Back to the rest of my SGA fanfic

Entertaining Strangers

 

Chapter one: The fog and filthy air

 

He was all alone. Sheppard had abandoned him, and here he was, lost in the fog, all alone.

 

"It's your fault, Major!" Rodney shouted into the wreathing grey blankness. "I'm going to break an ankle, or… Oh no! I'm going to break my neck! I'm going to die! I'll blame you when I do."

 

It was the thickest fog he had ever seen, and it had come in so quickly. Everything around him had faded, and for a moment he had thought he was on the verge of passing out. It was the same sense of the world retreating, of the things around him drifting fainter and further away, then vanishing completely. Sheppard had been beside him when it started; he knew that. He had seen him as a solid figure in black that slowly turned slate grey, then became as indistinct as a wisp of smoke. Now he was gone. Rodney had shouted until his throat was hoarse, but no answer had come from the nothingness that this world had become.

 

He took another faltering step, then another, feeling for rocks that would trip him, and holes that would claim him. The sound of his own breathing seemed multiplied by the fog, as if invisible creatures hid in there and watched him. He wanted to run - to run as fast as he could, to find the others, to find his way back into the sun, where the world existed around him in all its beautiful and ugly solidity. But his legs refused to do so. His legs knew that he couldn't run, not when he couldn't see where he was going. His legs knew that to do so could be death.

 

"Major!" He tried again. He had a sudden flash of the three of them - Sheppard, Teyla and Ford - standing just out of reach, laughing at the terror of their stupid scientist. Oh, but it wasn't fair. How could they do this to him? "You're a soldier," he told Sheppard. "Aren't you trained for this? Wilderness survival and all that? You can't expect me to know things like that. I know about important things, and leave these things to grunts like you - things like not getting lost in the fog. Like not abandoning members of your team."

 

There was no answer. Rodney swallowed. Why was his mouth so dry when the fog was all around him, damp and repulsive? He decided to sit down - or maybe his legs just decided it for him, and deposited him on the ground. Cold moisture seeped through his clothes. "And now I'm going to get hypothermia," he grumbled, shouting it out for Sheppard to hear.

 

He brought up the life-sign detector up to his face. There was a strange comfort in seeing it. It showed that the world still existed, that he had not fallen into some nightmare world where nothing existed but grey. That was the only comfort. The device still showed nothing. There were no life signs on this planet - none at all.

 

He threw it away with a cry of frustration. Stupid Ancient technology. It was broken. It made mistakes. It lied. Of course they were there. They had come through the Gate on foot, all four of them together. Teyla and Ford had gone one way, and Rodney and Sheppard had gone the other, on standard reconnaissance of a non-hostile world. There had been no further contact from Teyla and Ford, and now Sheppard had left him. The life-sign detector was lying, and there was nothing on the radio but static.

 

"I'm going to wait here," he told the fog. "That's the right thing to do, isn't it? That's what Sheppard would tell me to do if he was… If he hadn't…" He moistened his lips, tasting the heavy dankness of the fog. "The fog's bound to lift soon. Yes, yes, of course it is - that's what fog does. And they'll find me…"

 

Teyla smiling, her brown eyes gentle. "We were looking for you, Doctor McKay." And Sheppard with his infuriating cocky smile. "Sitting there on your butt, McKay, while we do all the work?" And then he would scramble to his feet - so pleased to see them, so pleased, but of course he would never let it show - and hide himself in the checking of read-outs. "I see you skipped  the chapter on fog in your army survival book, Major. Were the big words too hard for you?" And Sheppard would smile, and insult him back, and… and…

 

The fog coiled around him, thicker than ever. It brushed against his cheek like fingers. It pressed against his eyes and pushed against his throat. It was insects on his skin. It was the breath of an enemy. It was being surrounded, but blind. It was being lost. It was madness. It was screaming.

 

He was not alone. He was not alone.

 

There were shapes in the fog - swirling patches of darker grey, and coiling twists of white, like streamers. Something brushed over his brow, and he screamed, bringing his hands up to swat at it, but there was nothing there. The mist had claws, and it dug into his head, into his eyes, into his ears. The fog seeped in through his pores like poison, and took shape as monsters with huge talons, as the terrible finality of a Black Hole, as failure, as the death of a friend. It wrote itself as words, and…

 

No, no, I'm so scared. I was never meant to be here. Back in my lab - that's where I'm meant to be. Saving the world, solving things quicker than anyone else can solve them. Why am I here? Why did Sheppard choose me for his team? No-one ever chose me for their team. Why did I say yes? I'm dressed up like a soldier. I have a gun, for God's sake. Me with a gun! I'm not quick enough to defend them. What if they depend on me in a fight, and I can't do it? What if they all die because of me? What if the LSD is telling the truth and they're all dead, and I'm just sitting here? I can't… I can’t…

 

He head slumped forward. His mouth was dry and his hands were trembling, but something felt different. Something had passed. He blinked slowly, and rubbed his eyes, digging his fingers in deeply as if he was scooping out dirt. The intensity of the fear left him feeling shaky, but it had passed as suddenly as it had come. He swallowed. It was my imagination, he told himself. Something had moved… Yes, that was it! Air currents had created an illusion of movement in the fog, and the rest had come from there. There was nothing to be afraid of. The fog would pass, and the others would find him, and that would be that.

 

"Like I was saying, Major," he called out, "I'm not impressed. Let's play abandon the scientist. Oh yes, very funny." His voice was weaker than he had expected, with an edge to it that was not like his own. It was as if the fog had lodged in his throat, and a trace of it would remain until the others found him and he was in the sun again. "How often do I have to tell you: it really isn't clever to make a scientist angry. We know things that you can't believe."

 

There was no answer. He let out a breath, shoulders slumping. Perhaps they were frantic about him, and were tearing the planet apart, trying to find him. Carson would be ready for him… Oh, yes, a nice warm bed in the infirmary, lots of soothing liquids, a warm blanket, and nurses… Yes, it would be his turn to fussed over by pretty nurses this time. He wouldn't let Sheppard anywhere near them.

 

"Soon would be nice, guys," he told the fog, as he settled down to wait. But he drew out his gun, and kept it ready beside him, just in case.

 

******

 

"Teyla!" Aiden shouted for the hundredth time. He tried his radio again. "Major?" His only reply was static. He was not given to flights of the imagination, but the sound from his radio sounded suddenly like the voice of the fog, grey all around him.

 

He fired his gun one-handed into the air, then cupped his other hand around his ear, listening for a response. Nothing. There were no voices. He could hear no sound of answering fire. No figure came out of the fog, slipping slowly from obscurity to the familiar shape of someone he knew.

 

He turned a full circle, still listening, then sat down stiffly. Sit and wait - that's what he had been trained to do. This fog had come down naturally, and would pass. If he tried to find the others, he would only end up losing them even further. The air was chilly, but not dangerously so, so there was no risk of hypothermia if he sat and did nothing. The planet was uninhabited, so there was no risk of enemy action, unless the Wraith came.

 

Sit and wait. He sighed, drumming his fingers against his knee. He was not made for inactivity. He was not made for solitude, either. At school, he had always been part of a large group of friends - often at the fringes of it, but never alone. He had joined the army in part because of the camaraderie it offered. The idea of fighting alone scared him.

 

"Teyla?" he called again, cupping his mouth with his hands. "Major?" The last was a long shot. He had been with Teyla when the fog had taken her from him, but Major Sheppard had been at least a mile away, moving in the opposite direction. Still, that didn't have to mean anything, not with a man such as Major Sheppard. "Major!"

 

There was no answer. He sighed again; tightened his grip on his gun, then loosened it; tightened it again, then loosened it.

 

What would Major Sheppard do?

 

This time the sigh was not his own. His head snapped up. "Hello?" The sigh came again.  Just the wind. Though the air was still. Just the wind. And something brushed against his cheek, although the rest of his body was untouched. Just the wind.

 

What would Major Sheppard do? He wouldn't sit down so passively and wait for the fog to lift naturally. That was one of the first things Aiden had noticed about the man. The idea of sitting and doing nothing was intolerable to him. Right from the start, he had risked everything to save people who were little more than strangers to him. We don't leave anyone behind. He had said that to Aiden more than once. Sure, other officers had said much the same, but with Sheppard it was not just words. With Sheppard, it was part of him, as integral as the blood in his veins.

 

Aiden had taken orders from many officers since he had enlisted; Sheppard was like none of them. Most of the others had shouted. They had expected a stiff back and a salute, and they had demanded total obedience. Aiden had respected Colonel Sumner, and he had obeyed him, but he had never liked him. And then Sumner had died, and Aiden had found himself with a new commanding officer. Some of the men had resented Sheppard, he knew that. Perhaps some of them still did. Aiden never had. He had seen the steel that lay behind Sheppard's casual exterior. He knew that a man could still be in total command, even while never appearing to give an order.

 

What would Major Sheppard do?

 

The fog lurched, a dark shape uncoiling around him. He raised his gun and fired, but it still came at him. It was upon him, it was in him… It was sour in his throat, choking him. It was on his neck. It was on his neck! It was sucking the life from him; it was filling him with its foulness, pouring poison into him through its jaws.

 

The Major down, with a bug on his throat. And I shot at it, and the Major screamed - the Major screamed! - and it was my fault. And how can  he sit there so quietly, afterwards? How can he stay in command, more concerned about us than about himself? I couldn't do it. If that bug was on my throat, I'd be screaming. I'd fall apart. I couldn't… I can't…

 

He brought his hands up, clawed at his throat, but there was nothing there. He gouged at his face with blunt fingers, scraped his hands through his hair. Cold moisture smeared on his palms. The fog shattered into a hundred images, each one hurting as if they were drawing blood.

 

He chose me for his team, but what if I'm not good enough? I stopped his heart, and couldn't get it to start again. If he dies, then I'm in command. There's no-one else to do it. I'm not old enough! I don't know enough! Please don't let him die. I'd rather die myself.

 

"No!" he screamed. He was on his feet, firing into the mist, screaming his fury, screaming his pain. "No!" And then he was panting, the deadened sound of gun-fire ringing in his ears. His body felt drained, and it was all he could do to remain standing.

 

"What happened there?" he said aloud.

 

The fear was still there, waiting like a wolf on the edge of well-lit village. Normally it came out at night, when he awoke to find the darkness tainted with the memories of past missions turned into catastrophes by the cruel imagination of his dreams. The unrelenting grey was very like the darkness of a nightmare, he realised. And now, as in the worst parts of the night, he was entirely alone.

 

******

 

When Teyla was seven years old, she had tagged along with some older boys and gone hunting in the mountains. A mist came down, as mists so often did, and she had become lost.

 

By the time the elders had found her, night had fallen, the darkness overlaying the grey. She had been wedged between two large boulders, squeezing herself into the gap for warmth. Her knees were shredded and full of dirt, and her ankle had been puffy and swollen. She was very scared, but they told her afterwards that she did not cry. The boys had cried, though, and one of them had seen thirteen summers and was almost a man grown! They had been twice rebuked - once for letting her come along, and once for losing her. And as for Teyla…

 

"I am disappointed in you," her father told her, taking her by both shoulders. "We sent out a party to find you. Do you know how difficult you made it for them by walking away? You should have stayed where you were. If you cannot reliably find the way home, find a safe place to wait, and stay there. I will find you, Teyla. I will always find you."

 

And now her father was gone, but the message was the same. Stay where you are, and we will find you.

 

She had no idea how long it had been. She held the gun in her hands - the unfamiliar gun that still felt alien to her, although she knew she had become proficient in its use. She was more comfortable with her sticks, but this was her choice. She had chosen to leave her people, and such a decision had to have consequences. She could not make such a decision and refuse to accept all those things that came with it. She wore alien clothes, used alien weapons, and lived in a room by herself in the City of the Ancestors. She spent her time with people from another world.

 

No, not people. Friends. She remembered Major Sheppard's first words to her, not so long ago. She would never have left her people for anything less than friendship. Even if he had begged her, she would not have bowed to the command of Colonel Sumner. Had Elizabeth asked her to stay in Atlantis to supply the expedition with local knowledge, she would have considered saying yes, but Elizabeth had not done so. Instead, John had asked her to join his team. He had looked past her size and her sex, and had deemed her to be someone he would trust to guard his back in a fight. Many people on Atlantis still did not trust her, but he had trusted her from the start.

 

We will find you.

 

She had shouted for Aiden, and shouted, too, for John and Doctor McKay. There had been no answer, but she knew from experience that fog could deaden sounds. She had no fear.

 

She settled down on the ground, crossing her legs and laying her hands on her knees. The greyness of the fog was oppressive, and she knew that the mind could conjure up terrifying images to fill the blankness. She closed her eyes, then, and sought the known, familiar images that always gave her comfort, that helped her find her way when the path ahead was unclear.

 

The old images came first: her father and mother; Charrin; Halling; the smiling faces of the children. Then came the newer images, vivid with their freshness, yet somehow unformed, for they spoke of friendships that were only in their infancy. She saw John and Aiden, lighting the way through the fog with some artefact of the Ancestors. She saw them relaxing over dinner, when everything was over. She saw herself fighting side by side with them, and saw the quick flash of a smile of a comrade whose life she had saved.

 

They will find me,  she thought, or the fog will lift, and I will find them. It did not seem to matter which one came to pass. As a young woman, she had been fierce to show herself the equal of the boys, and furious at the thought that any of them had to rescue her. Now it no longer seemed to matter. When you were in a team, you helped each other - it was as simple as that. That was trust. That was friendship.

 

That was right.

 

******

 

Sheppard knew that he was not doing the correct thing, but he didn't care about it in the slightest. "I guess I'm just not a guy to follow orders," he told the fog. In this case, the orders came from a battered copy of an old survival manual, and the red-faced sergeant who had screamed at him when he was seventeen. Since there was no immediate danger from snow, ice or hostiles, he was supposed to stay where he was and wait for visibility to improve.

 

He told the fog in no uncertain terms his opinion on that matter.

 

The fog had come in impossibly fast, descending from a clear sky. One moment he had been trudging alongside Rodney, bickering about… - what had they been bickering about? He had to remember before he found McKay, so he could prepare the comeback that would win the debate once and for all, and reduce Rodney to a defeated silence. John 1, Rodney nil. Then, afterwards, he could gloat.

 

He shook his head, angry with himself. This was not a hostile situation, not yet, but something felt wrong about it. Perhaps his team was not in danger, but they were missing, and he didn't like that. He didn't like losing people.

 

The fog was almost certainly natural, but they were in the Pegasus Galaxy, where the obvious answer seldom applied. This was the sort of place where over-sized mutant bug creatures sucked the life out of people with their hands, for God's sake. Fog could hide any manner of threat. They had already encountered sentient beings who lived in mist. "If you're here, uh… fog-creatures, now would be a good time to reveal yourselves." It didn't work. He cursed under his breath. Damn. From now on, he'd leave all the first contact talky stuff to Teyla. He'd just fly things and shoot things and be as silent as the grave.

 

If he got them back. He pressed his lips together, and walked on. It was irrational, he knew, this desperate desire to make sure that they were okay. Teams stayed together. Yes, he'd split them up, but Rodney had assured him that there were no life signs at all. "Are you implying that I can't read what's right in front of me, Major?" Rodney had grumbled, when Sheppard had pushed. "Or are you deaf? There's. Nothing. Here. Oh, I'm sorry! Were you hoping to get a shiny new enemy to blow up?"

 

Sheppard had thought of the Wraith who had killed Gall and Abrams just weeks before, but he had refrained from saying anything. There were some things that you did not say, not even to someone as annoying as McKay. It was better to show his trust in Rodney - show that he didn't blame him - by taking him at his word. Split the team, stroll along in the sunshine talking about nothing much at all…

 

Then the fog had come. Rodney had been beside him one minute, bickering in his strident, familiar voice, and then the sound had faded and he had gone. It was as if the fog had eaten him. Hefting his gun, Sheppard had strained to hear the sound of Wraith darts, but had found none. He had called Rodney's name - called it again and again - but no answer had come. His radio was silent. No-one came when he fired his P90 into the air.

 

"McKay!" He tried again. "Ford! Answer me, lieutenant." Nothing. "Teyla!"

 

Perhaps he was moving away from them. He didn't care. If he had always done the sensible things in life, he wouldn't be here, in a distant galaxy far from home, on Atlantis. He had never been one to sit and do nothing when there was something to be done. The correct course of action? Screw that! He would do the right course of action, and to hell with the consequences.

 

What if they're all dead already? 

 

The thought hit him with the force of a physical blow. It was external; he was sure of it. The fog wreathed around him, like creepers entangling his legs, and he fell, catching himself on one hand and one knee.

 

All dead, because you weren't quick enough. You were too busy trying to score points off McKay, and you didn't see the danger. He's not supposed to see the danger, but that's your job. A soldier protects civilians and a leader protects his team. You allowed yourself to get distracted, and the enemy came and took him. It took them all, and you…

 

"No." He forced it out through gritted teeth, and pushed himself to his feet. You couldn't think things like that, not out in the field. Out in the field, you did what you had to do. Any regret, any guilt, any doubt, and you made mistakes. Focus. Focus. The rest could come afterwards. The rest always did come afterwards, but only when you were back in your room and alone, and you could hide it all with a smile in the morning.

 

He fired his P90 into the fog. "I don't know who you are," he shouted, "but I know you're there. This is just to show you that I'm dangerous. If you're hurt my people…"

 

The mist coiled fingers round his throat, through his hair, down his sides. Pain stabbed in his brow. The fog turned yellow. Its soft dampness turned coarse and scratchy. He was in the parching desert, sand scouring his face, and Holland…

 

Another one who died because I couldn't save him. Another one dead, and now… and now…

 

"No!" This time he snarled it. He brought his hand to his brow, as if he could rip out the thoughts with brute force. No. No. He locked them up inside a box and pushed them far, far away. It was an old, familiar action. He had practice at this. He did it every day, every week, every month… "And I'm not going to stop moving," he told the fog, keeping his P90 in a ready position.

 

Something in the mist seemed to sigh. A streamer of grey brushed against his cheek, but this time it felt soft.

 

He swatted it away, but his fingers encountered nothing. Stepping as boldly as he could, he carried on walking.

 

It was only chance that saved him. Something caused him to falter between one step and the next. Perhaps the fog eased for a tiny moment, telling him see what lay ahead. He snatched his foot back from the void, and threw himself backwards. He landed heavily on the uneven ground, and something twisted painfully in his side. His hand scraped against the jagged stones, and he felt them drawing blood.

 

He cursed, and scrambled further away from the cliff edge. Stupid, John, he berated himself. Self-righteously setting out to rescue his team, only to almost fall off a cliff. That's why you should stay where you are until visibility improves, said his old sergeant and the battered manual. Rodney would say the same, he thought, and smugly.

 

Not that it would stop him. He'd just have to be a bit more careful. He sat up, wincing at the pain in his side.

 

That was when he saw her. At first he thought she was an illusion wrought from the mist, for her face was pale and her clothes were silver and her dark hair rippled in the air like tendrils of smoke. Then she came forward, like a photograph sharpening into focus, and the mist parted to let her through. He saw the sudden ending of the rocky ground, where it fell away into nothingness only feet away from him. He saw the smear of blood that marked the pale brown stones where he had fallen. He saw her feet, wearing soft shoes that shone and rippled like the scales of a fish. He saw the soft fabric of her skirts, like woven cobwebs.

 

And then he saw her face.

 

All breath was snatched from his body. All thoughts stopped. The world hung suspended between one blink of the eye and the next. He did not want to look away. He could not look away.

 

"I have chosen you." Her voice was everything beautiful that had ever existed in all the worlds. "You will come with me."

 

Yes, he thought. Yes. But there was something - something tickling in the back of his mind. An infuriating scientist. A young man, so eager to prove himself. A woman, less beautiful than this one, but more lovely, because she smiled. His team. His team. And the thing that had brought him here, brought him stubbornly marching through the fog right to the edge of a cliff. No, he thought, thought that denial resisted, and he had to pull it forth with hooks. No, I don't want to.

