandwich, and chewed it, his expression frozen. "I reckon that any food's good, right? I'm half starved."
"More than half, by the looks of you."
Rodney… This time, she could not say it; it would be too unsubtle to say it out loud. But perhaps it would have been the wrong thing to say, anyway, because John was smiling again. She remembered how he had been after the incident with Kolya and the Wraith. He had preferred the company of Rodney and Ronon, because they were the only ones who acted towards him as if absolutely nothing had happened, sparring with him in their own particular ways, one with weapons, one with words.
She watched him finish his sandwich. Between mouthfuls, he spoke several times to Rodney, and Rodney responded. It was light banter about nothing, but she saw how his eyes shied away from looking at Rodney, until he forced them to. When Rodney left to get some more food, she saw how John let out a tight breath, then snapped his gaze around to look at the hall again. "Glad to see you back, sir," someone called, and John raised his hand in acknowledgement. Unnoticed on the table, his other hand was tense and quivering.
"Why did you come here?" she could not keep herself from asking. She knew how he had been the day before, and yet here he was, deliberately seeking out the most crowded place in Atlantis, where it was more than certain that people would want to talk to him. He was well respected in the city, and he had been given up for dead, and here he was. Wherever he went, he would be noticed.
"You know what they say." He quirked a smile. "Got to get back in the saddle."
She was far too conscious of all the eyes of them. She remembered how he had been in the jumper, and hoped fervently that he would not collapse like that again, not in front of all these people, many of them his own men. He was talking normally, and smiling freely, but he was far from well.
"Don't look at me like that," he rasped suddenly. "I'm me. Half starved, I know, but still me. They didn't…" His voice faltered, then recovered. "They didn't do anything to me."
He had said much the same after Kolya. Yes, he had been tortured, hurt, drained almost to death, but his life had been given back to him, and therefore he was unchanged. End of story. Nothing wrong, and stop asking about it, please, and let's forget the whole thing. Sometimes she thought it had been harder for them – for Elizabeth, in particular – to recover from watching it all, than it had been for him to recover from living it. Now she suddenly wondered if he had just been lying to them all, all along.
"John…" She reached to touch him, but he snatched his hand away.
"Got to report back to Keller," he said. "I'd better keep in her good books. Never annoy someone who knows how to use needles."
He walked away, and yet more people greeted him as he left. "He's gone?" Rodney squeezed back into his chair. "He seems better. Good. The sooner we put this whole sorry affair behind us, the better."
She nodded slowly, but could not entirely agree.
Sheppard ran. When he could no longer run, he walked. When he could no longer walk, he sat down – but it was more of a tumble, really – and leant his head back against the wall. This was on the open floor of the city, where he could feel the wind and sunlight on his face.
I can do this, he thought. He gazed up at the blue, then out at the distant place where the ocean met the sky. How vast it was! He had been… six weeks, he remembered. Six weeks locked in a tiny white room. Then he had escaped into the outside, but it had been too much, too soon, and then he had been back inside again, moving from one room to the next, trapped by the prison bars that were people's concern.
Even Atlantis was a prison of a sort. But here, outside, he was free. There were no faces. There were no bars.
Which was why he could only stay here for such a little while.
It was ridiculous to be afraid of other people. It was crazy to flinch from looking at their faces. It was stupid to let himself drift into two, to watch himself with distant detachment, to lose whole minutes and have no idea what he had said. It was horrible to break down in front of others, to see pity in their eyes. Nothing had happened to him. Nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. He slammed his fist into the wall. Nothing. Had. Happened.
His fist hurt, but pain brought clarity. He thought about how he had gone to the mess hall, how he had sat there and accepted greetings, even given some back himself, with a wry nod or a joke. He had looked McKay full in the face. His first few smiles had been forced, but by the end, they had almost been genuine. Each greeting had been easier than the last. No, they hadn't been easier, but they hadn't killed him. He had been afraid of such a stupid, ridiculous thing, and he had faced his fears, and here he was.
