Chapter one and all header information is here
Rodney opened his eyes to find himself in a place of warmth and golden light. When he moved, he found soft sheets below him. Fine filaments were draped over the side of the bed. "Oh," he said. "I was wounded. Huh. Fancy that. I was wounded in battle."
"You fainted," Ronon said.
"I did not," Rodney protested. "Well, maybe I did, but with good justification. There were Wraith! I extracted one of their tendril-bullets, and no-one's ever done that before, I'll have you know. I was hurt." His shoulder was numb, though, wrapped in bandages. "If I ended up passing out for a few minutes, then it's hardly a character failing on my part."
"Didn't say it was." Ronon clapped him on the shoulder.
"Ow!" Rodney protested. "Wounded man!"
"Other shoulder." Ronon looked outrageously unrepentant. "You fainted. It happens. I fainted myself once. Mind you, I was eight."
Ronon's arm was bandaged, Rodney saw, with healers' filaments trailing out of his torn-off sleeve. There was no sign of Teyla and Sheppard. "The others…" Rodney asked. "They're okay, aren't they? I mean, the reinforcements came, didn't they? And that was because of me, too. I saved everyone's lives. I did, didn't I? They're not dead?"
"Sheppard's asleep," Ronon said. "Teyla's with him."
"And you're with me." Rodney swallowed. He wanted to smile, his face twitching nervously. "Are you… uh, are you sure Sheppard's all right?" It was hard to forget those tendrils reaching towards his heart. And before that, even before the Wraith had come… Sheppard had been traumatised and alone out in the rain. That sort of thing didn't magically go away just because you zapped a few Wraith. Rodney might have believed that one day, but things didn't work like that.
Ronon stood up. "I'll go check on him."
"You'll…" Rodney raised one hand, then lowered it again. "You'll come back again?"
Ronon said nothing, just grinned.
And here she was again in the healers' wards, worrying herself sick about the same man. "He'll recover from this?" Elizabeth asked.
Carson removed his outer robe, throwing it over the back of a chair. He looked less like a healer without it, and more like a soldier. They were all soldiers, after all, even those who never held a gun. "He will," he said, "thanks to Adept McKay – and it looks as if I'll have to start employing an alchemist on my staff."
"Oh, by the flame, no!" Carson shook his head rapidly. "The man's skilled, that's for sure, but can you imagine what he'd be like with delicate patients in need of gentle handling?"
Elizabeth smiled for form's sake. McKay had done excellent work, and she would give him every credit for that, but John was the person who caused her most concern. "Are you sure John will recover?"
"Physically," Carson said, "yes. Emotionally? I don't know. He's proved to himself that he can still fight. By all accounts, he was his old self out there, issuing orders as if he'd never been away. I've treated soldiers before, of course, and these things matter to them. They matter to all of us. To know that we can still do our job – that we are still capable…" He shook his head, sighing. "It might help. But there's no magic wand. He has been very badly hurt here," he said, touching first his chest and then his brow, two fingers pressed between his eyes. The fingers stayed there, massaging as if Carson had a headache. "I can heal his body," he said, "and with time and hard work, I'll be able to remove many of his scars, but that's as far as my power goes. I wish…" He trailed away.
"So do I," said Elizabeth quietly. She moved to the window, looking out at a city that was beginning to sparkle in the early light of dawn. All the bridges and plazas were shiny with rain, but low in the east, the clouds were parting. "There were Wraith in Atlantis," she said. "Is this the start of it?"
"And all those Wraith have been killed or captured," Carson said, "thanks to Commander Sheppard and his team."
Commander Sheppard, she thought, because even that was something that required a decision, perhaps not too far away along the road. "But they got in," she said, "and it was only sheer chance that allowed us to know about it." No-one had told her quite why John had been out there on the deserted dock, but she thought she knew. He had been out there alone and hurting, and quite by chance had thwarted an attack by the Wraith. As his friend, she hated the fact that he had been out there, but as the leader of Atlantis… oh, by the flame, as the leader of Atlantis she had to be glad.
What is this place doing to me? she thought.
"But more Wraith will come," she said.
She knew what John would have said – her old friend John Sheppard, her second in command. Then we will be ready for them. He would have smiled, refusing to contemplate any ending that was not a happy one, and often he would have swept her along with the force of his optimism.
Carson, though, was a healer, and didn't know the right words. "But we will be ready for them," she said herself, clinging three years on to the memory of the man they had lost.
And perhaps it would even be true. They had lived this long, after all, and even now few days passed without a smile.
