Words: c. 11,000
Rating: PG-13 (some swearing, and much angst)
Genre: Angst, h/c, episode tag
Spoilers: Season five up to Remnants. This is essentially a Remnants tag, with some Broken Ties thrown in.
Summary: It is four days since his experience on the mainland, and Sheppard hasn't talked. But something is lurking at the heart of a decaying ruin – something that will not only push Sheppard and his team into a new nightmare, but which will force Sheppard to confront the old one.
Warning: This is not a suicide story. No-one commits suicide (except for a made-up acquaintance from a character's College days, mentioned briefly in dialogue.) No-one even considers it. However, for plot-related reasons, there are some visuals related to an apparent attempted suicide, and related issues are discussed.
Thanks to valleya for beta-reading.
The ruin smelled of earth and petals. "Like Sleeping Beauty's castle," Sheppard murmured. Ronon carried on ahead of him without turning round. "We told you that story?"
Ronon ducked under an overhanging tendril. "Don't think so."
Was that movement beyond the trees? Sheppard lifted a springy branch, careful to avoid the thorns. Of course it wasn't, or if it was, it was only a bird. You're spooked, he told himself. It wasn't real. None of it was real.
"She was a princess," Sheppard said. A bird rose up screaming from further in. "Her parents pissed off some bad fairy, who cursed her so she pricked her finger and fell asleep for a hundred years." A tree was growing out of the top of a pile of tumbled stone. He remembered the smell of bark and moss; remembered how his face had slammed into it again and again and again. Not real. A thorn drew blood on the back of his hand. "And every living thing in the castle fell asleep and it got overgrown with thorns and covered with spider webs."
"How did the spiders make webs if they were asleep?" Ronon stooped to get under a half-fallen arch.
"They were probably in league with the bad fairy. You know… bugs." Sheppard felt the damp stone against the palm of his left hand. "But then," he said, "a prince came to the castle and hacked through the trees and found the princess. He kissed her, and she woke up, and so did everyone else. And they all lived happily ever after." Ronon offered no opinion. "Hey," Sheppard said. "I don't write 'em. It's just a kids' story."
Something moved; he was sure of it. But Ronon showed no sign of noticing it. The ruin was growing darker. "Have you found anything yet?" Rodney asked over the radio, and Sheppard let out a breath and then another, and told him no. "Well, neither have we," Rodney said, "but the energy readings…"
"I know, I know," Sheppard said.
Water dripped slowly from somewhere ahead of them. "Doesn't sound like a children's story," Ronon said. "Sleeping for a hundred years…"
"Hey, I slept for eight hundred years." Sheppard chuckled. A thorn grabbed his sleeve, pulling his arm back. "That's the thing about fairy stories," he said. "When you think about them, they're… well, dark."
"I meant, there wasn't any shooting in it." Ronon passed under another arch, dark red flowers brushing his hair.
The thorn refused to let go. Use your other hand. Sheppard tugged at the branch with his left hand, but as he pulled it away, another thorn impaled the heel of his hand. He swore under his breath, and wiped the blood away with his right thumb.
When he looked up again, Ronon had turned to face him, his expression strange. "What's up, buddy?" Sheppard asked.
Ronon said nothing, but slowly, ever so slowly, he raised his gun until it was pointing at Sheppard's heart.
"Whoa, buddy." Sheppard raised his hands. "What's this?"
Ronon's jaw clenched, then unclenched again. The muscles around his eyes were twitching. The tendons were standing out on his neck. His finger tightened minutely on the trigger.
"Put the gun down, buddy," Sheppard urged him. "You don't want to do this."
"Don't I?" Ronon's voice was harsh.
Not real, Sheppard thought. Not real. Kolya came back from the dead. Your buddy turned on you and… No. No. "Something's wrong," he said. "You're not yourself."
"I'm more myself than I've ever been," Ronon rasped, the words sounding as if they had been ripped from him, "since I met you."
Not real! his mind was telling him, its voice shrill. He was still on the mainland. The hallucination had never ended, he'd just imagined that it had. When crazy, impossible things happened, then…
"No," he said out loud. He saw Ronon's face framed between the fingers of his outstretched, real left hand. "Something's influencing you, buddy," he said. Could it be the pollen? It was thick and sickly, falling onto Ronon from the arch above him. "Put the gun down."
"You've made an alliance with the Wraith!" Ronon screamed. "You're soft. You're pathetic. You're…" He grimaced, his hand trembling. "Soft," he spat. "Making me soft. I should never… never have joined you. I'm better without you, The tribunal was right."
"You don't mean that." He edged forward. "Put the gun down, buddy, before you do something you'll regret."
"Won't regret it." Ronon's eyes were blazing down the barrel of his gun. "You strapped me to a bed!" He brought up his other hand, smashing it into the stone arch. Leaves and red petals fell down like blood. "You wouldn't give me what I… what I… what I needed. I needed it, Sheppard, damn it, I…"
He thought he heard laughter in the woods behind him. Last chance, Johnny boy. "Ronon…" he said, as Ronon fired.
Sheppard was ready, though. He threw himself sideways, his shoulder striking the stone arch, and rolled. Thorns tugged at him as he pushed himself up again. Ronon was dragging the gun around, his arm moving as if through treacle, and Sheppard tackled him. They fell together, Sheppard slightly on top, and he saw a clump of flowers burning, the smell sweet, like burning flesh.
"I'll kill you for that," Ronon rasped, words hissing out through his teeth. Sheppard clawed at his hand, dragging the gun away from his resisting fingers, and threw it away as hard as he could. As he did so, Ronon's fist drove slowly and heavily into his body, sending him backwards. He struck a slab of stone, his feet sliding away, his body slipping sideways. The flowers were burning, thorns shrivelling into smoke.
Not real, his mind still wanted to say. Ronon looked dazed, moving towards him, his steps slow and stiff. Sheppard flexed his hand, fingers brushing his pistol, but this was Ronon. "It's me," Sheppard urged him. "Snap out of it, buddy."
Ronon lunged. Sheppard twisted, lashed out, grabbed Ronon by the leg. Ronon's response seemed off. His fist went slowly over Sheppard's head, and then he was falling. Sheppard straddled him. "Normally you kick my ass," Sheppard gasped, "in training. Remember?" His nostrils were flooded with the scent of burning petals. "We aren't enemies," he said.
Ronon glared up at him, his chest heaving. His mouth opened, then closed again.
"Are we done?" Sheppard held Ronon down, one hand at his throat.
Ronon's eyes slid closed. Sheppard let out a breath. As he did so, Ronon bucked, bellowing. Sheppard felt himself hurled backwards into a patch of thorns, but the pain was only distant for now. He grasped a handful, found his feet, and barrelled into Ronon. He swung at Ronon's side, but missed. Ronon's fist found his stomach, his shoulder, his chest. His feet slid beneath him, and suddenly there was stone behind him, driving the breath from his lungs. Ronon's face was pressed into his own. "Ronon," Sheppard breathed. "You don't want to do this. This isn't you. This isn't--"
"Be quiet!" Ronon screamed. His eyes were rimmed with red, and were darting all over the place. The pulse at his throat was racing impossibly fast.
