Note: Sorry for the angst overload at this point in the story. I know it's getting a bit much for some people. There is more angst between Manning and Sheppard in this chapter, but it is here for a purpose, and it does lead to things. If you stick with it for a little while longer, you will, I hope, get rewarded.
Chapter eleven: His true test
"Don't touch me!" Manning hissed, when Sheppard offered him water.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Sheppard began to say, but then he remembered what it felt like to be helpless, and how awful it felt even when friends were the ones tending to you. He withdrew a little. "Can you walk? I'll help you, if you like… uh… to the bathroom. You can…"
He felt as if he had lost everything he had built up over the years, and now stood as stammering and insecure as a fourteen year old on his first date. He had often wondered what it would take to break him. Perhaps he now knew.
Manning let himself be led to the bathroom, though, and stayed in there for a very long time. Sheppard sat on the far side of the room, the chair pushed against the wall. His thoughts were racing, going through possible amendments to the plan, wondering what he would say to Manning when he emerged. He came to no conclusions, though. When Manning emerged, Sheppard felt as lost as he had felt before, as if somebody had snatched his plane away from under him as he was flying.
Manning looked better when he emerged, with wet hair and clean skin. Sheppard watched him hesitate at the edge of the bed. I don't want to accept anything from him, Manning's stance said, but weariness was warring with the pride, as if he was also thinking, But I deserve it more than he does. Then Manning sat down, pulled the blanket around his shoulders, and sat with his back to the wall, his eyes dead.
The camera watched silently.
Perhaps Manning dozed a little. Perhaps even Sheppard did. A sound at the door made him stir. Manning, he saw, had started up. "Don't," Sheppard said quietly. "You won't win."
"If you fought too, sir?" For a moment, it was almost as if hope had driven out the hatred.
Sheppard shook his head – a commander, used to giving orders. "No, sergeant." And he caught the instinct of obedience, too, before it was replaced with misery and mutiny. Manning stayed still, though, as the door opened. His eyes followed hungrily as a plate of food was taken to the table. He let out a small breath when the door was closed again.
"That's for you," Sheppard told him, when everything was silent again.
"I don't want you–"
"You need it." He walked to the table and picked it up, then pushed it into Manning's stiffly unresisting hands. "Don't be stupid, Manning," he said. "You know you do." He saw lots of emotions passing over Manning's face. "Don't be stubborn," he said. "It doesn't help." He smiled wryly. "Believe me, I know."
He went to the bathroom, splashed water on his face, and leant on the edge of the sink, staring at the place where a mirror ought to hang. Water was cold on his hands. He moistened his lips, then bent to drink, then drank some more. He stayed there, feeling the cold, his hand on the wall.
He left it at least half an hour. An empty bowl was on the floor beside the bed, and Manning, his back still against the wall, looked asleep.
Sheppard stood and watched him. Damn you, Carrick, he thought, but it was his fault, too, of course – the natural conclusion of the decisions he had made.
In the end, Sheppard slept too, of course, slumped on the floor like he had been during that first night, cold, without blankets.
He woke slowly, with a faint and formless memory of dreams that pulled away from him as soon as he tried to look at them. His knee had stiffened during the night – if indeed it was night – and he felt empty with hunger.
He sat up, pulling one leg up towards his chest, wrapping his hand around it. Manning was lying on his side, looking at him. "Why?" he asked; just that.
Sheppard moistened his lips. I'll get some water, he thought, but that was just running away. He did it, though, limping to the bathroom, drinking from his cupped hands, letting some of the liquid trickle into his hair, into his collar. He had to leave in the end, though.
Manning had rolled over, and now faced the bathroom door. "Your leg?"
He shook his head. "Nothing." Probably Manning wanted to hear that it was agony, that it was going to kill him. "You want some water?"
Manning nodded. Sheppard took the mug and filled it, then waited while Manning pushed himself up on one elbow. Their fingers brushed as the mug was handed over. Sheppard flinched internally. A small drop spilled.