He woke up to the sound of his name being called. Teyla's hand closed around his own. "How do you feel, John?"
He shifted position. "Like I've been shot."
Her face slowly came into focus. She was smiling, and spirits shimmered in the air around her. "The healers say you will make a full recovery."
"Real healers," he asked, "or… you know?"
Her smile deepened. "Both."
He tried to sit up, and his body obeyed him rather better than it usually did when he woke up to find himself in the healers' wards. "We beat the Wraith?"
"We beat the Wraith," she said.
His memories of the end of it were hazy. "Were there any casualties?"
"Ronon suffered a glancing blow to his arm," Teyla said, "and I took some fire to my leg. Rodney hurt his shoulder, and… the whole thing was too much for him, I believe, but the healers say he will be fine. No-one else was hurt."
"Good." He settled back into the pillows, feeling the flow of healing run through the filaments, pulling him down. "That's good."
And it was only there, on the very brink of sleep, that he remembered that he was no longer Commander John Sheppard, but a broken slave.
"What?" Rodney demanded, when he heard someone moving beside his bed. "I've been wounded. Go away. I need my sleep."
He heard someone clearing his throat. Radek, he thought, by the sound of it. He opened his eyes to see Radek leaving.
Rodney opened his mouth to say one thing; stopped and thought, and said something else entirely. "No. Come back. I'm sorry. It's the pain, you know - making me… irritable."
Radek perched awkwardly on the chair beside the bed. "You fought Wraith." He pushed his spectacles up his nose. "Everyone's talking about it."
"Yes, I did." Rodney pushed himself up against the pillows. "I was very brave."
"You removed a Wraith tendril-bullet," Radek said. "I've been studying Commander Sheppard's collar and…" He cleared his throat. "Maybe we can work on the Wraith metal-magic together?"
I work best alone. Rodney almost said it; had to bite the words back. Radek had wanted to work with him on the portals, he remembered, but Rodney had refused to let him. Again and again, during his year in Atlantis, he had pushed people away and had loudly criticised the weaknesses of others. If he had spent his days feeling lost and lonely, at least part of it was his own fault. Habits were so hard to break. He wanted things to be different, but…
"Yes," he said gruffly. "Yes, we can. After I've recovered from my life-threatening injury. I fought the Wraith, you know." He stopped, moistening his lips. "Everyone's talking about it? Really? About, uh, me, and not just about Sheppard?"
"About all of you," he heard Weir say from the door. Radek shifted nervously as she approached. "I owe you an apology, Adept McKay. When Commander Sheppard came back to us so badly injured… And we had the possibility of a Wraith attack to deal with…" She stepped closer, her hand touching the bed not far from his hand. "That explains things, but doesn't excuse them. I didn't give you the thanks you deserve. You did excellent work, McKay. You came back with everything we hoped for, and with so much more."
"You mean Sheppard," Rodney said, and there was very little jealousy there, not any more.
"Yes." She smiled, and he couldn't even resent that, either, not when she looked so happy. "If it wasn't for you, he would still be there."
And still be tortured; still be lost and afraid, not knowing his name. Because of Rodney, he was home. But it didn't feel like a triumph, not really. It wasn't something to boast about. Sheppard wasn't a trophy, but a real person, and he was still hurting. Real people were far more complicated than any metal.
"Well done, Rodney." This time Weir did touch his hand, squeezing it once.
Rodney watched her go. A smile he couldn't suppress spread over his face.
Radek stood up, raking a hand through his hair. "Has been quiet without you, Rodney. I missed you."
"I…" Rodney fought the urge to cover his confusion with a sharp retort. He looked down at his hands, busy on the sheets beside him. "I missed you, all of you, even though you're…" He cleared his throat. "I missed Atlantis."
And now, only now, perhaps, was he home.
Ronon found Sheppard on the same balcony he had found him on many days before. Sheppard looked stronger than he had looked then, with more flesh on his bones. His hair was still longer than he had always worn it, but he had clipped it back at the base of his neck, using a clip marked with the shining phoenix sigil of Atlantis.
Ronon slotted in beside him. They had never needed many words between them – never needed a greeting or words of farewell. Perhaps they spoke too little, Ronon thought. He had never said goodbye to Sheppard on that final day three years before; merely waved, and said, 'Sparring later, when you get back?'
Sheppard was looking out at the shining bridges far below. "I can't forget," he said. "I do sometimes, for a few minutes, when I first wake up, but that's all. I can't forget."
Ronon leant his forearms on the railing. "Of course you can't."
"McKay says I wasn't myself, and that… helps. The memories feel different. But they're still real. I can't forget. I thought I could, you know?"