"Buddy." Sheppard tried to meet his eyes. The pain of his scratched hands began to make itself known, throbbing in time with his heartbeat. "It's me."
"I know," Ronon said, his voice cold. The faintest whisper of metal was Sheppard's only warning before the knife drove into him, sinking into his side just below the armpit, where the vest left him unprotected. "That's why I'm killing you." Ronon pulled the knife out slowly, twisting it.
Sheppard screamed hoarsely. The pain was a blaze of fire, making his knees sag, and for a moment that blade held all his weight. Everything blurred. He saw Kolya, but then he was gone. Light gleamed on a machete…
His left fist clenched, smashing into Ronon's arm, making the last inch of the knife tear free. He followed it up with a smash with the right, then he wrapped his arms around Ronon's body and hauled and pulled, his breath making horrible noises, almost like sobbing.
He saw a blood-drenched knife arc free. "No," he gasped. "No," and he managed to twist the two of them around so that Ronon was now the one with his back to the wall. He grabbed Ronon's face, and as Ronon punched and tore at him, as Ronon's hand found the knife wound and dug in with grasping fingers, he smashed Ronon's head back against the stone again and again and again.
Ronon slumped unconscious after the fifth blow.
Sheppard sank to his knees, his head drooping, his chest heaving. With every hammer-beat of his heart, the pain surged higher. He brought his hand up, fingers brushing the edge of his vest at his armpit. The fabric was soaked with blood.
He curled those fingers. He remembered looking at the stump of his left hand, and knowing that this would mean the end of his career, of his life on Atlantis, of everything that had ever mattered. That hadn't hurt like this did, though. Because this is real. Blinking, he looked down at Ronon, who lay still, blood matting his hair.
He activated his radio. "I think you should come get us."
"What? What's happened?" McKay squawked. Sheppard realised that he could envisage exactly how he looked as he said those words.
"Just come." Sheppard brought his blood-stained hand up to his brow. "But… no. Be careful. Ronon went crazy. I'll come… No. Meet you outside." Words didn't seem to want to shape themselves properly. He reached out behind him, finding the edge of the stone arch, and pushed himself to his feet. A wad of charred petals fell to the ground in front of him. "Wait."
McKay's words were an anchor. On the mainland, it had just been Kolya and him, with no-one there at the other end of a radio. There'd been no-one to rescue him. How could there be? You couldn't rescue someone from a hell of their own creation.
"Just…" He coughed, and a moan escaped him at the pain that tore through him at the sudden movement. Something shimmered ahead of him. He paused, hand on stone. He hadn't noticed the terrain they'd been fighting in. On the far side of the arch, the ruin opened out into a small courtyard. There was a raised segment in the centre, almost overgrown with leaves and red flowers, and the corner of something shiny was just visible, silver and glass.
"Sheppard? Sheppard?" McKay was shouting.
Sheppard found himself half way across the courtyard, his feet moving despite himself. He stopped; blinked. Got to get out, he thought. Ronon…
His hand moved towards his side-arm. Inch by slow inch, he went down to his knees.
Rodney tried his radio for at least the twentieth time. "Sheppard? Sheppard!" He struggled along behind Teyla, his breath tearing in his chest. "Damn it, Sheppard."
Teyla held a springy branch out of his way. "The quicker we get there…"
"I know. I know." The life-signs' detector lurched with the rhythm of his running. Neither dot had moved.
Their path snaked through heaps of dark stone. He tried to forget the size of the animal tracks he had seen in the mud. He tried not to notice the size of the holes he had seen in the overgrown banks. In one place, the whole corner of a room was still standing, complete with overhanging ceiling.
"The energy readings are…" He struggled to get the device out of his pocket. "Still there. Nothing's changed."
Teyla said nothing. Rodney heard a faint sound, like an animal in pain. His head snapped round before he realised that it had come over the radio. "Sheppard?"
Nothing. He caught up with Teyla, pushing past the burning pain in both his calves, because, yes, he worked out and was quite fit, really, but he'd been busy lately, what with… important things, and… saving the city, and…
Teyla stopped in front of an almost-intact doorway, a hole in a sheer dark wall that went up over twenty feet. When Rodney looked up, he saw a stone face peering down at him, its teeth bared and its three eyes gleaming. "I believe that this is where John intended to meet us," she said.
"But he isn't here, is he?" Rodney pressed his hand to his pounding chest. "He…" He bit his lip, then found himself saying it. "Have you noticed anything… well, off about him…? I mean, far be it from me to say that Sheppard's normal at the best of times but…" Something screamed above him. He looked up; saw a bird rise up from behind the gargoyle. "Since that thing with the Sekari…" He let it trail off, gesturing with his open hand.
Teyla nodded. "He appears not to be sleeping well."
Rodney frowned. The ruin was covered so thickly with red flowers that parts of it looked as if it was bleeding. And where did that come from? he thought. He scraped his hand over his brow, wiping away sweat. Seriously, I can do without thoughts like that. "What's the big deal?" he said. "I mean, Woolsey didn't say, but you could tell that she was hot."
"But you got Radek," Teyla said quietly, heading for the darkness beyond the doorway.
"Huh," Rodney agreed. "Who told me that I was brilliant. And Woolsey got a hot girl who was interested in him. Ego strokes all round." He followed her; swallowed hard. "Not that my ego needs stroking. Not that it's an ego at all. It can't be when it's true." He looked at the dots on the life-signs detector, not far ahead of him now, still not moving. He bit his lip. "So I don't know why he's acting strange about it. It was no big deal."
Teyla held up a hand, but Rodney's voice had already been getting quieter and quieter, ending on little more than a whisper. "Sheppard?" he tried into the radio, the whisper cracking. "Ronon?"
The red-flowered plant had thorns, and its branches trailed right across the path. "They came this way," Teyla whispered, pointing to a trail of crushed blossoms and bruised leaves.
The dots said as much. Rodney almost told her so, but bit the words back. "He told us it was dangerous," he whispered. "He said we shouldn't go in." Teyla didn't hesitate, and he hadn't expected her to. "Yes, yes, of course," he said. "I know." He pulled his gun out, though, holding it ready.
A line of pollen landed on the back of his hand. He blew it off, and it itched ever so slightly. The smell was like decaying perfume, and, "Mrs Butler," he said. "My first piano teacher." He remembered her rapping his fingers with a ruler. Then he pressed his lips together; forced himself not to speak.
They saw Ronon first, lying crumpled in the shadow of an archway. Teyla ran forward, wading through flowers and leaves, and Rodney opened his mouth, closed it again, then decided to say it, after all. "Uh, we need to be careful. Sheppard said Ronon had gone crazy, and now Sheppard's…" He moved forward, though, until he, too, stood beneath the arch.