 

"It is a long time since mortals have approached my domain," she said. Her face was as beautiful as a dream, but her eyes were ice. "The female was of no interest to me. The two males I tested, but they were weaker than you. But you, Major John Sheppard… You were the only one who kept on walking. I like a mortal who has strength."

 

Words were still hard to summon; his body didn't want to respond to his commands. "Then you should know…" he forced out, "that I don't… don't respond well… to orders."

 

"I will not be refused. You will come with me. I will give you everything a man can desire." She leant forward, caressing his face with a soft hand. The scent of her filled his nostrils, flooding him with desire. Her thumb lingered on his lips, the tip of it dipping into his mouth. "Everything," she purred.

 

Yes! his body cried out. Yes! It was one of the hardest things he had ever done, to drag himself the fraction of an inch backwards that broke the contact. Thoughts were sluggish; words even more so. "Call me contrary," he rasped, "but when a beautiful woman comes on to me out of the blue, I tend to… question her… motives."

 

She snatched her hand back. The ice of her eyes began to spread across her face. The smooth gossamer of her dress turned harsh and brittle, like steel. "I can give you power," she said coldly.

 

"Sorry. Don't want." It was easier now. He thought of McKay at his most irritating, and thought of Teyla's quiet strength and Elizabeth's resolve. If he clung to those, he would not see her terrible beauty. "I've got more than I ever expected to have, and it's more than enough for me."

 

Her silver shoes were blades. Her hair was shards of obsidian. "I can give you more knowledge than any mortal was meant to know."

 

He shook his head. "Nope. I'll leave that to McKay."

 

She took a step back. A long-forgotten memory came suddenly to his mind - a story his teacher had told, that had grabbed him all unexpectedly. Three times is the charm. Deny three times, stand firm three times, and they cannot touch you.

 

Another step back, and another. She was almost part of the mist again, almost gone. Slowly he dared to unclench the fist that he could not remember clenching.

 

And then, cold and casual, and barely there at all, she spoke. "I have always taken them willing, but it does not have to be that way." Her eyes and mouth were cruel slashes in the deadly fog. Her voice was a knife to the heart. "I will take you unwilling. Better for you that you had accepted me, John Sheppard. Better by far that you had not denied me."

 

He snatched at his gun, but he was late, far too late. Screaming greyness surged around him, and then there was nothing at all.

 

******

 

End of chapter one

 

******

 

Chapter two: Loss

 

Rodney barely noticed when the fog started to lift. Things had already taken on a near-solid shape around him before he noticed that he could see them at all. He brought his hand up, and saw every finger clearly. "Not that I was scared," he said to anyone who might have been listening.

 

He scrambled to his feet. "Major?" The nearest shape took on a clearer resolution and became a tree. Something moved much further away, but he couldn't see what it was. "Major Sheppard?"

 

There was no risk of falling now. Above him, the fog took on shining blue tint behind the grey, as sunlight burnt the last dregs of it away. The sky was as blue as it had ever been in the summers of his childhood. He let the sunshine bask on his face, closed his eyes for a short moment, and set off.

 

He found Ford first. Ford was about quarter of a mile away across the springy grass. Rodney waved at him until he knew the boy had seen him, and settled down comfortably to wait. Get the highly trained Marine to do the exercise. It would be good for him.

 

The sunshine lapped around him, warm and welcome. It was strange how much he seemed to seek it. The issue of sunburn hardly seemed to matter. It was light and warmth, when not long before he had feared that he would never have either again. Something inside him uncurled in the light, like a seedling reaching for the sun.

 

"That was a nasty one," Ford said, when he had covered the distance at a jog. He didn't even seem out of breath. Rodney might have hated him, had physical prowess not been trivial and unnecessary. "Came out of nowhere."

 

Rodney saw movement beyond him, slightly to the right. "There's Teyla."

 

He let Ford hail her. They waited for her side by side, Rodney still sitting, and Ford standing. They did not speak. Rodney couldn't remember ever having much of a real conversation with the young Marine. He was a good enough kid, but he was military, and that said it all.

 

Teyla looked serene when she reached them. "That fog was quite severe."

 

Rodney snorted. Yes, Teyla. Thank you for stating the obvious. He didn't say it out loud, though. He couldn't remember many conversations with Teyla, either. He was not always entirely comfortable with her.

 

"Did either of you feel…" Ford swallowed, clearly debating whether to carry on. "Scared?" he finished. "More than you'd expect?"

 

"I did not," Teyla said. She touched Ford gently on the arm. "But I am used to such weather conditions from Athos. Fear is nothing to be ashamed of."

 

"Um… excuse me," Rodney interrupted. Hidden by his body, one hand clenched into a fist. The memory of the fear was still close, despite the sunlight. "Shouldn't we be looking for Major Sheppard? In case you haven't noticed, he's not here."

 

"Yes." Ford looked relieved. He tapped his radio. "Major Sheppard? Come in?" He frowned, his face changing. "Major?"

 

"Major?" Rodney tried his own radio. There was no answer, but the static had gone. He tried again, changing the setting. "Teyla?"

 

Teyla's head snapped up. "I hear you."

 

"Oh. Oh God. Oh no. What's he gone and done now?" The radios were working, but Sheppard wasn't answering. So that meant… "Oh! Oh God!" He pulled out the life-signs detector, his fingers suddenly clumsy and faltering. Three life signs showed - himself, Ford and Teyla. There was nothing else.

 

"It's not working!" He hurled it away with a cry. Not working. Not working. Oh, please, it's not working…

 

"The grass is soft and holds the signs of a trail, for one who knows what to look for," Teyla said. "We should be able to track him. Where you together when the fog fell?"

 

"Yes. Yes, we were." He could only nod. He pushed himself to his feet, trailed along behind them, watched, tried not to listen. Useless. He was useless.

 

The life signs detector couldn't lie.

 

They found the place where their tracks diverged. "Why didn't he stay still?" Rodney wondered. "Why didn't the stubborn, stupid son-of-a-bitch stay still? But of course he wouldn't. The clue's in the question. Has to play the hero, doesn't he? Well, Major, I'll have you know: you went in the wrong direction. Not so heroic now, are you?"

 

There was no-one there to listen. Teyla and Ford were ahead of him, Teyla intent on the ground, and Ford following her grimly with his gun ready.

 

I don't know these people, Rodney thought. They're my team, but they're strangers. I don't know how to talk to them.

 

He had been able to talk to Sheppard right from the start. He had not held back in any way, but instead of responding with the hostility or incomprehension that most people gave him, Sheppard had responded in kind.

 

Please don't be dead, he thought. Please don't.

 

The ground was rising steadily. There was something wrong about the horizon ahead. He couldn't put his finger on what it was, but something wasn't right about it. Then he realised. Oh God, oh God.

 

The others were ahead of him. Teyla was on her knees, her head bowed, her fingers touching something on the ground. Ford screamed aloud with sudden rage or heartbreak.

 

He couldn't go any further - he couldn't. His legs were lead. His body was heavy. He couldn't go… He couldn't see…

 

But I have to. He bit his lip. The others were stupid. Ford was just a boy, and a brainless soldier at that. Teyla meant well, but she came from a primitive band of hunter-gatherers stuck in the Dark Ages. They must have missed something.

 

No possible universe could exist in which John Sheppard could die by falling off a cliff in the fog. It just needed Rodney to set things right.

 

He moved his faltering legs forward. "It is blood," he heard Teyla say. "The ground is too stony here to show tracks, but this is recent crumbling, here on the edge."

 

There was a ledge. There had to be a ledge just underneath the edge, or a protruding branch. There was soft sand not far below. A jumper had flown upwards just as he had fallen. A freak wormhole had opened up and…

 

"He's gone." Ford was crying, not even ashamed of it.

 

Rodney had never hated anyone more.

 

******

 

Elizabeth herself came to give the order. It was the least she could do.

 

The sunshine was glorious, and that seemed like the worst insult of all. This world was like a jewel in its beauty, but its ugly side had killed John Sheppard. She wanted all of nature to mourn for him.

 

Rodney was still on the cliff top, where it had happened. He was haggard from lack of sleep, his hair sticking up in tufts, as if he was unconsciously trying to emulate the man they had lost. She could tell from his face that he knew why she had come.

 

"It's been two days, Rodney," she said gently. "We've scanned the whole planet for life signs ten times over. You know that, because you did it yourself." He had snapped at Zelenka, physically pushing him away, insisting that he alone could do the job properly - that everyone else would miss the faint spark that was the ebbing life of Major Sheppard. "We've had the jumpers scour the ocean as much as we can. I have to call this, Rodney."

 

Rodney raked his hand through his hair. "If it was one of us, he wouldn't give up so easily."

 

He seemed naked, she realised, robbed of his usual armour of insults.  Ford and Teyla were little better - and neither was she, she was forced to admit. None of them had slept much since the search had begun.

 

"You have to know that the chance of finding him alive is non-existent," she said quietly.

 

So easy to say; so hard to accept. She thought she had begun to accept it - how could she give the order, otherwise? - but true acceptance would take far longer.

 

"Until I see a body…" Rodney was pacing up and down. "We're in another Galaxy. Nothing's impossible."

 

She touched his arm again. "He's gone, Rodney. I can't let our teams spend any more time on this."

 

He snatched his arm away. "Waste time, you mean? It's Major Sheppard, Elizabeth. He'd move heaven and earth if it was one of us. You saw him do it. When the Genii took Atlantis…"

 

She hardened her face; she had to. "It's over, Rodney. We have to stop this. All we can possibly find is a body, but I have to think of the living, not the dead. Our teams need to be out there looking for allies, looking for ZPMs, trying to find weapons that can be used against the Wraith. We can't do this any more."

 

He snapped his head around, hiding his face. She had worked alongside him, and thought she understood him better than many did, but much of him was still a mystery to her. We're all strangers, she thought - strangers who, through fire and blood, were beginning to become friends.

 

"It's happened, Rodney," she said gently. "You have to accept it. We all have to accept it."

 

But, oh God, I don't want to accept it. It can't be true. Please…

 

Rodney said nothing. She gave him privacy as she made the call, radioing to Ford and to the other jumpers that the search was to be called off.

 

Silence greeted her words, and then, seconds later, came the acknowledgements. Far over the ocean, the jumpers began to return to the Gate with all the grace and solemnity of a funeral procession.

 

I'm sorry, Rodney, she thought, as McKay followed her back to the Gate, silent, broken. I'm so sorry, John. Goodbye.

 

******

 

Teyla was not familiar with the funeral practices of Earth. People had died since the expedition had come to Atlantis, but she had not attended their funerals, just as no-one from Atlantis has accompanied her to the mainland when a member of her own people had passed away.

 

They called it a memorial service. Doctor Weir had wanted to hold it on the cliffs where he had fallen, and cast flowers into the ocean where his body lay, but Teyla herself had spoken out against this. "In the short time that I knew John Sheppard," she had said, "he was never happier than when flying. He was born to the skies, not to the earth of this galaxy. Do not remember him in a place that meant nothing to him, but in the place that meant everything."

 

The whole of Atlantis was gathered in the jumper bay. Teyla stood at the front, with Aiden on one side, and Doctor McKay on the other. She did not seek support from either of them. Since they had returned to Atlantis, she had barely spoken to either of them.

 

There was no music, and no flowers. No songs were sung, and there were no candles to signify the light of the life that had passed. Dressed in sombre black, Doctor Weir stepped up to the front and turned to address the crowd.

 

"Chance led John Sheppard to Atlantis," she said. "Unlike every one of us gathered here, who had prepared for this opportunity for months, Major Sheppard - John - had never thought to step outside his own world. Chance led him here. Sheer chance led to him being asked to fly General O'Neill to our base. His exceptional skills as a pilot caused him to save General O'Neill's life. Perhaps that was why the General let him enter the base, let him see more than he had ever been meant to see.

 

"Perhaps it had been chance until then, but what came after was pure John Sheppard. All who worked with him - all who called him friend - know that he was not a man to sit still when he could be moving. He was not a man to accept a closed door when he could open it. That urge caused him to sit in an Ancient chair. That urge led us to discover that he possessed the Ancient gene more strongly than anyone ever encountered before.

 

"I asked him to join us on our expedition. Not everyone approved, but I assert that the nay-sayers have been proved wrong a hundred times over. What made him accept? I do not know. He once told me that he had tossed a coin, but I don't believe that. John was not the sort of man to leave anything to chance. He was always a man who fought fate."

 

Teyla felt her eyes sting with tears. She had known none of this. She had felt more comfortable with John than with anyone else on Atlantis, but she had known so little about him. Did any of them really know him, she wondered. Did any of them really know anyone?

 

"I cannot regret asking him to join the expedition," Doctor Weir continued. Doctor Weir, Teyla thought. Already she feels like Doctor Weir, when last week I called her Elizabeth. "I asked him here, and now he is dead. But he was a soldier and a pilot, and all lives are fragile. If he had stayed behind, he could still have died. If he had stayed behind, Atlantis would have been without him. I cannot wish that fate on Atlantis. I cannot accept that, as a friend.

 

"Atlantis welcomed him home. He was her favourite son, and she shone for him."

 

Doctor Weir's voice wavered just for a moment, and she faltered. Teyla felt for her. It was a terrible thing to be a leader. But what sort of a people were these, that they could not let a leader openly grieve for a friend? What sort of a people could honour their dead in serried lines, clothed with stiff formality, and without songs? These people had never felt so alien before.

 

"He came to me, after that first disastrous mission," Doctor Weir said, recovering herself. "He wanted my permission to go after the people who had been taken prisoner. No, he didn't ask." A faint, rueful smile curled on her lips. "He demanded. These were strangers to him, some of them far from friendly. 'It's the right thing to do,' he said. 'We don't leave people behind.' He was right. We all know what happened as a result of that rescue, but I cannot regret it. New friends are standing here among us, who would have died on that Wraith ship had John not insisted on going back. He would have willingly suffered anything to bring those people back.

 

"And now we have left him behind. We did what we could, but he is gone."

 

Teyla glanced sideways. Aiden's eyes were gleaming with unshed tears. Doctor McKay's face was screwed up. He looked angry, but she knew it was just his way of showing grief. She wished she could touch them, but the gulf seemed suddenly insurmountable. The City of the Ancestors had never felt so cold.

 

"Many of us here have cause to be grateful to John Sheppard," Doctor Weir continued. "Atlantis would have been a different place without him. He trusted the people of Athos when circumstances conspired to built hostility between our peoples. When the Genii invaded, he not only saved my life, but saved the whole city. But it is more than that. When we stepped through the Stargate, I was not the only one who feared there would be friction between the military contingent and the civilians. I'm sure there were prejudices and misconceptions on both sides. But that friction has barely come. I never thanked him for it, but I am sure the credit for this lies firmly at John's door.

 

"I had expected to live in uneasy harmony with the military commander of Atlantis. Instead, I found a friend.

 

"Goodbye, John. We will miss you."

 

And thus, so simply, was it over. Closing her eyes, bowing her head, Teyla softly repeated the thought. It is over.

 

******

 

Rodney left the memorial service the moment it finished, elbowing several people aside in his haste to leave. Carson saw Elizabeth looking after him with concern. He nodded at her, but perhaps the gesture was lost over the crowd. With some murmured apologies, he managed to reach the door not long after Rodney.

 

"Rodney!" he called after him. Rodney turned, his face a mask of irritation and impatience. Carson caught him up before speaking again, pitching his voice low. "I've got a bottle of the best Scottish whisky. Care to help me remember the Major with a wee dram?"

 

Something flickered over Rodney's face; for the briefest moment, Carson thought he was going to accept. "Can't," he said, after that tiny pause. "Too busy. Perhaps the rest of you can afford to waste the morning by standing around in the jumper bay, but I've got important work to do."

 

"Rodney..." Carson risked a touch, two fingers on his sleeve.

 

Rodney snatched his arm away. "Leave me alone, Carson." He walked a few steps, and Carson followed. "Damn it, Carson, are you going to follow me all day?"

 

"I miss him, too," Carson said gently.

 

Rodney carried on walking. Three steps, he made - four, five, six... "Well, that makes one of us," he said bitterly, turning round. "Do you know something, Carson..? All the time I was lost in that damn fog, I was blaming him. I blamed him for letting me get lost. I imagined that he was watching him and laughing. I blamed... And I sat down and waited. We all sat down and waited. Why did he have to go and wander off? He always had to play the hero, and this time it got him killed. Falling off a cliff... What sort of stupid way to die is that? So, no, I don't miss him. I don't miss him at all. Now go away and let me work."

 

Carson just stood there, mute with pity and grief. The others were leaving now, filing past them in silent ones and twos. Several faces bore the marks of tears.

 

"Damn it, Carson!" Rodney lashed out at Carson's arm. Carson had been unaware of reaching out again. "Leave me alone!"

 

Rodney left, and Carson could not stop him. His shoulders slumped. He thought of the whisky in his quarters, but it was too fine to enjoy alone. This was not a time that anyone should be alone.

 

Carson had known death before - of course he had. As a doctor, he had lost people under his care. He had fought desperate battles with death, and lost. He had seen grief and reproach in the faces of friends and relatives. Why couldn't you save him, doctor? And then the haunting worries that came in the night, after. Maybe I overlooked something. If I'd done that differently, or that, or that... And waking up, heart quaking in the dawn. Could I have saved him?

 

This was different. Once again, death had once again taken a member of the expedition while Carson was far away. This time there was not even a body for Carson to examine. At hand of Wraith or hand of Genii or hand of self, death came when it was least expected. Carson came too late. Already dead. Nothing anyone could have done.

 

I hate it! He curled his fist. At least when they died in his care, he knew that he had tried. Better to have that haunting fear that you'd missed something, than to know that you hadn't even tried. Even if he lost patients, he eased the moment of their passing. They died being cared for, and never alone.

 

He thought of Rodney's furious face, his mouth spitting fury, his eyes showing something else entirely. All the time I was lost in the fog, I was blaming him.

 

It is better when they blame me, Carson thought.

 

No enemy had struck the fatal blow. No doctor had failed to save him. There was no-one to hate and no-one to blame.

 

But if there was no blame, there could be no forgiveness. If there was no wound, how could he know how to heal it?

 

******

 

Elizabeth still felt raw from the memorial service. It was not the first time she had spoken at a funeral, and not the first time she had honoured the life of someone under her command. Never before had it been so difficult.

 

Two days had passed since the service. To make the speech, she had pushed her tears deep inside, and it felt as if they were still locked away inside her, unable to flow forth.

 

Everything was falling apart.

 

She had seen the terror on Ford's face when he thought no-one was looking. He was a competent young officer, and he would never shirk a task, but he was too young and inexperienced for this command. As a second-in-command, he had shown skill and initiative; as a commander, he was out of his depth. He was plainly doing everything he could to emulate John's style, and judging every failure by the yardstick of his late commander's actions. Perhaps the challenge would be the making of him, but she feared it would be the breaking.

 

Teyla had been distant following the memorial service. The day after the service, she had requested leave to visit the mainland and spend a few days there. Elizabeth had granted the request, of course. It was only natural for Teyla to want to spend her time of mourning with her own people, rather than with strangers.

 

Strangers. She checked her thoughts as she noticed the word. Is that what we are? But of course they were. It was only a couple of months since Elizabeth had interrogated all of Teyla's people, treating them as traitors and criminals. John had defended them. If he hadn't, would Teyla have ever chosen to stay on Atlantis?

 

As for McKay… She had already received a somewhat apologetic delegation from the science team, complaining about the treatment they had to put up with. They knew she was still grieving, which was why they had been apologetic about the interruption. Somehow it had never crossed their minds that Rodney could be grieving, too. They saw the barbed words and the rudeness and the temper. They hadn't seen him, as she had, on the edge of the cliff, his face haggard with sleeplessness and disbelief.

 

She knew she should talk to him, but she was afraid to. She had called off the search. Her decision had ensured that there was not even a body to mourn over. She wondered if Rodney hated her for it. Then she wondered if he hated himself. A man like Rodney McKay would be taken unawares by a developing friendship, and would have no defences at all when it was suddenly snatched away.

