by Eildon Rhymer
The attack came with no warning. Afterwards, Sheppard would wonder if he could have averted the whole thing if only he had been more alert. He had let himself be lulled by the sunshine and the scents of summer, and should not have. He should never have lowered his guard
They walked through fields of flowers, Sheppard leading and Rodney trailing a few steps behind. The air shimmered with heat, making the rich blue sparkle. A pale bird sang its distinctive song; earlier, Sheppard caught himself humming the same tune under her breath. Sheppard's stomach felt pleasantly full from villagers' welcome, and the sweetness of their farewell drink still lingered on his lips.
"We should call it the Planet of the Allergies," Rodney sniffed.
Sheppard reached out and let a tall plant run through his hand. Its blue blossom was cupped briefly in his hand, then it slipped through his fingers, leaving two petals behind. "There's no poetry in your soul, Rodney." He spread his hand, and the petals blew away.
Rodney huffed. "Excuse me. Pot, kettle, black, etcetera etcetera."
"How do you know I don't write poetry in my spare time?" Sheppard retorted. "There once was a man called McKay…"
In truth, though, he paid little attention to flowers. Birds were things he had watched as a child, and envied. The sky was what mattered – clear and blue and shining. The green hills were marked with walls of honey-coloured stone. He wanted to see it from above, laid out like a game board, full of potential, and so much simpler than it was on the ground.
"Who always was saving the day," Rodney declared, raising his finger in triumph. "Unlike Colonel Sheppard, who… No." He frowned. "Too hard to rhyme."
Sheppard saw it then. Before he had even processed what he was seeing, he was moving, pushing Rodney down with one hand, hauling out his pistol. "What…?" Rodney protested, then subsided. "Oh." The arrow shot past even as he spoke, gouging through Sheppard's sleeve. Sheppard fired; fired again. He thought he hit someone, but more arrows came, and then the sound of gunfire, shockingly loud, more like a cannon.
"Let me up!" Rodney hissed, and Sheppard realised that he was still pressing him down with a steadying hand on his shoulder. He eased up, and Rodney twisted round, pulling out his own sidearm. "Where are they?" he asked. He fired, scattering red petals, then fired again.
The Gate was barely fifty yards away. Sheppard was crouching, and when he bent his neck, he was totally surrounded by flowers. Pollen rose in clouds, and he saw sheered-off stalks, and blood from spattered from somewhere onto white petals. When he raised his head, he saw movement behind the trees. Another arrow landed in the flowers, sending leaves quivering.
The first one, though, had been aimed directly at Rodney's stomach.
He made his decision. "Let's go. No," he hissed, and Rodney made as if to stand up. "Keep low."
He kept himself between Rodney and the attackers. Even the DHD, when they reached it, was surrounded by flowers, almost hidden by tall yellow plants like spears. "You hurt my ankle," Rodney said, not looking at Sheppard as he dialled.
"I tore my sleeve." They were coming closer, wading through the flowers like water. Sheppard fired, and one fell, flowers parting to claim him. He moved, shielding Rodney. "Today would be nice."
"Working!" Rodney said. He spoke to Atlantis, then, telling them they were coming in hot, "and smelling of flowers." Then, as they made their last dash towards the open Gate, he said, "Not just your sleeve. You're bleeding all over the flowers."
Then he was through, and Sheppard let out a breath, and followed him. Everything dissolved into blue.
He opened his eyes to the shining metal of table legs. He blinked, and saw a little further: a foot, a knee, a hand, and Rodney looking down on him, caught at the moment his expression shifted from anxiety to relief.
"What happened?" Sheppard managed to say.
Relief was replaced briefly with triumph. "You fainted." The triumph faded. It had only been a mask, after all.
"Oh." He appeared to be in Rodney's lab, lying on the floor, with a fallen chair beside him. He was used to being confused when he woke up from unconsciousness, but this… He was facing a complete mismatch between what he remembered and what he saw. "How did we…?" Frowning, he managed to sit up. Rodney helped him, hands fluttering around his shoulders. "We were off-world…"
"Oh, so you've been having happy little dreams while I've been trying to wake up," Rodney said. "Where were you? Oz?"
"Off-world." His hand rose to his chest. No tac vest. He could no longer smell pollen, and there was no injury on his upper arm. "Someone attacked us. You…" You could have died.