He saw Teyla's reaction before he saw Sheppard – saw her face freeze in horror, and knew in that moment that this was a whole new level of being screwed. Teyla reached out a slow hand, palm upwards. "John," she said, just that.
Sheppard was on his knees in the middle of a small courtyard, holding his gun to his own head.
"Sheppard. God!" Rodney almost dropped his own weapon. "What're you doing?"
"They… keep… dying." Sheppard's voice was hoarse, as if torn from his throat with hooks. "Ford. Elizabeth. Holland. Sumner. Do you know…?" He moved his head desperately slowly, until his gaze looked with Rodney's. "Do you know how many men I lost on Midway? Do you know how many… how many died in Michael's lab?"
Rodney's mouth was dry. "No." It came out as a croak.
"I know," Sheppard said. "Know their names." He started to recite them.
"John." Teyla's hand was still frozen there, reaching out. "Give me the gun. Please give me the gun."
Sheppard reached the fourth name, and broke off. "I fail everyone." Sheppard looked up at something above Rodney's head. Rodney turned to see what it was, but saw nothing, only flowers. "I tried… Wanted to protect. Said I'd do anything. He said I've got a death wish. Keep… keep flying suicide missions. Better just to get it over with."
It couldn't be real. Rodney blinked, scraped his eyes, but the sight remained. Sheppard on his knees with a gun at his head. Sheppard on his knees… Sheppard, who was so strong that it scared Rodney, because he knew that he would never be anything like as strong. Sheppard always shook off all the bad stuff that happened. Sheppard had repeatedly had his life drained by a Wraith, for crying out loud, and had walked away, and never once talked about what had happened, never once felt a moment of… Never… once… felt…
Crap, he thought. This is not good. This is not good at all. You read about people cracking, didn't you? You read about people who pushed everything inside, so you never realised that anything was wrong, not until you found them with their brains scattered all over the room. You'd known somebody like that once, but you never expected it to happen to Sheppard.
"John," Teyla said gently – God, how could she keep her voice so calm, so steady? "Put the gun down."
"He said I was running from something," Sheppard said. His hand was trembling, and tears started to trickle down his cheeks. "He said. Kolya. Me. He was me. Said I was running… Can't run any more. I'm tired. Teyla, Rodney, I'm tired. Can't… protect…"
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!" Rodney burst out. He'd never met anyone like Sheppard – never met anyone so willing to risk his life for others, someone who utterly refused to give up.
"Stupid?" Sheppard looked at him. "Yes. Yes." His head dropped slightly, and he listed a little to one side. "Stupid is hallucinating a torture session at the hands of Kolya. Guess my subconscious knows that I deserve punishment."
"You are not thinking clearly," Teyla said. "Please, give me the gun…"
Not thinking clearly… Yes! Yes! Rodney snapped his fingers. "He said that Ronon went crazy. He…" He edged backwards until he bumped into a stone wall. "What if it's going to happen to us? What if…?" Something skittered at his feet, and he looked down to see a blood-stained knife, one of Ronon's.
Teyla took a step towards Sheppard, reaching for the gun, her hand nearer and nearer…
Sheppard smiled. "Ah," he said, "I see how it is." The smile vanished. He wrenched the gun away from his head, and Rodney let out a breath of relief, then froze as Sheppard instead turned the gun on him.
"John." Teyla's voice cracked. Her eyes sought Rodney's, but Rodney was frozen, seeing her only through the edges of his peripheral vision. Behind his back, his hand scraped on the stone. "You are being influenced by something," she said.
Oh, God, influence. Pollen burning on his hand. The eyes of the gargoyle looking down. The barrel of a gun, and Sheppard… Is that what it looked like when you were one of the dozens, the hundreds that Sheppard had killed? His eyes were blazing, merciless, and Rodney wanted to babble, to plead, but his throat felt clogged up and he couldn't get any words out, just a croak.
"You…" Sheppard rasped, his voice rusty. His finger tightened on the trigger. "You're…" The tears were back again, and his eyes were red-rimmed, but his skin was pale. "You…" His throat was working convulsively. His knuckles were white on the gun. His face twisted as if in agony.
I'm going to die, Rodney thought. Shot by Sheppard. Ronon stirred slightly, moaning. The bird returned, landing on the tower beyond.
Teyla took another step. "No!" Sheppard screamed. He lurched to his feet, whirled around, and shot the tall heap of undergrowth at the centre of the courtyard. Something shattered. Broken glass poured out from leaves. Sheppard shot again and again, and the plants stirred, rising up into a pillar of red petals and dark leaves, then parting to reveal an outstretched hand. Someone screamed, their voice shrill and chilling and unearthly.
Rodney's hand rose to his ear. The scream continued, longer than anyone could ever last without breathing.
At length it faded. In the sudden silence, Rodney was very aware of his own breathing, shuddering and fast. He opened his mouth to say something – what, he didn't know, but sometimes you just had to speak – but before he could do so, Sheppard let the gun fall from his hand, managed two faltering steps towards them, then collapsed very slowly to the ground.
"It's not like any technology we've encountered before." Rodney began to circle the table. "It has similarities to a stasis chamber, but it's… well, it's clearly different, isn't it?"
He heard Teyla take a breath to say something. "Different," he said again. "It looks like Ancient technology, but someone's interfered with it. There's elements of Wraith design here – a clumsy fusion. Zelenka could have done better."
"I sensed no Wraith," Teyla said.
"No," Rodney said. "You wouldn't have. Would you?" It was hard to look at the being… the creature… the woman, but when you looked at her, it was hard to look away. "She's quite dead now," he said. "Sheppard did that when he shot the stasis pod. We won't be getting any answers from her." He picked up a scanner; turned it over in his hands. "Of course, there are other ways of getting answers, and, well, this is me we're talking about." He was too aware of the words as he said them, as if they were a deliberate attempt to say the things expected of him.
"She looks young," Teyla said.
"At least six hundred years old," Rodney told her, "and possibly older." Her long hair was black, though, without a single strand of grey. Even though she was dead, something in the shattered remains of the pod was sustaining her, keeping her from decaying. She's beautiful, Zelenka had breathed; apparently you couldn't call dead alien pod people 'hot.' Looking at her turned Rodney's stomach, and almost made him forget that he was an objective scientist and that there were no answers in the universe that he was incapable of finding.
"This…" he said, pointing at a small silver box. "This is the key. The control centre. How difficult can the technology be to unravel?" Zelenka had taken to calling the pod a glass coffin. Zelenka read altogether too many fairy tales. Zelenka had no place in a serious lab. Rodney had shooed him out, slammed the door, and leant on it, head bowed, just breathing.
"Rodney." Teyla said his name quietly.
Rodney turned to face her. "It wasn't the pollen." He rubbed his thumb over the raised pink weal on the back of his hand. "They say there's no sign of any foreign substance in his bloodstream – in their bloodstreams." His hand hurt, and the scratches were raised and reddened. Jennifer had looked at him with a smile. 'You're in the clear, Rodney,' she had said. Then, when he had just stood there, she'd smiled again, saying, 'I thought you'd have been relieved.' He'd walked out then, leaving without a word.