 

She left her office and walked through the Gate room. There was a tension there that had not been there a week before, she thought, or maybe that was just the stiffness in her shoulders. She had hardly slept for days.

 

Two teams were out, but not the key one. She had told Ford that he could take his time over the decision on team members, and take even longer before going off-world. Predictably, Ford had instantly chosen Teyla and McKay, with Sergeant Markham as a pilot. Teyla had yet to accept, she knew. Rodney had only grunted.

 

She returned to her office, and sat down stiffly in her chair, rubbing her aching head and her eyes that could not cry.

 

God help us, she thought. God help us all.

 

******

 

End of chapter two

 

******

 

Chapter three: A path of stone

 

Sheppard awake to pale yellow. He blinked, his brain for moment too sluggish to register anything else except that pale yellow, filling everything he could see. He blinked again, and a thin layer of fog slewed away from his brain. This time there was scent, too - a sharp smell of stone. Another layer went, and he curled his fingers, feeling roughness beneath their tips. The same roughness lay beneath his cheek, and he moved his lips, tasting dust.

 

He shed the next few layers of fog like a man throwing off a cloak. Rolling over sharply, he pressed himself up into a crouch, ready to fight.

 

There was no-one there.

 

He let out a breath, but did not relax. From crouching, he rose to standing, every muscle poised and ready. His feet stood dead centre on a large paving slab, made from a pale yellow stone. It was only one of many. A stone floor spread out twenty yards to either side of him, and stretched further ahead than he could see.

 

Beyond the stone floor, there was nothing. A dusky light came from somewhere, but the sky above was blank and grey. Where the stone slabs ended there was a wall of nothingness. It was as if he was balanced on a stone carpet laid upon the clouds.

 

Someone had taken his weapons; he had known that almost as soon as he had wakened, between the first layer going, and the last. Awareness of being armed was something that went beyond mere sight or scent. Even before he had opened his eyes, he had known that something had been stripped from him. Someone had brought him here - who? - and someone had disarmed him, then stepped away and left him to awaken alone.

 

Who? his empty hands wondered, as they felt the absence of his guns. Her, said the small part of his mind that was still touched by the fog. Memory was faint, but it brought images of beauty and fear, of a cliff-top in the fog, of a refusal denied.

 

There was nothing to do, then, but to continue to refuse. The smooth stones stretched far away, each one identical, as if stamped out of the very essence of Stone, and untouched by all the human things that made stones and roads and buildings unique.

 

Damn stupid thing to think. He shook his head. There was no purpose in examining his surroundings except to judge their defensive capabilities or the level of threat they posed. Fiercely, brutally, he drove the last of the fog from his mind. He would think like himself, like John Sheppard. His mind was his own.

 

He tried his radio. There was no answer, of course, only static. He was on his own. Something about the stones screamed solitude. You are the only person alive in this entire reality.

 

The stones were an avenue. They stretched ahead like an arrow, the only thing existing in the greyness that was the rest of the world. Something glimmered far ahead - a light, perhaps. When he looked at it too hard, it sank tendrils into his brain. Home, it shouted. A light to guide you. Friends waiting up for you. Warmth, and hope, and the sweet glow of a city that knows you, and does not cast you out.

 

Setting his chin stubbornly, he turned away from the light. So he was meant to go that way, was he? He looked away from it, setting his right shoulder towards the light, and headed to the edge of the avenue. His steps were utterly silent. His breathing was loud, though - louder with every step. When he reached the edge, he stopped walking, but the sound of his breathing continued, louder and louder, faster and faster…

 

He thrust his arm into the greyness that lined the avenue. It ceased to exist. He knew that without a doubt, the realisation striking at his heart like a dagger of ice. He snatched it back, looked at his hand… Five fingers, palm scuffed from some recent fall. Dirt on the fingertips, calluses on the skin…

 

He swallowed. He knew what it felt like to step through a wormhole, and this was not it. This was far worse. On sudden impulse, he crouched down, scraping his hand against the stone, opening up the shallow grazes. The pain was sharp and fresh. When he thrust his hand into the greyness, the pain vanished as if it had never been. The sound of his breathing faded to nothing at all.

 

He pulled his hand back, slowly this time, and stood there for a long moment, considering. I could go through anyway…

 

He thought of vanishing to nothing; thought of there being no-one to pull him back. A hand responded to the command of the body it was attached to, and could be pulled back, but a person was like an island, and all alone. There would be no coming back. 

 

Defiance was all very well, but he was not a man to commit suicide without a cause.

 

He refused to look defeated as he turned and walked towards the light. With each step, memory grew a little stronger. The planet. The fog. Rodney. The woman… Lady, his mind whispered, in a voice that was not his own. "Bitch," he said, out loud. Memory was not yet perfect, but he remembered her asking him to come with her, and he remembered refusing. The fog had taken everything then, and it had not yet fully released his mind. All he could assume was that he was her prisoner.

 

But of course he would escape.

 

He trudged towards the light, his feet making no sound on the identical slabs of stone.

He had no idea of time. The fog still lapped at the edges of his mind, and kept threatening to take him. He counted steps - one, two, three… twenty… thirty… - but the ground beneath him never changed, and the light ahead of him grew no closer, and there was nothing on either side but grey nothingness. There were times when he blanked out, sinking several layers deeper through the fog, but when he tore through the layers again, he had no way of knowing if he had been away for seconds, or for hours. Nothing changed. He breathed in and out, and his legs moved, but his feet made no sound, and he felt neither thirst nor weariness.

 

He did not know what made him look back at the precise moment that the change happened. He had looked back several times before - of course he had, for he was a soldier, and he would never walk through enemy territory without frequent checks to see if he was being followed. This time, though, he caught the very moment when the stones started fading.

 

It was innocent at first - one stone, far behind him, melted into nothing, leaving only the grey nothingness where it had been. He stopped walking; watched it. Its neighbour followed it, and then a stone slab four away. As he stood there, watching, the stone immediately behind him vanished. Fascinated despite himself, he crouched and touched the place where it had been. His fingers vanished into nothing. Half way across his hand, his flesh ceased to be.

 

They started falling away like a landslide, like a tower of cards toppling into nothing. Robbed of choices, he turned and ran. This was nothing he could fight. He would not look behind, he would not… But he had to; he refused to hide. Falling away, just behind him, gaining on him… Stones melted away beneath his feet, vanishing to nothing just as he managed to leap for the next one. He was running on the clouds, on the sky, on nothing. Flying without a plane… Flying… Falling…

 

"Accept what I offer, and this will end," he heard her say.

 

But with the last vestiges of consciousness, he summoned an answer. He was born to fly. He had lived to be free. "No," he said, as all the stones beneath him faded to grey. "No," as he lost all sense, all thought, all being.

 

No…

 

******

 

He awoke to yellow. Awareness came quicker this time, and he knew that the yellow was sand. It lay in drifts between his fingers, and was caked on his lips. When he moved, moaning, it trickled from his hair, tickling his brow. Waves broke nearby, faster than waves had ever broken on Earth. They were in time with his breathing, but when he deliberately slowed his breathing, the waves continued as they had been, overlapping his breaths in counterpoint.

 

He rolled onto his back. Moving hurt, as if… As if every molecule of my body had ceased to exist, and then had been forced back together by a clumsy sculptor with brutal tools. He frowned, pressing his fingers to his brow. Thoughts came from the fog and the sea; they did not feel like his own.

 

The sky above him was the predictable grey, streaked with orange. Somewhere far beyond, he thought, the sun was trying to set. The sea looked cold, devoid of any blue. He was lying just above the high tide line, on dry sand that never felt the touch of the sea.

 

He sat up, wincing at the throbbing in his head. All he could see was the sea and the sand. Away from the shore, the beach rose steeply into dunes far higher than any he had seen outside the desert. There were no flowers on the dune, and no birds over the sea, but the high-tide line spoke of distant life - dead seaweed, gnarled driftwood, and luminous shells.

 

Groaning, he stood up, and started to walk along the high-tide line, scuffing seaweed and shells with the toe of his boot. Most of the driftwood was in the form of small twigs, but some was larger, shaped into sculptures that he guessed might sell as art in the fancy galleries of the world. Not that he had any interest in such things. The largest sculpture yielded when he fought it, and gave him a make-shift weapon, three feet long, and jagged at the end.

 

"What now?" he shouted to the fog-streaked sky. "I'm ready."

 

There was no answer.

 

The sand snatched at his ankles, slowing him down, so he moved below the high-tide line, to the sand that was flattened by recent water. It was only slightly darker than the dry sand, and barely wet at all, so he deduced that the tide was coming in. He could see no end to the beach ahead of him - no jutting headland, no curving cliffs. When he turned to look behind, he saw only sand and sea.

 

The sand was pristine. There were no footprints where he had walked.

 

He took a tighter hold on his make-shift weapon. "Is this supposed to scare me?"

 

Something shifted. He had no idea what it was. The waves still broke at the same rhythm. The sky was the same colour, and the sands moved beneath him in the same way. Yet something had changed; he knew that.

 

Perhaps that was what caused him to start running. When the creature attacked, he was already moving away. The first, deadly attack missed him. He threw himself to the right, rolling in the damp sand, and the second attack hit the ground just inches from him, digging a deep gouge in the sand, sending grit into his eyes.

 

He brought up the driftwood weapon, but the creature was impossibly fast. It was a blur in the air, a grey-and-silver sense of movement. It was a flash of an eye, then gone. It was curving claws in the peripheral vision, but gone when he tried to find them.

 

Claws raked his flesh, gouging from shoulder down to hip. He screamed - a cry of agony, a cry of fury - and plunged the wood into the place where he thought his attacker was. A scream answered his, swelling high and shrill while his died to nothing. He dug and twisted, kicked and struggled…

 

It fell back. He saw a dip in the damp sand, the waves breaking around an obstruction that he could not see. Struggling to his feet, reeling with the pain of it, he headed for the dunes. He tried to walk backwards. The shape on the sand didn't move. There were no footprints… But none of his own, too. Blood, though… His path was marked with a swathe of blood - drops blending into a ribbon, a ribbon into a stream.

 

"Get out of my mind," he rasped, for that seemed suddenly like the worst thing of all. The fog was still inside him. He was seeing things not as the pragmatic soldier, John Sheppard, who did what he had to do and kept the rest inside. The fog saw things with the eye of poetry. It saw fear in a grain of sand. Get out, he thought, get out - and that seemed worse than the terrible wound, the thought that something was inside his mind, rifling through his thoughts, making him feel things that did not come from himself. Injuries he could take, but this… but this…

 

And the sand mired him. The sand was hands clutching at his ankles. Two steps forward, one step back… And hadn't it been like this in the desert, with Holland dying and in his care? Sand, and death at every turn. Sand… acres of sand, miles of sand… an eternity of sand… Slipping, like knives at his throat, robbing him of breath. Too far from the sea now, but his breath like the breaking waves, like the ebbing tide.

 

The sand wrenched away from him, as if someone was standing beneath it and had given it a sharp tug. It was like nets around his ankles. He fell heavily. Sand ground into his wound like shards of glass. He struggled to stand, but the sand became water, flowing away from him. He rose barely inches, then fell again. He slid down the dune, and blood stained his lips - blood from his own body, seeping into the sand.

 

And the creature was on him… The creature… Roaring defiance, he rolled onto his back, thrusting upwards with the driftwood weapon with all his strength. He heard something scream, and hot breath on his face, and a weight on his body, a weight… He heaved it away, listened, listened… Nothing. Then he fell not into grey, but into darkness.

 

But like the fog, it slewed away in layers. He heard them first, and then sight came, and he saw their feet standing around him as he lay on the dune. Another layer went, and he smelt salt and blood. He felt sand behind his nails, but when he tried to move his hands, he found that his wrists were bound.

 

He came awake sharply. He did not speak, though.

 

His captors were talking to each other. Their voices were high and sharp, but he couldn't make out any words. Their language was nothing he knew.

 

He shifted in his bonds. From their change of tone, he thought that they had noticed, but then he was hit by the enormous pain that that small movement created, and nothing mattered for a moment but mastering it. "Hey," he tried, when he could speak.

 

They spoke again, but not to him. He felt himself moving, pain ripping at his shoulders and hips. He saw trails of blood on the sand beneath him - small drops, quite beautiful: red on yellow.

 

A wave crashed beneath him, and then nothing… And then nothing…

 

Water in his mouth.

 

He coughed, spluttering. The world had shifted again. The orange in the sky had faded to blood red. The pain in his head felt old, as if several hours had passed, but the wound that had torn open his body felt as if it was being scoured by red-hot wires.

 

He tried to move, but could not. His fingers he could move, though even that movement sent spears of pain lancing across his body. His feet could flap in the ocean. His head could sag onto his chest. But his body…

 

He twisted as far as he could, struggling to see past the salty water that splashed into his eyes. He was bound, he realised. He had been tied to a wooden stake out in the rising tide, and he was only minutes from being drowned.

 

Sheppard struggled, fighting the bonds, but they were too tight. Waves crashed around him, white surf filling his mouth, stinging his eyes, drenching his hair. His body was a flame of pain, salty water filling the enormous gash left by the creature's claws. The shore was a distant ribbon of gold. He could not see his attackers there. They had tied him here, and then gone.

 

The tide was coming in fast. A wave submerged him utterly. As soon as it withdrew, billowing pinkly around his mouth, another one took his place. He choked on water; snatched a quick breath when he could; choked again. The more he struggled, the more it felt as if his body was split asunder by the gaping wound, as if his whole life was flowing out of that chasm into the sea.

 

Get out, he thought, with the last breath that he could muster. Get out of my head.

 

"You can still live," she said. She sat before him in a boat made of gold and leaves, her hair untouched by any salt.

 

"How?" he rasped, in the tiny moment that was left to him between one wave and the next.

 

"Accept what I offer." Her smile was beatific, yet cold. "Love me, honour me, and yield to me, and I will save your life. Stay with me forever, and you will never know pain again."

 

He had been trained not to give in to torture. More, it was against his very nature to give in to such things. "Guess you…" Water drove claws into his throat. "Don't know… much about… me." He could not say the rest. It was all he could do to stay conscious.

 

"Why die because of pride?"

 

She was beautiful. She was life. And this was death. This was the certainty of death. He could barely last a minute more of this. Already his vision was dimming with lack of oxygen. Too much blood spread pink in the ocean. There were no comrades to defend. She was not asking him for answers that would condemn others. He was a fighter, and that meant resisting threats, but it also meant doing anything he could to stay alive, to live to fight another day.

 

Thoughts slipped away. There was just greyness and pain, and… and… Lie, he thought, with the last vestiges of his strength. Pretend to give in, then fight her later.

 

He did not even know what words his lips shaped. Awareness had narrowed to needles of pain in his head, in his lungs, in his flesh. Perhaps he said yes. Perhaps he said Help me. In his heart, as he drifted to death, he clung to a lie.

 

And she knew it. "You lie," she said, as she left him there to die.

 

And the last wave broke over his head, and the ocean claimed him.

 

******

 

End of chapter three

 

******

 

Chapter four: Not alone

 

He opened his eyes to dawn. Early sunlight was slanting across his face, and cold dew seeped into his clothes.

 

Sheppard pushed himself clumsily into a sitting position, then dragged himself backwards so he could lean against the nearby outcrop of rock. He leant forward briefly, then his head sagged back, resting against the hard stone. He had one leg stretched beneath him, the other curled beneath him. A flattened patch in the grass showed where he had spent the night.

 

Why? Darkness clung to his mind. Where?

 

His body hurt, but less than it should have… Why? He blinked; blinked again. Each time the memory became clearer, like something terrible lurching towards him from the darkness, clearer with every step. A gaping wound across his body… Capture… Death by drowning…

 

He scraped his hand across his face. He wasn't dead, that was for sure. The wound was gone, not even a mark on his clothes to show that it had been there. He could still taste salt on his lips, though, and his lungs hurt as if they had been scoured. His head throbbed, his hands and feet were slow to obey his commands, and all the skin across his body ached.

 

"Oh, John."

 

Even with the pain and weariness, his head snapped up at the sudden voice. She was there, cold and beautiful, her dress trailing in the dew.

 

"My poor, sweet, defiant John." She bent over him, touching his cheek with one exquisite finger. He snapped his head sideways, but there was no further escape. The cloying scent of flowers filled his lungs and reached into his mind. "All you have to do," she whispered, "is say that you will stay with me."

 

The flowers had thorns; they raked through his thoughts, trying to drag out a yes. He felt them like claws in his throat, trying to hook out an answer. Instead, he pressed his lips together, and let his eyes show his refusal.

 

"You sweet fool." The fabric of her sleeve danced an enticing measure across his face. "Have you not seen enough by now? This world is mine to command. There is no escape. It can be a hell to you for all eternity, but come with me willingly, and it will be a heaven."

 

"No," he rasped.

 

"What you have experienced thus far is merely a tiny foreshadowing of what is to come." She smiled sweetly. "You will die a thousand times, and each time come back. You will suffer pain such as no mortal has ever suffered. You will face foes from your most dreadful nightmares, and live the fears that keep you awake in the darkest reaches of the night."

 

He pressed one hand against the rock at his back, feeling its coldness, scraping his fingertips against its harsh points. "No."

 

She walked around behind the rock, and spoke from behind him - an enemy whose face he could not see. Despite all his attempts to stay calm, his heart started beating more quickly. "You refuse so easily, John, but you do not even comprehend what I am asking. Stay with me in this world of mine for the rest of your life. Love me, and let me love you."

 

Still the scent of flowers had its thorns entwined in his brain. Thought came hard; words came harder. "No," he said, and forced a laugh. "You're in… my head. You must… know my answer."

 

He fought the flowers, fought the fog. He summoned thoughts of Atlantis - of the rage that he had felt when Kolya had threatened it, of the deep pleasure that he felt whenever he returned there and felt the city sing. He thought of Holland, and how he had defied orders without a second thought, even though he had known it could end his career. He was willing to die for what was right, but he would never give up his liberty to make that choice.

 

"So innocent," she purred. "So childishly defiant. But I will break you, John. Soon you will look back on your innocence today, and weep."

 

He managed to move minutely, enough to see her. "I'm not a weeping kind of guy."

 

"So childish," she said, as she began to move away. "So selfish. So self-centred." She turned and smiled a smile of ice. "Do you think you are the only one here?"

 

She faded into a coil of mist. His head fell back against the rock. Got to… Got to… He scraped his hand through his hair, across his brow, in his eyes. He moistened it with dew, and rubbed the liquid into his dry lips. He had to start thinking straight - that was the first priority. Ever since he had woken on the stone slabs, the fog had been inside his mind, dulling his thoughts, making him drift.

 

Do you think you are the only one here?

 

He stood up, bracing himself against the pain that struck in his stomach and his chest. Pressing his forearm to his middle, he slowly straightened. He swayed for a moment, but did not fall.

 

"My team," he said aloud. Why hadn't he thought about them before? Guilt coiled thickly in his stomach, but he pushed it away. He wondered if any of his thoughts had truly been his own. That would change, though. From now on, he would do only what he had to do. He would escape this place, he would find his team, and they would return to Atlantis - a happy ending, no harm done.

 

He tried his radio, but it gave him only static. Giving up on it, he started to walk, choosing the direction away from the place where the woman had vanished. The land was bleak, with coarse grass and rocky outcrops. The few trees were stunted, bending over to one side, as if they were battered by a prevailing wind. The faint scent of salt in the air told him that the sea was not far away, but there were no sea birds. There was very little cover. He saw no sign of his team anywhere.

 

The fog came from nowhere, as if it was rising from the ground itself. He carried on walking, seeing less and less with each step. After a dozen steps, he could see nothing at all.

 

That was when the screaming began.

 

"Help me!" The voice was cracked with terror, and it was impossible to tell whose it was at first. "Help me! Please… Major Sheppard! Help me!"

 

"McKay." He said it out loud; turned a full circle. It was impossible to judge direction in the fog. "Rodney! Where are you?"

 

The voice rose high in a scream of agony, then sank to a bubbling moan.