"I haven't been off-world with you for five days, not since that planet with all the wolves."
"Wolfoids," Sheppard corrected, clinging to that, at least. "That was five days ago, but since then… Today." He raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Flowers?"
"Oh, I get it," Rodney said. "This is some get-at-the-genius-scientist joke. Where are the others? Are you…?" His words trailed off, and he worried with his hands. "I couldn't wake you up. Maybe you're… You should go to the infirmary and get checked out."
Sheppard stood up, shaking off Rodney's concern. "It's nothing," he said, but nothing felt quite so certain as he walked from the lab. He saw the familiar walls of Atlantis, but they no longer felt entirely real. I was off-world, he thought, and now I'm not. It was terrifying to have a gap in your memory, as if you had lost a little bit of your life. But Rodney couldn't remember, either. He… Sheppard's hand rose to his arm, and pressed against the place that he knew ought to hurt. Nothing. He raised the sleeve. Nothing.
He drifted for a while. He talked to the people he needed to talk to. He did his job. He brought it up casually with Colonel Carter. "Was there any trouble with off-world teams today?"
Apart from you and Rodney? she might have said. Her mouth opened, speaking other words. "No-one went off-world today." You know that, her eyes said.
He talked to Keller; hadn't meant to, but did. "I passed out, and when I woke up, things were… strange." She questioned him further, but he evaded. She examined him quickly, said there was nothing obviously wrong, but said she'd do tests.
He could still remember the scent of flowers. As he walked to his room, though, the scent changed and grew sharper. It pricked his eyes. It made his breathing catch.
He started to run. The smoke grew thicker, and he saw a cluster of people, their hands over their mouths, hovering in a smoke-filled hallway. "What's happened?" he demanded.
"Help's on the way," they told him. "Breathing masks…"
"They'll get to her in time, colonel."
He pushed past them. The door was open, and through it he could see orange flames and thick smoke. He coughed, and dropped down to his hands and knees. There was a shape on the floor, not moving. It was black against the flames, and almost obscured by the smoke.
"Sir," someone called out, very far away, far beyond the noise of the flames. "Don't. They're almost here."
Almost was not enough. Waiting was not acceptable. He started to crawl forward, but his hand at his mouth was no protection at all. Smoke entered his lungs; stung his eyes. The heat was like a physical thing – a wall; a fist. His eyes were scoured. He coughed, then couldn't stop. But edging forward all the time. Far beyond the distant meaningless shouts of the people behind him. Forward… and something soft yet solid beneath his hand – something that he couldn't see, because he was blind, but when he hauled it up, he knew by the shape of her that it was Teyla.
She slumped in his arms. He raised her up one-handed, and pressed his face briefly into the hollow of her neck, as if some crazy part of his brain thought that it could find fresh air there. There was no air, but even as he coughed, his breath muffled against her body, he could feel the beating of her heart.
He started back. Couldn't crawl now, not with Teyla in his arms. He stood up, hunched over, and kept his body between her and the worst of the flames. When he tried to walk, his feet didn't want to obey him. They lurched… and was that the world growing dimmer, or was it the smoke? It was around him and inside him, and he didn't know… he didn't know how to get out; didn't know where the door was; didn't know why he was here, and where, and if he was going crazy, and…
Then hands. Dark shambling creatures reached out arms to grab Teyla, and he fought, pulling her closer, but they called him "sir" and "Colonel Sheppard", and then they were there to catch him when he fell, and he saw nothing at all for a moment, until he found himself in a place where the smoke was thin, and a mask was over his mouth, and when he turned his head to one side, he saw Teyla.
"Is she…?" He fought the mask, and grabbed a fistful of clothing on the nearest figure. "Is she okay?"
He saw the figure nod, and then there was nothing but grey.
Someone was shaking his shoulder. When he opened his eyes, he saw white sheets, silver with slanting moonlight.
The hand withdrew. His breathing was easy, with no trace of smoke in his lungs. The smell had entirely gone, too. He rolled over onto his back, and saw Teyla looking down on him. "You're okay," he gasped.
She raised one eyebrow. "Why would I not be?"
Because I dragged you from the flames. Because I saw you unconscious in a fire. He sat up, tried to say some of that, but Teyla spoke before he could say anything. "You're late," she said. "Rodney says I am to tell you that he is starting the movie if you don't move your sorry ass, I believe the phrase was, and come on already. Your door was unlocked," she added after a pause, when he blinked at her. "When you failed to respond to your radio, we rolled dice to decide who would come for you."