Side by side, they looked out at the bridges across the water. "It's only been fourteen days," Ronon said. "Of course you can't forget it. You wouldn't be human if you could."
"And it's been four years for you." Sheppard began to turn towards him – Ronon saw it through his peripheral vision – then turned away again, face turned towards the impersonal things below. "How did you survive it?"
"With scars," Ronon said, "but scars don't have to be bleeding wounds. Some days… some days are bad."
"Still?" Sheppard asked.
Ronon nodded. "Still. But some days are good – more days. Most days." Especially now that Sheppard was back, but he didn't say that. It wasn't fair to make Sheppard bear the weight of his friends' happiness.
"How--?" Sheppard began, then snapped it off, retreating into silence.
Ronon still didn't look at him. "Being changed," he said, "doesn't have to mean being broken. There's things I did and said, back before the Wraith took me… There's ways I felt… I'm not like that any more, but things are still good."
He saw Sheppard's hand grip the railing. "It's just… hard, you know?"
"Of course it is," Ronon said. He thought of his own scars, visible whenever he looked in the mirror.
Sheppard said nothing. Ronon watched a bird wheeling high above the towers, its wings gleaming white in the sunshine.
"We can't change what's happened," he said.
"No." Sheppard let out a slow breath. "But we have to live with it. Is that what you're saying?"
"No." Ronon shook his head, and smiled, draping his arm around Sheppard's shoulder; it was either that or weep, perhaps. "It's more than just live with it. It's more than that."
The phoenix shone on the banner, glorious in the sun.
The spirits were quiet, dreaming of home. When the sun shone at just the right angle, the towers of Atlantis reminded Teyla of the towers of her own home. Sometimes, even now, she yearned for it, even though she had been an outcast there, condemned to be friendless because people had misunderstood the power she had no choice over possessing.
She was slow to notice John approaching her. When she did, she let the spirits go, and turned to him just as herself, seeing him with no eyes other than her own.
"Isn't it too cold to sit out here?" John asked.
"Perhaps," she said with a smile, "but why are you here?"
"Busted." He smiled guiltily, and sat down beside her. He seemed less tense than he had been only days before, but she did not like to look too closely. It was too tempting to follow him everywhere, but she knew John Sheppard, and knew that he hated to be the object of anyone else's concern.
"Healer Beckett," she said, "says that I need to take it easy for a few days. I found myself here." She wondered whether to say the rest, and then said it, anyway. "It reminds me of home," she said, although 'home' was perhaps not the word to use for that distant city of glass.
John said nothing. He had swung his feet over the edge of the quay, and was looking down at the water, at his own fractured reflection there. "John…" she said, and he looked up at her, his eyes uncharacteristically naked.
"Your… spirits," he said. "Can they see how I feel?"
She shook her head. "You know that they cannot."
He looked down at the water, then up at the fading sun, low in the sky. "I don't know how I feel," he confessed.
She weighed her answer for a moment. "Then that is very normal," she said.
"What is normal?" He was still looking away from her. Long shadows fell across his face. "I wanted things to go back to normal, but…"
"We can never go back," she said, when it became clear that he was not going to say anything else. She thought of her own birthplace, and the family ties now completely severed. She thought of those early days in Atlantis, and how every day was different, different from anything she might expect. "But that does not mean that we cannot go forward. It is not always easy, but what else can we do?"
"What else?" he said quietly, as the spirits stirred across the water, content in the warmth of the setting sun.
Rodney found them one evening, all gathered around a table in the refectory. Ronon said something that Rodney didn't catch, and Teyla laughed at it, throwing back her head and laughing with a complete lack of reserve. Even Sheppard was smiling, his pose relaxed in a way that Rodney had never seen in him before. He had cut his hair, making him look less and less like the slave Rodney had begun to get to know in the city of the Genii.
Rodney hesitated, clutching his tray with both hands. He had to walk past them to get to his usual table, solitary against the window.
Sheppard looked up and saw him. "Hey, McKay," he said, gesturing towards the empty chair.
Not so long ago, Rodney thought, he had been the one commanding Sheppard to sit. By the stiffening of Sheppard's shoulders, he thought that Sheppard remembered it, too.
He sat down, covering any confusion in the clearing of his throat. "Are you…?" he asked, when he had finished. It was five days since their battle with the Wraith.
"Fine," Sheppard said. "Thanks for saving my life, by the way."
