Summary, warnings etc. in previous parts.
Earlier chapters start here: Chapter one, or you can read the entire story in a single file here.
Chapter eleven: The return
"You okay with this?" Carter asked.
Sheppard nodded, concentrating on the buckles of his vest. He suspected that Keller and Heightmeyer had recommended that he stay behind; he still wasn't cleared for active duty, after all. Carter had made the required token protests, but seemed to understand. There were some things that a man just had to do himself.
"Nothing I can't face," he added brightly. He bit back the rest of it. They didn't do anything to me. Heightmeyer didn't like him saying that. Perhaps, just perhaps, she was right.
They took away your ability to fight.
"On one condition," he said. "I get to drive."
Ronon stood close by, bristling with weapons. He wasn't wearing any more weapons than he normally wore, but somehow there seemed to be more of them. I'm gonna kick some ass, his stance shouted. But he had been quiet, almost gentle in the morning, when Sheppard had woken up. He knew that Ronon would never ever mention the fact that Sheppard had fallen asleep on his bed, and if he had heard the evidence of bad dreams in the night, on that, too, he would be silent.
"This is a shooting thing, right?" McKay said nervously from behind. "We're not doing the diplomacy thing?"
"We tried diplomacy," Carter said. "This morning I sent a message to Dareon asking him politely to account for what had happened in his own city. He continues to deny all knowledge, and pretty much accused us of faking the whole thing in order to justify our war-like actions."
"Faking?" McKay spluttered. "Faking?" Sheppard kept his eyes cast down.
"War-like actions," Ronon echoed, twirling his gun. "That'll be right."
"This could be seen as a act of war," Teyla said.
Carter appeared to be considering it, although of course she would have considered it before giving the order to depart. "It could," she said, "but we're not talking Wraith or Replicators. They're one city, and they don't know where we come from. At the worst, we're looking at another Genii." She let out a breath. "And they hurt one of our own. We can't let that go unpunished." A look seemed to pass between her and Teyla, but Sheppard had no idea what it meant.
The last of the supplies were loaded. "All present, sir," someone said. Sheppard nodded, and Carter did, too.
"Time to go." Sheppard moved up to the front of the jumper.
The MALP had shown that they were beginning to rebuild the wall that kept vehicles from leaving the Gate. The area around the Gate was also heavily guarded. "If we open the hatch to drop C4, like last time, they'll shoot us to pieces," McKay had said. "A drone, then," Sheppard had replied. A large explosion, with a warning beforehand telling the guards to stay away. They were not declaring war on the whole planet, only trying to find the people who had done this to him… who had imprisoned him.
The jumper responded to his commands – one glorious thing in Atlantis that was entirely unchanged. The noise around him fell away. Someone opened the Gate. Someone spoke to them over the radio. Then blueness enfolded him, and he was on the other side. "They're firing," McKay said. "Come on! As if revolvers are going to damage a puddlejumper." Carter spoke over the radio, broadcasting her voice to the surroundings. "I'll count to twenty, and I strongly advise you to get out of the way. Believe me, your guns can't stop us."
Then she counted, and he listened to the numbers; heard them in seconds, in minutes, in footsteps. On twenty, he told the drone to fire, and watched the wall explode into fire and masonry.
His hand clenched quietly into a fist. They took away your ability to fight. Well, he'd just taken it right back. Everything was going to be fine after this.
Teyla was the one who knew the city best. As they flew over, slow and cloaked, all the places below her held memories. There was the street corner where she had stopped walking one evening, and just stood there, overwhelmed with the impossibility of their task. There was the wall that had hidden her when Dareon and his guards had walked past unexpectedly one night. There was the tavern where she had received the whispered information that had led them to John.
It had all been real. From above, these places were spread out on the ground like a map, but each one held real memories of real moments from her life. Everything she had felt there was real, and every moment that you lived shaped the person that you became. Accept what you feel, Kate had told her. Don't feel guilty about it.
"There," she said, pointing her finger. "That's where we found him. My informant had told us to go –"
"I went through a gate," John said. His voice was quiet and level. "It was in a wall – a low wall. It was a courtyard. The rooms were underground. After the gate, I walked along straight. Then I met you."
"There's a courtyard there." Rodney pointed. "Just right for landing a jumper."
"How convenient." John's smile was taut. He lowered the jumper until it came to rest in the courtyard.
The Marines were ready with their weapons, but Ronon was on his feet even before they were. He stood behind John's chair, but John just sat there and did not move. Are you sure you can do this? Teyla wanted to ask, but knew that she must not.