"There's no medical reason," he said now. "No proof."
"No," Teyla said. "It was her."
Rodney frowned. "But it doesn't make sense. She was in stasis. You aren't aware of anything when you're in stasis. You can't just reach out and… what? Do a bit of mind control on the side? It doesn't work that way. Unless there's a neural interface, like on the Aurora, but that only lets you communicate with people in other pods, not with people outside."
Teyla touched his arm, stilling it. "You said yourself that you have never encountered technology like this before."
Rodney let out a breath. "That's true." And no technology could keep its secrets from him. He'd find the answers – a full explanation, a report; story ended, and everything back to normal.
Teyla smiled. She had a faint smell about her, of one who had spent too long in hospitals. Rodney looked at her fully for the first time since she had entered the room, and finally dared the question. "He's going to be okay, though? They're going to be okay?"
Teyla nodded. "Ronon has a moderate concussion, and John… The knife wound nicked his lung, but was less severe than it could have been, considering the location. There was a lot of blood loss, but Doctor Keller is hopeful that he will make a full recovery."
Rodney remembered the moment Sheppard had collapsed. He hadn't realised the truth at that point. Even though he'd seen the blood-stained knife, he hadn't realised. He'd approached gingerly, his heart racing, his mind gibbering that he was alive, that he was still alive. "Sheppard?" he had asked. "Are you…? God, Sheppard?" Sheppard had been barely conscious, mumbling, struggling ineffectually to sit up.
That was when Rodney had noticed the blood. He remembered how Teyla had crouched down; how she had asked him to hold Sheppard up. He remembered how Teyla had gently stripped Sheppard of his tac vest, and how Sheppard had whimpered, "No. No, please, no" and how he had slumped semi-conscious onto Rodney's shoulder, and how there had been blood on Rodney's hands, and how much his legs had hurt, awkwardly folded beneath him, not in a suitable position for being crushed with Sheppard's weight.
Teyla had talked gently to Sheppard the whole time, but when Sheppard's eyes had opened, Rodney had been the one he was looking at. "It wasn't me." His hand had closed on the edge of Rodney's vest, at the shoulder. "You know that, don't you? It wasn't me."
"We know that," Teyla had said. Rodney's voice had felt choked.
But of course he knew that. He knew that. Of course he did.
Sheppard remembered everything, of course. He always did.
"We have to stop meeting like this," he said, when he opened his eyes to see Woolsey at his bedside.
"Oh. You're awake." Woolsey cleared his throat awkwardly. "I thought…" He looked over his shoulder, his hands clasping in a way that you couldn't spend so long in the company of Rodney McKay without learning to recognise as a sign of nervousness.
"It's no big deal," Sheppard said, almost shrugging, then thinking better of it. "It's not the first time I've woken up. I don't need a parade."
"Oh." Woolsey looked around one more time, as if to make sure that no-one was coming to rescue him. "Are you… uh… well?"
Sheppard shifted position. The pain was dull, now, numbed by drugs. The scratches on his hands didn't hurt at all, as if his hands belonged to somebody else. "I'm good," he said.
"That's…er… good." Woolsey straightened his uniform, tugging it down. He cleared his throat.
Sheppard tightened his left hand into a fist, watching the skin strain at the edges of a deeper scratch. "Spit it out," he said, "whatever you've come to say."
"I… uh…" Woolsey tugged at his uniform again. "When Doctor Keller certifies you fit to return to duty, I…" He cleared his throat, coughing politely into his hand. "I want you to talk to--"
"You won't let me return to duty until I've played nice to a shrink?" Sheppard felt his heart start to race. "There's nothing wrong with me."
"Teyla…" Woolsey swallowed, and looked at Sheppard. "Teyla told me what happened. You--"
"It was nothing to do with me." Sheppard tried to sit up, tried to lean forward. "It was some sort of mind control. It wasn't me."
"Teyla was most insistent about that," Woolsey said, "as was Doctor McKay. Both you and Ronon were affected. There was an unusual energy reading in the ruin." He sounded as if he was reading from a list. "There was some kind of stasis pod, and a woman--"
"A woman?" he echoed. There was blood on the back of his hand. He knew that he was breathing hard; knew that Woolsey had noticed.
It hadn't felt like a woman in his head. It hadn't been a voice at all, just a presence. It was a fist closing on his free will. It was the pain of having his own arm stretched on the rack until it finally moved, gun in hand, and did things that he didn't want it to. It was the agony of having his memories rifled through, and put into words that gouged their way out through his mouth. It was the terror of seeing McKay's horrified face, and fighting, fighting…
"A woman," Woolsey said. "You killed her. You shook off her control and, uh, neutralised the threat."
"Then why are we talking about this?" Sheppard demanded. "Unless you don't believe--?"
"Oh, I believe it," Woolsey said. "It sounds crazy, but I've seen worse things. You and Ronon were forced to turn against your team-mates through some form of telepathic control."
"Good. That's good." He tried to will his heartbeat to return to normal. "So why are we talking about this? It was her fault. End of story."
"Because…" Woolsey looked down at his clasped hands, then up again. "Because you broke free from her control only when she made you threaten Doctor McKay, not when she made you threaten your own life."
"That's bullshit." Sheppard's heart was racing again. The pain was rising – a knife twisting in his chest. "I was fighting all the time, every… last… second, and, damn it, Woolsey, she was getting weaker, or maybe I was learning her weaknesses, and if you fight long enough, somebody wins. That's all it was – just time."
"Perhaps that's true," Woolsey conceded, "but--"
"There's no 'perhaps'," Sheppard shouted. "That's how it was."
Woolsey looked away, and Sheppard pushed himself back against the pillows, chest heaving, fighting sudden dizziness. His throat felt hoarse. Because of screaming, something said inside him. He'd screamed silently in his mind, trying to break free. He hadn't screamed when they'd cut off his hand, though.
"I should have chased you about this earlier," Woolsey's voice was saying. "After all, it's been five days. I know you encountered Van-- the AI, but your report was… inadequate."
Sheppard concentrated on only the surface things: Woolsey, the sheets… on keeping his voice level. "I limited it to the important things. The AI kept me occupied for a while, then told me the same things it told you. The rest doesn't matter. It's over. It wasn't real."
Woolsey tugged his chair closer. "I… Colonel Sheppard, I never thought I'd be saying this, but I… I hadn't realised how lonely I felt sometimes, not until the AI presented me with everything I hadn't realised that I wanted. Even though I know she wasn't real, she felt real, and now that she's gone…" He closed his eyes for a moment. "She made me realise that I've been missing those things. I thought they didn't matter, but they do. So, yes, my report will say that the story's over. It will concentrate on the parts that affected Atlantis, and on the decisions we made. But here…" He touched his chest. "Here tells another story. Even something that isn't real can throw a light on what is."