His throat was dry, but there was not a trace of smoke. "There was a fire."
"There has been no fire." She shook her head, frowning. "Were you dreaming?" She touched his forehead with the back of a cool hand. "Perhaps you are sick."
"I didn't know if I'd managed to get to you in time," he heard himself saying. He raised his sleeve to his nose. There was not the faintest trace of smoke on his clothes.
"You up for a run?" Ronon asked, afterwards.
Sheppard had spent two hours watching a movie that he barely remembered. Things had been said on a two-dimensional screen, and words had been spoken, but the actors may as well have been shadows, and the words in a foreign language. It was not a gap in his memory, but he still felt as if he had not been entirely there. Every silence had made him want to speak up and ask for help.
"Now?" he asked.
Ronon grinned. "Why not?"
If he ignored it, it would go away. He had lived by that principle before, at least when it came to feelings. They had been vivid dreams, and nothing more. It was over. No use worrying about it.
He started to run. Perhaps he could lose himself in the rhythms of his feet, in the slow burn of his muscles, in the shadows of the darkened halls. Ronon seemed wild with life and energy, after spending two hours sitting down, watching other people fight. He grabbed hold of a post, swinging himself down into a stairwell. At the bottom, he turned and laughed up at Sheppard, gleeful and grinning.
Sheppard followed behind. He remembered pushing Rodney to the ground; remembered carrying Teyla from the fire. He remembered flowers and smoke, but now, as they left the towers and headed out onto the pier, there was the crisp saltiness of darkness by the ocean. There was cold wind on his face, and stars above him, lurching with the rhythm of his steps.
"You're slow today." Ronon turned round, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
Sheppard neared him, then stopped, bending over with his hands on his knees. "Yeah. Didn't expect a midnight run."
The figure of a man slowly rose up from the edge of the pier. He raised his hand.
"Gun!" Sheppard cried. He plunged forward, pushing Ronon aside, and Ronon recovered, whirling round with his weapon ready. The bullet struck Sheppard in the side. Ronon's hand closed for an instant on his arm, as if in promise, and then he was off, stalking forward, heading directly towards his assailant. He fired, but it was dark and it was windy, and not even Ronon was infallible. As Sheppard fell to one knee, he saw the attacker do the same. As Sheppard fired again and again, the man brought his gun up, steadying it with both hands.
Ronon flinched, his shoulder moving backwards as if struck. Sheppard rose; staggered forward two steps. In the moonlight, he thought he could see an Atlantis uniform. "Put the gun down!" he shouted. "That's an order."
But his next bullet struck home, or maybe it was Ronon's doing. The attacker fell, then slipped backwards over the side, and was gone.
Sheppard's hand slid in blood. It took him a little while longer to realise that he had fallen. He tasted blood, but when he rolled onto his back, there was salt on his lips, and nothing more. Then he saw Ronon, a hand pressed to his shoulder. "Still alive," Sheppard managed to say.
"Lie still," Ronon said, and Sheppard tried, but the stars above him were bright, and they seemed to be bleeding into each other, until the whole sky and everything around him was milky silver with no end.
"Something's very wrong," he told them, as they walked back to the Gate. There had been nothing between the pier and this place. He had gone from night to early morning on a world full of trees.
"You can say that again," Rodney said. "Three miles to go, and I'm out of power bars."
He told them what had happened – "don't say anything until I've finished, okay, guys. Hear me out." Teyla listened gravely. Ronon was impassive, but never looked away. Rodney slowed turned red with the desire to speak, but kept his promise.
"I fear you are sick," Teyla said, when he was done. She sat on a fallen tree, hand on the bark. "To have such vivid hallucinations…"
"They're real," he told her. The things that no-one else remembered felt more real than anything, as if he saw things more clearly than he had ever seen them, and could smell things that he would normally ignore. Small things like starlight and flowers had seemed so important. If anything, it was these times in between that felt unreal, as if he wasn't really here.
He closed his hand on a branch, as if he could stay here, with them. "I'm sure they're real," he said again. It's now that I'm not so sure of.
"What else could it be?" Rodney said. "Report to the infirmary before you start some horrible epidemic."