At least this felt right. The last time she had left Atlantis in a jumper, she had been plagued with doubt – knowing that she had to leave for her own peace of mind, but aware of the wrongs they were committing by taking that action. Now she was on the brink of bringing justice to those who had hurt someone she cared about. And hurt us, too, she added, because every one of them had been scarred by those six long weeks. All her urges pointed to the same end. And John needs this, too.
"Remember this is not a revenge mission," Colonel Carter said, her eyes on Ronon. "We are here to find answers – proof, if there is proof, that Dareon was involved, or proof of his innocence."
Teyla saw the dichotomy in the other woman's eyes. They hurt one of our own, Carter had said, and Teyla had known beyond all doubt that Carter felt the same urges that she did, but was bound, like her, but the responsibilities of command. Had Carter been in Teyla's position seven weeks before, she, too, might have risked everything to go after her team-mate. In charge of Atlantis, she had to think about higher things, but that did nothing to change what her heart wanted.
We are all divided, Teyla thought, but sometimes, on missions such as these, they came together.
Then the hatch opened, and the mission began.
"Door's locked," McKay said.
Ronon fired at the lock. "Not now."
They began to go down the stairs. Sheppard was not far behind Ronon, but Ronon couldn't spare him much thought. A distant part of his mind recognised that this whole thing was probably very hard on Sheppard – revisiting a place where you had been hurt was never good – but all his focus that mattered was directed towards his surroundings, alert for any enemy.
"There's no-one on the scanners," McKay said, "uh… apart from us, that is."
"Didn't see them on the scanners by the Gate." Ronon didn't look round. These devices were all very well, and he would use any advantage that he was given, but he preferred to depend on what his own eyes and ears told him, and the pricking of his own instincts.
"No," McKay admitted, in a hoarse whisper. "We never found out why. They're kind of early twentieth century in their technology, though they're stuck somewhere in the seventeenth century with their fashion sense and design. Could they have come up with something that blocks…?"
"Shut up, McKay."
"Ah. Yes. Being quiet."
There were stairs, a door, and more stairs. Then there was a hallway with rooms off it on either side. Ronon took the left, and Teyla went right. There was no-one. Ronon rounded each door in turn. No-one.
When Sheppard stopped following him, he was aware of it instantly, but he couldn't turn round. "That's it." Sheppard's voice was very quiet. "It was there."
Ronon had already seen that room. It was small, like the others, with walls of glaring white. Sheppard had been locked up in there? Sheppard had spent six weeks all alone in there? Fury threatened to drown him. "Come out!" he bellowed, because the time for stealth was over. "Come out!"
"There was a camera." It was that small not-Sheppard voice, tiny against the echo of Ronon's shout.
"You were in there?" McKay's voice was louder, higher than normal.
"John…" That was Teyla.
"No," Sheppard rasped. "No."
Ronon saw Tyre and the others, destroyed by the Wraith. He saw Sheppard on the screen, behind Kolya's grinning face. He saw Melena, dying as he watched, and he saw the ruins of villages, killed by the Wraith because they could not get him. He thought of those days in the infirmary, unable to walk, unable to go after Sheppard, and those long weeks of failure and dreams.
"Come out!" he bellowed.
He saw a tiny glimmer of movement at the end of the corridor – someone peeping through the crack at the edge of the door, cowering, too cowardly to come out. Ronon hurled himself down the corridor, and blasted the door open. The person tried to run, but he was faster, far faster. "Don't kill him!" someone shouted from behind him, so he hurled himself on them, tearing them down to the ground, then smashed them twice in the face. "Give me one good reason not to kill you," he snarled.
The man had grey eyes, and greying hair. He was not Dareon. "Because then your friend will never find out why this was done to him."
Ronon struck him again. "Don't care about why."
The man's mouth had filled with blood. "He does."
"So tell us," Sam said.
Rodney twisted his hands together and hovered at the back, useless, again. He still couldn't forget the sight of Sheppard's prison, small and gleaming white. To be in there, alone…! No computers, no books, nothing to do, nothing to strive towards. He hadn't felt the reality of it before. It would have driven me insane.
"We did it because we could," the grey-haired man said, hanging in Ronon's grip. "No other reason than that. We broke him because we could."
Ronon smashed him across the face. "It was a game?" Rodney just felt sick.
"He lasted longer than the others." The man said it was if he was granting a gift.
"I cannot believe that it all just a game," Teyla said.
"You don't want to believe that," the man corrected. "We watched you search for him, then told you what you needed to know, when the time had come."
Teyla surged forward with murder in her eyes. Rodney had never wanted to hurt anyone more badly in his life. Everything, just a game! Six weeks of their life… And more, because they would never forget this, never entirely get over it, and it would be added to the rich catalogue of scars that was their past in the Pegasus galaxy. He had left Atlantis; he had despaired; he had been useless… and all for a game, all for a game.