"Why, sir?" Manning said, closing his hand around the mug. "You said… I know what you said… If there was a good reason for it, it would make it feel better, I think."
More water spilled. Sheppard took the mug from him, and helped him sit up. Then he retreated, back to the chair.
He had given his reasons to Carrick. He had shouted lies to his friends. "It's complicated," he said. "Lots of things happened after you… left." He heard himself say the words, but he no longer recognised himself. "I can't explain it to you. But it's nothing to do with you. That's why I…"
"Didn't kill me," Manning filled in, when Sheppard's voice trailed away. "Got Carrick to bring me here. Made my safety a condition of your helping him. Took care of me. Gave me food."
Sheppard closed his eyes. "Yeah," he said quietly.
He heard Manning shift in the bed, blanket scraping against flesh. He sensed him lean closer. "Are you working undercover?" Manning whispered.
Breathe, he thought. Breathe. He opened his eyes slowly, as if it meant nothing at all.
"I thought…" Manning's eyes were glistening. "I mean… We know you, colonel. The things you've put yourself through for Atlantis. You wouldn't… I know you wouldn't. I believed it yesterday, but I was hurting. I wasn't thinking straight. All I could think was that I'd gone through all that… that torture for nothing, and–"
I could let him know, he thought. Not in words, of course, but in a squeeze of the hand, or a whisper, hidden behind an attempt to raise Manning into a more comfortable position. It wouldn't make everything all right, but it would make things better. Manning would understand, and there would be two of them in this together.
"But it all makes sense," Manning said, his cheeks flushed. "You've infiltrated Carrick's operation. You couldn't blow your cover back then because he was just outside the door, listening, but he isn't here now. You can tell me."
But Manning was so vulnerable right now. Sheppard couldn't rely on him to hide his knowledge, and he had more than Manning to consider. There was the safety of Atlantis. There were other pilots out there, who might have been captured if Sheppard was not here. If he showed mercy now, he could be condemning hundreds. Back in the cell, with a gun in his hand, there had been no real choice, but this was different. One for many, he had thought then, and this time he had to mean it.
Manning's hands on the mug were as pale as bone. "It's the only explanation that makes sense. You willingly helping the enemy… It can't be true. It just can't."
Sheppard imagined Carrick leaning forward in his chair, eyes alight. Don't show anything, he thought. He felt his heart beating, pulsing all the way down to his fingers. Was his breathing visible on the screen? He was aware of every muscle in his face, and could feel how they wanted to betray him.
"I assure you it's true," he said coldly. "Get used to it."
Pulling the trigger might have been more kind.
Another meal came. Sheppard once again gave it to Manning. Once again their fingers touched, but then Manning snatched at Sheppard's wrist, almost making him spill everything. "What can I do to change your mind?" Manning's eyes were hot in his flushed face.
Sheppard transferred the bowl to his right hand, and put it carefully on the floor. He pulled his hand away – surely Manning could feel his pulse racing, at odds with everything he was showing in his face – and felt Manning trying to resist, but lacking the strength. "Nothing," he said quietly.
Manning's hand curled, fingers digging into the blanket. "God, colonel, I should–"
"Fight me?" Cold voice; sorrowful heart. Perhaps if Manning could beat the crap out of him everything would be better for both of them. "You're injured, sergeant, and half-starved. I'd get the better of you in a fight."
"I can't believe…" Manning shifted, grimacing at the pain. "You said something changed on Atlantis after I left, but what about the people…? People like me. People like us. Carrick's going to kill us all. You can't want that."
Sheppard looked at a spot high on the wall. "We've made a deal. No-one's going to get hurt. He'll give them time to go home."
"You believe that?" He pulled back his sleeve, showing livid injuries, barely healing. "He smiled when they did this."
He blinked, but did not look away from the wall. "It's a chance I've got to take."
"Is it stress?" Manning said. "I've read about it. Seen it, even. It can catch anyone, and you've been through more than most. You need help. You'll regret it, sir. I know it doesn't look that way now, but you'll hate yourself afterwards."
