Chapter one and all header information is here
Sheppard had been back for seven days.
"You've got the same room," Ronon told him. "We didn't like to give it to anyone else."
Sheppard said nothing. In the past, they had often walked along together like this, in silence. Sheppard was subtly different, though. Ronon watched him with the eyes of a hunted man, and saw how he stiffened whenever anyone passed. Too many people were still staring at him. Too many rumours were flying.
Ronon well remembered what it was like to be stared at wherever he went; to sense the weight of whispers about him.
"Here," Ronon said. He opened the door. Zelenka had renewed the alchemy in the light fitting, and Ronon had ensured that the bed was freshly made. Weir had returned the picture over the bed and Teyla and Ronon had returned the small keepsakes they had taken from Sheppard's room to remember him by. Teyla had dusted the surfaces, and the two of them had cleared away the shattered glass together. They had both seen the fresh blood on the shards, had looked at each other across their fragmented reflections, and had resolved in silence not to say a word.
Ronon remembered the first time he had looked into a mirror and seen a wild creature looking back at him. He, too, had almost smashed the glass.
"You…" Sheppard stopped in the doorway, then took a few steps into the centre of the room. "It's the same."
"Course it is." Ronon sat on the wooden chair, stretching his legs out.
Sheppard hesitated for a moment, then sat stiffly on the bed. His body was still, but his eyes were moving like the eyes of a hunted man.
Ronon had replaced the mirror, but only with a small one, hung high on the wall.
"Want to come for a run tomorrow?" Ronon asked.
"If you…" Sheppard began, then stopped. "Doc says I shouldn't."
"When did you ever let that stop you?" Ronon smiled. "We can take things slow."
"Good." Sheppard's hand found the edge of the blanket, and closed on it. "That's good."
"And tonight, we can go to the tavern," Ronon said. "Teyla says she might sing."
"I…" Sheppard's voice cracked, his words disappearing into a croak. He turned his face away, his hair falling down and hiding it. "Sounds good," he said.
"Good," Ronon said, and he carried on talking, talking about little things.
He found a place where a gap between the towers gave him a view of the same star he had watched from the small back room. When it passed out of sight, he stayed there, wrapped in cold.
"It was too noisy in the tavern," Teyla said, speaking from far enough behind him that he had time to gather himself before she approached. "Even in the winter, I find it good to spend time outside."
"We could go to the pier and ride skimmers," Ronon said. John turned in time to see him smile.
"Carson'll never forgive me if I take you out on a skimmer in the dark," he heard himself say, the voice not quite seeming to belong to him. "You know what happened last time."
"Yes, you got hurt."
John looked up at the darkness. He remembered the feel of sorcery blazing in his veins and the air racing past his face, as the city was spread out beneath him as he swooped and soared, flying anywhere he wanted, anywhere he liked.
"Do you remember when…?" Teyla began, and he listened to her words, and he did, he did remember. Not so long ago, really. Scenes from a life he had laid aside for a while, and which he was going to resume.
Remember… and he saw them fighting the Wraith, the three of them side by side. He saw Elizabeth screaming to him as he fell. He saw himself circling the topmost pinnacle of the highest tower, with everyone else just dots below him. He remembered the first sight of Ronon, fighting Wraith. He remembered Teyla running out of her city of glass, saying that she wanted to come back with them to Atlantis. He saw laughter in the refectory. He saw meals left unfinished as he rushed off to deal with this crisis and that crisis, as he went to protect his people, as he went to be useful.
And, "Do you remember…?" he said, as he offered back just some of those memories.
He saw them smile. In the darkness that had no mirrors, he even smiled himself.
Rodney still had no idea how to talk to Sheppard. "There you are," he said, as he came across Sheppard outside the refectory. "Come and be useful. I need your sorcery. If you're, uh, up to it, that is."
Of course, the Rodney McKay he had always been had never worried too much about how to talk to someone. He just opened his mouth and the words came out, and how people reacted to them wasn't Rodney's problem, as long as they didn't try to do anything uncomfortable, like kill him.