Yes. Hiding from them all again, he thought. He raised his hands, and saw that they were still trembling. The pain in his fist was solid, though, and a distraction.
Can't do it all at once, he told himself, and he clenched his fist, heightening that pain, using it to stop part of himself floating away, and no ceiling to stop me now, just the sky, so I'll fly up and up, up into the stars, flying free, and never come back, never return to this shell.
"Can't," he said out loud. "It'll take time." A day, perhaps. Maybe two. He'd eat in the mess hall, and look people full in the face. He'd act as he always had acted, and he'd keep a firm grip on himself, and stop himself from drifting away. It was like putting on clothes. If you acted a certain way, you became it.
He closed his eyes. I'll go back soon, he thought, but he must have fallen asleep. He awoke pounding at the walls of his prison, tearing at the shroud that was covering his face. He began to start to his feet, but everything lurched dizzily around him, and he fell sideways, then rolled onto his back. The sky stared back at him, huge and unknowable. Stars were eyes, and he saw himself from a vast height – a tiny figure, dwarfed by the vastness of the universe. There were so many living things out there – so many countless billions. They were looking down on him, and there was nothing between him and them, nothing but emptiness between himself and all the worlds.
"No," he told himself. "No," as he scooted back to press himself against the wall. "No," as he brought his arms up to his chest, and curled himself into his hands. "No," as his breathing trembled, fast and desperate. "This is not me." He held his breath, and refused to let himself breath again until he knew it would be long and deep. "This is not me." He uncurled his fists, lowered his arms, pressed his hands against the floor. "This is not me."
He stood up, supporting himself with a hand on the wall. Nothing had happened, and he refused to let himself fall apart because of nothing. He had faced far worse than this, and survived. Hell, men under his command had faced worse than this, and shrugged it off without a thought. He had come close to breaking in the prison cell, but he had pulled himself together, and he had walked out by himself, without needing to be rescued. If he could survive that, he could survive this.
Nothing happened, he repeated. He forced his trembling hand to stay still. This is not me. Then, with an easy smile pasted on his face, he returned to places where there were people.
Rodney flapped his hand. "Yes, yes. I've heard it all before."
Kate Heightmeyer looked at him in that irritating serene way of someone who thought they had all the answers. "Heard what?"
"What you're going to say." He nodded smugly. "You're going to tell me that I went after Sheppard because I couldn't bear to be sitting there doing nothing, because I like to be at the heart of things, doing the saving, and because I couldn't save… Well, that. Blah blah, yadda yadda, so on and so forth." He raised his finger. "I'm right, aren't I?"
"I wasn't going to say that."
"You weren't?" He lowered his hand.
She smiled. "We're here for you to talk, Rodney, not me."
"Oh." He played back what he had just said, and this time it didn't seem so confident, when you stripped it of the tone of voice, and just heard the words. "How's Sheppard?" he asked, instead. "I know he talked to you. I walked him here. Because he's my friend." He said it like a challenge, daring her to contradict.
"I can't tell you that," she said. "Confidentiality –"
"Oh, please. We all know you'll tell… Sam –" He faltered fractionally, on the point of saying 'Elizabeth.' "– everything we say."
"I report what I need to report," she said, "if it affects someone's ability to do their job. Everything else is confidential. So, no, I can't tell you what Colonel Sheppard told me."
"But he's our friend," Rodney blurted out. "We need to know how to act around him, how to help him. He's not himself and I… I don't know what to do about it. He looked better in the mess hall, but he's not, not really. I don't know what happened to him. He says it was nothing, but have you looked at him? It's like with the Wraith. He said that was nothing, but we'd all seen it on the screen in glorious technicolour, every last detail of him withering away. We didn't see it this time, so how can we know?" And still she looked at him, calm and non-judgemental. "I'm not good at handling people, you know," he found himself admitting. "It's easy for someone like Teyla. I want everything to be back to normal, but I know I'll end up saying the wrong thing."