"Lie to yourself if you wish," the man said. "Shore yourself up with a castle of lies. It was a test. We wanted to test the mettle of any new visitor to our land. We picked the one who showed himself most willing to fight to defend the others, and robbed him of his chance to fight. Anyone can be brave in battle, but to see a man as he truly is, you rob him of everything that makes him himself. Believe that it was a test of the rest of you, too, if that lie comforts you. To what lengths were you prepared to go for your friend? When would you give up? How long could hope survive when given nothing to fuel it?"
Yes, Rodney thought. It was a test, and they'd passed. It was a test, and they'd stayed loyal, they'd not given up, they'd done well – a hundred percent; A plus; a medal and rapturous applause. They'd passed. Of course they'd passed. It couldn't have all been for nothing. It couldn't have just been a game.
"I believe that is the truth, not a lie." Teyla spat out the words.
"Can I kill you now?" Ronon's voice was chilling.
Sheppard was the only one who said nothing at all. He had said nothing at all, ever since this thing had started.
It was here. It had been here. It was still here.
He put his foot over the threshold – just edged it forward, not even stepped properly – and the walls closed on him. The blankets were runkled in the shape of a body, as if they were waiting for him, as if he had never left. The smell enfolded him. The hook looked down on him, and he floated upwards, up onto the ceiling, and watched the shell of a man get drowned by the white walls that had slammed down on the universe. He watched that figure sink to the ground. He watched that figure start to tremble. He watched that figure bring its knees up to its chest, and hug them close.
Voices came from far away. "No reason," someone was saying. "We broke him just because we could."
A big man had told him that he could find something to fight here, but you couldn't fight nothing, could you? You couldn't recover when there was no reason for your suffering – no reason at all.
The voices carried on, but he no longer heard them.
"My God, Sheppard." The shell of a man blinked. It was Rodney. That meant it was a hallucination, because there was no-one ever in these white walls but himself. Rodney. McKay. But a hand touched his shoulder, then shied back, awkward as only McKay could be.
"It was here," he told McKay. "I was here. I'm still here. I'll always be here."
"I don't know what to say." The hand touched his shoulder again. "I'm not good at this."
He began to float ever so cautiously down from the ceiling. This had to be real. A hallucination would have more answers. And that meant that he was sitting here having a nervous breakdown in front of everyone. Because of nothing. No pain. No hurt. No reason.
"We went through all that, and it was just a game…" McKay knelt down beside him. "You went through this… I'm not good at this… at people, you know. Saying the right words. You said they didn't do anything to you, and of course I knew it wasn't true – I've got eyes – but you said it, and much as I hate to admit you, you're usually right about things. So I didn't know… But now I've seen it… God, Sheppard. It would have killed me."
"Wasn't too bad," he managed to say.
"It would have killed me," McKay said, with surprising force. "I… I need to be active. I need to be solving things. That's why I came after you, because I had to be doing something, you know? To take all that away from you, and for a game…"
Something shifted as McKay spoke. The part of him that had drifted away from his body turned and looked at the room, seeing it as McKay might see it. He saw the white walls and the lack of windows. He saw the hook and the drain, deliberately planted there to torment him with possibilities. He remembered the footsteps that had walked up and down, deliberately torturing him with expectations.
"They did do something to me." He whispered it at first, but then he pushed himself to his feet. "They did do something to me."
He pushed past McKay, and headed down the corridor. He pushed past Carter, past Teyla, and stopped only when he reached Ronon. "You robbed me of anything I could fight," he told the blood-stained man who drooped in Ronon's grip. "Guess I've got something now."
"He's yours," Ronon said.
Sheppard drew his pistol. "Which one are you?" he demanded. The man just blinked. "Walk!" Sheppard shouted. "Ronon, let him go. Walk!" Ronon released the man, but kept him covered with his weapon. "Walk," Sheppard said, more quietly this time, and the man did, but his step gave nothing away. "Where are the others?" Sheppard demanded.
"Gone," the man said.
"But you're not going anywhere," McKay said, then seemed to lose his nerve when the man turned to look at him. "Uh… I mean… that was a statement of fact. Not a threat."
"I can find it out." Ronon had a long knife in his hand.
But Sheppard could already hear the ticking passage of time. Oh, God, he just wanted to be whole again. "I'm going to kill you," he promised. "Ronon, hold him."