Sheppard smiled. "I'm up to it."
Perhaps he was entirely better. The magic of the collar had been strong stuff; no-one knew that better than Rodney. Rodney had been the one who had fought it, after all, pitting his wits against it and coming out on top. It had turned Commander Sheppard into a completely different person, one who could barely string two words together. The collar came off, the old John Sheppard reappeared; end of story, everything back to normal. He probably didn't even remember most of what had happened to him. Rodney had had the worst of it, really, with the images from the quickened chains still surfacing sometimes, late at night.
"Well, then," Rodney said, "don't just stand there." He snapped his fingers. "Follow me."
This was just somebody who happened to look like the slave Rodney had possessed in the city of the Genii. The stories weren't anything to put much credence in, either – the heroic myth of Commander Sheppard. He was just an ordinary person, to be treated in ordinary ways. He wasn't even an alchemist. He was a soldier, with a soldier's rigid thinking. He was a sorcerer, who thought he was so clever and special with his super-mysterious power, and… Well, sorcerers were quite scary, sometimes, with their black-flooded eyes and all that fireball stuff, but it wasn't a proper field of knowledge, not like alchemy.
Just an ordinary person, he thought. Treat him like an ordinary person.
"I'm working on the portals," he said, "and, no, before you ask, there's still no possibility of going home, not for any time soon. No, I'm trying to find a way of opening a portal out the other way, so we can actually go places, which was kind of the point – secret missions into the Wraith heartlands, and all. A portal I've never been to is a closed book, of course, but I think I might have quickened our portal so it's in contact with the one we used in the barrens."
They entered the portal chamber. The ring was shining, sparkling with potential. Rodney snapped his fingers again. "So come on, Sheppard. Jump to it. Do your bit." Sheppard just stood there, looking at the ring. "It's just typical," Rodney said. "I do all the research and the hard work, and in comes a sorcerer to act as a glorified light switch, and I bet the sorcerer will get the credit, while we alchemists labour for hours behind the scenes."
Sheppard took a step forward. Rodney picked up his phial of fixing and knelt beside the ring, ready to adjust his workings. Nothing happened for a while, but when Rodney looked up, meaning to snap a complaint, he saw that Sheppard's eyes were slowly flooding with black, and his expression… His expression made Rodney turn away suddenly, to grumble under his breath, to touch the eager metal that was the one thing in the world that worked according to proper, easy-to-understand rules.
This time the portal blossomed into life slowly, but it blazed, if anything, even brighter than before. "It worked!" Rodney felt himself grinning. "It worked!"
"Yeah." Sheppard lowered his hand slowly. His eyes were slow to lose their sorcerer's freakiness, but then he, too, was smiling. "Thanks to me."
"What do you mean: thanks to you?" Rodney snorted in disgust. "That's just typical of you sorcerers. You… uh…" He swallowed hard, edging away from the portal. "I suppose we need to test that we opened it up to the right place. So what are you waiting for? Go on through. It works in both directions – ought to, anyway – so it's just a case of hopping through, taking a look, and hopping back."
Sheppard looked at him, one eyebrow raised. "Why me? Why not you?"
"Because, uh… important work to do back here, to, uh, stabilise the portal. And I haven't got the right shoes for the barrens."
Sheppard didn't move. Something screeched, and Rodney was looking over his shoulder, his eyes darting nervously around the portal room, when he realised that the sound had come from the far side of the portal. A shadow moved beyond the gold. Something smashed through, impacting on the far wall. Rodney cowered, bringing both hands up to cover his head. Sheppard just stood there.
"Wraith!" Rodney hissed. The shadow lurched closer, with two long arms and a pale smear for a face. "Seriously, they're still there, after nine days, and-- Close the portal, you idiot! Close it now! Close it!"
"Yes, master," Sheppard said. The portal faded, becoming no more than an empty ring of quickened metal. By the time Rodney had suppressed his terror enough to uncurl from the floor, Sheppard had gone.