"I think," she said slowly, "that the colonel needs people to treat him as normally as possible, so your 'wrong thing' might actually be the right thing, if it's you being you." She smiled briefly, but then the smile faded. "If he tries to tell you that nothing happened… He's not lying. He's telling the truth as he sees it. But it's not true. I can't say more that that, but you must remember that."
"Oh. Oh." He frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"But we're here to talk about you," she said firmly. "About why you stole a jumper and went absent without leave for a month. And, yes, Colonel Carter told me truth. I know you went against orders."
"To save Sheppard," Rodney retorted. "Why do you people have to make things seem more complicated? Why do you make it all about psychology? We went to save him, because no-one else was doing anything. We found him. We brought him back. End of story."
"You believe that?"
The sun was going down behind her, haloing her hair with fire. He watched a jumper flying home, and remembered looking at much the same scene weeks before, when they had first come to their decision.
And still she sat there, patiently waiting for him. He remembered the doubts he had felt just days before, when weeks had gone by with no success. We were wrong to leave, he had said, then. Well, Sheppard's rescue put the lie to that, didn’t it? Sheppard was safe, and that made it right.
But Sheppard wasn't right. And Rodney had barely slept the night before, and Sam hadn't been angry with him, and he still hadn't dared face Radek and the others.
"I know what Teyla thinks," he began. "Sam, too. It's like I said. Couldn't cope with losing someone else. Hating to be powerless. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera." He flapped his hand in a circle. "Because Carson died. And then Elizabeth… Ronon left – I took his picture, you know, to remember him by, although it was hideous, but I didn't say goodbye, not properly, and if his people hadn't turned to the dark side, he wouldn't have come back, would he?" His hand was still now. "It's always us who go after him. It's always us… And me… I've saved the city how many times, me with my brain. And we were stuck in that infirmary. We couldn't look for him. We couldn't look for him. I felt… It felt… terrible."
"Do you think they're right, then – Teyla and Colonel Carter?"
He let out a breath, and closed his eyes for a moment. "Yes."
"And do you regret it?" Her voice was quiet, seeping into the darkness.
He shook his head. "No. Because we did it for him. Even if we did it for ourselves, too, it was for him as well. Even though we chased dead ends… Even though we just duplicated what they'd already done… We got him back." He smiled. "We got him back."
"Yes." Her voice was smiling, too. "Yes, you did."
"And even Sam said I did the right thing. She did. I heard her." He stood up, basking in the glory of the setting sun. "Well, it looks like we're finished here." She tried to say something – but what was there left to say? – but, still smiling with satisfaction, he left the room.
He went straight from there to his lab, and strode confidently through the door. "Therapy works, Radek," he said, clapping the other man on the back. "Who'd have thought it? Now, let's see what messes you lot have been making while I was away, and set about fixing them."
Ronon dodged, and came up, stick whirling. It impacted solidly, and he heaved it away, dodged again, and leapt, bringing it down in an arc to the right. He was covered with sweat, gasping for breath, and he could already feel the bruises developing across his ribs.
"That's enough," Teyla gasped. "Enough."
Ronon stalked away, throwing the stick down. He grabbed a towel, wiped off the worst of the moisture, then downed a jug of water.
On the far side of the training room, Teyla did the same. Her skin was glistening, and strands of hair were dark and matted against the side of her neck. "You are angry," she said.
"Yes." His blood sang, crying out to fight with her again. He slammed the stick into the wall; followed it with his fist.
"Why are you angry?" Her voice was mild now, but he had seen the same fury in her eyes during the fight, and he had felt the fury in the blows that had shot in past his defence, and landed on his body. Whatever her voice said now, his flesh was marked with her anger.
"Want to make them pay," he snarled. "They need to die for what they did to Sheppard. Carter stopped me. I should have gone anyway. She said there'd be justice." He spat the word like a curse. "It's been three days…" He slammed the stick into the bench. "Should have gone by myself."
She sat down on the bench beside him. "Why did you stay?"
He couldn't answer that, not yet. Because he'd ignored all their advice and left Atlantis, and look how that had turned out? Because this was the only home he had now, and if he broke the rules too often, he might be forced to leave it… because Weir would never have made him leave, but now there was this Carter…?
