by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)
Summary: "You've been missing for twelve days." So easy to say; so hard to live through. This is Rodney and Ronon's viewpoint on the twelve days of Sheppard's absence in The Last Man.
"Go away," Rodney snapped, when they came for him.
He didn't look up. He could work and talk at the same time; working and listening was harder, and not something he had ever cared to do. "Can't you see I'm working – things your puny little brain wouldn't understand. Important things–"
"– so please go away and stop interrupting me with trivia. If the plumbing's broken again, get Zelenka to fix it."
"When you didn't respond to your radio, Colonel Carter sent me to–"
Perhaps he knew already. Bad news. It had to be bad news; it always was now. Perhaps that why his voice rose higher and more shrill; why his grip on his work grew tighter. Talk, and don't let them say the words. "I don't want to hear unimportant progress reports, sergeant. Now leave me alone and let me–"
"Doctor McKay. It's Colonel Sheppard."
Of course it was. Rodney let out a breath.
Unimportant. He would remember that in the days to come.
Ronon finally got him alone the locker room. "Where is he?" He ripped his weapon from his belt, and grabbed his quarry by the throat. "What did you do to him?"
"Nothing," Lorne said. "Ronon, this is crazy."
"You were the last to see him." Ronon slammed the man back against the locker. "Where did you send him?" He slammed him again, sending metal quivering. "What did you do to him?"
"Nothing." Lorne wasn't even fighting back. There was something far too familiar in his eyes. "I don't know what happened. He went through as normal–"
"But he didn't reach here." Ronon drove the tip of his weapon into the man's neck. "How do we know you're not lying? You sold him to Michael; only pretended he was there."
"That's not true."
There was less fury than Ronon would have expected in a man falsely accused. Lorne had dark circles under his eyes. Staring at him from so close, Ronon suddenly realised that he didn't know him. His face dissolved and was the face of a stranger. He could be anyone. Strangers came back with the faces of friends. Friends came back with sweetness on their tongues, but were enemies under the skin.
"It has to be," Ronon rasped. He had lost the room, lost Atlantis, lost everything that was not this man in front of him. An enemy. Answers. Someone to fight. Someone in his grip. Someone at his mercy. An ending. "If your story's true, you were the last one to see him alive."
"I know." Lorne had one hand on Ronon's chest, pushing him away. The other was pressed against the locker, fingers spread, like a parody of the Wraith. "Don't you think that doesn't–?" His words snapped off.
Ronon pushed himself away; took a step back. "You should have watched his back," he said.
It should have been me.
Lorne's lips moved. "I know," they said.
Rodney touched the smooth surface, feeling the cold spread through his hand. "And now Sheppard's disappeared," he said. "Teyla's gone – you know about that, of course – but that's… different, you know. At least we know who to blame for that. Sheppard's just… gone."
There was no answer.
"I'm the only one left," Rodney said. "Out of the original expedition, I mean. Apart from… oh, yes, there's Zelenka. But of the people I know… Elizabeth's gone, and you. Ford. Peter Grodin. And now Sheppard. Though it's only been a few days. We'll get him back. It's just… right now, it feels… It doesn't feel…"
"It feels as if I'm losing… One by one, I'm losing everything that matters to me, everyone I care about – and I know what you're going to say: that it's not all about me. So I'm selfish. So sue me."
I wasn't going to say that, he imagined the answer. You said "care about".
"Care about," he said again, and there was no sense of epiphany there, for he had known this for months – no, for years. Carson and Sheppard, two friends for two different sides of him. Elizabeth. Teyla. Even Ronon.
But this isn't the Rodney I know, he thought he heard. Talking about feelings when you could be saving the day. Towards the end the mental voice shifted, moving from Scottish to an American drawl.
"No," he said, as he moved away from the chamber that held Carson's form. He had worked without sleep for two days, trying to work out where the wormhole had jumped, trying to find where Sheppard was. Sam had finally ordered him to stop – "There's a very capable team working on this, Rodney, and if you don't get some sleep, you'll start making mistakes."
"Well," he said awkwardly. "Good night. I'll see you tomorrow, unless I… uh… unless I'm too busy saving Sheppard. It must be my turn this time."
At least one missing friend had a physical form, even though it was one he couldn't touch. Rodney wasn't sure if that made it better, or worse.
'Missing' was the worst word. Until a few days ago, Ronon had thought it 'betrayal.'