He didn't even need to shape the mental words in response to that.
"It's not too late to change your mind," Manning said desperately. "There's two of us now. If we fight…"
"Not a chance." He stared at the wall, and knew that Carrick was staring back. "I made my choice, and you, sergeant, don't know anything about it."
He thought of how he himself would have been when he had been young and idealistic, confronting an officer who had turned to the dark side. He remembered how he had been, so quick to tell those whose orders he had disobeyed exactly what was wrong with those orders. He remembered the pain of being forsaken, but the pain of being betrayed was not something he had ever had to endure.
"It's people like me who are going to die," Manning said. "We haven't changed. And you… The way you look at me when you think I'm not looking – as if it kills you to see me like this." No, John. Don't react. Can't react. "You can't be that far gone. I know you're not. Please, sir, there's still time to say no."
"It was already too late days ago."
This was the human cost. And, God!, he hadn't thought about it. Was this being repeated all over Atlantis – all those loyal men and women who now thought that he had stolen a jumper and left them. 'Make them believe it's true.' It had been so easy to say. He had never even thought that it might be difficult for those who heard it. He hadn't even thought…
When the third meal came, Manning threw the blanket off and would have bolted for the door. Sheppard had to physically restrain him. "No," he hissed into his ear, feeling how he struggled, too weak to prevail, but too desperate not to try. "They'll kill you."
Manning slumped back after that. It had been several hours before he had given in and eaten the previous meal. "It's only pride that's stopping you," Sheppard had said. "This is no place for stubbornness."
"Believe me," he said now, when the door was once more locked, "I don't want to be in here any more than you do. I came here to fly a ship."
It was a slip. He let out a slow breath, and hoped that it hadn't been noticed. Since Manning had been thrown into his cell, he had stopped asking himself what 'John' would think. He had considered appearances when talking to Manning – of course he had – but perhaps he had made a hundred tiny slips. Perhaps it had all been for nothing.
Manning said nothing for well over an hour. Sheppard spent some of that hiding in the bathroom. Yes, Rodney, hiding. He spent some of it watching Manning, and some of it looking at the wall, but behind it all, he felt something beginning to change.
To hell with it! He thought that several times. Carrick was on to him, he had to be. This was his own sick version of torture. If Sheppard activated the transmitter now, then they'd both be free of this place. He could tell Manning the truth, and clothe himself again in all the trappings that made him who he was. He would be John Sheppard again by the time he stepped back on Atlantis. Then they'd go back to the drawing board, and draw up another plan to thwart Carrick's plot. A few blasts from the Daedalus would sure help in that respect.
He didn't really know why he didn't. Perhaps because he had come so far already, had done so much, had said such unforgivable things. He had to make it worth something.
Admit it. This time the voice sounded like Rodney. You're a stubborn son-of-a-bitch.
Yeah, he thought, a moment later. And look who gets hurt.
But it was worth something. This thing with Manning had made him start to forget that. Carrick was the true enemy, and this charade would help bring him down. Manning was hurting terribly, but he would know the truth soon. Other lives would be saved because of this.
Manning opened his eyes, blinking blearily. He seemed more than half asleep. No, Sheppard thought, seeing his renewed flush. He was slightly feverish. It was not enough to be dangerous, but enough, perhaps, to make a difference.
"It hurt so much," Manning said, in a quiet, broken voice. "I didn't think anyone knew where I was. I didn't think anyone was coming. I thought I'd die there. Sometimes I wanted to."
Sheppard said nothing. There was no comfort he could give, not yet.
"The only thing that made it better was the thought that I was holding out. I wasn't giving them what they wanted. At least Atlantis would be okay. At least everyone – You. Everyone – would be proud of me."
Sheppard stared straight ahead.
"I can't do that again." His bruised hand was like a claw, clutching the pillow. His eyes closed. "I'll help you. I'll follow you, sir. I've always trusted you; looked up to you. You've got to have a good reason for this. Just let me come with you. Let me go home, however we do it, however it happens. I was scared. Don't let me die here."