Sheppard felt as if he was floating, looking down on the bed from above. He looked at his left hand, and remembered it not being there. He looked at his right hand, and remembered it holding a gun, moving against his will. "Yeah," he said, "but I didn't get the woman of my dreams, just someone who beat the crap out of me."
"Kolya," Woolsey said.
Sheppard's breathing checked, then resumed again.
Woolsey cleared his throat. "I realised something," he said, "after she'd gone. It was too close. She filled a gap. She looked like the girl I loved at College. Even the name…" He stopped, chewing his lip. "What I mean to say is: I believe that the exact form of the hallucination came from me. I believe that I shaped it. It became something that I wanted."
"No," Sheppard rasped. The drugs were wearing off, because the pain in his side was excruciating. You torture yourself every day, Kolya said, and he heard his own voice speak words that could have been true – no, that were true – and he could still feel the pressure of the pistol on his brow. "Don't give me that pop psychology bullshit. It didn't mean anything." He managed a shrug with his good shoulder. "I'm a soldier. It wanted to keep me busy. An enemy's the best way."
Woolsey looked down at his hands. "It awes me sometimes… No, scares me, the things everyone on this expedition has been through. I used to sit in my office back on Earth and dream up ways to find you wanting. But it's different when you're here, actually experiencing things. It's…" He looked Sheppard full in the face. "These things have to have consequences, that's all I'm saying, and it's better to think about them, to talk about them, than to… well, ignore them or pretend that they don't exist."
Sheppard closed his eyes. What are you running from? Kolya asked him, his gloves stained with Sheppard's blood.
Teyla found Ronon on the east pier, with the sweat almost dry on his tunic. "Are you sure you should be running like this?" she asked.
"They say I shouldn't." Ronon was sitting with his legs dangling over the water. "You followed me?"
She sat down beside him, keeping less distance than she would have kept if he had been John or Rodney. "I was concerned about you," she said, knowing that dishonesty would not work with him. "You have a concussion."
"I've had worse."
"Yes," she said. You had to tiptoe around the truth with some people; wait for them to admit to things of their own accord. But this was Ronon. He was never one to appreciate tiptoeing. When you had lost everything you had ever owned to the Wraith, you knew the futility of trying to hide your feelings from another person. "You also wounded John."
Ronon clenched his fist. "They say it was some woman, some bitch. She got into my head. She made me say things, made me do things… It wasn't me."
"I know." She touched his hand. He flinched away.
"I should have fought her off." He slammed his fist into the ground. "I should have broken free."
"You must not--" she began, but Ronon interrupted her.
"Sheppard did." He brought his fists up almost to his chest. "They told me what happened after he knocked me out. She made me stab him. I could have killed him. But when she tried to get him to attack McKay--" He snapped the words off, turning away with something close to a growl.
"Perhaps she was weakened from both of you resisting," Teyla told him. Her flesh crept with the memory of the Wraith Queen's mind pressing down on her own, extinguishing her will. "John had seen what had happened to you, and he was prepared."
"I was weak," Ronon snarled. He stood up, paced a few blind steps, then stopped, his arms stiff at his side. "Just like last time."
And Teyla knew, of course, how hard it had been for Ronon to gather himself together again after he had been turned by the Wraith enzyme. She knew that he would bear the scars of that experience forever. "It was not your fault," she tried to assure him, "just as it was not your fault last time."
All she could see was Ronon's back. She tried again, bracing herself to talk of a thing she seldom liked to think about, but which she could not escape. She, too, had had to walk her own private road to reconciliation. "The Wraith Queen took over my mind and made me attack you," she said. "Later, when I was prepared, when I had sounded out my enemy's strengths, I was able to control her. The first time, she took me unawares, just as this woman did with you."
"But I hurt Sheppard." Ronon wrapped his arms around his body, and looked suddenly almost small beneath the vastness of the sky.
"No," Teyla said, looking at her hands, remembering how they had smashed Ronon to the ground, "she hurt him. You fought her, and would have won in time."
Ronon walked a dozen steps away from her, then stopped, and turned to face her. "It used to be simple. It was me and the Wraith, and I hated them, and I fought them. But now…?" He was silent just long enough for her to open her mouth to speak, but he forestalled her. "Am I so easy to turn?"
"No," she said, but before she could shape the rest of her answer, he was gone, running fiercely and desperately, as he had run for years from the Wraith.
A small part of Rodney – no, quite a large part, really – was relieved when he found Sheppard's bed empty. But Jennifer stepped in before he had made his escape. "He's on the balcony, getting some air."
"You let him go?" Rodney asked.
"Oh, I pretend to disapprove." Jennifer smiled sheepishly. "Then when they finally wear me down, they get their sense of victory. Patients need to feel that they've got some control." Her smile faltered. "Don't tell him I said that." Then she flapped her hands, shooing him towards the balcony.
Rodney swallowed. "But I…"
"Go to him." Jennifer's face was entirely serious now. "Please, Rodney." It made Rodney suddenly remember how he'd called for Sheppard so incessantly when he was out of his mind, how the world had seemed so scary without him. It didn't work the other way round, though. Rodney was inept, never knew how to say the right thing, and as for Sheppard… Sheppard was strong, and didn't need anyone. Sheppard was…
He bit that thought back miserably, as his feet took him towards the balcony. Sheppard was wearing scrubs, looking out towards the invisible mainland. Rodney hesitated. His hand opened and closed at his side.
Sheppard stirred, just a little, perhaps acknowledging his presence. Rodney moved forward; stood beside him at the railing. "We still don't know who she was," he found himself saying, "but there was definitely some sort of neural interface. We don't know how it worked, but…"
"But it worked." Sheppard's voice sounded the same as ever.
"Yeah." Rodney let out a breath. "It worked."
The sun was going down behind speckled clouds, turning the sky black and orange. What did it feel like? Rodney wanted to ask, because a first-hand account might contain clues about the workings of the technology, but he couldn't forget the sight of Sheppard with a gun to his head. It made his stomach turn; made him wake in the night in a heart-pounding panic, unable to get to sleep again. It made no sense. He'd seen so many hideous things – almost died a hundred times – but this… but this…
Sheppard's hand closed round the railing. "You know it wasn't me?"
"Yes. Yes, yes." Rodney nodded desperately. "Of course we do. Everyone does. There's no doubt, no doubt at all."
Sheppard nodded. He was still looking out at the ocean, watching a line of birds heading towards the distant land.
"Does it... uh… hurt?"
It was a stupid thing to say, it wasn't what he had meant to say, but Sheppard turned towards him, giving a half smile. "I got stabbed, Rodney. Of course it hurts."
"Yes, yes, of course." The birds faded into a single dot, then vanished. The lights were coming on in distant towers. Whenever he blinked, he saw Sheppard with his gun at his head. He couldn't talk about that, he couldn't.