 

"Rodney!" He raced forward, going where he thought the sound was coming from. Something was growling in the mist. Then, sickeningly, he heard the wet sound of tearing flesh.

 

Do you think you are the only one? Of course he wasn't. There was no reason for him to be in this alone. The others were out there, fighting their own personal battles with death, and he had completely forgotten them for a whole day. If they died… If they died…

 

He tripped over something, falling heavily to his knees. Scraping, struggling up, his hand brushed against something cool, little warmer than the stone that it lay on. A hand, a wrist… No pulse. The fog stole even the face, but he ran his hand up the arm, felt across the shoulder, across the still throat, and found a face that felt like Ford's.

 

Dead, he thought. Dead. A young man under his command. A young man at the start of a brilliant career. A young man, abandoned, left to die alone…

 

He rose to his feet, bellowing. Grief got you nowhere. At times like this, all that was left was revenge. No, no, before that there were the living. Rodney. Teyla. Leave the dead. Mourn him later, alone in your room, but try and save those who could still be saved. Nothing mattered but that. Nothing.

 

The sound of rending flesh was quieter now, and even fainter, beneath it, he could hear the sound of whimpering. Rodney. Hardening his heart with pragmatism, he searched Ford's body, looking for weapons, but Ford, too, had been stripped of anything that could save him. There was no driftwood here. All he had was his hands and his fists, and his determination not to lose another.

 

"Rodney!"

 

No answer.

 

"Rodney!"

 

He had no idea which way to go. The fog robbed him of all sense of direction. He turned his head from side to side, listening, but nothing gave him any clue. Finally, grimly, he set out in the way that felt best. Perhaps he was dooming McKay by walking away from him. Perhaps… Perhaps…

 

I can save him, she said, her voice like soft tendrils of fog, like a whisper of wind in the still air. Submit to me.

 

He did not reply. His face was set, his eyes straining to see in the unnatural fog that robbed him of all his senses.

 

If you don't, and if he dies…

 

"Get out of my mind," he snarled. The way he was thinking was only barely familiar to him. Things took on enormous significance that normally would barely be noticed: the mist, like flowing veils of gauze; fleeting hopes like gossamer, that drift in the air and then are gone forever. "No!" He forced her out, built walls across his mind. It was easy; it should have been easy. He had done this before many a time, thousands of time. Focus on the job. On Rodney. On Teyla. On saving them. On hope.

 

Something growled in the mist. A dark figure loped past him, and he caught its foetid breath. "Rodney!" One step, two…

 

Rodney was lying on his back, his face turned away. With hands that did not tremble, Sheppard touched the side of his neck. There was a pulse. There was also blood, warm and thick.

 

He felt the movement merely; he did not see Rodney open his eyes. "You didn't come."

 

"I'm here now."

 

"You didn't…" McKay's voice was broken with pain. "I shouted for help. You didn't come."

 

I tried, he wanted to say, but what point was justification? "I'm here now," he said again. "You're still alive. You'll be okay."

 

"No, I won't. I'm dying. I called and called and you didn't come. You left me to die." Rodney's voice faded away. His flesh seemed cooler with each second that passed; Sheppard felt all this, his fingers useless on Rodney's neck. The pulse did not die completely, but Rodney was past speaking.

 

"Dead, you see," the woman said, stepping up behind him in the mist. "One dead, one dying, and one out there, still to die."

 

Sheppard bowed his head.

 

"You know the answer." Her hand brushed the back of his neck.

 

Yes, he knew the answer. She had shown that she could heal, could bring a man back from the dead. Rodney could be healed, and Ford could be brought back to life. Teyla would be unharmed. All he had to do was submit.

 

"Is it really so hard?" she whispered.

 

Her hand whispered across his skin, down past his collar, like ribbons of silk across the top of his back. A strand of hair unfolded across his cheek. Her scent was home, was childhood, was all the dreams of happiness he had ever had, and ever lost.

 

"I will give you everything," she breathed, "as long as you love me. You will want for nothing. I can create anything out of dust."

 

Was it really do much to ask? He could endure pain. He could die a hundred times, and be brought back; but this… She had reached inside him, pulled out the worst thing of all. To watch his people die… To be powerless to save them… He would do anything to stop that. He would give up his freedom…

 

"No," she crooned, her tender lips finding the skin at the nape of his bowed neck. "Not a prison. A palace."

 

A gilded cage, then, but the gold was beautiful. He had never truly been loved. Girlfriends had been short-lived things, even the one he had married. This woman was as beautiful as a dream, and would give him everything he wanted. There would be no more responsibility, no more deaths on his conscience, no more hard decisions. He would live in luxury, wallowing in the pleasures of the flesh.

 

"Yes," he said, face yearning, eyes brimming with tears that had not been shed for twenty years. "I accept."

 

She raised him up with strong and tender hands, and claimed him with an embrace.

 

And that was when he grasped her throat between both hands and squeezed with all his strength

 

Her mouth fell open, gasping for air. A look of outraged incomprehension appeared in her eyes. "You… You…"

 

She had no words. She had no words, but she still had weapons. The world exploded around him. A bullet sank into his side. A storm grew teeth and lashed him with whips and stones. Rodney screamed in torment. Elizabeth turned away, grave disappointment in her eyes. Scythes rose from the ground and flayed the skin from his ankles.

 

"None… of it… is true," he gasped, but it hurt, it hurt, as every last moment of it was real. And she was there beneath his hands, her beauty slewing from her face like the

layers of fog that had filled his mind. She was Teyla. She was Elizabeth. She was his mother. And she was choking for breath, dying… He had killed many in his time, but never before so intimately, life seeping out beneath his flesh, breath extinguished by the pressure of muscle and bone.

 

He was swept to a tall mountaintop, his face scoured by the wind. He was underwater, overwhelmed by waves. He was dying in an arid desert, his body shrivelled and dry. He was buried under stones.

 

Not true, he thought, not true, as he took a dozen stab wounds, a score, a hundred. Blood filled his throat, but he held on. Blood drenched his vision, but he held on.

 

"I will… never… give in… to you," he told her. And everywhere he went, she was there, pinned to him by his hands.

 

"Send me back," he demanded. "Send me back, and I'll let you live."

 

The world became an ocean, a wave crashing over his head. Her eyes were fire, were steel, were coals.

 

"Send me back."

 

The wave poised at its peak, and became petals. The agony of a hundred wounds faded, and became an ache. He was back where he had started, in a field of springy grass, with McKay's body half-hidden by the fog. The woman slumped in his grip, and he became aware suddenly of bruises and scratches from her all-too-human struggles, that had gone unnoticed during the storm of illusion.

 

"Let me go home," he hissed, and he got a sudden flash of himself standing over her - a violent murderer, strangling an innocent, defenceless woman.

 

She was barely conscious now. McKay vanished between one dying heartbeat and the next. The fog faded, and reality shifted, and they were in a place that looked no different from the place they had just been in, but it felt sharper, more real.

 

He released his hold, and she slumped to the ground, just a plain woman in a coarse brown robe, far from young. She reached out one claw-like hand. "How did you…?" Defeat me, he heard, in a dying gasp in her mind. No man has ever resisted me.

 

"And if you take me again, I will do exactly the same thing all over again," he told her.

 

Far beyond her, he could see the Stargate. He stepped over her body, and started to walk towards it, his body still aching with the memory of dying. How did you defeat me? she had wanted to ask, and he could have told her. It had felt intensely real, but nothing had been right about it. He had suspected that the whole thing was illusion, but then when he had come upon Rodney, and the man had not once whined or grumbled… It had been a gamble, of course, but he had seen no alternative. The hard part had been hiding his intentions from her, when she could see inside his mind. He had locked his true thoughts deep inside, and shown her only what she expected to see. It was something he had practice at, after all.

 

The Stargate drew closer. He looked back, and saw her still lying there, a crumpled shape on the grey rock. He was too far away to see if she was breathing.

 

Walking grew harder. How long? he wondered. He thought it had been about two days. Two days without food and water. The others would be beside themselves with worry by now. They hadn't come for him yet, so he had to assume that she had taken him to some place hidden from their sensors.

 

He stumbled, and almost fell. Consciousness wavered just for a moment, and he felt again the pain of the enormous wound across his body, of salt water surging into his lungs, of the gunshots that had torn him apart. It never happened, he told himself firmly.

 

Was even this reality?

 

You think you have won, he heard her say, but you have not. This will not bring you happiness. When he looked at where her body had lain, it was gone.

 

No, he couldn't let himself worry about that. He made his way to the Gate as fast as he could. Shielding his eyes against the sun, he peered in every direction, but saw no sign of any search parties. The world seemed empty. "Given up on me already, guys?" He tried his radio, but this time got only the silence of no reply.

 

His steps quickened. What if the others had been taken too? What if they were still her prisoners? He wished he had a gun. He wished he had… No, no. No wishing. He would contact Atlantis first, and find out how things stood. If the others were missing, then he would go back. He would not return through the Gate without them.

 

By the time he reached the Gate, he knew he was running on pure adrenaline. He leant heavily on the DHD, making no attempt to hide his weakness, for no-one was there to see. He dialled the familiar address, and waited for the wormhole to surge open. "This is Major Sheppard," he said, as he entered his IDC. "Please raise the shield. I'm coming home."

 

The answer was not immediate. He head the buzz of an open channel, then a click and silence, showing that it had been put onto mute. When it opened again, an unfamiliar voice said, "Please verify your identity."

 

He pushed himself upright, straightened his back. "Major John Sheppard, United States Air Force," he said, re-entering his IDC. He resisted the urge to add something facetious.

 

Again there was the brief moment of a muted channel. "Please disengage the wormhole," the voice said, when sound returned. "We are sending through a MALP to verify."

 

"What is this?" he asked, but he did what they said. He wished with sudden fierceness that he had a gun. Why this caution? What had happened in his absence? He cursed himself for not asking after McKay and the others. All the while, he was aware of how fragile his escape was. The woman was not dead. She had let him go, because he had hurt her, but he knew all about deceit - about appearing to give something what they wanted, and then snatching it away at the last minute.

 

Long minutes passed. He wanted to sit down, but feared he wouldn't be able to get up again. At last the wormhole reopened, and MALP trundled through. Carefully schooling his face into the expected expression, Sheppard gave it a little wave, just the fingers. "Yup, it's me." He swallowed, and addressed the camera. "Is my team okay?"

 

There was no answer. The MALP retreated. The wormhole disengaged, and for long seconds there was nothing at all. He breathed in, and out. The seconds became a minute. Something stirred at the back of his mind. Was it the woman coming back for him? Was that a tendril of mist rising over there, in the lee of that rock?

 

He dialled again. "Atlantis…"

 

"We're lowering the shield," said the unfamiliar voice. "You may come through."

 

Taking a deep breath, quelling the warnings that were screaming in his mind, he stepped through the wormhole.

 

He emerged into the Atlantis Gate Room, with the soft welcoming whisper of the city in his mind. That was the only note of familiarity. Every single person around him was a stranger, and six Marines had guns trained at his head.

 

******

 

End of chapter four

 

******

 

Chapter five: Two days

 

"Raise your hands," demanded a sergeant he had never seen before.

 

Welcome home, Atlantis sighed in his mind. He felt the thrum of life in the floor beneath his feet. The lights were warm, and felt almost gleeful.

 

"I said, get your hands up."

 

His mouth was dry. All memory of exhaustion had vanished. He raised his hands just inches from his body, showing them that he had no weapons, but giving them nothing more. "Is this some kind of joke?"

 

"It is no joke." A tall officer walked forward, powerfully built, and almost bald. "I advise that you do what they ask."

 

He swallowed. His eyes were darting around the Gate Room, but he still couldn't see a single face that he recognised. "Where's Elizabeth?" he asked, because he had to say something, but could not summon the usual light answer that served to hide all manner of things. "Where's Doctor Weir?"

 

"Get your hands up," barked the officer.

 

He raised them a little higher, but still refused to give them everything they wanted. One of them stepped forward and patted his body, while the others covered him with their guns, their faces daring him to try something. "I'm sorry, but you're not my type," Sheppard told the young soldier. The officer looked disgusted. The soldiers were impassive. They looked like the sort of men who didn't know how to smile, even off duty.

 

"Nothing," the young soldier reported.

 

Sheppard thought about how his two hands had choked the breath out of someone just minutes before, but showed nothing on his face. Inside, his thoughts were racing. Instinct told him to flee, to fight, but instinct was not always right. Something was horribly wrong. This wasn't Atlantis…

 

I have missed you, the city whispered.

 

This wasn't his Atlantis, he thought firmly. He had to fight… No, no. That was fear speaking. He had to analyse the situation and decide how to act. There were three possibilities. One: none of this was real. This was another illusion. The woman was still alive, and the whole escape was a new thing to torment him. Two: she had taken him to some other universe, where Atlantis still existed, but everything else was changed. Three: Atlantis had fallen to enemies while he had been away.

 

"Come with us," the officer commanded, his cold face giving nothing away. "Believe me, I am quite prepared to give the order to shoot."

 

He had no idea what to say. Do you know who I am? Of course they knew who he was. He had given them his name, and they had addressed him by it before he had stepped through the Gate. And only a fool would assume that this was mutiny. He had never seen these men before. They owed him no allegiance.

 

He let them lead him; what choice did he have? Three possibilities. Three answers. He had to go along with what they asked, in order to give himself time to assess the situation and decide which possibility was the correct one.

 

They reached the steps. On the first step, he staggered. Perhaps his mind had forgotten its exhaustion, but his body had not. As guns snapped round to pin him to the spot, his knee and his hand touched the floor. I am sorry, my son. He snatched his hand away. Atlantis spoke of home, but that promise was empty.

 

They led him up the stairs; he did not ask where they were taking him. He was very aware of the sound of his tight breathing, of his pulse racing at his throat and his wrists. "Where's my team?" he blurted out. "Where's Doctor McKay? Teyla? Ford? And Doctor Weir? Where is she?"

 

The officer did not turn around, and no-one answered him.

 

The door swished open. Beyond it was the vast empty spaces of Atlantis, and the world beyond. A lab without Rodney in it. A training hall without Teyla. He saw the glass window of Elizabeth's office, but it was empty.

 

To hell with playing along.

 

The moment the door was closed, he lashed out. He thrust up with an elbow, lashed out with a foot. One man grunted; another fell. He punched fiercely - one, two, three - and wrenched the pistol from a suddenly slack hand. Something struck him hard across the shoulders, and for a moment his vision wavered, but he clung on tightly to consciousness.  He could not fall - he could not. "Step away," he ordered them, training the pistol at the officer's head.

 

"Major Sheppard, you know you cannot win," the officer said.

 

"So you know my name." He gave a bark of laughter. He held the pistol in both hands, but even then it was trembling.

 

"Put the gun down, Major Sheppard."

 

The use of his name was the worst thing yet. It was like hope flowing out of him. It was the soft lights of Atlantis turned cold and harsh. He wanted to laugh. He wanted to be the man represented by that name, but he could not.

 

I am so sorry…

 

"Go away!" he screamed. "Get out of my head!"

 

He did not hear the person creeping up behind him until it was far too late. He tried to swing round with the gun, but before he could even give the order to his muscles, they fired.

 

He had no memory of hitting the ground.

 

******

 

Nobody had warned her.

 

Elizabeth stopped in her tracks, coffee in one hand, sheaf of reports in the other. Several soldiers were gathered around a man on the floor, as one of them forced his hands into plastic restraints.

 

Elizabeth watched for a moment, then carefully assumed her most commanding yet non-judgemental expression. She stood behind Caldwell until he turned around. "Care to tell me what's happening, Colonel?"

 

Their job done, the soldiers stood up. The prisoner was lying face down on the floor… And then she had one of those moments that pierced the soul - a moment that would never be forgotten.

 

She barely even registered it at first. She saw the man, and her brain slipped so effortlessly into the old familiarity. It was only after she had turned away that the second, heart-stopping realisation came. John! All composure left her. "That's… That's…"

 

"He claims to be Sheppard, yes," Caldwell said coldly. "Major Sheppard is dead."

 

She placed the coffee down; it was either that, or drop it. "We never found a body." Calm. Calm. She clenched her fist, then pressed her open palm against her thigh.

 

"We will of course question him to ascertain if he is indeed who he says he is…"

 

Bullshit! she wanted to exclaim. She had tried hard, but she still couldn't like the man. "How did you find him?"

 

"He dialled in. His IDC matched the last code belonging to Major Sheppard before his death." He stressed the word. "I ordered the shield to be lowered."

 

Before his death… She couldn't stop herself any longer. Stepping past Caldwell's shielding bulk, she knelt down beside the man who looked like Sheppard. Every last detail of him was achingly familiar. You could seldom think about someone for months, yet they still felt as familiar as the image in your own mirror when you saw them again. Her hand brushed his throat, enough to verify that he was still breathing.

 

She stood up, blanking every expression from her face but that which was needed. "Why was I not consulted before this decision was taken, Colonel Caldwell?"

 

"It was a security issue," he said. "It falls under the military remit." And that was his answer. He turned to his men. "Take him…"

 

"No!" she snapped out. All eyes turned towards her. She never opposed Caldwell openly, though God alone knew how much she opposed him in private, when she deemed the battle necessary.

 

"Doctor Weir." Caldwell indicated with his chin that she was to follow him. She did so, until they were out of earshot. And Sheppard still lying there unconscious, and bound. Sheppard. John…"Doctor Weir," Caldwell said again, and she reluctantly returned her focus to him. "Do not let your emotions cloud your judgement."

 

She drew herself up as stiffly as she could. "I'm not, Caldwell. By all means keep him under lock and key until we have answers, but I don't want him treated like a criminal. I presume you were taking him to the brig?"

 

He nodded. "Doctor Weir…"

 

"I want him taken to my office instead." She let out a breath. Her palm was moist, warm and sticky on her side. "Set a guard if you like, but…"

 

"Major Sheppard is dead," Caldwell said harshly. "I know you were close." He managed to say it as if it was something disgusting, but she let it pass. "As military commander of this base, I cannot let you put your feelings above the security of the city. This… person could be anything. A clone. A replicator…"

 

"Or he could be John Sheppard," she said firmly. "He could be John Sheppard, returning home after two years of God knows what, and I refuse to treat him as a criminal."

 

"If he's an enemy, you're playing right into his hands."

 

"And if he's a friend, then what are you doing, Colonel Caldwell?"

 

She walked away from him, and knelt down beside the body of the man who looked so much like John. "What did you use on him?" she asked.

 

"Wraith stunner, ma'am."

 

She touched his cheek, touched his hand, touched the back of his head. "John. Can you hear me, John?" Her eyes were aching with the sting of tears that she could not let fall. John. John. If only you hadn't died…

 

His eyes began to flicker open. She snatched her hand back, holding it against her chest, pressing it there with the other hand. His lips moved, but no words emerged. He shifted, his head moving to one side and then the other. The faintest of moans issued from his throat.

 

"John…"

 

She saw the moment when full consciousness returned. She saw the tiny instant of sheer terror that flooded his eyes. She saw, too, the quick assumption of the habitual mask - and, oh, how she had missed that mask!

 

"John," she said quietly, and emotions that could not be suppressed surged up and flowed forth in a smile.

 

"Elizabeth," his lips said, the words soundless. He shifted again; swallowed. "My team?"

 

And thus, so simply, did he convince her. From that simple question, she would believe without a shadow of doubt that this was John Sheppard, and she would fight all who dared say otherwise. "McKay and Ford are both off-world, though McKay's due back in a few hours," she told him, unable to keep from touching him, a hand on the shoulder. "Teyla's on the mainland. You were the only one who was lost."

 

He tried to sit up, but discovered the restraints. The mask changed, but remained a mask even so. "What's happened? Who are all these people?"

 

She squeezed his shoulder, and at last the smile left her face. It had been such a desperately weary time since he had disappeared on that godforsaken planet. "You've been gone for two years, John. You can't expect…"

 

But the mask shattered. The fear was back, and that was something she had never thought to see on this man's face. "Two years?"