Because Carter said that he could help Sheppard more by staying than by going? People died when he left them. They got fed on by the Wraith, and tortured, and destroyed, and then they became the thing they had most despised, and revenge didn't make it better at all, did it? It made him feel better for a moment, but it didn't make a difference to them.
He wasn't good with people; he had lived too long without them. Women were supposed to understand these things, weren't they? If Carter said he could help Sheppard better by staying, then there was a possibility that it was true. But he was useless here. He should have gone. Then he could return and present Sheppard with proof that those monsters were dead. That's what he'd want, if he was in Sheppard's position.
No, if he was in Sheppard's position, he would want – he would need – to strike the killing blow himself, to see the bodies with his own eyes, to lay his suffering to rest by killing the people responsible for it.
"Because he needs to be there when I do it," he said. "Selfish to go by myself."
She nodded. He looked away. Oh, he hated this! How he hated this! He had no idea how to help someone who had been traumatised. On Sateda, he had rescued people and saved people, but he had never had to deal with what came afterwards. Physical injuries he could treat. He knew that even the strongest soldier could sometimes be overwhelmed by pain, and he would hold them up and help them walk, and never say a word about it afterwards if they cried. He could kill the enemy to keep someone safe, but he had no idea how to help someone fight enemies that lay in their own mind.
The night before, he had dreamt of Tyre and the others, drained by the Wraith and restored, drained and restored, over and over and over, until they had become Sheppard, and then they had become himself. If he killed the men who had hurt Sheppard, perhaps he could stop his own dreams, but would that stop Sheppard's?
"I don't know how to help him," he admitted.
"No." She shook her head. "None of us do. But you are helping him. You were the one he wanted to walk with him to the infirmary that first night." She touched his sleeve. "Not all help comes at the point of a sword."
But that was what he knew. That was what he did. A big man, good at fighting, poor with words. That was all most people on Atlantis saw. Sometimes, that was all that the mirror showed him back.
He stood up. "Let's go again."
She faced him with her stick, swung it round, hit him quickly, and then he was on his back, her stick at his throat. "Who else are you angry with?" she demanded.
He raised his head, then let it fall back onto the padded floor. "With Sheppard," he said, "because he robbed us of our rescue." They had searched for weeks, fought for weeks, and it had all ended with a quiet meeting in a city street.
"And for being captured in the first place?"
He shook his head. "These things happen. Happened to me."
"He didn't break." Sheppard was damaged, not broken. A broken man would have been cowering in his cell, awaiting rescue. A broken man couldn't smile and joke even as his hands were trembling. A broken man… A broken man agreed to serve the Wraith rather than face fresh torture. "Things happen when the enemy has you," he said. "It would change anyone."
He thought of the things he had done during his years as a Runner – things that the young soldier on Sateda would never have done. Even the strongest man could be changed forever by torture. He closed his eyes, seeing Tyre and the others, withered by the Wraith. Even the strongest man…
"Anger will not help John," Teyla said. She eased her stick away from his throat, and took a step back.
Ronon got to his feet, and headed for the bench. Perhaps she was right, but anger was all he had right now. Hatred had kept him alive for seven years. If he took away the anger, what did he have left?
Kate smiled. "You're the only one of your team who ever comes here voluntarily."
Teyla looked beyond her, at the towers of the city that had become her home. "I was trained from childhood to be leader," she said, "to put my people's needs first, to be ready to die to protect them, and to kill. A leader can never follow their own heart."
Kate said nothing, silently waiting for her to continue.
"When my people first left Atlantis, I wanted to go with them, but I stayed, because I told myself that it was the right place for me. I did it for them, not because I wanted to. But this place has become my home. I have friends here who are as close to me as anyone amongst my own people have ever been. Now I sometimes wonder if only duty ties me to my people now, but my heart keeps me here."
She took a sip of her coffee – an Earth drink, in an Earth vessel, drunk while talking to a woman from a galaxy far from her own.