Ronon twisted the man's hands behind his back. Sheppard saw that his pistol was trembling, and thrust it back in the holster. He closed his hands around the man's throat, and started to squeeze. He was taking action. With every second that passed, he was laying something to rest. He was staring into the eyes of a tormentor who had hidden from him. He was fighting. He was taking control. He remembered all the times he had clenched his fists on nothing, and now there was flesh beneath his hands, now there was an enemy…
White walls. Grey eyes. A blood-stained mouth, open and pleading. People shouting, calling his name. Ronon looking at him steadily, with total understanding. McKay saying "Oh no! Oh no!"
Hands. A fight. He should be growing with this, unfurling. They robbed you of your ability to fight. Well, he was getting it back now. "You did to something to me," he gasped. Punishment would prove that. This man's death would mean that he could never doubt it again. He'd never kill an innocent man, so if he killed this man, then...
He released his grip. The man drooped in Ronon's arms, gasping for breath.
Sheppard was barely aware of what happened after that.
Lord Dareon came bursting in, he knew that, although he had never met the man before. He came in full of outrage at this attack on his soil. When Colonel Carter presented him with evidence of what had been happening, he protested his innocence. "I didn't know. I can only assure you that I had no knowledge of what was being done here."
Was it true? It didn't seem to matter. He saw the same weariness in McKay's face, in Ronon's, in Teyla's. They drew together, and let Carter handle it.
"You should have killed him," Ronon said, some time later.
"Could have," Sheppard said. "Chose not to." He looked at Ronon. "You could have."
Ronon seemed to think about it for a while. "He was yours," he said. "Didn't want to steal the choice from you. You made up your mind." His expression suggested that he couldn't understand Sheppard's choice, even as he would abide by it. "End of story."
Apparently the man was going to be handed over to Dareon to be judged by the local justice system, and Dareon had assured them that the judgement would be harsh. McKay was convinced that Dareon was in on it, and that evil would go unpunished. "We have no proof of Dareon's involvement," Teyla pointed out. The Marines had searched the offices before Dareon had arrived, but had found no paperwork to suggest anything at all. If they had kept any films of him in that prison cell, there was no evidence of it. Sheppard wasn't sure how he felt about that.
After that, Sheppard found himself sitting in the jumper all by himself, while people did things outside, their footsteps going up and down, up and down. He remembered the feel of the man's neck beneath his hands. I took back the ability to fight, he told himself. They did do something to me. It's okay to find this difficult.
McKay found him first, then Ronon, then Teyla. "I don't seem to want to be part of it any more," McKay said. "It's strange. I'm letting them get on with things out there – talks, and all that. Working out if we can still be allies with these people – and I don't think we will, you know. Sam's no fool. She might not want to call Dareon a liar to his face, but there'll always be that doubt, and she's got integrity. We'll leave here in peace, but after the trial – if there is a trial - we'll never come back again and never see them again."
"We did what we came here to do," Ronon said. "Can't do everything. It's best not to be bothered by the things you can't change." He looked at Sheppard. "It's not easy. Sometimes it half kills you, trying."
"We did what we could," Teyla said. "We did what we needed to do, for ourselves, and for each other." Sheppard was suddenly sure that she was talking about far more than just this day.
"Yeah. That's the important thing," Sheppard said. He had no idea, afterwards, quite what he meant, or what he was replying to. But the three of them were with him, and that meant something. They had gone through their own hells, but they had come for him. They would help him with any battles that needed to be fought, and even when he had none.
"Glad you're here, guys," he said, and then it was time to go home.
End of chapter eleven
Chapter twelve: Tomorrow
"I hate to say it, but you were right."
Heightmeyer looked at him with her level gaze.
"They did do something real to me. It did affect me. It would have affected anyone. At least now I have a face to put to the enemy. There was no good reason for what they did – they'd have done it anyway, whatever I did."
"Does that bother you," she asked, "there being no reason?"
He thought about that. "No." He shook his head. "Not as much as it should do. There isn't always a reason for things. Not everything has a cause. Sometimes people hurt people just because they're bad guys, and like pain. Sometimes they torture you for a game, like they did with Ronon – hunting him for sport. It happens."
"It happened to you."
"Yes." He let out a breath. "It happened to me."
It was two days since they had returned to Atlantis. He was still not entirely comfortable with people. He was still unusually sensitive to the sound of footsteps. He still depended on being able to see his watch, and sometimes drifted away and lost minutes. He still slept badly. He still liked to exercise, sometimes, until it hurt. But he recognised what he was doing – recognised it, knew that there was a good reason for it, and knew that the symptoms were getting fractionally better each day, and that they would continue to get better.
"Is this what you people call a breakthrough?" he asked. "I thought it would be… messier."