 

She felt very cold. The urge to smile felt as distant as her own happiness. "Yes. For two years we've thought you were dead."

 

"But it was only two days." He turned away, his face hidden behind shutters. When they came to lift him up, he didn't fight them at all.

 

******

 

Two years…

 

No, he could not believe that. He would not believe that. Why should be believe anything these strangers told him? But it hadn't been a stranger, had it? It had looked like Elizabeth, sounded like Elizabeth, looked at him with Elizabeth's eyes… Her hair had been longer, though. Yup, that was the key. They thought he was just a clueless man who didn't notice such things as a woman's hair style. They'd grown careless, and…

 

Sheppard shifted position on the chair. His wrists hurt from the restraints, but the person who looked like Elizabeth had insisted that he be untied. He was sitting at a chair at her desk, but they were only giving him a semblance of being alone. Armed guards stood just outside the door. He could glimpse Elizabeth through the window, deep in conversation with the man who claimed to be called Colonel Caldwell.

 

You don't know me very well, he thought, if you think you can break me by presenting me with a superior officer. Oh yes, he would live up to his reputation if they forced him to. He would not let this situation stand.

 

The ornament on the table was familiar. Just two days before he had sat at this very chair, and exchanged glances with Rodney while listening to a briefing with only half his mind. The computer was on, but logged off. He almost got up and entered his login, and to hell with the watchers, but decided not to. He would bide his time - and yes, Rodney, I can be patient sometimes. It has been known.

 

And that  was something that could not heal. If what Elizabeth said was true… - and he could not run away from the possibility, just because it was unwelcome. If two years had really passed, what had become of the others? Rodney and Ford  were off-world, but he only had her word for that. Teyla was on the mainland, why? And who was this Caldwell? He dressed like an Air Force Colonel, but how could he be, when Atlantis was cut off from Earth?

 

It was all an illusion - it had to be. He rubbed his eyes, fingers pressing into his throbbing head. Atlantis murmured all around him, but the fog had whispered in his mind, too, deadening rational thought.

 

Elizabeth and Caldwell seemed to be arguing about something. Caldwell saw him watching, and indicated to Elizabeth to move away. Elizabeth glanced at Sheppard as she did so, but the reflections in the window meant that he could not read her expression. They sheeted white and silver, and made everyone look like a stranger.

 

None of this was real. He had stepped into another universe. He was a prisoner, and all of this was a lie, designed to make him break.

 

A wave of dizziness passed through him, and everything lurched. He lowered his face into his hand, but he did not close his eyes, keeping watch through the lattice of his fingers. It did no harm to feign defeat.

 

He wasn't entirely sure that he was feigning.

 

******

 

Elizabeth studied him through the window before she entered. He sat heavily on the chair, one hand on the table in front of him. Before, when she had glanced his way, she had seen him alert, his eyes darting around his surroundings, as if absorbing and memorising anything that could help him survive. Now he just looked slumped and weary. Like a stranger. She paused, hand on the door. He was a stranger, no matter how badly she wanted him not to be. Two years could change so many things.

 

He looked up as she entered. "Hey, Elizabeth." He smiled his lazy smile, and raised his fingers a few inches, as if waving.

 

Even the smile was like a knife twisting in her heart. She had never thought to miss it so. She had missed having a military advisor she could really talk to. She had missed having a military commander that she felt was fighting for the same cause that she was. That mattered. To miss the man's smile, his humour, the way he bickered with McKay when things most needed to be serious… They were not things that the commander of Atlantis ought to wake weeping for the loss of.

 

She sat down opposite him. "How are you?"

 

He gave a wry laugh. "Been better."

 

There was nothing she could say to that. Silence gaped suddenly between them, when they had all of two years to fill with their words. She was very aware of the guard at the door, and was sure that he was, too. "What happened to you, John?" she asked at last.

 

"Oh, the usual." He shrugged. "Femme fatale knocked me out, took me through a portal thing, wanted me for my body, but I strangled her and went home to the wife and kids."

 

"In two days…"

 

"Or not even that." He gave a crooked smile. "And then I got home to find the wife's married someone else and the kids are all grown up and she's butchered the family pet."

 

They had encountered time dilation fields before, and knew all too well that such things were possible. She had argued as much to Caldwell just minutes before, urging him to believe John's story. "I believe you," she said.

 

"Well, that's good." He smiled sarcastically, a touch of Rodney in his voice. He looked desperately tired, he realised, perhaps even sick. She kicked herself for not noticing it earlier. All she had seen was the impossible, the incredible fact of his existence. He was a painting from memory, brought to life. But of course he was human, too. "Can I get you something?" she asked. "Do you need medical attention?"

 

"A doctor came and took my blood." He gestured towards his forearm, grimacing. "I didn't know her."

 

Oh. Oh. "Carson's still here," she assured him, "but Colonel Caldwell wanted it done by one of his people. Carson's working on it even now, to see if it matches…" She was suddenly embarrassed to say it.

 

"To see if it shows that I am who I say I am," he completed for her. "Not that the blood will prove anything. I could be a clone. There could be a whole army of me. Worse than clowns. We could…"

 

"Stop it," she commanded.

 

He did, snapping the words off as abruptly as if they had been cut. She took a deep breath, and modulated her expression. "I ordered the test myself, John. I'm doing what I can to…"

 

"Food would be good," he interrupted, returning to her previous question. "A shower. A change of clothes. I haven't eaten anything or had a shower in… two years." The laugh that followed his words was clearly meant to be bright, but almost broke her heart.

 

"John…" To hell with professionalism. She reached across the table and touched his hand, but didn't miss his faint flinch. All the while she was touching him, she felt his muscles vibrating, wanting to be free. She held on, though, squeezing his hand. "We thought you were dead. Your trail went cold on the top of a cliff and there were no life signs on the planet. We tried to find your body, but in the end… I had to speak your eulogy, John." And it tore us all apart. Nothing was ever the same again.

 

"I hope you said nice things about me." His face was blank; his words were light.

 

"I was the one who called off the search." This, too, he needed to know. "I had no choice. If there had been any choice, any choice at all…" A deep breath. His hand was cool, or perhaps hers was too warm. "McKay wanted to carry on, but I overruled him. I wouldn't have abandoned you if there'd been any hope."

 

"No," he said dully. His hand twitched. "I'd have done the same."

 

She doubted it, though. He'd move heaven and earth if it was one of us. Even after two years, she still remembered Rodney's words. John's friends had given him up as dead, and here he was, two years later, surrounded by strangers, in an Atlantis that could not possibly feel like home. He had lost his team, his job, his position. "What can we do to make this easier for you?" she blurted out.

 

"Oh, I don't know." He gave a bark of laughter. "Let me see my team. Get those impostors out of here. Look like you used to look. Send that Colonel Caldwell back through whatever fairy tale portal he came here from. Stop shooting me in my own damn city."

 

Oh, John… She released his hand, and sat up straight at the chair - a leader, doing what she had to do. "Teyla's on the mainland; I'll send a jumper for her and she'll be here in a few hours. McKay's due back soon, and Ford tomorrow. I know they'll be pleased to see you."

 

He showed so sign of reaction. He was staring intently at the wall, and his face was cast from stone.

 

"Do you believe any of this?" she asked suddenly.

 

He was silent for a very long time. "I don't know," he said at last, but it was in a voice unlike any voice she had ever heard from the man who bore the face of John Sheppard.

 

******

 

End of chapter five

 

******

 

Chapter six: Two years

 

"Let him get himself killed." Rodney knew he was not supposed to hear that. "We'll all be happier without him." The two soldiers laughed.

 

Rodney pressed his lips together. Pretend I haven't heard. It was easier said than done. Get himself killed… Why? What horrible danger hadn't they told hadn't told him about? Was the ground unstable? Were there Wraith? Was there some horrendous pathogen in the air? Or bees!

 

He stopped walking, and returned to the side of his thick-headed guard dogs. "Remind me why I'm here, again? Oh yes, because Colonel Caldwell, in his infinite wisdom, decreed that this mission needed a scientist. So why is there absolutely nothing for me to do? I was dragged away from my important work for this?"

 

"A native reported something…"

 

"That could have been a ZPM, yes," he snapped, "but turned out to be not. Remind me again why I'm here?"

 

He doubted they knew how to think unless a superior officer plugged them full of orders. Their two settings were dirty jokes and killing. He mixed with the military as seldom as he could, but sometimes overheard them laughing raucously. He had no idea why. None of them ever said anything that any sane person could consider remotely funny.

 

They'd been on the planet for two whole days - two long, miserable days. They'd spent the night camped outside in some rugged attempt at manliness. It had rained. "I don't respond well to getting wet," he had told them. "I need another blanket." Major Brett had thrown him one, too, but without a word. Even with it, he had spent the night shivering, unable to sleep.

 

At least they were only a few hours from the Stargate now, returning empty-handed from their pitiful failure of an expedition. They had stopped because Major Brett wanted to investigate… what? Rodney didn't know. Caldwell's officers didn't share things with mere scientists. Or maybe he had, but Rodney hadn't bothered to listen. Nothing ever spouted from the mouth of a soldier but drivel.

 

He tapped his toes. "Important work waiting for me to do…"

 

The guard dogs snorted.

 

"Snort all you like," he told them, "but how many times have you saved the day? While I, I'll have you know, have saved Atlantis a good half dozen times - more, if you count times when other people" - Sheppard - "helped."

 

"So we've heard," said dog number one. Rodney decided to call him Bonzo.

 

"You've said so before," said the other. Rover, he thought. Rover looked at his watch. "Who had thirty-four hours?"

 

Bonzo shrugged. "Not me."

 

"Ah, yes, well done," Rodney sneered. "Independent thought. Gambling. How droll."

 

No-one cracked a lazy smile. When there was laughter, it came from people who stood with their backs turned to him. His minions in the science labs were scared of him, but that was nothing new. He just wanted to get back to the labs, back to solitude, back to the things that never let him down.

 

His radio crackled. "Oh, God, what is it now?"

 

"McKay," said the crisp voice of Major Brett. "Get over here now. I've found a body."

 

"And I'm supposed to do what about it?" Rodney retorted. "I'm a doctor of proper science, not voodoo."

 

"McKay…" Brett's voice was warning.

 

"I'm not on your team," Rodney said, folding his arms.

 

"Thank God," he heard Brett mutter under his breath. Then, louder, the Major said, "While we are off-world, you are under my command. I've had quite enough of your prima donna antics. If I say jump, you jump, if you can move your pasty ass that high."

 

Memory came to him unbidden, even though the outrage. Insults could be said with a harsh voice, or with a smile. They could mean, I despise you, or, We are friends.

 

"Coming," he said grudgingly, "but Doctor Weir will hear of this." Not that she would, of course. There were some things that you just didn't say to others. Major Brett actually seemed to be a fairly competent officer, and was usually polite and professional. I guess I just rub him up the wrong way.

 

You rub everyone up the wrong way, Rodney. He heard it in Sheppard's voice. The second anniversary of his death was only four days away. That was the only reason why he remembered him. He certainly didn't want to. Being off world brought the memories, too, of course. Being off world… Being part of a team… But not part of a team, not this time. The core team anticipated each other's movements, and communicated without needing to speak. The extra muscle brought along for the mission communicated in their own grunt-like fashion. And then there was Rodney.

 

Not that he cared, of course.

 

"Wait," he gasped, opening up the channel to Major Brett. "This body… Please tell me there's some obvious cause of death - a spear sticking out of his chest, half his head blown away… something like that. I'm not going near someone that died of unknown causes." He said it with an emphasis that was meant to clearly imply terrible plagues and other horrors.

 

Brett did not answer.

 

"Major?" Rodney asked - and still, two years on, still, he couldn't say that word without a shiver of memory. "Major Brett?"

 

The silence stretched on, then Brett spoke. "On second thoughts, there's nothing for you to see here."

 

Thank God.

 

He decided to sit down and await their return. A bit of crumbled masonry nearby looked as if it offered a good seat. This had been a thriving civilisation until fairly recently, or so they had been told. Civil war had weakened it, and then the Wraith had come and fed on the bones. Perhaps other bodies lay buried under the rubble. He shivered, and felt very alone. No, no… Not just bodies. Bodies had to be alive before they could be dead. Some of them could still be alive, watching him now, and there were far too many hiding places in the ruins.

 

Standing up, he made his way back to the guard dogs, trying to ignore the fact that they were whispering comments to each other as he hurried towards them.

 

The three permanent members of Brett's team appeared first. Rodney watched them with detachment, and made his mind busy itself with physics.

 

Brett himself did not appear for twenty minutes. Rodney considered asking the others what he was doing, but decided not to. These people were nothing to him, and in a few hours he could walk away from them, and never have to talk to them again. Ah, yes, life was good.

 

Everything ceased. He saw the dust blowing on the wreckage of a place that had once been great.

 

No, he thought, life was not good, but life was how it had to be. Life was how it always would be, and that was that.

 

******

 

Teyla could not bring herself to believe it. Doctor Weir had sounded so sure over the radio, her voice brimming with more emotion than Teyla had ever heard from her. Even if her eyes spoke of turmoil, Elizabeth was normally completely calm on the radio, speaking as the leader she had to be.

 

She left the jumper bay, her feet remembering that familiar route that had been taken so often in those short few months. Leaving the jumper, the four of them together… But Major Sheppard often trailing behind, even though Elizabeth was usually waiting for them with a stern expression and folded arms. She often wondered if he liked to say a soft and solitary goodbye to the vessel that was far more than a means of transport to him.

 

Today's pilot had left the jumper without any sign of saying farewell. He flanked her now. Guarding me, she thought. Colonel Caldwell had made his distrust of the Athosians clear.

 

She turned to him now. "Where is Major Sheppard?"

 

"I don't know, ma'am." He looked very young.

 

"Then I will seek out Doctor Weir."

 

She had expected Elizabeth to meet her, but when she entered the Gate Room, she realised why she had not done so. A team had clearly recently returned through the Gate, and Caldwell and Elizabeth were both talking to its leader. The rest of the team was standing to attention, but its final member was already drifting away, trying and failing to look inconspicuous. It was Doctor McKay.

 

Teyla hurried towards him, smiling. They had never been particularly close, and she had not spoken to him for many moons, but this was no time for reserve. "Is it not wonderful?" She took him by the shoulders, and attempted the traditional Athosian greeting, but he pulled away.

 

"What?" His face was pinched and irritable. "What's happened now?"

 

Elizabeth appeared behind him. "I haven't had a chance to tell him yet." Then to Rodney she said, "And no sloping off, Doctor McKay, before you've had your post-mission medical check."

 

How could it be, Teyla wondered suddenly, that good news could be as difficult to break as bad news? Elizabeth looked nervous. Her own heart was fluttering in her breast.

 

"What?" Rodney was asking. "What's happened? What?"

 

And Elizabeth told him.

 

******

 

Sheppard heard the footsteps outside his door before anyone knocked. These were not his first visitors. Elizabeth had come briefly to check on him. A marine had brought him food, and probably gone away with a report on his status. Carson had examined him, and that, at least, was welcome, although the usually talkative doctor had seemed cowed by the presence of the guards. The previous visitors had not hesitated outside his door in this way, though.

 

They had given him a room, though it was not his proper quarters. They had found clothes from somewhere, though it was not his proper uniform. He had showered, and eaten a little, and felt a little stronger. The bed looked comfortable, but he had refused to lie down. He could see no cameras, but that didn't have to mean anything. They hadn't given him a gun. Colonel Caldwell had sent him a laptop and demanded a report, but it was not connected to the network.

 

"Come in," he called, when the footsteps showed no sign of making any further move.

 

The door opened, and McKay and Teyla stood before him.

 

He had not expected it to hit him quite so badly. Here they were alive, unchanged… No, not unchanged, but alive. Alive.

 

So it's true, then. He tried to still that thought, but could not. While they kept his team from him, he could believe that none of this was real. But here they were. Perhaps it was better this way, after all. In some of the alternative scenarios, they were gone.

 

"John." Teyla moved first, coming into the room to stand in front of him. McKay stayed rooted in the door.

 

Sheppard took a fistful of the bedding, then released it. He stood up, and returned Teyla's proffered greeting, hands on shoulders, forehead touching forehead. The familiarity of the action made something inside him ache. Then the familiar fell away, for Teyla hugged him, her face pressing into his shoulder. He brought his arms up awkwardly to return the embrace, but she had already pulled away.

 

"I am pleased to see you well," Teyla said, when all was done.

 

He quirked a smile. "Rather than messily dead, I take it."

 

McKay still hadn't moved. His fair skin was completely white. "Hey, McKay," Sheppard said, "still as irritating as ever?" Two days, he thought. Just two days ago, we were…

 

McKay found his voice at last. "Yes, I am, and unlike Teyla, I'm not pleased to you see you. I'm not pleased to see you at all." He fled, the door shutting behind him.

 

Sheppard swallowed. His legs felt suddenly incapable of holding him, and he sat down awkwardly on the edge of the bed. "What's his problem? What did I do?"

 

"You died, Major," Teyla said quietly.

 

"I…" He spread his hand uselessly. No, I didn't. It was just two days.

 

"He took your death badly," Teyla said. "We all did, but he was worst of all."

 

"Why?" Sheppard shook his head uncomprehendingly. He thought of McKay as he had last seen him only two days before, arguing, complaining, insulting. Sheppard had found a strange pleasure in his company, though he had no reason to believe that McKay did anything more than tolerate him in return.

 

"It is not my place to talk…"

 

"Please." He clenched his fists at his side. Rodney, so white, fleeing from the door as if in terror. "I'm not good at… at things like… at… uh… feelings and the like. I need to know…"

 

Teyla touched the back of his hand. He resisted the urge to snatch it away. This is real, he thought. This is real. Rodney with his white face, misery beneath the anger… That could not be anything other than real.

 

"The rest of us," Teyla said, "had lost friends before. Doctor McKay… had not. He had no defences. For too long, he denied that he was grieving, and then…"

 

He couldn't hear any more. If McKay wouldn't talk about it, then it was wrong for them to talk about these things behind his back. "And how about you?" Teyla was changed, too. Her hair was longer, tied in a braid down her back, and she was wearing a dress. "That the latest Atlantis fashion?"

 

She seemed to be debating what to tell him, but he had never expected anything other than honesty from Teyla Emmagen. "I do not live in Atlantis any more," she told him.

 

"What?" he burst out. "You left?"

 

"I stayed for several moons after your… disappearance," she said, "but then... Colonel Caldwell came. He did not trust me, because I can sense the Wraith."

 

"And no-one…"

 

"Hush." She stopped him with a gentle hand. "It is an old pain, and in the past. Besides, Colonel Caldwell decreed that all off-world teams should consist purely of your military. Doctor McKay was taken off the team at the same time. Doctor Weir did what she could, but I had no desire to stay where I was not needed."

 

So one by one, they fall. One by one, they leave. "And Ford?"

 

"He took over your position." Teyla's eyes were dark with apology. "He tried hard, but he was too young. I have never seen anyone look so relieved as Aiden did when reinforcements came from Earth and he could step down. I believe that he did well, and Doctor Weir defended him, but Colonel Caldwell saw only fault. Aiden is not… favoured. He is not as you remember him."

 

Sheppard leant his head back against the wall, and closed his eyes. But Teyla was looking at him. Opening his eyes, he smiled. "Can't leave you lot alone for five minutes, can I?"

 

Teyla took his hand, but he was done with sympathy. It was time to act.

 

******

 

Sheppard had expected to find Rodney in the lab. "Is good to see you alive," Doctor Zelenka said, looking flustered and embarrassed. When asked where McKay was, he said, "He muttered something about quack voodoo doctors wanting to prod him after every mission."

 

"So he's in the infirmary?"

 

Zelenka shook his head. He told Sheppard of the balcony that Rodney had come to use as his chief refuge. "We are not supposed to know about it, of course," he said. "He'll bite the head off anyone who follows him there."

 

"I'll take my chances."

 

McKay was indeed on the balcony, leaning on it heavily with both arms, gazing out to sea. Sheppard was arrested for a moment by just how still he was. It did not seem a natural pose for Doctor McKay.