"When Colonel Sheppard disappeared, I was injured, and unable to join the search. I found this very difficult to bear. I would do anything – anything – to protect my people, whether they are from Athos, or from my new… family." She faltered slightly over the word, but decided to use it, giving it stress. "The three of us decided to go after him. I knew all along that we were not being entirely… rational, but I still went. I would do the same again. I have seen so many people taken, and have been powerless to do anything. For once, I wanted to do what I needed to do, for myself. For once, I would not play the leader."
She stood up and walked to the window, and looked out at the ocean. Her people were no longer just across the sea, but they were still on the other side of the Ring. She could be with them in a single turn of the clock, but at the same time, they had never felt so distant.
"But I did," she said. "I kept Ronon from killing too many bandits, when all I wanted to do was slaughter them because they might possibly have had John, and then to kill them because they did not. Yesterday, I told Ronon not to feel angry, but I feel that same anger. I feel angry with Ronon because John wanted him that first night, not me. I feel angry with Rodney because he talks the same as he always does, and that makes John smile, when I cannot. I watch John struggling to act as if nothing is wrong, and I want to shout at him to stop pretending. I tell Rodney that everything is going to turn out well, but inside I feel no such certainty."
"It is never easy to be a leader –"
"But I am not their leader." She turned to face Kate, her back to the window.
"You're the only woman on the team," Kate said. "I know that sounds like a sexist thing to say, but it does make a difference, I think."
Teyla smiled. "They do resemble little boys at times."
Kate waited for her to sit down again. "When someone suffers a trauma," she said, "it is as hard on those who care about them as it is for the person themselves. They often get forgotten. It's only natural for you to feel angry, lost or confused. It's only natural for you to feel torn between so many things. You'll want to help him, but you'll also want to scream at him for not getting better all in one go. You'll feel a bond with your team-mates, because they lived through the same thing as you did, but sometimes you'll hate them, because you'll see the same doubts in their eyes that you feel yourself. Teyla," she said gently. "This is not just about Colonel Sheppard. It never was, and it still isn't."
"I know." Teyla let out a breath. "I always knew that, even though the others did not."
"Then perhaps, because you knew this, you… held back. You never stopped being aware of the needs of the other two. You said you followed your heart, but you never did, not really, because you saw what you were doing too clearly. You always felt that shadow of selfishness over what you were doing."
Teyla closed her eyes.
"You weren't being selfish," Kate said quietly. "Accept what you feel. Don't feel guilty about it."
Teyla moved to the window again, resting her hand against its cold surface. "I will try." It was all she could promise. "John needs this."
"No," Kate said. "You do."
End of chapter nine
Chapter ten: Pain
It was five days since he had escaped. Four days, twenty-three hours, to be precise. That was since the jumper had touched down in Atlantis. He didn't know how many minutes, because he hadn't had a watch then. He tried not to be bothered by that.
That was going by Earth time. The pattern of day and night was different on this new planet – different from Earth, and different from the old planet. He had dug out a calendar from somewhere – one with winter scenes in Canada, a Christmas gift from McKay – and kept it on the floor beside his bed. A tiny red cross marked the day he had returned to Atlantis. Sometimes he turned back two pages, and looked at the date he had been captured, and at the six rows of empty squares that denoted his captivity.
Empty squares. Blank paper. White room.
Heightmeyer kept trying to tell him that the truth wasn't true. "It wasn't nothing. They tortured you, colonel," she said. He had been ready for torture – psyched up, prepared both mentally and physically – but they hadn't touched him. No reason why he couldn't return to normal. No reason… He let out a breath. He was growing tired of repeating the same things over and over, trying to make them true. He clung to certain lines like a mantra, but they wouldn't be true, dammit, they wouldn't be true.
Sometimes they were almost true. He ate every day in the mess hall, and never looked away from any conversation he would not have looked away from before. He briefed Carter quite dispassionately about what had happened, and managed not to lose a single word. He listened to McKay prattle on about everything under the sun, and he teased him back in kind, and the words that they spoke were no different from anything they would have spoken before; it was just that the layer beneath the words was changed.