"I wondered… uh…" He swallowed. "A time loop. You know, like in Groundhog Day."
Even as he said it, he regretted it. It made no sense. He looked at his watch, and it told him that an hour had passed since he had passed out on the pier. He was not constantly repeating the same day. Different things happened each time. The only similarity was that one of his team-mates was almost killed.
Rodney at least seemed to consider it for a while.
"No," Sheppard said. "Forget it. It's not that. But something like it, perhaps." Help me.
The bark was rough beneath his hand. Sunlight flickered through the tall trees, and the air was rich with the scent of earth and pine resin. The world seemed more real with every breath, and so he barely even felt surprise when the gunmen appeared. He returned their fire, and saw the white scar that a bullet had torn in the bark of the tree beside him. He saw birds flap away on dark wings. And then he saw Rodney down, his eyes wide with terror as a bearded man held a knife at his throat.
Sheppard saved him, of course.
Perhaps the secret was not to sleep.
Sheppard had saved Rodney by being so cocky and obnoxious that the bandit had lost patience and thrown the knife at him. He had dodged, but in the scuffle he had hit his head. He had returned to awareness to find himself at a table in the mess hall, with a plate of cold pasta in front of him.
Every time, he realised, he had slipped into unconsciousness, except for the first time, when the change had come after stepping into the Gate. Perhaps all he had to do was stay conscious. He had to hold fiercely onto that moment and never let it go. Gripping tightly, he would watch one minute turn to the next and then the next. He wouldn't turn his back long enough for time to escape him.
Ronon joined him. Who will it be this time? Sheppard thought.
Some time after the meal, though, he found himself sparring with Teyla; the intervening time was cloudy in his memory, but at least it was there. "You look troubled," she said, when he had lost six bouts in a row. "Are you well?"
"Don't suppose you remember what I told you," he said, but he already knew the answer.
After that he tried Rodney. "What did we do yesterday?" Sheppard asked him, for his watch told him that two days had passed since the ambush in the flowers.
"I don't know what you did," Rodney said, "but I proved that Radek had made a mistake in this calculation here. Then we watched some brainless action movie in the evening."
"Was I late?" Sheppard asked.
"What sort of a question is that?" Rodney looked irritated. "No, you were there first with the popcorn."
Sheppard wondered if something would blow up, or if one of Rodney's minions would finally crack and try to kill him. Then he wondered if his very presence was putting Rodney in danger. He left, and sat by himself on the water's edge, trying to see a way through this. It would help if I understood what "this" was.
He walked back slowly, and tried to ignore the scents and sounds that swelled with every step. "Colonel!" someone screamed. He snapped his head round, and saw a man with his clothes on fire. He smothered them with his coat, rolled the man on the floor, burnt his hands and his arms… and afterwards he held onto the unconscious man with both hands, and stared at him so fiercely at his eyes hurt. I won't go to sleep. I won't lose time. I won't.
But the man seemed to fade and turn to mist in his hand. He held onto consciousness like a man clinging onto the edge of a cliff…
…and then he was in a jumper, flying through the black.
Time passed. Sometimes it lurched forwards, and sometimes it moved slowly. Sometimes everything felt vivid, and sometimes things felt as if they weren't real at all. But all along, time passed. Four days. Five days. A week.
"We're worried about you," his friends told him, and then they said it again, and then a third time, and then a fourth, each time in different ways and in different places.
"Seriously," Rodney said, over a cup of coffee, "you look awful."
"Are you sleeping, John?" A quick touch of concern from Teyla in the field.
Ronon clapped him on the back and told him to go to the doctor. "She fixed me when you got in that lucky blow the other day." Sheppard had no memory of that, but he saw that Ronon had a dressing on his arm.
Even when he tried with all his strength not to pass out, he still lost time. He always found himself somewhere else, with no physical evidence of what had happened. No-one else had any memory of what had happened, but had memories of another strand of life that he did not share.
He had tried six times to tell them what was happening and to ask – perhaps to beg – them to find a solution. Ignore it and it will go away, he had thought, but of course it wouldn't. It wasn't really his way, either. When things happened, you confronted them. You stepped up. You fixed them.
"You're the only one who remembers all these things," Rodney had told him once – no, had told him many times, in many variations. "Everyone else has a continuous memory of completely different events. Well, you don't have to be a genius to work out what the most likely explanation is."