 

"Did they tell you what I do to people who follow me?" Rodney said dully.

 

He seemed to know without turning round that it was Sheppard there. Perhaps Zelenka had radioed him to let him know - scientists sticking together against the outside, no matter how much they disagreed amongst themselves. 

 

Sheppard took his place next to Rodney at the railing. Despite the food and drink, his body still felt weak, and the support was welcome. He gestured with his chin at the soldier who stood in the doorway. "Excuse my guard dog."

 

"You have them, too?" A spark of the familiar Rodney tone appeared. "I called mine Bonzo and Rover."

 

Then mine's Rex, he almost said, but did not. This was a man who should have been under his command, and he was only doing his job. "That's why I'm the only one allowed to name things."

 

It seemed to be the wrong thing to say. Rodney looked out to sea, his face hard and set.

 

He wondered if he should try an apology. "I didn't mean…"

 

"Didn't mean to vanish without a trace for two years? No, of course you didn't. You still did it, though."

 

Two years… It still felt impossible. It still felt like a dream. Of course it was not. He knew that know; had known it ever since Rodney had fled from him.

 

"So what ridiculous explanation have you got for your absence?" McKay asked.

 

"It only seemed like two days to me," Sheppard said quietly. "Did they tell you that?"

 

Rodney froze mid-movement. Clearly they had not, then - or else he hadn't listened. Then his hand resumed, reaching into his jacket, pulling out a power bar, ripping it open. He chewed a few mouthfuls, but then the taste seemed to sicken him, and he threw the remains with sudden ferocity into the ocean. All this without a word. Sheppard just watched.

 

"Why did you have to blunder around in the fog, anyway?"

 

"It wasn't a natural fog," he told McKay. "It was caused by a… creature. A woman. She could get into your mind."

 

McKay tilted his head to one side, as if arrested despite himself.

 

"She said she'd chosen me," he said. "She offered me all sorts of things if I went with her. I refused, so she took me anyway. There were… illusions. Then I strangled her and took care to show her I was so irritating that she let me go."

 

"Ah, yes. The Sheppard approach to diplomacy. Strangle the woman with your bare hands." There was a tautness to McKay's voice - a hysteria lurking beneath the familiar-sounding words.

 

"And now two years have passed…" A memory came back to him - a memory that had tugged him right at the start, and then retreated. "It's familiar," he said out loud, even though Rodney was listening - perhaps because Rodney was listening. "I had a teacher when I was kid. Obsessed with folk tales, she was. She used to tell stories about people who were taken into mounds by… by the Others. When they came out…"

 

McKay gave a high laugh. "Are you telling me you were kidnapped by fairies? You'll be showing me your wings next."

 

He ran his finger up and down the railing. "Many legends have their basis in truth, Rodney. We've learnt that by now."

 

McKay opened his mouth as if to speak, then snapped it shut. He shook his head briskly, then pushed himself away from the railing. "Well, you might have time to talk, but I don't. Don't follow me again." He pushed past Sheppard, and faced off the soldier at the door. "Let me past, you empty-headed idiot." When the soldier was slow to move, he bellowed it. "Let me out!"

 

The soldier did. Far below, the waves broke against the gleaming sides of Atlantis. I am still the same, the city whispered through the railing, but he knew that it was lie. Everything was changed.

 

But you're dealing with me, he told the emptiness. I won't let this go without a fight.

 

******

 

But first there was duty, and he could not avoid it. Colonel Caldwell had summoned him to report.

 

Sheppard was led there with two guards, like a prisoner. He knew that Caldwell expected him to stand to attention, but he did not. Caldwell was a superior officer, but Sheppard was still military commander of Atlantis, standing in his own city. No-one had relieved him of that position. Of course, that moment was probably coming very soon, but he reckoned that it would come anyway, no matter what he did.

 

Caldwell was shuffling papers. "Doctor Beckett says he is as sure as he can be that you are indeed John Sheppard."

 

"That's a relief," Sheppard said, with a grin. "I was beginning to doubt who I was myself. Started thinking I was Rip Van Winkle."

 

Caldwell looked angry, or maybe he was just constipated. "I will of course send a team to the planet to verify your story."

 

No! he thought. Don't!  "I advise against it," he said. "She was dangerous, and there may be others. I advise blocking that Gate address."

 

Caldwell frowned at the papers. "I am familiar with your record, Sheppard. It does not impress me. Neither did the way you chose to run this city. I licked it into some well-needed shape when I arrived. Things are different now." He placed the papers on the desk, and raised his head. "Your record did not imply that you were a coward or a liar. Now you wish to run away and hide from a woman who, so you say, kept you prisoner for two years. So which one are you, Sheppard?"

 

Drowning in the ocean… Rodney dying with reproaches on his lips… Stones melting away, and then falling into nothing… And cold fingers on his skin. 'I have chosen you,' and 'I will break you, John.' "Neither," he said, but Caldwell was already speaking.

 

"I don't trust you," Caldwell said. "Even if you are indeed who you claim to be, I have no place for you in my city. Doctor Weir wants you to stay, but she is not your superior; I am."

 

"No!" His emotions were still too raw from all he had experienced. There was no way he could keep that exclamation in check - no way at all.

 

"Yes. I will…"

 

The door opened. Sheppard turned around instinctively, and saw a man with a gun. Coherent thought vanished. He was half way across the room before he had even realised that he had moved. Even so, he was far too late. The pistol fired twice; Caldwell slumped to the floor. Then the assailant swung the gun around, and Sheppard saw the barrel of it, aimed right between his eyes.

 

******

 

End of chapter six

 

******

 

Chapter seven: The world moved on

 

Sheppard had been shot at before. Hell, he had been shot before. He had been in situations when his life depended on the speed and accuracy of his reactions. Often it just came down to sheer blind luck; he was not one of those soldiers who denied such a thing, and attributed everything to skill.

 

As soon as battle was joined, he worked on instinct, his thoughts moving faster than he could track, and sometimes leaving no trace. Sometimes he could emerge on the far side of the battle to find his enemy dead at his feet, his gun smoking in his hand, and wounds on his body that he had no memory of taking. But before that first shot was fired, when he was staring down the barrel of an enemy's gun… Sometimes time could slow almost to the point of stopping. He could consider half a dozen courses of reaction and reject them in the space of time it took a man to gently squeeze a trigger.

 

This is how it was when Sheppard stood in an office that had once been his own, staring at a stranger who was trying to kill him. His hand had already moved instinctively to his side, but of course he had no gun. Caldwell had a gun; movement on the fringes of his vision told him that Caldwell was still conscious, but on the ground.

 

He needed to protect Caldwell. Caldwell was the target here, not him.

 

The gunman fired, but Sheppard dodged it easily; the timing and direction of the shot had been clearly telegraphed by his attacker's eyes. He made his roll look random, but it served to bring him to Caldwell's side, his body between the colonel's torso and the gunman, and he was already throwing himself flat across Caldwell's body, avoiding the bullet that shot just above him and struck the wall. Caldwell was on his back, hands clasped to his bleeding stomach. Their eyes met for a fleeting moment, and then Sheppard was wrenching Caldwell's pistol from its holster, swinging it round to train it on the enemy.

 

"Drop it," he commanded.

 

His assailant's eyes were darting all over the place, the gun wavering in his hands. "Drop it!" Sheppard said again.

 

The eyes steadied. It was all the signal Sheppard needed. Before the man could even tighten his finger on the trigger, Sheppard shot him in the right arm, and again in the leg.

 

Behind him, shielded by his body, Caldwell groaned. His leg twitched once, then went still.

 

Sheppard surged to his feet. A fist to the jaw sent the gunman crashing into the wall. One-handed, Sheppard grabbed his blood-soaked forearm and twisted, forcing the gun towards the ceiling. "Drop it," he hissed, "or I'll shoot you again."

 

The man still held on, his eyes dark and desperate. His right leg had given way beneath him, but he still struggled to stand, still fought Sheppard for the gun. He swung flailing punches with his left hand, and some of them connected. "Enough," Sheppard told him. "That's enough." He reversed the grip on the gun, meaning to use it as a club to knock the gunman unconsciousness.

 

He never got the chance.

 

The door burst open. About time, he thought. What took the guys so long? "Stop where you are!" a voice commanded, and he turned to greet…

 

A new stranger stood with a gun trained on him. Not Ford. Not Bates. Not anyone he knew. This was not his office, and these were not his men. If they were re-enforcements, they were not on his side. The gun almost forgotten, he brought his hand up in a useless, empty gesture.

 

That was when they disarmed him, in that moment of inattention. Two years, he thought. Two years. They wrestled the gun from his hand. They struck him – in the shoulder, in the ribs, in the face - and of course he struck back, but there were too many of them, and they were armed, and their eyes were cold and full of hatred, and they were his men; they were supposed to be his men. 

 

They dragged him to the ground, striking the back of his knees and his kidneys to make him go down onto his stomach. He kicked, so they knelt on his legs. When he tried to twist onto his side, they took him by the hair and pulled his head back until he could hardly breathe. Someone stamped on his hand. Someone else kicked him in the side again and again and again.

 

"Sometimes prisoners die resisting arrest," someone said from far above him.

 

They let his head fall, though he controlled it as much as he could. His side was on fire, and he could hardly breathe. Only feet away, he saw the man who had shot Colonel Caldwell, struggling to get up from a sprawled sitting position, hatred in his eyes. Then new feet appeared at the door, and most of his attackers left him, making way for the new arrivals. He recognised the voice of Carson Beckett. It was a medical team, he realised, coming to tend to Colonel Caldwell.

 

He clawed at the floor, fingers spread, and managed to roll onto his side. A smear of blood marked the floor where his face had been. Carson ignored him completely, of course, as was only to be expected. The team surrounded Caldwell's body, and Sheppard stiffened despite himself, remembering all those times when he had awaited a doctors' verdict on whether a comrade would live or die.

 

"Why did you shoot Colonel Caldwell?" Sheppard blinked, returning his attention to the man who had led his attackers. He was dressed a Major, he realised. All of his attackers wore the military uniform of Atlantis.

 

Sheppard sat up as far as he was able. "I didn't shoot him. He did." He gestured weakly at the man he had wounded.

 

The strange Major crouched down beside him, his pistol held casually in his hand. Sheppard eyed it. He could grab it within a second, if he needed to. "You can't expect us to believe that. Corporal Jenkins has a blameless record, while you… No-one knows who the hell you really are, or where you've been these last two years. The colonel told me he was going to send you back to Earth. Clearly you shot him to stop that happening."

 

He could defend himself, but there didn't seem much point. He had met officers before with eyes like these. The more you opposed them, the more determined they became. Instead, he let himself slump against the wall, pretending he hurt worse than he did. The wince when he moved was not entirely unfeigned. "This is how you treat suspects now?" he asked. "This city sure went to hell after I died. Remind me never to die again."

 

"Out of the way!" Beckett cried. Sheppard let out a breath, and watched as they wheeled Caldwell away. He was unconscious, and they were still working on him, their faces grim. Suddenly nothing seemed quite so important any more.

 

"I didn't do it," he said quietly, when they had gone. The room suddenly seemed empty, and the only sound was the whimpering of the man Sheppard had shot.

 

The Major's eyes narrowed, and he came closer, tightening his grip on his pistol as he did so. Sheppard eyed it casually; inside he was readying himself to make a grab for it.

 

"There are cameras," someone said sharply.

 

The Major let out a breath, and settled back into an easy crouch. "So there are." He smiled at Sheppard, his eyes chill. "I guess we will discover the truth, after all."

 

******

 

Elizabeth had been pacing up and down alone. When Carson emerged, she could not read his face. Normally so transparent, it gave nothing away. "Well?" she prompted.

 

"It's too soon to say." He looked deeply weary, his movements stiff, and stubble dark on his uncharacteristically pale skin. "He was shot in the stomach and the hip. As you know, stomach wounds are notoriously tricky. He's in intensive care at the moment. I'll let you know if there's any change."

 

He must have been working on Caldwell for at least six hours. The humane thing to do would be to let him take some rest, but Elizabeth was the commander of Atlantis, and it always fell to her to put other needs first. "I'm sorry," she said, "but the man who shot him – Corporal Jenkins… Before all this happened, he was your patient." She knew the answer already, of course.

 

Carson had been in the act of turning away. He stopped now, his whole body freezing. Then, slowly, he turned back towards her, his face neutral. "Yes, he was. He was having trouble sleeping and couldn't keep his food down. Probably a stomach bug, I told him, but I kept him in here for observation."

 

"And have you had a chance to look at him since?"

 

Carson looked blank.

 

"He's in here now with gunshot wounds, under guard." she said. She and Major Brett had questioned him as much as they could, in his drugged state. He had offered no good explanation for what he had done, and had been confused and irrational and violent. She still had no answers. "Carson," she said, "our military commander has been shot in his own office by one of his own men – a man who has never been in trouble before - a man who has no good explanation for his actions. Is it possible… Could Corporal Jenkins have been exposed to something off-world? Was he taking something?"

 

"Drugs, you mean?" Carson frowned. "No, there were no traces of anything like that. He was clean. No germs, no alien beasties, no drugs."

 

But she could not leave it there. "I need you to check again."

 

"I have checked again," he said. "He's got a bloody great big gunshot wound to his leg and another to his arm, but there's nothing else medically wrong with him."

 

"Then why…?"

 

"I don't know," he snapped. Then he sighed, passing his hand across his face. "I'm sorry, Elizabeth. It's possible he was suffering from some stress-induced illness that caused him to snap. If so, that is Doctor Heightmeyer's area of expertise, not mine."

 

She did not like to think of the alternative. Enemy action. Mutiny. Infiltration. Brainwashing. A coup. It was her turn to sigh, but she had enough control not to rub her weary eyes. It was not Carson's problem. If he said there was no medical explanation for Jenkins' actions, then she believed him. His part ended there.

 

"I'm sorry, Carson." She tried to touch his arm, but he was already walking away. "I had to ask." But he was already gone.

 

She let out a long breath, and turned to walk away. Not far away, Colonel Caldwell was fighting for his life, and who was here, waiting to find out if he would survive? Only her, and she was only here because she had to be. Unbidden came the memory of the time Sheppard had almost died from the iratus bug on his neck. They had all been there – herself and his team. Rodney had paced in the jumper, his face bleak with tension, and afterwards they had all visited Sheppard in the infirmary, not because they had to, but because they wanted to.

 

Caldwell was a hard man to like. His relationship with his subordinates was bound by military protocol, and the science community had no liking for him, which left only her. She respected him, and at times had even been able to admire some of the things he did, but there had never been any friendship. Perhaps it would have been different had he been there first, if she had not had the knowledge of how different it could be.

 

Major Brett had posted guards at the door to the infirmary, and she nodded to them as she passed, but they gave nothing back. Major Brett had been distant, too, the few times she had seen him since the shooting. The military was closing ranks. One of their own had tried to kill their commander. Perhaps they thought it was their problem to deal with, not hers.

 

She wanted to talk to someone, she realised. She needed to stand on the balcony in the soothing air, and thrash things over with someone who understood. It was six hours since the shooting, and before that… Before that…

 

She almost laughed in disbelief. Then, a moment later, she felt tears pricking at her eyes. It did not seem possible that she was walking along a corridor like this - such a known, familiar, ordinary corridor. The walls were the same, her clothes were the same, she was the same. This morning - long hours ago - she had woken up and dressed in these clothes. Hours later, in the same clothes, she walked in an Atlantis where John Sheppard had returned from the dead, and Colonel Caldwell lay critically injured at the hands of one of his own men.

 

It can't be happening, she thought, and because she found herself alone and unwatched, she pressed her hand briefly to her mouth, and closed her eyes.

 

But of course it was. A woman in her position could not hide from the truth.

 

She heard footsteps, and lowered her hand, outwardly as composed as she had ever been. Two Marines passed her, everything about their stance shouting of their readiness for violence. In her life before Atlantis, she might even have been afraid of them.

 

Teyla was still in the city. Teyla understood what it was to have conflicting feelings as a leader and as a human being. Teyla was… But no. Teyla had left Atlantis well over a year ago. They had parted on terms that were chillily polite. The warmth between them had cooled when John had died, and turned to ice when first Bates and then Caldwell had treated Teyla as an enemy, and Elizabeth had let it happen.

 

It was so easy to forget. Sheppard was back, but the clock had not been magically reset. They had lived through two years without him, and the things that had taken place in those two years could never be undone. None of them would ever be the same.

 

No, there was no-one to talk to about this. She would do what she always had to do, and get on with her job. Thoughts could come later, when she was back in the privacy of her room. Feelings could come out only at night.

 

How long had she been up now, in this interminable day? Too long, she thought grimly. There was no prospect of sleep for a while, but she could at least return to her quarters for a quick wash, a tiny moment in which she could be alone.

 

But her quarters, when she reached them, were not empty.

 

"How did you get in?" She asked it wearily; perhaps, on some level, she had expected this.

 

Sheppard gave a half smile, just visible in the low light. "You can override most any lock when you have the Ancient gene, and have attended the Rodney McKay school of lock-picking."

 

She remained standing. "I thought you were under guard."

 

"They thought so, too." He smirked. "Like I said - doors, locks, and at last someone I actually recognise. It turns out he was ordered to stand guard by a mere captain. I merely pointed out that I out-ranked him, and that no-one had actually removed me from my position as his commanding officer…"

 

"No, on second thoughts, I don't want to know."

 

She walked to the sink and splashed water on her face. Only when she had pressed it dry on a towel did she turn round to race him. He was sitting on a stiff-backed chair, and gave every impression of having sat there for hours, patiently waiting. She wondered what he had really been doing, that he had to hide it with this act. The John Sheppard she had once known was not one to sit and wait for anything.

 

He leant forward then, and all pretence of waiting gone from his stance. "What actions are being undertaken to discover just what happened earlier today?"

 

She sat down stiffly, grateful for the semi-gloom. "I'm sorry, John, but that's none of your concern."

 

"Like hell is isn't." He was out of his chair and moving, and despite everything, her heart clenched inside her at the sight of him, so unchanged from how she remembered him. "Someone tried to kill Colonel Caldwell today. Unless Carson has some miracle cure I don't know about, Caldwell sure as hell isn't going to be calling the shots around here for a while."

 

"And you think you will be?" she had to say, her voice sharp.

 

His head snapped round. Yes, she thought. Of course the answer was yes. In his own mind, and according to his own experience, he was still in command of the military of Atlantis.

 

She made her voice softer than it might been, even as she said the words that had to be said. "Major Brett is in command until Colonel Caldwell is out of danger," she said. "He has the investigation under control. He is a competent and experienced officer, and I have every faith…"

 

"Major Brett," he interrupted. "Tall guy? Fair hair?" As she nodded, the lights welled brighter, and she looked up sharply, until she realised that he was doing it with his gene. "The guy who stood by and let his men do this?"

 

Raw from the events of the day, she almost gasped; only her years of experience prevented it. His lip was swollen and bloody, and the side of his jaw was bruised. His left hand was grazed and blackened, and the stiffness of his stance she now saw owed everything to other hurts, hidden by his clothes. She saw all this in the briefest of moments. The light faded again, and he sat down in the chair, and there was nothing about his silhouette to suggest injury at all.  

 

"They thought I did it," he said quietly.

 

She nodded. "I know."

 

"If it wasn't for the camera, they'd still think so. They weren't going to believe me, were they?"

 

"Colonel Caldwell would have told them the truth when he woke up."

 

Perhaps her tone said something that her heart did not, for he sat very still for a moment, and then spoke in a voice that did not match her memory of him. "And if he hadn't… If there hadn't been that camera there, would you have thought it was me?"

 

She didn't know. Oh God, she didn't know. This was Sheppard, and she had no doubt about it. She'd told Caldwell she had no doubt about it. She'd told everyone… But, deep down… Oh, God, there were still doubts. Two years gone. Things like this didn't happen! You mourned the dead, and moved on. They didn’t come back, to gouge open all the wounds you thought had almost healed.