He had images of himself reaching breaking point, finally collapsing and admitting that he couldn’t go on. He supposed he'd had a tiny bit of a breakdown on the threshold of that room, in front of McKay, but that didn't feel big enough, somehow. There had been no climax. If that had been hitting rock bottom, then it didn't feel anything like it was supposed to.
"Things work differently for different people," she said. "Every situation is different."
He looked out at the sky. Not long now, he told himself. It wouldn't be instantaneous, but soon he would be back on duty, back there where he belonged – flying, taking action, doing his job, saving the world.
"But it wasn't gradual, either," he said. "Ronon said something. That helped. Going there helped, because it showed me that it really happened. Seeing that man… Seeing that man…"
"You didn't kill him."
"No." He shook his head. "I could have. It wouldn't have made a difference. It wouldn't have changed anything about what had happened to me. I made that choice. Me."
"Fighting isn't always about doing something," she said. "Sometimes it's about making a choice."
"Yeah." It sounded strange, but he thought he knew what she meant. In the white room, he had been robbed of anything to go up against. They had made him powerless. Power wasn't just about striking out, about fighting, about getting revenge. Sometimes power was about choosing to walk away.
"I've never had much time for shrinks," he told her. "No offence intended, doc. I respected the work you people do. I was happy for you to talk to other people. But me… No. Me and shrinks don’t go together."
"I won't ask if this has changed your mind." She smiled.
"You tried your best," he said. "Hell, some of it was helpful. But I won't be coming back. No –" He held up his hand. "I know I'm not fixed. I'm not stupid. But this isn't for me – pouring out my soul to someone who's paid to hear it. I've come this far. I'll do the rest in my own way."
"I really can't–"
"I won't be alone." He stood up; moved to the window. "I've got friends. It helps me more being with them than talking with you." He turned to face her. "Ronon, now. He said something I needed to hear, right when I needed to hear it. Didn't make a fuss about it, just said it. McKay… You know what Rodney's like. He didn't have a clue what to say, but he tried, and that helped me, because it showed that no-one has all the answers; we're just doing the best we can. And Teyla… She went through something. They all went through something, but they came for me. Not many guys have that – friends who are prepared to live for a month with McKay just to get them back."
She opened her mouth to speak, but he held up his hand. "This session's supposed to be about me doing the talking, and this is the last time I'm going to talk about this, so…" He took a deep breath. "We all went through the same thing, in a way. They were injured, so couldn't help look for me. They were robbed of something to fight, just like I was. We understand each other, doc. You don't. I know you're trained to emphasise, but you haven't lived this. They have. We have."
"I do know about powerlessness," she said.
"Maybe," he conceded. "Take Ronon, now. They wiped out his whole world, and hunted him like an animal. Sometimes I'm amazed the guy can even function. He fights what he can, and the rest he accepts. He wanted to kill that man, but he left the choice to me. He accepted it. You have to, sometimes, or you'll lose your mind."
He looked at her sitting there, light falling slant-wise on her face, her skin pale against her hair. Not much more than a week before, she had seemed barely human, her skin fading into the white walls of his prison. Now she was just Kate Heightmeyer, who did her job well, but was not, in the end, the person he needed.
"Look, I'll let them send me back to you if I start getting worse," he said. "I'll be a good boy. But I want to do this my way. Things work differently for different people, you say. I'm not one for talking about things, but I work them out in my own way. They'll let me do that; you won't."
"It wasn't be easy." Her hands were folded in her lap. "Some days will be worse than others. There are setbacks in any recovery."
"I know that." But they'll help me through, he added. "Please let me try."
Very slowly, she nodded.
They sat in the mess hall, the four of them together. "Wish I could join you," John said.
Rodney grimaced. "It's going to be boring. Babysitting scientists–"
"You're a scientist," John said. "We baby-sit you."
"Baby scientists," Rodney said with distaste. "Wet behind the ears. Cowering at the sound of a bullet."
"Like you did," John pointed out, "not so long ago."
Rodney held up his finger. "'Not so long ago' being the operative words. I've grown. Changed. Everyone says so."
"You will be back on duty soon," Teyla reassured John.
It was over a week since they had revisited the scene of John's captivity. It was strange, Teyla thought, how much had changed that day, despite the fact that so little had happened. There had been no killings, and no real fighting. It was not the sort of ending she had expected, but for some reason everything had suddenly seemed clear.
It had become real, she thought, the moment they had seen the place where John had been held. Nothing else had seemed quite so important after that.
Yes, she thought. We were right to go after him. Ronon had never doubted it, she thought. Rodney had seemed certain, but had begun to waver at the end. Only Teyla, who had known all along that they were working from their own deep needs, had agonised over their actions. So many events had robbed them of their ability to take action. If they had sat back and done nothing when John had disappeared, they would have been broken. Guilt and inactivity would have destroyed them. They had needed to do it, and they were stronger as a result.