But if you didn't talk about things… If you pushed them inside and tried to forget about them, then that's what led you to cracking under the strain. That's what had happened to Sheppard. No, no, it hadn't happened to Sheppard, but it could have. Things that hadn't really happened could still serve as an awful warning of what might have been.
But, "Kolya," he found himself blurting out. "You said you were tortured by Kolya."
Sheppard said nothing for a very long time. The sun emerged from the cloud just in time for its rim to touch the ocean. Rodney shifted from one foot to the other, gripped the railing, and wondered if he should go back in.
"He beat the crap out of me," Sheppard said, his voice almost casual. "He wanted to get my IDC so he could take Atlantis. When I wouldn't give it to him, he--" His voice faltered for only a fraction of a second. "--cut off my hand. Then I escaped, killed all his men, nearly killed him, fell off a cliff, and then it was over."
"Oh." Rodney moistened suddenly-dry lips. "He cut your hand off?"
"Afterwards, he said I was the 'architect of my own deception'." The quote marks were clear. "He said I was torturing myself. What kind of sad, fucked-up..." He stopped; heaved in a breath; turned toward Rodney, almost grabbing his arm, then snatching his hand back. "Is that what I am, Rodney?"
"No." Rodney's mouth was dry. His feet took a step back. "No, of course not."
"You believed it." Sheppard turned away again. "When Ronon attacked me, I knew… I never for one moment doubted… But you… When you saw me with the gun to my head, you really thought…"
"No!" Rodney protested. "It wasn't like that. I didn't know what to believe. I… I… I couldn't believe it, but I…" He raked a hand across his face. "When I was at College, my room-mate… I never really liked him, you know, and we weren't what you'd call friends. He was everything that I wasn't. He was outgoing, confident, popular… Of course, he didn't have my intellect, because, seriously, who does, because, well… me? But… anyway, he killed himself one morning, hanged himself in the woods. And no-one suspected he felt like that. No-one had any idea."
"I'm not suicidal, McKay." Sheppard was holding onto the railing with his left hand. God, they had cut off his hand, and it had felt so real, that thing with Zelenka, and it felt just like a real memory when he looked back on it, no different from anything that had really happened.
"It's just that…" Rodney gestured with his hand, then pulled it back, holding it in the other hand, twisting them together. "I'm not good with people, Sheppard. I don't do empathy. I don't notice things about people, things that other people notice. Jeannie says I'm blind. Of course, it's usually just because I don't care, but when I do care… well, sometimes I'm… It's incredible, I know, but… but sometimes I'm… wrong."
"I'm not suicidal," Sheppard said again. "I know that for sure, but…" He stopped, sighing. "It's not the fact that it happened," he said at last. "It's what he said afterwards, about how I did it to myself. And then there's Woolsey insinuating that I only started fighting her when she threatened you. And then there's you. You go through life with a certain view of yourself, but what if it isn't true?"
Rodney opened his mouth, and closed it again, utterly incapable of finding words. Sheppard was never like this, never, and he didn't know what to say, he didn't know what to do.
"What if Kolya was right?" Sheppard asked quietly.
Ronon didn't remove his foot from the chair, but Teyla stepped around him, pulling out the chair opposite. "Ronon…" she began.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"You won't get rid of me that easily," Teyla said, and Ronon remembered suddenly a sight seen through a red haze of drugs and fury: Sheppard sitting calmly by his bed, as Ronon screamed and screamed at him, telling Sheppard that he was going to kill him.
"I'm good," Ronon said, echoing words that Sheppard often said, sometimes when he was anything but. So she'd know the truth of it. So what? It was stupid to hide things. When you were hurting, you bellowed aloud to the stars. When you hated, you drew your blade and tried to kill.
"No," Teyla said. She had food on her plate, but was making no attempt to eat it. "What would you think," she asked, "of a warrior who went up against a vastly superior force, and got defeated? What would you think of a warrior who suffered a sword thrust through the chest, and fell? Would you think any less of them?"
Ronon shook his head. "These things happen."
Some of the younger soldiers on Atlantis, he knew, saw him as some sort of killing machine who despised anyone who ever lost a fight. But no warrior could get through his life without enduring defeat. Sometimes your body betrayed you. He himself had been captured and scarred. Until McKay had removed them, he'd worn those scars, because what else could you do?
"And what would you do," Teyla asked, "if you were fighting an enemy, and detected a weakness?"
"I'd exploit it," Ronon said. "What's this got to do with anything?"
Teyla smiled. "You know." She reached across the table, almost touching Ronon's hand. "I know that words are not likely to make you feel better. I know you like to work things out in your own way. But she was an enemy. She attacked you in overwhelming force in a way you were not expecting, and you went down. These things happen."
He almost answered harshly, but snatched the words back, remembering that she, too, had more than once been forced to act against her will.
"She took your measure," Teyla said, "and knew where to attack. It was probably easier for her to push where there was already an opening. She used John's sense of responsibility for those under his command, and she used your desire to have someone to hate."
His hand closed on his beaker of water. "Are you saying that I--?"
"No," she said firmly. "I do not for one moment believe that you genuinely wanted to hurt John, just as he never believed it. But you spent many years finely honed, ready to fight. In our strengths can lie our weaknesses. It is nothing to be ashamed of. It is just something to understand."
Water splashed onto his hand. He turned to look out of the window, at this huge alien city that sometimes, even now, felt strange to him. He thought of Tyre, at first so desperate to fight the Wraith, and then so desperate to please them. He remembered the Wraith who had tortured him, how it had told him that his strength would be his undoing. He remembered the woman's grip on his mind, how she had searched around his memories, how she had found his hatred and his skill with blades…
"You are no more easy to turn that the rest of us, Ronon," Teyla said firmly, "but perhaps, when extreme circumstances happen, your particular skills mean that you are most effective." She looked at her hands. "As was I."
Ronon watched a jumper return from the mainland, gleaming in the dying light. He remembered the words the woman had forced him to speak. He would never have said them, and he didn't really believe them, but they were true all the same. He'd argued with Sheppard more than once about his lack of ruthlessness. Sometimes, when awake in the dark, he wondered if Atlantis really was the place for him, and if things would have turned out differently if he had spent longer searching for fellow survivors. He thought of the tribunal that had claimed to speak in his name, and in the name of all the people of his galaxy. They had blamed the Atlanteans. Ronon didn't, and he counted Sheppard as his commanding officer and his friend, but perhaps, sometimes, deep down…
"It is nothing to be ashamed of," Teyla said. "I believe she took things that were already there and twisted them to an extreme, and turned them into actions that neither of you would ever have done by choice. That was why what she did has left scars."
He pushed the chair away, putting both feet on the ground. "But…"
"What she did, Ronon," Teyla said. "Remember that." She touched his hand. "It is not wrong to feel these things sometimes, in the darkest hours of night. The Ronon Dex I know would never act on them. I know that, and John knows that…" She paused; gave a sad smile. "I hope that soon you will accept that, too."