You could limp through the days, but it only took one word to show how wrong you had been.
It wasn't me, he had told himself again and again. It was just a nightmare. It had happened to his body, but not to the part of him that really mattered. There was no reason why it should affect him. He knew how to push nightmares to the side. Carry on, be John Sheppard again, and the nightmare would fade.
He wasn't the slave. He wasn't the slave. He wasn't the slave.
He ran with Ronon, and that was good. He reminisced with Teyla, and that was good. He and McKay… and that was a strange one, because McKay's very presence set the doors of nightmare creaking open, but for a moment, when they had worked together on the portal… For a moment, it had felt good. John had been useful, and McKay had talked to him as if it hadn't even crossed his mind that John would shatter.
Small steps, tiny steps, and the nightmare was banished. It was locked behind doors of fragile glass. Nothing had changed. Nothing had changed…
Words betrayed him. They slipped out when he wasn't thinking, when he'd lowered his guard.
They told the truth.
The nightmare was real. He was the slave. The nightmare owned him.
He was shattered.
Teyla called out to him, emerging from her building as he neared it, in a way that made him think that she had been waiting for him. "I'm good," he managed to say. "Good. I'm just going for, uh, a rest, you know. I don't need… I'm good."
Sunlight sparkled on glass, and he saw his reflection. His hair was still long because he was hiding his face from the truth. The high-buttoned clothes were a pathetic attempt to cover a body that was a mass of scars. The veneer was torn away. He was broken. He would never be the same again.
Fresh scabs pulled on his fist when he tightened it. He saw Ford walking back from the harbour, unclipping weapons from his belt. "Are we under attack?" the slave managed to ask, clinging to faint memories of how to play a part.
"No, sir." Ford shook his head. "A Wraith raiding party was sighted this morning, but they've been dealt with now. I had two injured, but neither of them seriously."
Ford called him 'sir'. Ford condoned the lie. But they hadn't told him when the party was sighted. They hadn't asked him to join the team that was sent out to deal with them. That told more truth than any mere 'sir' could tell.
They thought that he was broken.
They were right.
Not long after sunset, it started to rain. Teyla found Ronon in the middle of the southern plaza. "Have you seen John?"
Ronon shook his head. "I was looking for him."
There were few spirits outside. Teyla pulled her coat tightly around her, and headed for a sheltering doorway. A spirit hovered just inside, trembling with anxiety. It's been two days since his team went out, it whispered, worrying desperately about some unknown person that had been dear to it. I do hope he's safe. Its emotions fed her anxiety. The spirit had no idea where John had gone.
"He said he was going to his room," she told Ronon, "but that was many hours ago."
"You spoke to him?" Ronon was drenched, his long hair plastered to his neck. "How did he seem?"
Teyla let out a breath. "The same," she said, by which she meant taut and fragile, desperately clinging on to the pretence that everything was normal. Emotions bled off him, evident in his tight-clenched hands. In places that he frequented, the spirits were darker and more desperate.
There were times when he smiled and almost seemed normal, but he had endured too much, far more than his usual strategies could cope with. The spirits quivered with anxiety, and hated the way he walked among them, bleeding desperation, but saying so little.
"Are we doing the right thing?" she asked now, drawing closer to Ronon in the dark.
"What else can we do?" Ronon said, and that… that was true, too. They could not coerce him. They could not force him to talk about things that he wanted to pretend had never happened. All they could do was be there in the way that he wanted them to be there – as friends, who did not judge.
But it was hard, so hard. He looked different, his hair longer and his face thinner. The spirits moved differently around him, reacting to his pain. Although he hid them, it was impossible to forget the scars that were beneath his clothes. He was marked with brands of ownership, with the initials of owners carved into his flesh, and she wanted to hurt the people who had done that to him, and she wanted to help him heal from them, and she wanted to forget all that, and just see John.
She just felt so useless, and now they had lost him.
"What?" Rodney demanded, when someone came far too noisily into his workroom. "You're interrupting--"
"Chuck says you were with Sheppard earlier," Ronon said. "Did he say where he was going?"