But some things were the same. Four days, twenty-three hours and an unknown number of minutes after he returned to Atlantis, he was running through the empty parts of the city, trying to keep up with Ronon.
"Are you supposed to doing this?" Ronon had asked him, before they started.
Sheppard had looked down at his too-thin body. "Probably not. Going to do it, though."
Ronon had looked at him for a long second, then nodded. That had been… - he glanced at his watch – twenty-eight minutes ago. There had been no more words since then. Ronon led the way, as he always did. "Don't go easy on me," Sheppard had been all ready to say, but Ronon didn't.
He was almost able to lose himself in running. Running was like flying; it was freedom. No white walls stopped him. No-one compelled him, and he could stop any time he liked. There were just his feet, falling one in front of the other, rhythmical, pounding…
And then pain, too, creeping in gradually, insinuating itself beneath his skin. His chest and throat hurt with the effort of breathing. His legs and his back became solid masses of pain. His feet hurt. His head ached, and dizziness stabbed like a knife between his eyes.
Ronon stopped running, and flopped forward, his hands on his knees. "Time for a rest."
Sheppard clutched at the railing, and managed to stay standing. His chest was heaving so much that he couldn't speak. It was stupid to run so far when he was out of condition, when he was still underweight, still on medication. His stomach twisted with the need for food, and he knew that his muscles would be agonisingly stiff the following morning.
"I'm not done yet," he told Ronon, and set off again, this time leading him.
The following day, he could hardly move, but that was just the pain of stiff muscles, and he knew he had to push himself past it.
After breakfast, he sought out McKay in his lab. "I'm bored," he told him, looking at the silver back of his laptop, where there was the faintest ghost of his own reflection. "They won't clear me for duty yet. So here I am – one ATA gene, ready for your disposal. Use me however you like."
McKay grumbled. The other scientists kept shooting little looks at Sheppard, then pretended to be intent on his work when he turned towards them. He clenched his fist behind his back, letting the nails dig into his palm. He took half a step backwards, then another.
McKay offered him scraps of his lunch, eaten on the run. That startled him, for he hadn't noticed that much time pass. Sometimes he counted every second in an hour, but time sometimes still ran away from him, with whole half days disappearing completely. It still scared him.
But he ate what McKay offered, and listened while McKay harangued him about something or other. "That's where you're wrong," he told him at one point, making McKay's fork freeze mid-air.
"Wrong?" McKay spluttered, but Sheppard could no longer remember what had prompted him to say what he had said, so he could not justify it.
After that, McKay tossed some Ancient device at him and told him to "make that thing work, if you really want to make yourself useful, and not clutter this place up like a puppy-dog under foot."
Sometimes McKay was the easiest to be with, and sometimes it was Ronon. Both of them acted as if nothing had changed. The flow of McKay's words still sometimes overwhelmed him, but sometimes Ronon's silence caused him to drift away and lose time. Words were an anchor, too. Silence could be danger.
He took the device, and willed it to come on. A tiny spark shot across his palm, sending a stab of pain up his arm. He sat very still. The pain came again.
"Well?" McKay asked impatiently. "What is it?"
It was small enough to fit in his palm, and he closed his fingers around it. "I don't know."
The pain grew sharper.
"No-one else could get it to work." McKay looked a little rueful. "You and your super-powered gene."
"Yeah." Sheppard closed his other hand around it, cupping it between them. The pain shot up both arms, and sank like a hook into the back of his neck. "It tickles a bit. That's all."
Half way through the sixth day, still stiff, he asked Teyla to spar with him. "Should you be doing this?" she said, echoing Ronon's question.
"Yes," he said, shortly.
He picked up the sticks, but he was out of condition. He could lose himself in running, but in a fight, you had to be altogether yourself, aware of every nuance of every movement.
He lost. She apologised every time, and he smiled, and said that it hadn't hurt a bit. His whole body throbbed by the time she lowered the sticks and refused to fight any more.