His voice was too light, the words too easy. Rodney suddenly had no idea what to say. Sheppard had seemed so disconsolate on the dock in the rain. So all you had to do was kill a few Wraith and all that went away? Rodney wanted to believe that, but he'd been wrong so many times before with this man. It had to have left a shadow – it had to have.
"And you're…" Rodney cleared his throat again. Ronon rose and left the table, and Teyla followed him, and there was just the two of them, sitting across a table from each other, just as they had done in the city of the Genii. "…better?" Rodney said, although it must have been almost a minute since he had started the sentence.
"No." Sheppard shook his head. "But… getting there, perhaps."
Rodney could still remember how Sheppard had arched in agony when he had worked on the collar. "I've made things worse all along," he said. "I… I don't know how to talk to people. I shouldn't have tried to find you the other night. I should have sent Ronon or Teyla to do it. They're your friends, and I'm… I'm just me. I'm… not good at these things, you know? Like when we worked on the portal that day… I gave you orders. You should have told me not to."
Sheppard said nothing. He had been tracing patterns in salt on the table, Rodney realised, but now his finger was still.
"It doesn't mean anything," Rodney said. "I'm like this with everyone."
"I keep trying not to be," Rodney said. "I--"
"Don't." Sheppard started tracing again, perhaps the pattern of chains. "It… helped. You were the only person not tiptoeing around me. It was hard, because you'd been there, but in the end, that helped. You were the only one without… expectations. That time we were working together on the portal… You made me feel normal. It was the first time since I got back that I'd been allowed to be useful. Being useful… It… matters. It matters a lot."
"I…" Rodney's mouth gaped. He snapped it shut, but couldn't think of any words to say.
"And you saved my life," Sheppard said.
"Well, yes, I did," Rodney agreed. "You've already thanked me for that."
"Not just then. Not just with the Wraith bullet." Sheppard was looking at him steadily. "Before that, back with the Genii, when--"
"You don't owe me anything," Rodney blurted out, but when had he felt uncomfortable about receiving thanks before? "I mean, you saved my life, too, when the Wraith were trying to kill me, so that makes us quits, doesn't it?"
And Sheppard would agree, Rodney thought. The obligation had been fulfilled. Sheppard would wave him away, and Rodney would return to his own solitary table and that would be it – the end of their association.
"Have you ever ridden skimmers, McKay?" Sheppard asked. "We were going there after lunch. You want to come along?"
An inarticulate sound escaped Rodney's throat. He closed his mouth, moistened his lips, and tried again. "Skimmers," he said, "are a death trap, and why you sorcerers persist in… in joy-riding on them, I will never understand. It's because you're more style than substance. It's about fireballs and going really fast, and there's no subtlety and no hard work."
Sheppard arched one eyebrow. "That's a yes?"
And it was, of course.
He could never forget. He could never go back to the way he was before. Some days were terrible, but some days – some moments in some days… Some days were almost good.
He dreamed of being hung up in chains, but he dreamed, too, of escaping them. He dreamed of being captured, but he dreamed of his return to Atlantis. He dreamed of torture without end, but he knew that he had survived it without breaking utterly.
The collar muted the memories, and that helped, too. He could no longer escape and pretend that those things hadn't happened to him, but McKay was right, in a way, in that he hadn't been in his right mind. If he had cowered and submitted then, it didn't reflect on the person that he really was.
And if he hadn't submitted, he wouldn't be here now.
"So what's happening," McKay asked one evening, "about… you know?"
About whether he would take his old job back? Ford still called him 'sir', but Ford had done a good job. It was hard to demote a man, and the more tedious parts of leadership had never appealed to John, anyway. And it would be a long time, he thought, before he could trust himself with the safety of an entire city; too large a part of him still thought of himself as a slave. Days went by, and still Elizabeth said nothing about it, but the night before, they had spent hours discussing all her concerns about the city, and he had offered suggestions, just as he had done in the old days.
She had been smiling as he left her.
"I have a plan about that, actually," he said now, just as he had said to Elizabeth the night before. "We haven't seen any Wraith since that night, but they're bound to come. We need to master the portals."
McKay's head snapped up. "Uh, hello? The very important work I've spent my entire waking life working on these last few weeks?"
There was something almost comforting about McKay's predictable outrage, but John held up his hand, urging patience. On his other side, Ronon and Teyla watched in expectant silence. "You said you can't open a portal to somewhere unless you've already been to the portal at the other end," John said, "and… done your… alchemical stuff."
"Alchemical stuff?" McKay echoed in outrage, then he let out a breath. "Well, yes, it's true, but… alchemical stuff?"