"Mind if I join you?" Colonel Carter had come up behind her while she had been lost in thought.
John nodded towards the empty chair, the others perhaps unconsciously leaving the choice to him.
"It's been a long week," Carter said. "It's not what I expected when I took on the job."
"Best get used to it," Rodney said with relish.
John smiled. "You aint seen nothing yet."
Perhaps it was a peace offering, of sorts. All three of them had doubted Colonel Carter. If Elizabeth had still been in command, perhaps they would not have felt the need to do what they had done. Everything was new and changing. They had doubted Carter's commitment to her people… but wrongly, Teyla knew now. Like Teyla herself, Carter was torn between what she wanted to do, and what her position compelled her to do. It was hard to stay human in the face of that.
They talked about this and that for a while. "Well, duty calls." Carter put down her empty cup.
"Up and at 'em," Rodney said. "Time for us to go, too."
Yes, Teyla thought, as they left the table together; yes, as she turned round to see John with one hand raised in an ironic half wave. We will get through this.
Sheppard watched them go. Returning his plate, he left the room, and headed for the nearest balcony. He no longer felt much fear in a crowded room, but sometimes he still craved solitude. Sometimes he could even relax in it when he got it.
The sun was at its height, bathing the ocean with white gold. The wind was cool on his face, bringing the scent of sea to his nostrils. Above him was the sky. I'll be flying there in a few weeks, he vowed. I'll be back where I belong.
Heightmeyer was right; it was not always easy. Sometimes he woke up terrified from dreams. The second time this had happened, he had headed for McKay's room, and the two of them had ended up in one of the rec rooms, arguing fiercely about Batman. That made it better. So, too, did the way that Ronon allowed him to run himself into exhaustion, and never said a word about it. So, too, did the way that Teyla let him spar with her, and had once stood quietly beside him on this very balcony for over an hour, saying nothing, just being there.
They hurt me, he thought, but I took the power back. They hadn't given him pain to fight. They hadn't given him faces that he could hate. But they had landed him with this, and he could fight it. Every day he did fight it. Because you didn't come to the Pegasus galaxy unless you thrived on struggle. You didn't last here a week unless you worked best under pressure.
A war could have been the making of them. Take away anything they could fight, and they had almost been broken – his team, as well as himself.
"But we got through it," he said out loud to the sunlight. "We will get through it."
A bird plunged down to the wave-tips, and soared upwards, riding the currents. Sheppard watched it, and yearned after it, but there was no intensity to the feeling, not any more. He would be flying soon.
He was already free.
"What if someone shoots at us?" Rodney fiddled with the fastenings on his vest. "What if… what if something goes wrong?" What if we have to split up again? What if it all happens all over again?
The others did not offer him any comfort.
"You're supposed to say 'it won't'," he pointed out reproachfully.
"But it might." Sheppard was looking straight ahead of him, glasses shielding his eyes from the bright spring sunlight.
"Oh. And that's supposed to help?"
Sheppard looked far less nervous than Rodney felt. It was their first mission together as a team. Rodney had been up half the night, busying himself in the labs, shouting at anyone who wandered by. It was ridiculous, he knew, but he couldn't shake the fear that it would all happen all over again. People died. They vanished. You waited for them and did everything that you could, but they still disappeared, whisked away in the final few yards before they reached the Gate. For years he had hardly cared about other people, but apparently that had changed. When people disappeared, his own life fell apart. It was horrible, and he didn't want it to happen again.
"I can't make false promises," Sheppard said after a while, pausing next to a white-flowered tree. "I wish I could." He looked away. Still hidden by his glasses, he said, "Didn't sleep too well last night myself."
The grass swayed lazily in the breeze. There was a faint scent of distant flowers, and even the sky was like something from a children's story book. There was a ruined cottage not far away, its honey-coloured walls tumbling naturally into the flower-specked undergrowth. But it took little imagination to see the rain. It took little imagination to see brown leaves and tall trees, and enemies that lurked unseen, and snatched your life away for two whole months and more.
"If someone attacks us," Rodney said, "we're sticking together."
Sheppard shook his head; plucked up a blade of grass and twisted it between his fingers. But it was Ronon who spoke. "Can't be ruled by fear," he said. "Sometimes things happen."