"Why, have you lost him?" Rodney said, then took a rapid shuffle back when it really looked for a moment as if Ronon was going to hit him, really hit him. "I… I'm sorry." His hand fluttered up to his face. "We were working on the portal – or, rather, I was working and he…" He stopped; shook his head. "He just… left."
Ronon nodded once, then left the room. It felt cold and empty after he had gone, and rain pounded at the windows. Rodney leafed through his pages slower and slower. Everyone else had already gone. Where did the other alchemists go in the evening, he wondered suddenly. Shirking their work – that's what he'd always thought. Lacking the intellectual stamina to work late into the night – that's what he'd always told them. Lacking the true gift that allowed you to lose yourself in your work, no longer even aware of time passing.
But where did they go, and why didn't they… ? Why didn't they invite me? something small and unhappy said inside him, but that was stupid because the opinions of other people didn't matter. But he'd come back from the city of the Genii thinking himself changed, and he'd realised that he'd missed these people, stupid as it might seem.
Atlantis was like base metal: full of potential, but somehow refusing to shine properly for him.
He left the room and headed down the stairs, out into the rain. Lights shone in the distant towers, and he thought he could hear a mass of people talking, but perhaps it was just the pounding of the rain. As he headed into a dark archway, he caught himself thinking how wrong it seemed to have a night time that wasn't lit by gleaming silver discs. When he imagined himself back at home, in out of the rain, it was his workroom in the city of the Genii that he pictured.
How stupid he was. Home was always somewhere else. He didn't seem to know how to talk to people in a way that would make them into his friends, and it didn't matter, of course it didn't matter, but…
He darted out into the rain again, over the bridge where he had met Sheppard a few days earlier, and then to the doorway of the residence hall. So Ronon had lost Sheppard. It made sense, really. Sheppard had been a slave, so of course he would want to spend some time by himself, going wherever he liked. He'd come back when he was good and ready. Maybe Rodney would be able to put the man's sorcery to good use again and achieve yet another breakthrough in his revolutionary work with the portals.
Of course, he thought, as he paused at his door, Sheppard as a slave hadn't seemed to know what to do with himself when he was left alone. If Sheppard really was missing… And last time he had gone missing, Kolya had gotten his hands on him, but Rodney had bravely and boldly gone to rescue him, and if he hadn't done that…
Oh! His hand rose to the talismans at his throat; he had grown so used to wearing them there that it had never occurred to him to remove them. Did Sheppard still wear Rodney's bracelet? Rodney frowned, struggling to remember. It had been sealed with his own alchemy, though only with a weak working, so any of the other alchemists could have removed it. Still, it was customary etiquette to ask the alchemist who had a done a working to undo it, and no-one had asked Rodney to take the talisman off, so that meant… It probably meant nothing at all, but there was no harm in trying it.
His fingers brushed it. On the far side of the city, it said, and not moving anywhere. Still, so very still. Not moved for a very long time.
He should tell Ronon about it, Rodney thought. But his hand closed on the talisman, as he thought about a solitary meal in the refectory, eaten to the backdrop of other people's laughter. He thought of meals with the slave in the kitchen, and the disaster that had almost ensued the last time he had delayed before answering the call of the talisman.
Stupid, he thought, as he headed off into the rain.
The slave had always liked to look at the stars. The slave didn't know what it was to dream of freedom, but he had always known that the stars and the night sky represented something that he couldn't have. Time passed when he gazed up at the black. Sometimes he seemed to leave all the pains of his body behind, and fly there, dreaming.
Now he was able to walk free beneath the sky. The rain sheeted down on him, cold and free. He wasn't tethered in a small dark room, but outside, with no walls and borders…
But still chained. Still locked behind walls. His body was marked. His memory was worse. He couldn't forget. He couldn't step free from the things that hadn't even happened to him. Not to him. Yes, to him. He was carved with scars, deep into his soul. Marked. The nightmare walked free, and he couldn't forget it.