Manning looked smaller on the bed, his body slumped, his voice dull. "You're not going to die, sergeant," Sheppard promised.
"Please. I can't face that any more. I can't. I didn't think I'd break, but…"
"You didn't break, Sergeant Manning." Sheppard almost touched his shoulder, then drew back. It was not something he did; was not something he could bring himself to do, even now. Especially now. "You're sick. That's all."
"Please, colonel." Manning clawed himself into a half-sitting position. "I can't. I'll do anything not to…"
"You didn't break," Sheppard said firmly. "I'm proud to have a man like you under my command." He walked to the table – how even his steps were! – and picked up the meal. "Here," he said, and even managed a smile. "Dinner time."
Manning took it, but his eyes were burning.
Sheppard looked at him, brought so close to breaking because of Carrick's ambition and Carrick's cruelty. I'm proud, he had said, and he was. You didn't break, and Manning hadn't. Sheppard, on the other hand… He thought of Carrick's face as he had talked about a test.
This was the true test, he realised, and had been all along. The test had never been to kill Manning; Carrick knew enough about him to know that he would never do a thing like that. No, the test had been to see how Sheppard reacted when confronted with this. Manning had been put in his room as a weapon, not out of mercy. Carrick wanted to break him, and for a while Sheppard had almost let Carrick win.
Not any more, he resolved. He had to remember the certainty he had felt when he had presented his ultimatum to Carrick. He had to remember that Carrick was the enemy. Sheppard had played his part in this, but it was Carrick who bore the blame. Sheppard had made mistakes, and he had failed to consider the human cost of his plan, but reason behind the plan was still sound. I've always trusted you, Manning had said, and Sheppard thought of all the other people on Atlantis who also trusted him, and who were depending on him to get them through this dark hour. He was taking on all of this to protect Atlantis and its people from harm. There were some lines that he could not cross, but this was not one of them. It was worth it. It always was.
"Sergeant–" he began.
The door opened again. Sheppard's head snapped round. Manning started, spilling brown stew all over himself.
"It's time to go," said Everard.
"No." Manning looked stricken. "Go where? No. No…" Three men had entered behind Everard, one with manacles dangling from his belt. They were all armed. "No! Please! Don't…"
Sheppard knelt down beside him. He felt as if he had been given a life-line, and here he was, back on familiar ground. "I won't let them hurt you. Look at me. Look at me, sergeant." Manning did so, as if some habits could not be denied, even when he was at the very end of his endurance. "I won't let them hurt you."
A hand on his shoulder. Sheppard did not turn round. Someone grabbed his other shoulder. "You did well, sergeant," Sheppard said fiercely. "Whatever happens after this, you did well. You're going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine."
"How can you say that?"
The hands tightened. "Are you doubting your commanding officer?" Sheppard said with a smile. "Go with them, Manning. Don't fight." I'll make everything okay.
They hauled him up. Sheppard shook the hands off, and turned to find Everard far closer than he would have liked. "I'm coming. I'm coming." He spread his hands, reminding them that he was weaponless. At the same time, though, he marked the position of all their weapons, and the angle he would need to pull them from the holsters if he needed to. It felt good. "You should try saying please some time."
The other two men turned their attentions to Manning. "He's coming, too," Sheppard told them, and there was no trace of a smile on his face any more. "He isn't going to fight. You don't need those." He gestured with his chin towards the manacles. "He's coming quietly, aren't you, sergeant?"
Even after everything, Manning obeyed. It was clearly hard for him to stand, and he hunched over an arm pressed to his stomach, but then he drew himself up, his eyes full of terror, but his shoulders defiant. Just minutes before, Sheppard would have found it almost unbearable to watch him. Now he just felt proud.
"So this is it?" Sheppard said lightly, when they began to walk. "Carrick's gang is go."
Everard pressed his lips together, but said nothing.