"Sometimes things happen," Sheppard repeated. He tossed the grass away. "Anything can happen; that's the job we do. If a situation arises, we'll do what seems right at the time. If that means we split up, we split up. If I'm… taken, and I tell you to go through the Gate… I have to mean it, and you have to do it. We're here to do a job–"
"Then the job sucks." Rodney kicked at a clump of flowers, suddenly, ridiculously, irrationally furious. The thought of going through all this again… The weeks without Sheppard had scoured him, leaving him changed, doubting himself, questioning everything, useless. He had come to terms with that, he thought, but to do it again… To do it again…
"Yes," Sheppard said, "the job sucks. But it's the job we do. If we can't take the consequences, then we should go home." He looked up at the sky, and said it again, more quietly. "We should go home."
"But we're not going to," Ronon said.
"No." Sheppard gave a smile that seemed to Rodney to be more honest than most of his smiles. "We'll do what we have to do, and that's a sort of battle, too, really, just doing it." He looked at Rodney, and titled his head, the smile changing. "There's a blob of sun cream on your nose."
"What?" Rodney clapped his hand to his nose, and examined it. It was smeary with grease, but clean. "God, Sheppard, are you five?"
Sheppard shrugged innocently, but as they started to walk again, Rodney could see that he was nervous, after all. It was there in signs that he would not have been able to see, only months before, and years before that, would not have cared about.
He moved subtly closer to Sheppard, and saw that the other two had done the same.
Ronon felled the two men who flanked them. McKay was ducking down behind the DHD, desperately trying to dial with one hand. Teyla was bleeding from a graze across her cheek.
"Where is he?" McKay was saying, over and over, his voice high. "Where is he?"
Ronon prowled in a circle, keeping the surroundings covered with his weapon. Tall trees with trailing tendrils hung low all around the Gate, dropping heavy pollen. The attack had come out of nowhere, and they had been scattered, no chance even to think of a plan, forced by the terrain to split up. "Make for the Gate," Sheppard had commanded over the radio.
"It's happening again. It's happening again. It's happening again." McKay's hand was poised over the last symbol.
"No, it isn't," Ronon vowed, "not this time."
Red flowers shivered, and Ronon saw a smear of brown. He fired, and another attacker fell, his weapon cold in his hand. Birds with bright feathers squawked above him, and flew away, setting the tendrils swaying.
It was the first time he had killed since before they had found Sheppard. The anger had gone, though – vanished in the moment that Sheppard had chosen not to kill the man who had tormented him. That choice had been Sheppard's to make. Sometimes, Ronon thought, the most worthy fight of all was the struggle to put things behind you, and accept what you couldn't change. They had made their choice to go after Sheppard, and perhaps they had been right, and perhaps they had been wrong, but that choice had been made. Sheppard had made his choice not to seek revenge, and that part of their life was over. It marked them, yes, but what mattered was now. What mattered was the future.
"Sorry about that," Sheppard's voice came over the radio. "Argument with a river." Ronon heard the sound of Sheppard's gun firing, coming simultaneously over the radio and somewhere to his right. "Got him." Then, "I'm almost there."
"We're waiting for you this time," McKay said. He had finally found the courage to stand upright at the DHD, although his shoulders were still slightly hunched. "Don't argue. I can be stubborn when I'm crossed."
The heavy tendrils parted, and Ronon swung his weapon around, but it was Sheppard, wet and bedraggled, but apparently unharmed.
"Wouldn't try to stop you," Sheppard said quietly, just before they walked through the Gate side by side, all four of them together. When he reached the other side, he continued, as if only a single pace and not countless million miles separated his words from what had gone before. "Not this time."
The stars had never seemed brighter. One moon was down, and the other was sinking into the sea, flooding it with silver.
Sheppard stood alone on the balcony. There had been three missions without incident; the fourth had almost ended in disaster. For a moment, separated from the others and surrounded by attackers, he had felt close to panic. Then he had raised his P90, and the calmness of old training had fallen upon him. He would do his job; that was what he was here for. He would take whatever consequences there were, and he would deal with them.
His tormentors – and he knew now that they were tormentors, that they had hurt him – had still not been punished. Colonel Carter was pushing for a trial, but Lord Dareon was delaying things, and relations were getting more strained by the day. Somehow, it didn't seem to matter that much. His own healing came down to how he coped with the hand that he had been dealt. It didn't depend on revenge. It didn't even depend on knowing why such a thing had been done to him.
It happened. Deal with it. He saw the same truth sometimes in Ronon's eyes, and he sparred with particular ferocity, or ran himself into a state of exhaustion. He saw it in Teyla's eyes, when she visited the small community that was all that was left of her people, on a planet that had never been their home. Sometimes, occasionally, he even saw it in McKay's, though McKay still preferred to challenge fate, and then to agonise over might-have-beens.