 

But so much - so much still - that she could not say. Earlier, she had given him sympathy, but she was the leader of Atlantis, and Atlantis was suffered a grievous wound today. "I would have had to entertain the possibility, yes."

 

He turned his face away. That and the gloom hid him from her completely. Don't! she wanted to cry, for it seemed suddenly as if he was turning away from her forever. Then, before she could speak, he turned back again, and his face was the face she most remembered him by - the cocky grin, pretending not to care about anything.

 

"Can't leave you kids alone for a minute, can I?" he said. "You have a commander whose own men try to kill him, and a second-in-command who likes to beat up suspects. Impressive ship that Caldwell runs here, isn't it?"

 

"That isn't fair," she said, bristling. Despite everything that had happened, this was her home, these people were her family, and Sheppard was…

 

Sheppard was a stranger.

 

She clasped her hands in her lap, and tried to show nothing on her face.

 

"Not fair?" he echoed. "I call it like I see it."

 

"Colonel Caldwell has the respect and unswerving obedience of his men," she told him. "Major Brett is a good officer."

 

Sheppard gave a bark of laughter.

 

"A good officer," she repeated, clasping her hands even tighter. "I'm not saying that his actions were right, but I've been around soldiers enough to know that certain things happen. I might not like them, but stopping them would be worse. I gave you the same allowance, John. Can you honestly say that you'd never do the same? If someone had shot - perhaps killed - one of your team, and you had the chance to take them down, can you say for certain that you wouldn't, in the heat of the moment, use a little more violence than required?"

 

"That's…"

 

"No," she said firmly. "You don't know anything about the stresses and strains everyone on this base has gone through these last two years. One officer stretches the limit of what's acceptable. One man snaps under the pressure and has a breakdown… Don't presume to judge us, John."

 

He stood up, and the look in his eyes was like nothing she remembered. "I guess I was wrong to come here. Sorry to have troubled you, Doctor Weir."

 

He didn't look at her again, and then he left. 

 

******

 

If he ignored Zelenka, perhaps the other man would go away.

 

"All I'm saying is: should we be concerned?" Zelenka buzzed around him like a particularly irritating sort of bee. "The colonel's in critical condition. This might be conspiracy?"

 

Rodney slammed both hands on the desk on either side of his keyboard. "Go away! Unlike some of us, I have important work to do."

 

"All I'm saying is…"

 

"We should be concerned, yes," Rodney echoed. "You've said so. Twenty times."

 

"Only once."

 

"Why should I be concerned?" Rodney held up his hand, counting on his fingers. "One, because he's military. Two, because he's military. Three, because he's military… In case you haven't noticed, I don't care what they do. Let them wipe themselves out in a blood-stained massacre for all I care. At least it'll leave me some peace and quiet to get on with my work."

 

"Not if the killers come after us, too."

 

"Killer!" Rodney shouted. "Just one killer. Some crazy soldier, mad with blood-lust. The whole lot of them should be locked up. Now, for the last time, go away and leave me alone!"

 

Zelenka adjusted his glasses. "You are an unpleasant man, Rodney McKay."

 

He felt cold inside, his hand pressed into the desk. "I've always been unpleasant. Now go."

 

"More unpleasant than normal," Zelenka said, but Rodney was hardly aware of him any more. He had come into the lab. Strolling in as if he owned the place. Touching things in passing that should never be touched. Smiling that infuriating smile. Here. Back. Not dead.

 

"What are you doing here?" Rodney demanded. Then Sheppard came closer, and Rodney's eyes widened. "What have you done to yourself?"

 

"Disagreement with someone's fist. The fist won."

 

Rodney's hand fluttered up, half-rose, then fell again. "Why are you here?"

 

Sheppard leant against Rodney's desk. "Fancy a little detective work, McKay?"

 

"What?" he spluttered.

 

"You know - Colonel Mustard in the study with a revolver… That sort of thing."

 

Rodney could feel his heartbeat throbbing in the hand that was still pressed to the desk. "What?"

 

"Rodney McKay - lost for words. Now I know the world has changed." Sheppard gave a quirky smile, then sobered, in one of those lightning changes of expression that Rodney had forgotten for two years, but suddenly seemed so intensely familiar. "I want to dig around and find out why Caldwell was shot. Elizabeth says it was one crazed man. I've seen crazed men in my time, and not many of them walk half way across a city to shoot their commanding officer. We are in the Pegasus Galaxy, after all. Things are rarely how they first seem."

 

He wants me to… Rodney breathed in, and out again. "What on earth do you know about it, Sheppard? You haven't been here."

 

Sheppard looked at him. There was an expression on his face that Rodney had never seen before. "I'm sorry, Rodney."

 

Rodney's hands trembled.

 

"So, how about it?"

 

He pressed his hands together. "No, Major. Count me out of your stupid plan. I've got important work to do. Now go away! Shoo!" Sheppard showed no sign of moving. "Go away!" Rodney screamed.

 

"A very unpleasant man," said Zelenka, after Sheppard had gone. But his voice was soft, and his eyes were gentle.

 

Rodney threw a mug at him.

 

******

 

Teyla found John on the balcony. For a while she watched him as he stared out to sea. She had thought he was unaware of her presence, but of course a man like him would never be unaware of being watched. He was a warrior trained. Perhaps not entirely a warrior in his heart, though, or so she had sometimes thought.

 

"Teyla." He said her name quietly, without turning round.

 

She saw the bruises on his flesh, but did not exclaim over them. She saw, too, the deep weariness in his soul, and the fact that the hand on the balcony, seemingly so casual, was the only thing holding him up.

 

"John." She stood as close to him as a man of his nature would allow.

 

He let out a breath. "Et tu, Teyla?"

 

"I do not understand."

 

He smiled. Please do not, she wanted to say. You do not have to hide everything within. "Let me see… First Caldwell, then Elizabeth, and then Rodney… They have taken great pains to let me know that I'm two years too late. A stranger. An outsider. I thought perhaps you'd come…" He shrugged. "Forget it."

 

"I, too, am an outsider," she reminded him.

 

"Yes." His uninjured hand tightened on the railing. The wind took Teyla's hair and made it drift in ribbons in front of her face. She pushed it back, and watched him openly. It had fully hit him for the first time, she realised. Things would never be the way they had been. Things had moved on. People had moved on, and left him behind. She wondered what had been the final trigger for his realisation. Doctor Weir, perhaps, or McKay?

 

"My people have lived always with the threat of the Wraith," she told him, "but they have a saying. Nothing is ever gone forever, as long as there is life. Withered crops can turn green again. Dry earth can be returned to fruitfulness." Old friendships could be rebuilt. It just took time.

 

"So why did you leave Atlantis?"

 

She had no answer for that.

 

"Something's very wrong," he said, his eyes fixed at a distant point across the ocean. "Elizabeth looks five years older, and what have they done to Rodney? He used to be difficult, but at least he had a heart. And what's with this divide between the scientists and the military? We're supposed to be all one expedition, fighting the Wraith together… We are still fighting the Wraith, aren't we?"

 

"We are," she told him.

 

"Something's very wrong. Some of it I can attribute to Caldwell. I always knew I wouldn't get away with it for ever, the way I chose to run things here, and they'd send through a by-the-book CO and the party would end. But now Caldwell's been shot, and there's Major Brett… There's something worse happening here." He turned away from the ocean, to stand with the railing at his back. "I intend to find out what it is and fix it."

 

Oh John, she thought. So unchanged. She closed her eyes for a moment. And so wrong.

 

She touched his wrist, careful to avoid his injured hand. "Atlantis has changed," she said, "but only because of the passage of time. There is nothing you can fix. You cannot change things back just by wishing it."

 

Of course he would pin his hopes on an external enemy. Investigate, fight, expose the enemy… and everything would be as it he remembered it. His team would be together again. She would have a place in the City of the Ancestors. Doctor Weir would be a friend again. Sheppard and McKay would tease each other mercilessly, and enemies would tremble as they walked through the Gate, all four of them together.

 

She let out a breath. It was not to be. Perhaps new friendships could be forged, but the past was gone and would never return. John had stepped out of that past, but the world had moved on without him.

 

******

 

End of chapter seven

 

******

 

Chapter eight: Two cities

 

Elizabeth had become accustomed to the fact that Atlantis had become two cities. The soldiers could rove anywhere, of course, since their explicit job was to defend the city and to protect the civilians on the expedition. The civilians, however, did not enter the military quarter unless asked. There were whole swathes of Atlantis where no civilian ever went.

 

She had never before had reason to test whether this protocol applied to her.

 

She had almost made it to Caldwell's office before she was stopped. "Ma'am." A young Marine greeted her respectfully. "Can I help you?"

 

"I have come to see Major Brett."

 

The Marine looked nervous. "With all due to respect, ma'am, he's…"

 

"Do you intend to stop me?" she demanded.

 

He swallowed. "Uh… Why don't you wait in there, ma'am. I'll see if I can find him."

 

She almost pushed it, but decided not to. "Very well."

 

The room he had indicated held only a table and a few chairs, with a blank whiteboard attached to the wall. The slit-like window gave a glimpse of the darkening sky, with the first stars already appearing. She stood at the window with her hands clasped at her back. After a few minutes, the door opened, and taking a deep breath, she turned around.

 

Brett looked tired and harried, with dark shadows under his eyes. It seemed like an eternity since she had slept, and perhaps it was even longer for him. "Doctor Weir."

 

She could have summoned him to her office, of course, but she had felt strongly that this had to take place here. Perhaps she had just wanted to test what happened if she tried to track him down in his own territory. Caldwell had always come to her office, and nearly all interactions between them had taken place on her own ground. She had always thought that this was a sign that, despite everything, she was still in control. Suddenly it occurred to her to wonder if it meant the exact opposite.

 

 "Major Brett." She made her eyes cold. "I saw the results of what your men did to Major Sheppard earlier today."

 

"Ah." His hand closed on the back of a chair. "I can't defend it, Doctor Weir. You know what men are like. It was the heat of the moment, and they thought their CO was dead. I saw red. I guess they did, too."

 

"It is not acceptable," she said. "It will never happen again."

 

His hand was twitching incessantly as it gripped the chair, as if he was desperate for activity. "With all due respect, Doctor Weir, the civilians on this base owe their lives to the fact that my boys are fighting men. This sort of things happens. No lasting harm was done, and with the situation being as it is, I would rather have them too willing to fight than running scared of it."

 

"I thought you said you couldn't defend it, Major Brett," she said coldly. Inside she was furious, unable to forget the image of John's battered face.

 

"No, I'm sorry." He passed his hand over his face in a gesture that reminded her suddenly of someone else. "It's been a long and dreadful day, ma'am. They still don't know if he's going to survive."

 

She thought of another young man, suddenly thrust into the role of leader because his commander was lost. Ford had almost broken under the strain. Then she thought of the one who had come before him. He, too, had never expected command. If he was in Brett's situation, would he really have acted the same way? She had implied to him that he would have, but she had had no choice in that. Regardless of any personal feelings, a leader could not openly agree when an outsider criticised one of her own.

 

"I understand that there were mitigating circumstances," she said stiffly, "which is why I am not going to mention this in my report. But it never happens again. Remember that. It never happens again."

 

She walked past him and left without giving him a chance to respond. She felt very alone as she walked through the unfamiliar corridors. A young soldier came out of a door, and stopped short when he saw her. Two men stopped a hushed conversation in a side corridor. From behind a closed door she heard the sound of sparring.

 

Two cities, she thought. She had hardly noticed it happen at first. Then she had thought they were living in a city with an attached military base. Now, as she walked through alien territory, she looked at things as if she was seeing them for the first time. As if I'd been away for the last two years, and was coming to this as a stranger.

Perhaps, she thought, they were all living in a military base, with a small attached community of civilians.

 

And if that was true, where did that leave her, the civilian commander of both parties?

 

******

 

Sheppard had never been one to sit and think. Where some men sat and pondered, Sheppard liked to run. Better still, he flew. The world fell away, and he lost himself in the rhythm of his feet, or the play of the instruments beneath his hands. When he stopped, when he landed, he found that decisions had been made. Problems had been ironed out, and feelings were muted. Nothing was as bad as it had been before.

 

Now even that had been taken from him.

 

He had run as far as he could, forcing his body on, despite the deep bruising across his side and the lingering ache of exhaustion. Stop! his legs had screamed at him, but he had refused to let the limits of his body dictate his actions. Stop!  and he had been struggling to draw air in through his battered lungs. Stop! and sweat pouring into his eyes, and vision wavering, turning fuzzy at the edges.

 

No-one had been there to watch him as he fell. His legs had merely given way, and he had caught himself with a splayed hand on the wall; recoiled from the lancing pain from his crushed fingers. He had found himself sprawled on the ground, struggling to stay conscious. Lie down, the floor had invited him. Sleep…

 

…and just close my eyes and fall into the grey, and open them to find that this has all been a dream, and my team's been frantic trying to find me, and… and…

 

So that was why he was here, sitting on the deserted pier, his legs dangling over the edge. He did not allow himself a wall to lean on. Robbed even of running, he supposed he had no choice but to sit and think, after all.

 

The stars were the same. The night before they had gone to that damned planet, he and his team had stood out on the balcony and looked up at the stars. Hidden by darkness, they had said things that they would not have said by daylight. Teyla said the stars were the eyes of the Ancestors. Ford remembered stargazing with his grandfather. McKay scoffed and tried to deflate them with physics, before suddenly and unexpectedly admitting the stars were what had led him to make his choice of academic discipline, "and thus, in the end, to being here tonight, as you see me." And Sheppard…? Well, of course, to him the stars were flight, and all the wonderful, impossible thing that flight meant to him.

 

He had not said that, though.

 

Beneath the stars, the ocean was black and silver, and unchanged. The city was how he had remembered it. He supposed that the Athosians still lived beyond the sea, that the Wraith still culled worlds, that the Genii were still their warm and loveable selves, that puddle jumpers still flew between the stars.

 

Inside the city, though, everything was different. You cannot change things back just by wishing it. Who had said that to him? Elizabeth? No, it had been Teyla. Teyla at least had been gentle. Elizabeth had shut him out, speaking to him as coldly as if he was a member of Kolya's strike force who had dared to make an observation about how Atlantis was run. McKay had just shouted at him.

 

This thing was real. There could be no hiding from it, not any longer. Two years had passed in the blinking of an eye, and everyone had moved on without him. Could he accept that?

 

He thought about it for a while, kicking his heel against the metal strut. There was no reason why he shouldn't. He had a transient life, passing from unit to unit, gaining comrades, and losing them, often to death. He had never been one for home or family, even for friends. There was no reason at all why it should hurt to see these people ensconced in lives that excluded him. It was just how things went. Shrug, and move on.

 

No, there was no reason at all.

 

He let out a breath, and curled his injured hand, almost welcoming the pain. Of course the situation was more complex than that. None of these people looked happy. McKay was angry and miserable. Elizabeth looked beleaguered. Teyla looked serene, but she wasn't in Atlantis, and that was just wrong.

 

She was on his team. Hell, the whole lot of them were his team, his people, his… Family? whispered something that could not be silenced, not even when he curled his injured hand into a fist, and held it.

 

He had never been a man to want many things. If questioned by a shrink - and he would do anything in his power to avoid such an eventuality - he would shrug and give light answers, but perhaps he would bring himself to admit openly that the safety of his own men meant everything to him. He would do everything in his power to avoid losing a man. He would suffer anything in order to ensure that his team was safe.

 

And now his team was scattered, and his men were not his men any more.

 

You cannot change things back just by wishing it.

 

He knew that he had to make a decision. Someone had shot Colonel Caldwell, and all his instincts screamed at him, telling him that there was more to it than met the eye. But everyone was telling him that his judgement was flawed. He'd been away for two years, and didn't know what was normal. He wanted there to be some terrible conspiracy, because then he could sweep them all away and step into his old role again. He wanted to get his team back together and stand against the foe. He wanted to be doing something, fighting something, because then at least he'd had something to do. He was nobody now. He was useless. He had no radio; no-one thought they would need to contact him at a moment's notice. They wouldn't even allow him a gun, for God's sake.

 

A cloud was moving slowly in from the south, blanking out the stars. Atlantis breathed beneath him, but gave him no answers.

 

Or maybe something really was wrong. Caldwell had been shot, and no matter what Sheppard felt about someone else doing the job that should have been his, something like that should never have happened. Perhaps it was nothing more than Elizabeth claimed it was - just one weak man whose mind had snapped under the strain of too many brushes with death. Perhaps it was, but he couldn't sit back and refuse to ask the question.

 

He couldn't sit back.

 

He stood up, and turned his back on the fathomless ocean. He was going back. He couldn't run from this, but he could confront it head on.

 

You cannot change things back just by wishing it, Teyla had said.

 

"No," he said, "but I'm damn well going to try to change things forward."

 

******

 

There came a point in every day when Rodney could no longer justify staying in the lab. A group of them had even complained to Elizabeth about it once. "At least let us have one shift when he's not there." He'd overheard them. Perhaps he had been meant to. 

 

Carson sometimes asked questions, too, and two or three times Doctor Heightmeyer had come sniffing around. "How much sleep do you get?" and "What do you do to relax?" and "Even in war zones, people need time off. Especially in war zones."

 

He had taken to spending eight hours in his quarters every night, timing it exactly with his watch. Any less, and the questions started. Any more, and he slept for long enough for there to be dreams.

 

He sometimes wondered what other people did when they were off-duty. Rodney ate; that at least was easy. Some of the scientists had chess clubs, but he was never invited. Once he would have pushed in anyway, but that no longer seemed attractive.

 

Hey, McKay, coming to watch some football? We've got popcorn!

 

He pressed his lips together at the memory. He was passing the room where Sheppard had sometimes induced him to watch DVDs after dinner. Voices filtered through the door even now. For a wild moment, he thought it was Sheppard and the others. If he opened the door now, he would be back in the past, and…

 

"No." He turned away sharply. Sheppard was back, but Rodney hated him. No, he didn't hate him - he didn't care one little bit. Sheppard had waltzed away for two years, and now the arrogant son-of-a-bitch thought he could snap his fingers, and Rodney would come running.

 

Join my team, Rodney. Play detective. I could have asked anyone, but I asked you. You first. You.

 

He walked faster, feeling horribly exposed in the open corridor. What did Sheppard care about Caldwell anyway? He was probably glad the man was shot. He was gloating over the fact that none of his men had ever tried to shoot him. "Though God knows why," Rodney muttered.

 

Where was Sheppard now? The man had been haunting him, after all, coming after him twice, despite the fact that Rodney had shouted at him, telling him in no uncertain terms to leave him alone. He was probably watching Rodney even now.

 

Rodney whirled round, but there was no-one there.

 

Outside my door, then, he thought, but the corridor outside his room was empty. He could hear quiet voices from neighbouring rooms, but that was all.

 

Inside my room, then. With his over-powered Ancient gene, the man could sneak in anywhere. He would be inside, smiling that cocky smile, so sure that Rodney would drop everything and join him in some damn-fool plan that would probably get him killed. Rodney would be furious at the invasion of his privacy. He would shout, using the insults that reduced the science team to tears. He would send outraged emails to Elizabeth. "Get this man off Atlantis. Send him home. Just get rid of him."

 

He counted to ten before he opened his door. The room inside was still and silent. There was no-one there.

 

He closed the door, and walked to the bed. He lay down, but he did not close his eyes.

 

******

 

The mission had been a failure. Once again, Aiden was returning to Atlantis with nothing to report but an enormous waste of time.

 

They had been three days out in the jungle, following a wild-goose chase that could have resulted in a ZPM, but had resulted only in insect bites, mud, and the near-loss of half his team in a flooded river. He was not looking forward to recounting that part of the story to Colonel Caldwell.

 

Sometimes it seemed to Aiden as if his team got landed with all the dead-loss missions. Other teams returned triumphant with new allies; his team returned despondent, having been chased through the Stargate by natives with pitchforks. Other teams found the new technology, that McKay and his scientists leapt upon gleefully, and for a while seemed to be the miracle solution to all their woes, before it blew up or failed. His team spent three days sleeping rough, and returned with nothing to show for it.