Apparently, he had taken a turn for the worse in the night. The next time Sheppard was fully aware of his surroundings, he felt as weak as a wrung-out dishrag, and the doctors emphasised that although his life hadn't been in danger, there would be no more excursions from his bed for a few days, at least.
Moving his left arm hurt. The hand sat on top of the sheets, looking atrophied, as if it wasn't there. Kolya had stalked his dreams, trailing the stench of rotting flowers.
When he opened his eyes from dreaming, McKay was sitting in the chair beside his bed. "I've been thinking…" he began.
"Tell me something new," Sheppard said. "You want to utilise the power--"
"No, no." McKay flapped his hand. "I mean, of course, I've been thinking about things like that, because, hello? genius, but I mean…" He shifted awkwardly in his seat. "About what you said." It was little more than a mumble. "About Kolya."
The drugs were thick in his bloodstream; they brought Kolya close. Sheppard shook his head. "We're not having this conversation."
"No," McKay said. "Please. I…" He moved his hand in a circle. "I'm not good with people – you know that. Insights don't come easily, not when it comes to how people react. I could be wrong, but do you know what I couldn't stop thinking about when I woke up in the middle of the night?"
"I don't think I want to know." Sheppard managed a smile.
McKay looked at him. "About how I don't think I'd have been able to escape if someone had cut my hand off."
He could feel his heartbeat throbbing pain through his body. "But he didn't--"
"But that doesn't matter." McKay looked down at his own hands. "Does it." He didn't frame it as a question. "It felt entirely real, with Zelenka. It still feels real. You thought he'd cut your hand off. You felt the pain for real. And you still escaped. You still killed all his men." He swallowed; shook his head. "I couldn't have done it."
"Because you can't shoot straight." He was careful not to think too much about the rest of it.
"Hey, I'm getting better," McKay protested, then let out a breath, shaking his head. "That's not the point. I… When he took Atlantis, I lasted thirty seconds before I told him what he wanted to know, and you… God, Sheppard, he cut your hand off, and you still didn't break."
Someone had attached him to a monitor, and he could hear it beeping faster and faster. A nurse walked past, looked at him in concern, then moved on. Her perfume smelled of pollen and roses. "It wasn't real," he said. "It doesn't matter what I did."
"That's not the point!" Rodney leant forward urgently. "Look, Sheppard, you said that the worst thing was knowing that it all came out of your mind – that, deep down, you wanted to torture yourself. But that's not how it was."
Sheppard looked at his immobile left hand. "With all due respect, Rodney, you weren't there."
McKay subsided. The nurse came back, bringing Keller, and McKay got up and hurried over to her, whispering in sharp tones about how he needed to hear this, how it was important, how he just needed a few minutes. Keller looked unconvinced, but withdrew a little. By the time McKay returned, Sheppard had managed to get his heartbeat under control.
"No," McKay said, his fists clenched at his side, as determined as a stubborn child, "I wasn't there, but I know what you said. And here's the thing, Sheppard. Zelenka proved me wrong. He bugged me, and I wouldn't listen – I was quite arrogant, really – but in the end he was right, and I was wrong. Of course, he cheated, since he wasn't really Zelenka, and the AI knew exactly what to look for, but…" He flapped his hand. "This isn't easy for me. I'm not used to… you know… feelings. But then Zelenka told me I was brilliant. Several times, actually."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Sheppard managed a sharp chuckle.
"No, really, it's the same thing, although, well, with less amputation involved. I created a scenario in which Zelenka told me I was brilliant. Of course I did. Who wouldn't want to be told that – although, really, Zelenka! That's like…" He let out a breath, twisting his hands. "But before that I created a scenario in which Zelenka proved me wrong."
Sheppard breathed in and out until he knew his voice would be under control. "It's hardly the same as torture."
"Huh. Then you don't know me. I mean, it was Zelenka."
Keller took a step forward. Sheppard could see his vision beginning to blur around the edges. When he got things back into focus again, McKay was closer, looking even more flustered. "My point is," he said, "that you didn't just create the torture; you created a situation in which you escaped. And that's a bit like my own subconscious telling me I'm brilliant – which I am, of course, but… well, it sets up the fall, so the triumph will be all the greater."
Sheppard shifted position, fighting to keep from moaning aloud with the pain. Light slanted down from above.
Perhaps it was true. Perhaps McKay, in his inept, ridiculous way, was right. He'd tortured himself, yes, but he hadn't broken. You can tolerate more than any man I've ever known, Kolya had told him. He hadn't broken. He'd fought through, and fought back. So he regretted past mistakes? He knew that already. That those mistakes might make him bend at times, but couldn't make him break…?
"You don't deep down want to be tortured," McKay said, "any more than I want to be proved wrong by Zelenka."
You can tolerate more than any man I've ever known, he heard again. If he had created the torture, then he had also created that. Fucked-up would be dreaming up the torture, and then being broken by it. Fucked-up would be lying there against the tree and agreeing with everything Kolya said. Fucked-up would be saying 'yes, yes, I deserve this', not getting up and fighting back.
"D'you think Woolsey's going to believe that?" He tried for a shrug, pushing aside the rest of those thoughts for later.
"Woolsey doesn't know you the way we do." McKay let out a breath. "Listen, Sheppard… John… I didn't really believe that you were… you know." He mimed with a pointed finger, filling the gap. "It… I don't normally say things like this, but it scares me, sometimes, how strong you are – you and Ronon and Teyla. I'm the weakest link. Of course, in many areas I'm the strongest, but not in some things. I'm a glass half empty kind of guy. I sometimes get… flustered. I'm not good with pain. If we got captured and tortured, I'd be the first one to break. But you… God, Sheppard, you keep going all the time, even after what Kolya and Todd did to you. You're always positive. No matter what happens, you have a solution. Sometimes I wonder if I can live up to that."
Sheppard opened his mouth to offer reassurance, but McKay held up his hand. "No. Strange as it might sound, I don't want to hear it. I just wanted you to know. They chop off your hand, and you still keep going. That's why I didn't believe it, not as such, but I thought that maybe, just maybe, after five years of that, you…"
"I haven't," Sheppard could tell him. He remembered untying himself, tricking the Genii, ambushing Kolya. He remembered hanging on one-handed from the cliff, even then hanging on. "I haven't."
Rodney looked at him. "But it wouldn't matter if you had. It would be okay."
Sheppard raised his hand – his real, whole left hand – but Keller rushed forward, berating McKay for taking too long, for bothering him. "No," Sheppard tried to say, as Rodney retreated; he caught a glimpse of him biting his lip. "I'm good."
"So that's what she looks like."
Rodney jumped, gasping. "Shouldn't you be in the infirmary?"
"Probably." Sheppard grinned sheepishly. "No, actually Keller let me out as long as I promised to come back like a good boy. She seemed to think it would be good for me to come here. Closure, or something like that."