His knees were up towards his chest, and he held them there, making chains of his own arms. If he didn't, he thought he would just bleed out into the night; would lose himself, scattered so far that he wouldn't know how to bring himself back.
Maybe that was for the best. He was too badly broken. The nightmare couldn't be confined to the places that nightmares should live. He saw Kolya stalking through the empty hallways of Atlantis. Old scars hurt, as if he was still hanging by his wrists from a hook in a pitch-dark room. When people approached him, he readied himself for them to hurt him. He looked for the trap in every simple word.
He couldn't… He couldn't…
"There you are," someone said, and then his heart was pounding desperately, because he hadn't heard McKay approach, the man's clumsy footsteps obscured by the drumming of the rain. "I, uh… the talisman, you know? I thought I… By the flame, it's wet! You're drenched."
"Yeah." Old habit allowed him to produce a smile. "That's because it's raining."
"Are you--" McKay stood over him, close enough to hurt him, if he wanted to. John concentrated on breathing. "--well?" McKay finished, "because…" His voice trailed away.
Sometimes the slave could still feel the Wraith tendrils going from the back of his neck into his brain. They twisted, hurting him. He wanted to ask, what do you want me to say, master? "Did you come looking for me?" he asked. It was fitting. McKay was the nightmare made flesh. He had followed John home from the city of the Genii, so even if John hadn't been quite so broken, he would never be able to forget.
"I… Shadow!" McKay swore. "Can't you at least sit underneath an archway, or something? I've never been this far out. Is it a disused dock?"
It was a good place to watch the stars from, on nights when it wasn't raining. He and Ronon had flown skimmers here, once, long ago, in another life.
"I…" McKay wrapped his arms around his body, pulling his coat tight. "I miss those dinners we had together," he said, "and, yes, I know, don't tell me: I'm being blind and inconsiderate, because they can't have been much fun for you, but I… I've always eaten alone. I… I never thought of you as a slave. Well, okay, admittedly I did, but only because of the aforementioned blind and inconsiderate thing. I'm like that with everyone."
"But I was a slave." He said it quietly. Wind stirred the dark water. "I still am."
"What idiocy is this?" McKay snapped. "Of course you're not. In case you haven't noticed: Atlantis? Your home? All your adoring friends and fan club? At least they wanted you back."
And all they'd gotten was a broken shell – someone hurt too badly to pick up the threads of his old life. He wrapped his arms more tightly around his legs, and stared out into the darkness, gazing straight ahead, letting the rain scour his face.
McKay said something; he didn't even hear what it was. McKay knew the truth. McKay had seen him.
"I submitted," he said, words ripping free from his throat like barbs. "I didn't at first, but in the end… They hurt me less if I didn't fight. I held my arm out for the knife. I presented my wrists for the manacles so they could whip me. You saw it. I held my hair out of the way so you could… with the collar…" He dug his fingers into his legs. "I can't forget that. I'm not who I should be. And Ford calls me 'sir', but I let my masters do all that to me. I told myself that I wasn't really submitting, not really, if I didn't let them make me scream. How fucked-up is that? I didn't scream, and I can't… I can't…"
Words left him. He was alone in the dark, and the nightmare was real. McKay was part of it; that's why the slave could say these things. Not to anyone else. It would break Teyla's heart if she knew how broken he really was. It was a betrayal of Ronon, who had been through so much more, and survived.
"I can't forget it," he forced out. "I can't."
"Of course you can't." McKay knelt down beside him, but his eyes were flickering all over the place, as if he was desperate to be somewhere else. "I saw just a bit of it, and I can't forget it, either, and I can't even begin to imagine…" He let out a breath, and seemed to look at John properly. "So you submitted. Very sensible, because that's why you're, well, not dead. And you survived for three years, and as for the not screaming thing… You know, I didn't believe the stories when I first came here – tales of the long-lost Commander Sheppard – but you survived all that, and you didn't scream. I couldn't have done it. I couldn't have survived five minutes of it. I do have other strengths, of course, and this whole courage thing is over-rated, and is just another word for stupidity and… Not helping. I know. Don't say it. I say these things, and… I'm sorry. I should go away."