"So we need to find the portals," John said. "Journey the old-fashioned way. Find them, mark them in whatever way we need to mark them… That's what I intend to do." Being useful mattered more than anything. No matter how much he had endured, he could still make a difference. He could still take control. He could still save lives.
"But some of the portals are in Wraith territory," McKay protested. "And you'll need an alchemist."
John just looked at him.
"Oh." McKay frowned, fluttering his hands. "You mean me. You mean me and you. Me and all of you?"
"A team." John looked at the others; saw them smiling. Ronon and Teyla he had worked with before. McKay… McKay was a strange one. McKay had seen him as a slave, and that should have been a barrier between the two of them, but it seemed to work the other way. John didn't have to pretend in front of McKay. McKay treated everybody the same, and it was almost restful, in a way.
"You really mean it?" McKay asked again.
John kept it casual, managing a shrug. "Unless you don't want to."
"Oh." McKay bit his lip. "Yes. I mean… But it's hideously dangerous. I'll probably die horribly… but, then, you'll need me there. What if you get shot again? Not that… I mean… You're sure? You really want…? Yes. Yes. Oh, I'm so going to regret this."
The others drew closer. The sun set slowly beyond the towers, but later, he thought, than it had set just days before. The worst of winter was over, and spring was coming. He had seldom seen Atlantis in snow. Maybe next winter, or the winter after. Or maybe he would be dead by then, or maybe he would be back home.
No, he was already home. McKay said it was unlikely that they would ever open the portal back to their home in the south, and of all the things that had happened to him, this was the one that affected John the least. He had never had much of a life back home. None of them had. Right from the start, it had been an expedition of outcasts and exiles, and John had always known that, even if Elizabeth had not. This was their home now. Teyla had left her city of glass for Atlantis, not for a land away to the south that she had never seen. Ronon had found his home here, with them. Atlantis was what John would fight for. Atlantis was more important than any scars that he bore, and any pains that he had suffered.
He would keep going, for his city, for his friends. He would keep going, because if he didn't, the Wraith had won. If he didn't, then his masters had won.
"So when do we start?" Ronon asked, loosening the top button of his formal uniform.
They were all broken, John realised. Ronon had lost everything he had ever loved, and had come to Atlantis half shattered from his life in the wilds. Teyla had walked away from a people who had given her only awe and fear. McKay was a lonely man, who wanted to have friends, but had never known how to get them.
Atlantis was a city of the broken, but when the broken came together, they could shine.
"Let's start tomorrow," John said, looking not up at the sky, but at every one of them. "But first…" The skimmers called to him, and there was just enough light left in the day, and just enough wind. "But first," he said, "let's fly."
My long stories normally come from ideas that I sit on for months. This story, like my historical pirate AU, leapt fully formed into my mind, and went from initial spark of idea to writing the first chapter in a mere 24 hours. The first six chapters wrote themselves. Chapters 7 and 8 were tough, with all the new viewpoints to explore, and the sheer weight of pain that the characters were dealing with, but things picked up again in chapter 9. Overall, though, it was… well, I can't really say "fun," since there's a lot of pain here for everyone, but really immersing and satisfying. Huge thanks to kriadydragon for providing the prompt, since I doubt I would ever have written a story like this without it.
And now for the S word: sequel. During chapter 8, I realised that the story could very easily turn into an epic, with an all-out Wraith attack, a war, sieges, counter-attacks etc. I realised almost immediately that this wasn't what the story needed. The focus of the story is on the Slave Sheppard storyline and on Rodney's character arc, and I really didn't want the first six chapters of this story to seem like a mere prologue to the "real" story.
However, there are undoubtedly stories still to be told. We have our team in place now, on a mission to track down portals, and the Wraith are mustering for an attack. How will Rodney settle in with his new team? How will Sheppard's recovery proceed? I also realise that it could be seen as a bit of dropped plot thread that the Genii disappear from the story half way through. Since the Genii don't know about Atlantis and can't use the portals, there was no way that they could follow our heroes back to the city, but Genii might, of course, be encountered by Team Sheppard on one of their missions…
Now, I have a rule never to start writing a sequel immediately, unless the story was always planned as a two-parter. I don't want to write a "rebound story", written only because I'm clinging to the world I've created. I need a degree of distance while I muse on whether I have a story that really needs to be told and that will enhance the original. However, I thought it was very unlikely that I'd write a sequel to my pirate AU, and I ended up doing so, so… well, all I can say right now is: perhaps.
Thanks to everyone who's read the story, and especially to those that have left feedback along the way. Also thanks once again to valleya for reading it through in advance and giving such helpful comments.
Here is the story in a single file