The woman still lay in the middle of the room, clothed in a white robe and her long black hair. Sheppard moved closer to her, made as if to touch her, then drew back. "I saw the pod just before she took me over. I didn't know for sure, but it was all I could think of. When I got control back, I didn't think I'd have it for long. Just as well I was right, huh?"
Rodney wiped a hand over his face. "Or I'd be dead."
Sheppard touched her hair, just with his fingertips, then he raised his fingers to his face, as if smelling them. "No roses," he said, with a wry smile.
Rodney felt awkward, choked, remembering all the things he had said – all the uncharacteristic, awful, embarrassing things. "I guess we'll never find out why she did it."
"To protect herself," Sheppard said without hesitation. "She tried to turn us against each other, and then when Ronon was… eliminated, she tried to kill me using the only weapon she had left. You were extras – not supposed to see that show."
"Oh." Rodney swallowed. "I thought it was just because she--"
"That, too," Sheppard said. "She enjoyed it; I could tell that much." He reached towards her hair again, then stepped backwards. "But I didn't get any sense of who she was or why she was there. I guess that's for the geeks to find out."
Rodney busied himself with reaching for a mug of coffee, but found it cold. "Are you…?" But he had already said too much, far too much. All he could do was gesture with one hand. "You know?"
He heard Sheppard move up behind him. "Yeah," he said. "It helped, and, uh, thanks."
Sheppard had dreamed up hideous torture for himself, but Sheppard had overcome it. Sheppard had tried to kill himself, but that had never been him, not really. But Sheppard had stood on a balcony and begged Rodney to find him answers. Sheppard had been genuinely afraid of what his hallucination revealed about himself. That had been real. Rodney would never talk about it, but he would never forget it.
Rodney had screamed for Sheppard again and again when he'd been losing his mind, but had always thought that Sheppard wouldn't have called for anybody, if the situations had been reversed. But perhaps that was wrong. Perhaps Sheppard felt all the doubts and fears that Rodney did, but was just better at hiding them. Perhaps they were more alike than he had ever realised.
And perhaps the others had understood all this years ago, but Rodney wasn't good with people, and now he knew.
"Oh. Colonel Sheppard." Woolsey looked up form his work. "Shouldn't you be…?"
He had a lie for that, too. He welcomed the offer of a chair, though.
"Here's my report," he said, "on both incidents. I hope you'll find them adequate."
He tried to keep his thoughts surface ones while Woolsey read the file. Through the door, he heard the familiar sounds of the control room at work. Woolsey flinched half way through, presumably when he got to the bit about the hand. Sheppard looked at the spines of Woolsey's books, and wondered if they were real ones, or a façade to cover the lurid paperbacks behind.
"This is very… thorough." Woolsey took his glasses off and wiped them.
It had been easier to write the words than to talk about it. When you put it in cold words, you didn't have to deal with the expressions on other people's faces. You didn't get betrayed by your own voice. It felt like the end of a story, the end of a verse. You clicked 'save', and then it was over.
"So you see," Sheppard said, "that there's no cause for concern. Everyone in a job like mine feels regret when they lose people; if we didn't, then we wouldn't deserve to be in the job. The AI exploited that, but I overcame it. She exploited it, and I overcome her. In both cases, it took some time. That's why the initial impression was misleading."
Woolsey looked as if he was reading sections of the report again. "I don't know…"
"People have tried to get me to see a shrink before," Sheppard said. "Natural side-effect of the job. Sometimes I've gone, and sometimes I haven't. I've got every respect for the people, but it's not for me. I cope with things in my own way."
What are you running away from? he heard Kolya say, but it wasn't running away; it was carrying on. And what did it matter if it was running away? He'd refused to hand over his IDC even when tortured, and he'd refused to break in even when maimed. Rather than hurt McKay, he'd found the strength to break free from the woman's control.
"Doctor Keller says I'll be cleared for light duty in two weeks," he told Woolsey pointedly.
Woolsey opened his mouth, and closed it again. He looked down at the report, his eyes scanning certain lines again.
"Then I will be guided by her professional judgement," he said. "I see no reason for a second opinion."
Ronon wiped his face with his towel, his chest heaving, his fist throbbing from his bout with the punching bag. When the door opened, he knew instantly that it was Sheppard.
He turned around slowly, towel gripped in both hands. "I stabbed you," he found himself saying.
Sheppard shrugged. "I gave you a concussion."
He tightened his fist. "I twisted the blade."
"I repeatedly smashed your head into a wall until you passed out."
They were both silent for a moment. Ronon could hear the rasping sound of his own breath.
"I tried to kill you," he said.
"I tried to kill myself."
Ronon hurled the towel away. His hands felt throbbing, empty.
"It was her, of course," Sheppard said. "It's hard to believe that, isn't it? She makes you say things, and they're not true, but true at the same time, and afterwards you wonder what it meant, that you couldn't stop her. But it doesn't mean anything."
Ronon breathed in and out, each breath slower than the last. "No," he said at last. "It means she was a bitch."
"Yeah, you've got it right there." Sheppard picked up a stick from the side of the room. "Want to spar?"
He remembered clawing at Sheppard's wound, smashing him in the stomach, hurling him into a wall. But he had fought that, screaming, every inch of the way. He picked up a stick of his own. "Doc given you permission?"
Sheppard let out a breath. "No. Best take a rain check. Getting my ass kicked wouldn't encourage people to accept that I haven't got a death wish."
"They think that?" Ronon said. "That's crazy."
"Yeah." Sheppard looked at him, all smiles gone. "Like anyone thinking that you'd really want to kill me."
Oh, Ronon thought, after Sheppard had gone. Oh. And then he laughed.
"They should make the tables bigger," McKay was complaining. "Of course," he added pointedly, "if certain people didn't keep putting their oversized feet in places they don't belong. Ow! He stood on me! Did you see that? He stood on me!"
"I am sure Ronon would never do a thing like that," Teyla said, perfectly straight-faced.
Sheppard looked beyond them, at the moon over the ocean. It was three days since Kolya had appeared in his dreams, and two days since he had woken to the memory of his own gun pressed to his head. The pain of losing a hand was still vivid, but so was the memory of breaking free. That part meant more. It had to.
He listened to his team bantering with each other, hearing their voices but not the words. Everyone was capable of breaking, of course – he'd been taught that much; never to think of himself as invulnerable – and perhaps one day he really would have to take the bullet he had dodged this time, but for now, he carried on.
"And now he's taken my fruit cup!" McKay protested. "Sheppard, stop him."
He looked at Ronon, lounging back in his chair and laughing, and knew that he now bore another scar, but that scars were things that Ronon knew how to live with. He looked at Teyla, who had been through a similar experience with the Wraith, and at Rodney, who had said so much more than he would normally have said, and who, in his own inept way, had said the right thing.
Yes, he thought, he would carry on, and he would never stop carrying on, because he was not alone. None of them were.
Note: Although the inspiration for the title was the visual imagery in the first scene, it also refers to a melancholy little song by Robert Burns in which the autumn inspires him to think about past mistakes and the transience of life.