"I'm not going crazy." Ten times. Fifteen times. Twenty times.
But perhaps he was. You never realised it when it was happening to you, did you? You thought everything was completely rational, then they played back what you'd said, and you realised that it had made no sense at all.
He had saved their lives in so many ways. Sometimes, he thought, he had died himself. He remembered the pain of each injury. He remembered the taste of blood, and the smells. He remembered the fierce terror of seeing a friend about to be cut down.
Even if he wasn't already crazy, he wondered sometimes how long he could take this before he lost his mind for real.
And then he tried to hold onto them.
"Just stay here," he begged them, though he managed to put a veneer of casualness onto his voice. "No need to go anywhere."
Sitting quietly with a DVD. Beer in his room. The mess-hall. Linger by the Gate and never take that first step. Hours and hours with his team, just talking. If he never let them go anywhere, then they wouldn't be in danger. If they weren't in danger, then he'd get out of this hell.
It never worked.
He scraped his hands over his face. The mirror showed him someone he no longer really recognised. Even Atlantis felt unreal, as if it was something drawn on paper and pasted over the dark heart of reality that was the true world. Sometimes he reached out his hand and touched it, half-expecting to find it floating away like a spider's web.
The third time he did that, he froze, his fingers on the smooth metal. Then he took out his knife, and set to work.
"I'm not going crazy," he told them triumphantly.
"Never said you were," Ronon said.
"Speak for yourself." Rodney gave a bark of laughter.
He dragged them there. "I did this yesterday," he said, showing them the gouge on the wall. "It's still there."
Between them and now, he had jumped three times. He had saved three lives. He had died only once.
"You don't remember it," he said. "All major physical evidence disappears, but not this." He raised his voice. "I'm on to you! This is proof! I'm not crazy!"
"You're not presenting a very convincing case right now," Rodney said, but his eyes were troubled, and Sheppard caught the glance that shot between the three of them.
They had never laughed at him, he remembered. In all the different realities, they had taken him seriously. They believed that he believed it, at least. How could he convince them of the truth when he had to start afresh each time?
"Guys," he said. "Listen to me. Please."
They listened, but their eyes held only concern and fear for him, and not salvation.
He poured it all out onto his computer, and he covered pages and pages with written notes. After his next death, they were all gone. His computer spoke of routine meetings attended and routine paperwork completed.
The mark on the wall was no longer there.
He spent three days drifting, not making any effort to connect with anybody, as Atlantis grew more and more faint around him, and the horrors that lurked beneath its façade grew ever more strong.
He still did what he had to, though.
Then he looked into the mirror and saw a stranger with a drawn face and eyes that were ringed with black. Slowly he curled his hand into a fist.
The next time, he flung himself fiercely at everything, and was absolutely insistent that he was not falling apart and that he would beat this thing.
It made no difference, though.
"You know what to do to end this, of course."
He had his hands over his face, rubbing his eyes with his fingers. He lowered his hands, and this time the mirror really did show a stranger, who stood at his shoulder, looking into the glass.
Sheppard turned round, and was faintly surprised when the man didn't disappear. He was tall and pale, with reddish hair and a sharp face. "Who are you?" Sheppard asked. Questions showed weakness, but right now he didn't care in the slightest.
"Reynardine," said the man.
"Lieutenant Reynardine?" Sheppard managed to quirk a smile, nodding towards the man's Atlantis uniform.
"If you like."
"So how do I end this?" Sheppard grabbed the man's wrist. His skin was cold.
"Is it not obvious?"
"Guess I'm slow, then," Sheppard said. His heart was fluttering in his chest.
Reynardine's smile was ice. "Let one of them die."
"Go to hell." Sheppard turned his back.
The waves wanted to pull him under. Holding Radek with one hand, Sheppard struggling to swim back to the city.
Unmoving on the pier, Reynardine was watching.
It would be so easy, Sheppard thought. All he had to do was release his grip. Just relax that muscle there. Just uncurl that finger. Give in to the cold. Give into the waves that were trying to tug Radek away.
So easy, he thought, and yet so impossible.
"Go to hell," he mouthed again, as he set his jaw, and swam.
"Hell," Reynardine said, walking along with his hands folded in front of him, "is an interesting concept."
"Fascinating," Sheppard said.
"Take Sisyphus, for example, who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill for the whole of eternity."