He stood up to go – a man from the realms of nightmare. If McKay wasn't here, then John could forget… No, of course he couldn't forget. He was marked, changed, broken. McKay had been there. McKay had never known him as anything other than a shattered man. McKay perhaps, in a way, understood. McKay had no expectations that John could betray.
"No," John said, the word escaping him little louder than a breath. "Don't go."
McKay stopped and turned. "Really?" He looked shocked, scared…, delighted.
John leant his head back against the wall, suddenly lacking the energy even to keep his eyes open. "And you did stab Kolya," he heard McKay say, "and that was good, right? Isn't it one of those symbolic things? Triumphing over the bad memories – striking a blow against…? Or not. I'm not good at this sort of thing."
"No." John opened his eyes. The smile was fragile, but it held. "You're not."
McKay edged closer. "And you… Oh, Shadow, you're bleeding! Your hand…"
John looked down. He must have ripped off one of the scabs from when he had punched the mirror. The blood looked dark in the faint alchemical light from across the water.
"You hurt yourself deliberately," McKay gasped. "Oh, Shadow, they made you think that you deserved it. And now you're back on Atlantis, and no-one's passing the time of day by torturing you, you're doing it to yourself and… where's Ronon when you need him? I'm not good at this."
He thought of the mirror shattering because it told him a truth he didn't want to hear. "It wasn't like that."
"Of course you didn't deserve it," McKay said. "Nobody alive deserves treatment like that, except perhaps for the people who did it to you, but you, Sheppard… They did it because they couldn't break you. They did it because you're strong – because you never broke, no matter what they did to you. It was a compliment in a way… and that didn't come out right. Stupid thing to say. I'm sorry. I'm making things worse."
"I was captured by the Wraith," John said, spitting the words out like stones, remembering every last detail of the last mission before he had entered another life. "There were too many of them. They shot me, pinned me down, put the collar on me…" And memory broke off sharply then. It resumed afterwards, but on a different line. One line was clear and crisp, one was blurry and shadowed, but both were real. "I escaped, but I didn't know where to go. The Genii found me--"
"And enslaved you and tortured you. I know." McKay started pacing, his voice getting quieter and then louder again. "But it wasn't really you. I mean, I should know. I have an intimate knowledge of how that collar worked, and it was a hideous thing. How much of a person's personality comes from memory? Most of it, I'd say, and you… you didn't know you had friends, or a home to stay alive for. You didn't know anything. Even your way of thinking was scrambled. So if you did things you're not proud of – and, really, I don't think you did… It wasn't really you."
"It was," he said, because he had played this game. He had tried this path of denial, but the scars and the memories said otherwise.
"Well, yes, it was, but… but you didn't break and… and you were a pathetic slave when I had you, and only made me dinner once, and… and you stabbed Kolya, and that's something to be proud of – not that violence is a good thing, of course, but.... No matter what they did you to, you survived, and… and I think I've just contradicted myself. I'm not good at this. Why are you making me do this? I'm cold and I'm wet and I'm making things worse. Please can we go inside?"
Ever so slowly, John relaxed his arms, and lowered his legs, stretching them out on the ground in front of him. This time, when shapes came out of the gloom towards him, he was ready for them, turning to face them before they could speak, putting the expression on his face that they would expect to see there.
"John." Teyla crouched down beside him. "We were worried about you."
"I'm good," he said automatically. He managed a smile, and kept it there when Ronon came to join her. McKay hovered in the background, slowly fading out of sight.
John opened his mouth to say something – what, he did not know – when Teyla stood up sharply. "Wraith!" The air sparkled urgently around here. "Wraith in Atlantis, not far away."
John stood up. Atlantis was in danger, and even scarred and altered as he was, he could still protect his people. It was something, at least.
No, he thought, as he raised his head and looked into the night, perhaps it was everything.
On to chapter ten