'Missing' left you with nothing to fight. It gave you no target. It forced you to sit in the mess hall for hours while scientists and diplomats chased up leads. It forced you to spend whole days pouring out your fury into a punching bag, imagining that it was your enemy. It sent you on missions where you crept around, tension screwed to the breaking point, but found nothing.
It was silence over the radio. It was a lifeless Stargate.
It was dreams where you saw exactly what was happening to them. It was days of imagining that, and knowing that there was nothing you could do.
It was another friend gone. It was people snatched away when your back was turned, so you would always wonder if you could stop it if you'd been somewhere different. It was powerlessness.
It was empty.
And so Ronon fought against shadows, and was bereft.
"Are you… uh… eating that?"
Almost all the tables in the mess hall were empty. There were teams out looking for Teyla, teams looking for Sheppard, teams of scientists working on trying to trace him, teams of medics working on the Hoffan infection and on Carson. You had to eat, though. And there were other things, Rodney imagined Teyla saying, that were important, too.
So what did you do today? He rehearsed the question, then dismissed it as stupid. Failed to find Sheppard and Teyla. How about you?
He ate. At least it was something to do with his hands. It tasted dull, though, like ashes.
Want to see a movie tonight? No, no, of course he wouldn't. Rodney had no desire to do so, either. Life goes on, they said. Well, not here it didn't. Not yet.
There were two empty chairs at the table. Ronon wasn't even sitting opposite Rodney, but diagonally from him, as if Sheppard and Teyla had just wandered away for a while, and would be back in a moment to reclaim their seats.
"Good… uh… cake."
He remembered sitting at this table, relaxed and laughing. They were a team. He was part of it. He was wanted. Take Teyla away, and the team had been fractured. They had sat at the table, the three of them together, and vowed to get her back. Take Sheppard away as well, and there were just two of them left, and you couldn't be a team with just two. Rodney had begun over the last year to learn how to talk to Ronon – had even come, in a way, to think of him as a friend – but now he had not the faintest idea what to say.
But he tried, though, and he thought that Ronon was trying, too.
Did Atlantis have a heart?
Rodney might have thought it to be Elizabeth, once upon a time. She had led them with strength and compassion, had reined them in, had cared. She had known people's names long before Rodney had managed to learn even half of them. Take Elizabeth away, he might have thought sometimes, and the expedition would collapse.
Or perhaps it was Carson, who felt so deeply the sufferings of others, and would do whatever was needed to ease them. There was not a person on the base who had not gone to Carson in pain, and come away feeling eased. Some people traded in facts and others with bullets, but Carson traded in life and health. Take him away, and what did they have left?
But Carson had gone, and they had survived. Atlantis had been colder for a while, but there had been others there to care and to heal. Elizabeth had gone, and they had survived. Sam wasn't Elizabeth, and wasn't trying to be, but she brought her own brand of wisdom and compassion to the role. Half the people on the base had arrived after Carson's death, and more and more had never known Elizabeth.
Life went on. And then Teyla had been taken from them.
Was Teyla their heart? She brought empathy and understanding to the team, caring passionately about things that sometimes, even after all these years, those from Earth had not been able to fully understand at first. But she had been taken, and life had gone on. They had never given up hope – Sheppard had never given up hope – that they would find her, and everything would be well again.
And now Sheppard was gone. Lorne had assumed his duties, but he looked haunted by being the last person to see his commanding officer alive. The search for Teyla was falling apart, without Sheppard to give it drive and purpose. Even at the grimmest of times, Sheppard had been able to muster a smile, but now all smiles were gone.
He touched the walls, and the city felt cold and full of emptiness.
"You going after him, sir?"
Ronon didn't spare the man a glance. "Don't call me sir."
"But you're going to look for him," the man said. "You'll find him."
Ronon walked on; headed for the transporter; said nothing at all.
There was nothing to do, of course, but he still did it. Some days he followed leads on Teyla, and other days he went to any planet that had been recently dialled from Sheppard's last location. He found nothing, of course.
Colonel Carter had forbidden him from killing Genii. "Major Lorne says the contact never showed."
"Then it was a trap," he had snarled.
Even McKay had joined in against him. Rubbing his eyes, he had said, "Much as I'd like to have a nice convenient enemy we can unleash you on, it doesn't add up. They don't have the technology to interfere with wormholes like this."
It would be much easier to believe that Lorne was lying. The Genii agent had snatched Sheppard, and Lorne had covered it up. He didn't really believe it, but he couldn't bring himself to talk to Lorne. The other soldiers were turning into faceless things. Lorne had lost Teyla, and now he had lost Sheppard. If only I'd been there!