Sheppard remembered that story from childhood. Once he had thought of it as a terrible illustration of futility. Later it had seemed to him almost as a illustration of the strength of the human spirit – to try and try and keep on trying, even though you had no chance of succeeding; to pull yourself up and start again, no matter how often you were knocked down.
"This is your hell, John Sheppard." Reynardine's hair seemed like the only thing of colour in all of that bleached and unreal world. "You will live this again and again until you let someone die."
"Funny," Sheppard said, because he had to say something. "In the movies, you normally have to save a life before you get out. Make things right. Do the right thing."
Reynardine's smile showed his teeth.
Sheppard prepared himself. "Don't worry. One day, I'll make a mistake. One day, I won't be able to save someone even if I try. I've been lucky so far, but I'm not Superman." He said it lightly. Inside, he felt anything but.
"But you will have tried," Reynard said. "The way to escape this is not to try."
Sheppard made his move. He snatched out his knife, and plunged it at Reynardine's chest. Then he followed it up, twisting the man onto the floor, hauling him round, kneeling on his back, the bloody knife at the back of his neck. "Are you doing this?" he demanded. "Finish it. Make it stop, or I'll kill you."
"I think not." Reynardine seemed to shrink, to turn into something sleek and tawny. He slipped from Sheppard's grip, and then was himself again, tall on the far side of the hallway. There was no injury on his chest, and no blood.
"You cannot coerce me, John Sheppard," he said. "This is my domain. My domain, and your hell." His voice softened. "How long do you think you can endure this? Already your mind is going. Your body is wasting away. How long since you have slept, John Sheppard? How long since you have eaten? How long since you have known the pleasure of fellowship that is not snatched away? How long can you endure this?" he said again.
Sheppard felt things falling apart and shattering inside. "As long as I have to," he said.
"You know how to end it," the tempter said.
"I guess you know my answer to that."
He saw Reynardine across the blaze, the fire turning his hair into liquid flame. You know what to do, those eyes said.
Another week had passed. Every physical injury disappeared whenever he jumped, but his growing physical deterioration did not. Every day he was a little thinner. Even in those brief pockets of normality with his team, he contended with dizziness, and strange shapes moved on the fringes of his vision. His team was beyond worried now. "Can't you see him?" Sheppard demanded, as Reynardine watched him in the mess hall, in the control room, in the jumper bay, in his room.
"There is no-one there," Teyla said. Rodney chewed his lip, and picked at his food.
And now there were flames. Someone was screaming in the fire – a scientist; Sheppard didn't even know his name.
Walk away, Reynardine's eyes said. Just one life to escape this hell.
The flames crackled and whispered.
It's not even anyone you know.
He didn't think that came in Reynardine's voice.
He didn't even have to say it this time. Meeting Reynardine's gaze, he plunged into the flames.
"And still they live." Reynardine looked down on him as if he was of only moderate interest.
It was hard for Sheppard to sit up, now. "Still they live."
Although with every day that passed, Atlantis turned more surely into a hell. His team appeared like minor actors in a play. Sometimes they were there, but sometimes the hallways were entirely empty, until someone blundered on stage to almost die. His team worried about him, but the infirmary was bleak and empty.
"Still they live," he said.
He had no idea how to fight this. He had tried a dozen times to kill Reynardine. He had tried to trick him, remembering how the mark on the wall had slipped through his net, but Reynardine's eyes saw everything. Sometimes Sheppard took a jumper and flew far away, but he always found himself back. Even if he stayed in his room, screams for help came across the radio and forced him out.
The only way out was to stand back and let someone die.
"And I won't do that," he said. "I won't." And even now, he managed half a smile. "Call it quits?"
Sometimes he wondered if he really would be here for all eternity. Sometimes he thought he might die first. Sometimes – usually – he liked to imagine that he would find a chink in the armour, a flaw in the trap. He imagined a huge confrontation, a crisis, and stepping free…
It happened quietly in the end. Between one step and another, things changed. This was at one of the quiet times, when Atlantis was pale, and scent was muted. His steps were quiet as he shambled along, holding himself up against the insubstantial wall. And then, like so many times before, he was somewhere else entirely.
"My God," Rodney was saying. "My God."
Ronon was snarling words he couldn't hear.
"We are here, John," Teyla said. "You are safe."