Sheppard remembered – it seemed like weeks ago, now – when he had considered playing Everard off against Carrick. That had been before Manning, when so many things had seemed possible. Since then he had lost himself far more truly than he had ever realised. "So you're the errand boy," he said, "sent to retrieve the tame pilot."
He heard Manning suck in a breath, which turned into a moan. Don't, he thought. Don't say anything. Leave it to me. Trust me.
"So it's happening today?" Sheppard tried again. "Or is this another test? You know, I wish Carrick would get up off his ass and launch this attack already."
"Colonel…" Manning rasped.
"Because I don't think much of his hospitality," Sheppard said, "and now I get the minion, and not the boss."
Everard hit him. The fist smashed into Sheppard's jaw and he staggered backwards, but the sudden burst of pain from his knee caused him to lose his footing, and the wall was there, hard against the back of his head, and then the floor, cold and rough, and he rolled over, taking his weight on his hand, and looked up, but it was Manning that he saw, and not Everard. Manning, who was staring at him wildly, straining against the two men who held him. He looked sick, broken, with bruises dark on his skin.
"Get up," Everard commanded.
Sheppard's hand rose to his throbbing jaw. Everard kicked him, not hard, but enough to make Manning try to surge forward. "Don't." Sheppard locked his eyes on him. "That's an order."
He stood up, and now there were more parts of him that hurt. What were you trying to achieve there, John?
They turned a corner. Exploit a possible rift between Carrick and his right-hand man.
Pain radiated from his jaw, red in his vision. Yeah. Right.
He felt better, though, heading into danger with the identity of the enemy clear. This was familiar ground. Concentrate. Concentrate. Focus on the mission, on the whole point of this. He blinked, bit his lip, and pushed aside everything else. Check out the terrain. They appeared to be heading towards the Stargate. Perhaps this really was it – the beginning of the end of the mission. They'd go off world, he'd find himself his ship, and then…
No. There was something else he needed to do first. "Another of our pilots disappeared not long after he did," he said. "Anything to do with you guys?"
"Yes." Everard moved closer to him, a hand on the small of his back. Sheppard stiffened. He really hated that; always had.
"I want to see him," Sheppard said. "If not, then you'll get no more help from me."
Everard said nothing in response, but they turned to the left, away from the Stargate. In front of the third door they halted. One of the other men drew out a key. Manning drew closer to Sheppard, so close that Sheppard could hear the terrified breathing the other man was trying to conceal.
"In there," Everard said.
He stepped back, and Sheppard saw. Alvarez had been dead for at least two weeks. He wore tatters of an Atlantis uniform, and dog tags hung clear at his decomposing neck. Manning fell to his knees and retched, but Sheppard took a slow step forward, then went down on one knee.
One of his own men. One of his own men, dead. One of his own men, killed by Carrick. Sheppard slowly clenched his fist. This was why he was doing what he was doing. This was why it was worth it. Pulling the trigger might have been more kind, he had thought not long before, but that had been fool's talk. That had been the talk of someone who had almost let himself be broken by Carrick's latest test. Manning had been through a terrible ordeal, but he was alive, and when this plan worked, everyone else on Atlantis would be safe from this enemy. No-one else would die at Carrick's hands.
It was worth it. Whatever else happened, he would remember that.
He said the man's name, though, and gently took the dog tags from around his neck, and put them in his pocket. We'll come back after all this is over and retrieve your body, he thought. Then, face blank of expression, he stood.
They had thought to break him, perhaps, by bringing him here. Instead, he thought, they had helped him become himself again. These last few days with Manning had been the true test, but he had come through it. He hadn't blown his cover and he hadn't bailed and he hadn't broken. He was still in control. The plan was still on course, and the cause was still just. Within hours, perhaps, they would be arriving back at Atlantis on the Daedalus, everything would be explained, and this whole adventure would be over.
He turned to Everard, smiling grimly. "Let's get this show on the road."
end of chapter eleven
On to chapter twelve