"I'm good," he told her. "I'll get you next time."
"No." She shook her head. "No, you will not. I will not be party to this any more."
"Why are you deliberately seeking out pain?" Heightmeyer asked him, the following morning.
He froze, his finger half way through tracing flight paths on the chair beside him. "I'm not."
"I have eyes," she said.
And they were eyes that he still found hard to look at. Everyone else he could face, but she wanted him to be something that he was not. She wanted him to break down and admit that he had a problem. Well, yes, he did have a problem, but he was dealing with it.
"You're deliberately trying to get hurt," she said.
It was true, of course, but it was only little things. He'd thrown the razor away, hadn't he? He'd refused to hurt himself in any way that really mattered. All he'd done was run until he was ready to drop, accept a few bruises in a fight, and cling on for too long to something that dispensed mild pain. Pain brought clarity. It stopped him drifting away; it focused all his thoughts. He was stronger when he was in pain.
"They didn't hurt you," her mild voice said. "Not physically. Would it have been easier for you if they had?"
He looked beyond her, at the sky they would not let him fly in. Physical pain was simple; it was easy. You wore it outside, and it was like a badge. It gave you a licence to act differently from normal. It justified feeling broken.
He had not meant to speak, but he knew, really, that she was trying to help him. "I was ready to face it. I was expecting it."
"The physical presence of an enemy gives you something to fight against," she said. "Is physical pain the same?"
It was something to fight, yes. By triumphing over it, he could be strong. Everyone needed a focus. Without it, you were just drifting without an engine, floating in the sea.
"Or perhaps you think you deserve the pain."
"No." His head snapped up. "What should I deserve pain?"
"I'm not saying that you do," she said, "just asking you if you think you do."
"That's the sort of damn fool stupid thing that…"
He stopped; breathed in, and out. He'd almost broken, hadn't he, when faced with six weeks of softness and nothing. He shouldn't have come that close – shouldn't have. Should never had let himself get captured in the first place. Should have tried the door before. It was six weeks, but he wasn't the only one finding it difficult. McKay seemed normal, but sometimes there was an urgent desperation to his voice. Ronon seethed with anger. Teyla tried to exude calm, but was troubled underneath. They'd left Atlantis, for God's sake, and slept rough for a month, trying to find him.
And he'd given up on them – and why hadn't they found him earlier? Why hadn't they rescued him? He'd escaped by himself, and they were just strolling along the street, and… But they'd been prepared to give up everything for him, and here he was, thinking such things about them.
"No," he said firmly, spreading his hand on the chair, and curling the ends of his fingers into the fabric. "I'm not proud of what I did. I'm not proud of how I felt, or how I feel, but I don't think I deserve pain. Don't twist everything into indicating guilt."
"I won't." She smiled at him.
He didn't try to return the smile; wasn't entirely sure he could have done so, even if he'd tried. "It must helps me focus, okay, and there's nothing unusual about that. I'm not cutting myself, or anything. It's nothing. It doesn't matter. It'll stop."
He fell asleep after dinner, not meaning to, and woke up from a dream in which he had begged them to come and torture him, to please hurt me, please, just don't ignore me, don't leave me like this, with nothing.
He couldn't see his watch. The walls of his room closed in on him, and the door was closed. There was a window, but it just showed towers and pinpricks of light, and beyond that, only darkness.
Footsteps walked past his door.
He sat on the edge of his bed, shaking. He raised a trembling hand to his face, then let it fall again. The steps faded. The steps faded. He fought the urge to go to the door and feel for food. He flashed to an image of a razor against pale skin.
I can't go on like this, he thought.
He walked to the door; pressed his hand against it, and then his brow. The footsteps did not return.
"Nothing happened," he said out loud – that tired old mantra. "I shouldn't be feeling…"
Oh no. Oh, God, no. Oh no. He couldn't do this. He woke every hour from dreams. He tried to paper over the cracks, and sometimes it worked, but then when he was alone, he felt like this. Pain had helped, but then Heightmeyer had pulled him up on it, and after that, even that escape was tainted.