"There you are." McKay joined him now. Ronon slotted in on his right, his forearms leaning on the railing. Teyla stood back in the shadows, one hand resting lightly beside Ronon's.
"Here I am," Sheppard echoed.
If healing was defined as returning to exactly how you had been before, then he would never be healed. He suspected he would always be over-sensitive to footsteps, and edgy in total silence. Perhaps he would always have to brace himself a little before entering a crowd. But he preferred to see healing differently. Healing was finding a way of going forward, despite the scars. Everything you did marked you. Sometimes it was physical scars, and sometimes it was a different way of seeing. Things happened, and you dealt with them. That didn't mean that you couldn't be changed by them.
"I'm going down with a cold," McKay said, sniffing dramatically. "Or… Oh! I know! It was that pollen." He sniffed again. "Why is it always me?"
"At least we're going to die heroically," Sheppard observed. "We'll have to put on your grave stone: 'Killed by flowers.'"
"Or lemons," Ronon added. "I ate one yesterday. Lemon meringue, they called it. I liked it."
"Oh, is it pick on the genius scientist day?" McKay asked. "Did I miss the memo?"
"Every day is pick on the genius scientist day, McKay."
McKay snorted sulkily, but after that they were all silent for a while, standing at the railing, some looking at the ocean, and some of the sky, and all of them, perhaps, seeing different things.
"That's where we used to be," McKay said at last, pointing at a loose pattern of skies. "Somewhere around there, anyway."
"But where will be going tomorrow?" Sheppard wondered. McKay managed to stab a guess at that, too.
Sheppard looked at that distant silver star, let out a slow breath, and smiled.
A ridiculously overlong note:
In a way, this story dates back around eleven years. Back then, I was writing in The X-Files fandom, contendedly whumping Mulder in the way that I now whump Sheppard. After I'd read (and written) a lot of "Mulder is captured and badly hurt" stories, I started wondering about a scenario in which he was captured and not hurt at all, but was driven mad by the threat of hurt. Imagined monsters are always more scary than any monster we see on screen.
Well, I wrote that story (and called it Gilded Cage), but I always felt afterwards that I'd wasted the potential of the idea. It was short one-shot, for one thing, and it ended bleakly and dishonestly, with Mulder rescued, but so lost in a dream world that he was unable to recognise his rescuers. (I call this ending "dishonest" since, in reality, he would probably recover in the end, but I didn't give readers any hint that this would happen, just left them with the sad ending.) However, I never forgot the scenario, and when I got into this fandom, and started reading stories in which Sheppard was captured and horribly hurt, it returned in full force. I very soon had Sheppard's entire storyline clear in my mind.
However, I was adamant that I wanted the rest of the team to have a proper storyline, too, with proper character arcs. Sometimes, in stories in which one character is captured, the other characters' scenes read like mere filler, and very tempting to skip. Back when I started working on the idea, when I was still catching up on season 3, I couldn't find a way to give the other characters the sort of plot I wanted for them.
Then I saw Reunion, and suddenly I knew. We have a brand new leader, an unknown quantity to two of our team. We've lost Elizabeth and Carson, and even our nice close-knit team has been under threat, with Ronon's near departure. Suddenly there was so much more to play with. This story wouldn't have worked in the same at any other point in the show's timeline, I think.
I did quite a bit of research on this story, about the psychological effects of solitary confinement (that was bizarre bedtime reading, I can tell you.) Fanfic often puts its heroes through an enormous amount of suffering, and has them recover with barely a psychological scar, but even the strongest of men do get psychologically scarred by solitary confinement, especially when you add in the element of threat and imminent danger, as here. I think Sheppard coped fairly well, actually. Better than poor Mulder did, anyway.
The main worry I have about this is over Sheppard's recovery at the end. Recovery is a long, slow process. Clearly I couldn't show it in immense detail, or we'd have two hundred pages of very similar scenes. My usual solution is to write up to a turning point, and end with the characters – and readers - confident that they will recover, but not actually showing the recovery in detail. This story seemed to demand a bit more, so I gave it what is probably my first ever epilogue, of the "several weeks later" type. I hope it doesn't seem like an unnaturally quick recovery. Quite a lot of weeks have passed off camera, and there is more recovery still to come.
Anyway… Thank you very much for reading, and especial thanks to those who've reviewed. I'm now off to decide which of the three or four vague ideas I have floating in my head will become my next multi-part story – though I have a half-written Secret Santa response to finish first. First, though, I'm off to relax on the couch, read a book, and step back from the rather claustrophobic world of editing this story, which has very much dominated my week. Despite the intensity, I've really enjoyed writing and posting this one. I hope you all enjoyed reading it.
Link to the entire story in a single file