He remembered arriving on Atlantis, when all these people had seemed like strangers, and he had known only one thing: that he would never fit in. Before long, though, he had connected with Sheppard and Teyla, and in the end, even McKay had become somebody worthy of the name 'friend.' The others, though… They were Sheppard's people, and so he tried to give them a chance. He sparred with them, and sometimes there were fragments of connection there.
Now all that was fading away. They had lost Teyla. They had lost Sheppard. His two closest friends lost either to treachery – but, no, he didn't really believe that, did he? – or to incompetence. These people were children playing at soldiers. They had never had to fight in the ruins of their home, for the survival of their whole world.
You're going to look for him, the man had said, and although Ronon had been careful not to look at him, he had heard the fervour in his voice.
It was happening already. Sheppard had been driven while searching for Teyla, and had forced his men to feel the same drive. Now that he was no longer there, the urge to search was fading away, displaced by a newer disappearance. Sheppard was one of their own, and Teyla, despite everything she had done for Atlantis, was not. Teams that should have been searching for Teyla now burned to search for Sheppard.
I am not one of them, Ronon thought.
"It's been a week," Sam said.
"Yes, yes. A hundred and seventy-two hours and…. twenty-four minutes. So?"
"And we're no closer to finding him." Sam looked awkward, fiddling with her uniform. "I know you're almost certain that something happened with the wormhole, but…" She took a deep breath. "Rodney, he hasn't made contact. If he ended up somewhere inhabitable, he would have been in touch."
"Maybe he can't," Rodney said. "Maybe he's hurt, or… or… the DHD's broken or… or…"
"Rodney." Sam opened her mouth, closed it again, then spoke anyway. "Even if your theory is true, there's a fifty-fifty chance that he ended up at an orbital Gate. His silence shows that–"
"Stop it!" he shouted. "Stop it!" He turned away, hands clenched into impotent fists, then turned back. "I can't believe you're saying this. You. What with… history, and… God! You're giving up on him?"
"I'm not." She touched his arm. "Rodney, I'm not giving up, but I… I'm under certain pressure from above. When someone goes missing and could be anywhere in the galaxy–"
"Or dead," Rodney said bitterly.
"– and when there are no leads…" She sighed. "Rodney, if we don't find him soon, they'll pronounce him dead. I just thought you should know."
"What? So I can start writing his eulogy?" Rodney snapped. Dead, he thought. Dead. "You might be willing to give up on him, but I'm not."
"That wasn't what I meant, Rodney," Sam said, but Rodney stopped listening to her.
On the ninth day, Ronon decided to give up.
"I'm sorry, Sheppard," he said, lingering at the doors of his friend's quarters, and then, later, as he toyed with a knife that Sheppard had once given him as a gift.
It was not in his nature to give up. If he had been one to give up, he would have yielded and let the Wraith take him nearly ten years before. Stubbornness, and a refusal to roll over and die, had kept him on his feet. He would never surrender. If there was even the faintest spark of hope, he would keep going. If you gave up, then you were doing the enemy's work for him. Worse, you were becoming the enemy.
"I'm sorry," he said, this time as he stared at his reflection in a cold mirror.
It was not in his nature to give up, but a battle fought on two fronts was doomed to fail. Teyla was missing, and Sheppard was missing. With Teyla, they had leads. They knew who had her, and they knew, too, that he apparently had no interest in killing her, at least until her child was born.
Teyla was almost certainly alive. Sheppard might still be alive, but could very easily be dead. McKay, Ronon knew, was reluctant to admit to that possibility, but Ronon had been raised a soldier, and knew you could not be squeamish about such a thing.
Teyla was in the hands of a known enemy, who was showing his hand across the galaxy, creating clues and leads. Sheppard could be anywhere. It was scientists, not warriors, who could find him now.
It was not a betrayal, Ronon told himself, as he set off to search for Teyla. It was not a betrayal, but sound sense. You chose your battles; it was the only way to survive. You fought those battles that you could win.
The knife that Sheppard had given him lay sheathed on the bed, half-covered with blankets, like a farewell.
And still Rodney worked.
He had nothing, though – no clues, no leads, no hints. Nothing. It was as if Sheppard had vanished off the face of the earth.