He blinked. Nothing changed.
"Careful. Careful." He heard panic in Rodney's voice. "Those things… God, they go in deep. Perhaps we should leave…"
A hand touched his shoulder. "You have to stay upright for now, John. I am sorry. Ronon. Ronon! Leave him." Teyla's voice turned harsh. Then, "Help me with him." Her tone as she said that was entirely different.
He blinked again. Then Ronon was at his side, but that meant that he could now see what Ronon had been concealing. A man lay on the ground, bound and bleeding. It was Reynardine, in tattered, dirty robes edged with orange fur. His eyes were blazing like the fire that once had separated them and bound them.
"Are you…?" Sheppard moistened his lips. His neck didn't want to support his head, but he managed to turn back to his team. "You're still alive?" Memory was faint. Perhaps he had given in. Perhaps he had let them die.
"Not dead yet," Rodney said, "but you… God, Sheppard. John. I don't… We couldn't… We should have found you earlier. I'm so sorry."
"Doesn't matter," Sheppard murmured. "You won't remember it next time."
His eyes slid shut, and fell into darkness.
When he opened his eyes some time later, he was still in the same place, and his team was still there.
It was two weeks before Keller released him. "You need sleep," she kept saying again and again, and sometimes that worried him, because he thought it might mean that she had forgotten saying it the previous time.
It was hard to sleep when you kept starting awake, sure that the world had moved on while you had your eyes closed.
He told people things, then he told them the same thing a second time, sure that they had no memory of the time that had gone before.
It had only been a week; he knew that now. It had felt to him like months.
His team had found him. None of it had been real. "That… that maniac stuck probes into your brain," Rodney had cried in outrage, before turning quiet, and walking a few steps away. He didn't know if it had some sort of test, or an attempt to break him. Reynardine was proving as obdurate as Sheppard, and wasn't telling.
None of it had been real. But yet… But yet…
He ran his finger up and down the edge of the sheet. What if he had let Rodney get struck by that arrow right at the start? What if he had let Teyla burn? None of it was real. He could have let them die, and this whole thing would have finished before it had even begun.
He shifted position painfully. No, I couldn't, he thought. I never could.
Not real? Of course it had been real, in all the ways that mattered.
Two weeks later, he was struck with a Wraith stunner while out in the rain, and woke up to find himself inside the jumper, and completely dry.
He never told anyone how close he came to losing it then. Instead, he dug his nails into his palms, took tight, shallow breaths, and made a joke.
Three weeks after that, he was bitten by an insect when off-world, and spent two days in the infirmary, drowning in unreality. Once, he waded up through the thick mists to see a red-headed doctor standing over him, quite still.
They blamed his sudden shout on the fever. If anyone knew that it had been terror, they weren't saying a thing.
A month after that, Rodney almost died when he was stunned and thrown backwards over the edge of a cliff.
Sheppard lunged for him, and managed to grab his jacket. His stomach pressed into the ground, stones digging into his body, Sheppard hauled at the jacket, and managed to get a better grip. He hauled harder, muscles screaming, then managed to catch hold of Rodney's arm.
Rodney dangled. A stun beam struck the ground a few inches from Sheppard's face.
I won't let go, Sheppard thought. I won't let go.
And he was still there when Ronon and Teyla found him. They helped raise Rodney to safety, then Teyla supported Sheppard as he gave into things that he had never thought to give in to before these people. Neither Ronon nor Teyla looked surprised, though.
Minutes passed. Time marched on.
Rodney woke up, and complained about pins and needles. Sheppard was composed again by then, or almost. "Saved your life," he said. "It's your turn next." Then, for the first time since it had happened, he thought he would dare to make a joke about it. "And the turn after that, and the turn after that. You owe me lots. You all do."
"Hallucinations don't count," Rodney declared firmly.
They moved back towards the jumper, and one second followed the next, and a minute was followed by the minute that came after it, and then one o'clock became two. Time stretched unbroken as they flew back to Atlantis, and continued without gaps until the evening. They talked for a long time after dinner. In the morning, Rodney had bruises from where he had struck the side of the cliff, and Sheppard's arm was so stiff he could hardly move it.
"We're all still alive," Sheppard said, half in jest and half in wonder. What he really meant was you are all still here. Still alive. Not dead, and he would brave anything, even hell, to keep them that way. Not dead.