Is it because you deserve pain?
No. No. Of course not. No. He wasn't that far gone, not yet. He just needed… Oh, God, he had no idea what he needed. To feel normal. Yes, that, but how? To forget that all this happened – to push it away, just like everything else.
Sometimes he wanted to be alone, and the thought of people terrified him. But then, sometimes, when he was alone, he was suddenly convinced that he'd never see anyone ever again. He was locked away in this tiny room. The footsteps in the hallway were the only sounds he would ever hear. Time would disappear into a blur of nothingness, and he would never see anyone, never hear anyone, never touch anyone…
"Are you there?" he whispered into the door. "Is anybody there?"
He felt almost sick with nervousness as he tried the lock, but when the door opened, he felt little relief. The hallway was empty. He turned right and started to walk, and there was still no-one there. He passed a balcony, passed an intersection… Still no-one.
They've gone, he thought. "Don't be stupid," he told himself. "There's a big city for people to get lost in, and most of them will be in bed by now, anyway."
But I need to see them, he thought. Not alone. Not alone.
He thought about the mess hall. Not there, his mind whimpered. Too much. Too many.
He thought about McKay, but there would be questions, and far too many words. Instead, his feet made their way towards Ronon's room. Just to pass it, he thought. To see if I can hear him. To see if he's there.
He paused at Ronon's door. He wanted to move on, but couldn't quite bring himself to do so. The door opened, and he felt nothing – no embarrassment, no relief. "Sheppard." Ronon was dressed, and held an unsheathed knife in his hand. "Thought I heard someone."
Sheppard had hardly ever gone into Ronon's room. Ronon nodded at him now, giving him permission. Ronon sat down on the floor, and resumed the sharpening of his knife. Another nod, and Sheppard found himself sitting on the edge of Ronon's bed, beneath a picture of triumph.
Perhaps it was because he was so tired, that he asked it. Perhaps it was because he was still half in the grip of the dream. "How did you manage," he asked, "being alone all that time?"
Ronon raised the blade and studied it, then put it down. "Had something to fight," he said. "I started every day determined to stay alive, and to kill Wraith." He picked up the knife again. "They thought they were hunting me, but I turned it around. I was hunting them."
Sheppard let out a breath.
"It was different with you," Ronon said. "They took away all your weapons and took away anything you could fight. I'd have gone crazy inside of a week."
"You think I'm crazy?"
Ronon shook his head, but didn't answer. Instead, he said, "Could have gone crazy myself, looking for you. We just kept coming up short, against failure. That's why we had to leave Atlantis to look for you. People like you and me, we need something to fight. It kills us when we can't see an enemy."
He thought of Afghanistan, and how he had fought against orders, when there was no enemy to fight. He thought about the awfulness of that white room, with footsteps walking past endlessly, but never presenting him with the simplicity of pain.
But, "McKay, too," was all he said. "He doesn't look like a fighter, but he can't bear to be useless."
"McKay, too," Ronon said, "and Teyla. Perhaps all of us. Perhaps that's why we're here, because we're only really alive when we have a cause to fight."
"Maybe," Sheppard said. He felt his eyelids growing heavy.
"When I first got here," Ronon said quietly, "I used to sleep on the floor. I couldn't get used to a bed. I used to come back to my room, sometimes, when the noise got too loud. But sometimes I'd get up in the night and sleep outside, just so I could hear people."
Sheppard knew better than to look at Ronon. He looked away, but then his body must have taken over, because the next thing he knew, it was morning.
"Doesn't matter," Ronon said, before he could apologise. "Like I said, I'm used to sleeping on the floor."
Sheppard stretched. He felt better, he realised, and for the first time in days, he couldn't remember his dreams.
"I know what will make you feel even better." Ronon was sitting up, propped up on one elbow, and his eyes were glistening and intense.
He thought he knew what it was.
"They took away your ability to fight," Ronon said. "Take it back. They're still out there. Carter's just waiting for you to give the word."
End of chapter ten
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