He thought of how easily people could disappear. Then you sent their possessions home, and there wasn't even any physical evidence left to show that they had ever existed. You had memories, but even those faded. After a year or more, you could no longer quite remember what colour someone's eyes had been, and those moments that you thought you would remember forever were now gone.
Even after ten days, the immediacy of his memories of the man were fading, as if whatever had taken Sheppard away was slowly erasing him out of the time-line, and making it so that he had never been.
He pictured his grin, his laugh, his dead-pan humour. He remembered the intensity that came upon him when danger threatened, and he remembered watching Sheppard's hands on the jumper controls, and knowing that he was safe in the hands of the best pilot they had. He remembered the feigned laziness that Sheppard would assume when playing chess, but how fierce concentration lurked beneath it.
Not dead, he thought. He can't be dead.
It had come upon him so gradually, so invisibly. One moment, he had been an arrogant, and – okay, I admit it – occasionally obnoxious man who didn't care about anybody else, and had been unable to comprehend how anyone would put a friend's life ahead of all caution and reason and sense. Just four years ago, if you'd told him that a colonel in the Air Force had vanished into thin air, he would have said, "yes, yes, very interesting. And you expect me to care, why?"
So gradually... And it was not just Sheppard; not just Teyla, or Elizabeth, or Carson. Anybody. If the newest private on Atlantis vanished, Rodney would care and would work to bring him back.
He might throw his hands up and declare himself doomed, but he would not give up on others, not any more.
When Ronon turned, he found that there was no-one there but himself and Lorne.
He fought the urge to fight him; that was an old urge now. But Lorne had been with Teyla when she had been taken, and had watched his commanding officer walk away from him, off the face of the world. Ronon could never like him.
Lorne was carrying out most of Sheppard's duties now, as if he was stepping into a dead man's shoes. In a week, perhaps two, they would stop searching for Sheppard. They would stop searching for Teyla, too. Lorne would take Sheppard's place, and life would go on, just as it had carried on after Doctor Weir had gone.
But I won't, Ronon realised suddenly. Without Sheppard or Teyla, he had no desire to stay on Atlantis. He would miss McKay, he thought, but the bond was not strong enough to keep him here; without Sheppard and Teyla to bring them together, their paths would seldom cross. Ronon could not give his loyalty to a man who had failed to guard his commander's back, and who had failed to protect Teyla. He could not serve alongside people who were already dismissing Teyla, and therefore himself, as outsiders.
He wondered whether to tell Lorne now, but that would mean speaking to him. No, he would give it a few more weeks, because even though he had stopped searching for Sheppard, he had not given up hope entirely. If nothing had changed by then, he would leave.
"Ronon," Lorne began.
Ronon looked round, but something in his face seemed to make Lorne change his mind about what he had been going to say.
He looked terrible, Ronon noticed. It wasn't true, he realised suddenly, that Sheppard had been the only one of the Atlanteans to burn with the urge to find Teyla. Lorne did, too, because she had been lost on his watch. Everything Ronon thought about Lorne, Lorne doubtless felt himself.
It was not enough to keep Ronon there, though.
"Stay positive, now."
Rodney had woken to the memory of Sheppard's voice. He had moved through the morning with the same memory in his head. But it was strange, he thought, to find that he didn't really need the exhortation.
He had always been so quick to despair and to anticipate the worst. What had changed? He saw a team coming through the Gate, dusty and dirty and slow-moving with defeat. He saw the strained faces of everyone around him. He remembered Sam saying that Sheppard was very probably dead.
But he isn't, he thought, and why should be feel that? Because Carson had come back? But he hadn't, not really. Because… No, it was because he was Sheppard. He couldn't be dead. They'd almost lost him several times before, but he always came back, smiling through impossible odds. It's what he did.
If Sheppard was dead, the world was changed, and Rodney refused to accept that possibility.
"He's still alive," he said out loud, and people turned towards him, some blank, some pitying. "He's not dead yet. He can't be dead."
And then came the sound of an incoming wormhole.
"So what happened while I was gone?" Sheppard asked, as they stepped from the Gate.
Rodney shrugged. "Same old, same old."
"We searched," Ronon said.
Sheppard looked at him as if he understood it all. Perhaps he did, Rodney thought. He had seen the future, after all.
"But now I'm back," he said, and gave a quick smile, as if that could ease the last twelve days. And the most amazing thing was: it did. Ronon looked alive again, and Rodney felt brimming with hope.
"Well, what are we waiting for," Sheppard said. "Let's go save the world."