 

"I think the colonel's deliberately landing me with the missions no-one else wants," he had confessed to Teyla on her last visit to Atlantis, six months before. "He's giving me the ones he knows aren't going to turn up anything important, because he doesn't trust me."

 

"But he lets you lead your own team," she had said, with a gentle smile. "He trusts you that much, Aiden."

 

I wish I wasn't leading it. He had almost said that, but hadn't.

 

For four months, he had commanded the military contingent of Atlantis. Then Everett had come, and then Caldwell. Aiden had been quite content to go back to taking orders, but at least he had hoped for a little praise. Commanding far more men than he had ever been trained to command, he had kept Atlantis standing until help had arrived. He had never expected the comprehensive dressing-down he had received from Caldwell after he was installed as commander. He had done everything wrong, it seemed - command style too casual, security too lax, indecision at the worst moments.

 

He had not defended himself. He had lost men in those four months before Everett's arrival. He had almost lost men today. If only Major Sheppard hadn't… He often thought of his former commander. Sheppard would never lost those men.

 

Maybe, he thought, watching the men who limped so wearily beside him, it wasn't anything to do with the missions. Caldwell was strict, but he was fair. Maybe Aiden's missions had as much chance of succeeding as anyone else's, but failed because of him. Maybe another team would be returning triumphantly with a ZPM.

 

He remembered leaping triumphantly through the Gate. He remembered the heady thrill of that first mission with Sheppard, carrying out a rescue that everyone else thought was impossible. He remembered leading Teyla and Doctor Beckett through a deserted Atlantis, giving orders, taking command. What the hell took you guys so long? Sheppard had said, but of course it had meant thank you and I never doubted that you would come. Aiden had known that, and Sheppard had known that he had known.

 

He had felt alive, confident, sure that he could do anything. It was just a few short months, but it sparkled in his memory, and everything else since then felt flat.

 

They reached the Gate. "Let's get the hell off this planet," he said to his team, mustering a grim smile.

 

Rodriguez dialled the address. Aiden entered his IDC. "Lieutenant Ford," came the voice through the radio. "We're lowering the shield."

 

He let the others go first. With a quick glance back at the hateful planet that had almost killed two of his men, and added one more to his list of failures, Aiden stepped through the Gate.

 

Rodriguez was already down by then. Aiden was already reacting, raising his P90, and rolling to one side, to be somewhere other than where the enemy expected him to be. Bullets sprayed the place where he had been, disappearing into the open wormhole. And Ross was falling, his body spun half way round by the impact, his horrified eyes locking on Aiden's as he fell. Wilson was running, raking the top of the Gate Room steps with bullets. One of their attackers fell. The other - and Aiden knew him, had eaten with him, had played cards with him - swung his weapon towards Ford.

 

"Stop!" bellowed a voice, and every fibre in Aiden's being reacted to the command in that tone, but he couldn't stop, not when the safety of his men was on the line.

 

He rolled again, but there was no cover. The bullets missed him, but soon there would be nowhere to hide, and the person shooting at him was Sergeant Groves, and he was one of their own, and, hell, Aiden even liked him, and there was no way this could be happening. It was some horrible mistake. "We're friends!" he shouted. "Groves, it's me, Ford."

 

"Stop this right now!" the voice shouted again, and he knew that voice, he knew that voice, and everything was falling apart, and this had to be another world, not his own.

 

"Everybody get down!" shouted the person who could not possibly be Sheppard. Aiden had been hit; he was dying. This was a hallucination - it had to be. As Aiden watched, the ghost of Sheppard raced along the platform, dodging bullets that hit the railing just behind him. He hurled himself down the steps, tackling Groves who stood six steps from the top, and sending them both tumbling.

 

Aiden watched. He rose very slowly to his feet. His gun was ready. Ready for what?

 

The ghost of Sheppard rose; Groves did not. Sheppard was holstering a pistol at his side, and cradling a bloody P90 in his arms. His eyes met Aiden's, and he nodded once.

 

"John!" Doctor Weir burst onto the platform at a run. Technicians were slowly rising up from the floor, their faces white, but Rodriguez was lying still, and Ross was writhing, moaning in pain.

 

"We need a medical team," shouted the ghost of Major Sheppard. "Call it, somebody - one of you with a radio. Call it!"

 

Aiden did so, his voice steady. Sheppard was standing there, fully armed and unchanged. Aiden turned his back on him. Two of his men were down. "Wilson, take Ross," he commanded. He knelt down beside Rodriguez and touched his throat. There was a faint pulse, but his fingers came away bloody.

 

"And you still say that nothing's wrong?" he heard Sheppard say, his voice harsh.

 

Doctor Weir said something in reply, but he couldn't hear what it was. Rodriguez was stirring, his eyelids fluttering. "Lie still," Aiden told him. "Doc's on his way. You'll be back on your feet in no time."

 

He heard the sound of rushing footsteps. A medical team? He looked up sharply, but it was Major Brett, leading six armed men. Aiden turned away, back to Rodriguez. "Wilson?" he said, and Wilson's voice said, "It looks bad, sir."

 

Rodriguez's hand grasped hold of Aiden's sleeve.

 

"Get that man out of my Gate Room," he heard Brett command, and Doctor Weir said something, her voice softer, but no less full of command.

 

It was only after the medical team had been and gone that Aiden was able to look for Major Sheppard again, but he was gone.

 

******

 

End of chapter eight

 

******

 

Chapter nine: Our own men

 

Aiden followed them to the infirmary, hovering as close as he could get to the bustling medical teams without getting in their way. Ross was struggling on the gurney, crying out with pain when the doctors touched him. Rodriguez was merely still, which was worse.

 

Aiden was half way to the infirmary before he noticed that his hands and sleeves were covered with blood.

 

He looked behind him, and to both sides, searching. All he saw was Wilson trailing along a few steps behind, looking shell-shocked and lost. Aiden offered him a reassuring nod. "Beckett will fix them up. He's the best."

 

"Our own men did this, sir," Wilson said. "Our own men."

 

Ross screamed. Aiden started forward, wondering if he should just push through the medical staff anyway. The doctors were doing their job, but this did not always leave time for looking someone in the eye and assuring them that they would be okay, for offering them a hand to squeeze on – a hand that would never be mentioned again afterwards.

 

They rounded a corner. Had he really seen…? He rubbed at his face, then remembered the blood. It was cold and sticky, already congealing. The blood of a man under his command, smeared on his face.

 

"Lieutenant Ford!" He paused reluctantly to let Doctor Weir catch up. The days were long gone when he had been included in top-level meetings. Now Doctor Weir was a distant figure in red, overseeing the return of his failed missions from her office. Caldwell or Brett handled the debriefs. Weir was only involved if a team had discovered something of scientific or diplomatic interest.

 

"Are they…?"

 

"Still alive for now," he told her.

 

She pursed her lips, giving a quick nod that had little of relief in it. He had a flash of an image of her from the heady early days of the expedition, smiling with happiness as they returned triumphant through the Gate – or at least returned not dead. Was that really only two years ago? It felt longer, though in a strange way he felt younger than he had felt then. Doctor Weir looked older. Whenever he saw her distant figure, her face was grave, and she did not smile.

 

He wondered why she had followed him. She was breathing fast, as if she had run at least part of the way. They had left behind chaos in the Gate Room, with Major Brett bellowing orders, and the uninjured gunman being dragged away under guard. Surely she needed to be there.

 

But he knew the answer. Of course he knew.

 

"So it's true, then," he said. "It wasn't my imagination."

 

She did not pretend not to understand. "It's true."

 

How? He wiped his hands on a clean patch of his ruined uniform, smearing away the blood. Why? Why now? He was conscious of Wilson, close enough to listen in. "It's definitely him?"

 

She nodded firmly, but he didn't miss the small hesitation that preceded it. "It is. He was in something called a time dilation field, apparently. To him only two days had passed. He didn't know…"

 

Didn't know how we mourned for him. Didn't know how lost we were. Didn't know about the slow and inexorable collapse of the team. Didn't know how I used to lie away night and night and think about the approaching hive ships and wonder what in God's name I was supposed to do about them. Didn't know that two long years have passed for us, and that nothing will ever be the same again.

 

The early months of the expedition were wild and shining, streaked with promise and exhilaration. Since then, everything was dull. He did his duty – what else could he do? – but the joy of it had gone.

 

Aiden looked over his shoulder, half-expecting – no, for a moment, sure – that he would see Major Sheppard behind him, with McKay and Teyla at his side, ready to clap Aiden on the shoulder and summon him out to change the world.

 

There was no-one there. Aiden fought the urge to turn and run, to tear through the corridors of Atlantis until he found him.

 

He clenched his hand into a fist. With a nod to Doctor Weir, he quickened his steps until he was back with the gurneys again.

 

Everyone ignored him when he reached the infirmary. The wounded men were wheeled away, and curtains were drawn around their beds. He heard snapped commands. People raced in and out with supplies. Time passed.

 

Blood had dried behind his nails. He paced up and down, leant against an empty bed, kicked his heels against the wall. Doctors passed him. It seemed to him suddenly that they had no faces at all, just blurs.

 

"Our own men, sir," Wilson said at his elbow.

 

Aiden started; he had forgotten that the other man was there. "Get some rest," he told the younger soldier. "I'll contact you if anything changes."

 

Our own men, he thought, as Wilson stumbled off. Rodriguez and Ross were wounded, possibly dying, at the hands of their own brothers. What could possibly have happened. Sheppard'll find out, thought a small, treacherous voice inside him. Now that Sheppard's back…

 

Everything faded for a moment. He came to to find Doctor Beckett gripping his arm, looking closely into his face. "You okay, laddie?"

 

"My men?" he asked.

 

"They're both in a serious condition, but stable," Beckett said. "I have every hope that they will make a full recovery."

 

Aiden let out a breath. "Can I…?"

 

"You're not going anywhere, lad," Beckett said sternly. "You look dead on your feet."

 

No, he needed to stay with his team until they woke up. He needed to go after Sheppard. He needed to find out what the hell had happened in his absence. He needed…

 

"You need rest," Beckett said. " Rodriguez and Ross were both running low-grade fevers. Ross said you've just spent three days out in some godforsaken jungle. You must have picked up some sort of infection." He guided Aiden towards the nearest empty bed, and brought up a syringe in his other hand. "This'll take care of everything."

 

Aiden protested weakly, but Beckett was too quick for him. The syringe sank into his forearm, and the world fell away and changed.

 

******

 

Perhaps she had been waiting for him. When the knock came at the door of the guest chamber, Teyla was still dressed, her bed untouched. Bare-foot, she padded to the door, and let him in.

 

Major Sheppard looked quickly over his shoulder before slipping quickly into her room. "If you are attempting to look inconspicuous," Teyla told him with a smile, "I think you have failed."

 

He shrugged, but his grin was just a shadow of what it could be. "Guess I'll never make James Bond, huh?"

 

Her team members had once told her all about James Bond. McKay had liked the gadgets, and Ford had wanted the women. John had finally admitted that Bond was just "all-round cool." She had often had cause to wonder why men looked up to such implausible heroes, when the heroism that surrounded them from day to day was so much more real. She would rather have had her team-mates at her back than any hero of story.

 

Sheppard looked even worse than he had looked on the balcony, but he had managed to find himself a gun. "Please. Sit down." She gestured at the chair, so alien and formal, and without any of the soft fabrics that had filled her room when this city had been her home.

 

"Too wired to sit," he said, and indeed she could see the nervous energy quivering beneath his skin. It worried her. She had seen such a thing in warriors before, and it usually preceded collapse. Perhaps he saw her concern, for he shot her a weary smile. "Not sure if I'd get up again, either."

 

"Take some refreshment, then." She poured him a small beaker of herbal tea. Their fingers brushed briefly as he took it, and she felt the tension there, too.

 

"Are they hunting you?" she asked, settling herself on the edge of the bed, her hands folded loosely in her lap.

 

He grimaced. "Not quite. I prefer to keep off their radar just in case. If they see me, they might remember that they were beating the crap out of me earlier today, and decide to try it again."

 

Did you do anything? she almost asked, but did not. This was John. Two years had passed, and every one of them had changed, but he had stepped here straight from the past. He was the same as he had ever been; it was just the world that had changed while he was gone. It was not his fault that former friends were now strangers, and the City of the Ancestors was no longer a home to her.

 

She looked him fearlessly in the face. "I am a visitor here merely, and not entirely trusted. I no longer have a radio. Has something new happened?"

 

But of course it had. That was why he was here, a gun at his side, and his body staying moving only with sheer willpower and adrenaline. And perhaps, she thought, because when he stops moving, he will no longer be able to avoid the reality of what we have become.

 

"More of Atlantis' finest have felt the urge to go on a killing spree," he said, the grimness of his face belying lightness of his tone. "In the Gate Room, no less. Damn near killed Ford – no, he's not hurt – and took out some of his team."

 

Oh. She did not know what to think. She had not called this place a home for two harvests, and she no longer knew its inhabitants. Had the situation really degenerated this far? Perhaps there had been other incidents that she knew nothing of. Once she would have argued to anyone that these were good people, and that such behaviour was impossible. Now she no longer knew.

 

"Something's very wrong," John said, his eyes dark in his pale and battered face. "I know what you said earlier, but… Teyla, this is real. I can't sit back and let it happen. I… Uh… That is, I wondered…"

 

Her heart was beating very fast. She clasped her hands and waited, but the request did not come. She saw his intention in his eyes and sensed it in his stance, but he could not give utterance to it.

 

"I am an outsider, too," she reminded him gently. "Colonel Caldwell and Major Brett already view me with suspicion. I am allowed no weapons and no radio. If I ally myself with you in this, and you are wrong, a deeper rift may open up between my people and yours."

 

"Ah. Well." His shoulders stiffened, and he half turned away. "Can't blame a man for asking."

 

"You didn't ask, John." She smiled at him, and stood up in a fluid movement, the fabric of her skirt falling smoothly around her legs.

 

She had thought that her offer of help could remain as unspoken as his request. She thought he would understand without words, but he continued to move towards the door, his face closed to her. Of course, she realised. It was easy to forget that a man as assured as John Sheppard could have insecurities, and this long day must have seemed to him like one long rejection.

 

He touched his arm, arresting him in the moment of reaching the door. "I will help you, John." 

 

He froze just for a moment. For a fleeting instant, relief suffused his expression, but then it was gone, locked behind his old familiar mask. "The old band, back together again," he said, with a broken laugh.

 

She wondered why she had agreed so swiftly. Halling, if he were here, would condemn her choice. Let them solve their own problems. Interfere with the internal problems of another people, and you risk becoming their enemy. If things went wrong, her actions would at the best be interpreted as interference, and at worst as hostile.

 

But she had no longer had any real contact with these people any more, and had little to lose. Doctor Weir was a stranger; Colonel Caldwell was worse. There were no friendships to be torn apart, no trust to be lost.

 

Lieutenant Ford had been shot at today, and he was an old comrade, once almost a friend. That made a difference, but that was not the reason. No, the reason was merely that John had asked, just as he had asked her to join his team so long ago, to leave her people, to live among strangers, to fight at his side. If danger threatened his people or his team, he was incapable of resting until he had done his utmost to prevent it. She had followed him then. Two years on, in a different world, it seemed that she would follow him still.

 

"We will need a plan," she pointed out. 

 

"I have a plan." He gave a self-deprecating grin. "Well, a place to start, anyway."

 

As she followed him through the door, the corridors of Atlantis seemed just for a moment like home.

 

******

 

He came upon her from behind, appearing from the darkness to grab her arm. "Don't worry – it's me," he hissed, but the words only made her heart beat even faster. He's dead! He's dead! For a moment Elizabeth teetered on the brink of a huge chasm of unreality. Rational thought caught up a moment later, but the physical effects of that brief moment of disorientation lingered in her pounding heart, her damp hands.

 

"Sorry to startle you," he said, without his customary smile. "Just follow me. Please."

 

She did so, following him half a dozen steps down a dimly-lit corridor, and into a large storage room. Sheppard waited until she was inside, then did something to the door, standing so close to her that she could hear his breathing. She fought the urge to touch him, to make sure that he was real. Ghosts are not warm. Hallucinations do not breathe.

 

When the door was locked, Sheppard moved away from her, to stand in the middle of the room. "Any explanation for what happened earlier in the Gate Room? Even Major Brett has to admit that this must be more than coincidence. One rogue gunman can be accident, two is coincidence, but three…"

 

She stood with her back to the wall, her hands against the cool surface whose voice she had never been able to hear. Major Brett had raged against Sheppard's presence in the Gate Room, calling it a security risk. Elizabeth had reminded him that Sheppard had saved the lives of Ford and his team, but that was something that could only be said in private, and not to Sheppard. She could not condone this interference. 

 

"He is investigating," she told him stiffly. "It is a military…"

 

"Damn it, Elizabeth," he interrupted, "it's not just a military matter. They take out Caldwell, they try to take the Gate Room… This can't be covered up, or explained away. It has the potential to strike at the whole of Atlantis."

 

Oh, but she felt so weary. Her eyes were gritty, and her head was throbbing. John returned; Caldwell; Ford… "They've all been through so much, John. It's a constant fight for survival now. We're living in a war zone…"

 

"And I don't know anything about such things. You've told me."

 

She wanted to slump, to let her face thaw, to smile. Her heart had still not slowed to its normal pace. She opened her hand; pressed it against the cool and silent wall. She heard someone pass in the corridor outside, and saw him stiffen as he heard it, too. A tiny, treacherous part of her wanted to call out for help. Alone in a room with a man who's been dead for two years.

 

Alone with a stranger.

 

"Elizabeth," he said, his face giving away nothing. "Perhaps they just cracked under the pressure. It happens in war. When one man breaks, sometimes another breaks, too. Panic breeds panic -  I know that. But I have to consider that a wider conspiracy is at work."

 

"You have to consider?" She had to say it.

 

He did not answer, but the muscles around his eyes tightened, and he took a step closer. "What measures has Major Brett put in place for your protection, Doctor Weir?"

 

Involuntarily she leant closer into the wall. Her fingers found the edge of the door – the barrier separating her from John Sheppard and every other soul in Atlantis. "There are extra guards in all civilian areas."

 

He gave a harsh laugh. "What if it's the guards that you need to be guarded against?" He came closer, close enough that she could have touched him, had she reached out as far as she could. "They took out Caldwell, Elizabeth. Whatever the cause of this, you are an obvious target. I want you to be guarded at all times."

 

"That isn't…"

 

"By someone I trust," he said firmly. He moved to the door, and she yielded only at the last moment, stepping sideways so his shoulder passed only inches from hers. A dark bruise marked the side of his jaw, and one hand was stiff and bloodied. His face was intent, though, and he seemed unaware of her, surveying him from half a step away. After concentrating for a while, he opened the door, and made a quick sign with his uninjured hand, then took a step back.

 

She did not hear the footsteps approaching the door, but she knew the woman who entered. "Good evening, Doctor Weir," Teyla said, with a grave nod.

 

******

 

Sheppard's steps slowed as he passed McKay's room. Go away! McKay had screamed at him. Shoo! He was accustomed to Rodney's insults, but this had been something else entirely. McKay hardly slept, anyway. He'd still be in the labs, not here. Chances were it wasn't his room any more, anyway. Two years passed. And McKay hated him.

 

"Sir?" He heard the tentative voice behind him just as he had decided to pass on by.

 

He counted to two, put a smile on his face, and turned round. "Ford."

 

The young man looked awful, his uniform streaked with mud and blood, and his face strangely naked without his habitual baseball cap. Sheppard suddenly had no idea what to say to him. Two years. He could no longer forget that. Elizabeth and McKay had reminded him with every word they said.  "I… uh… How are they… Your men?" he asked.

 

"Alive," Ford said tersely. "So's the colonel."

 

With Elizabeth, it had been terrible, because she had been the one to break the news. With Rodney and Teyla, he had initially tried to pretend that nothing had changed. And see where that landed you, John. With Ford, he was speaking to him as… No, he reminded himself. He had to speak to him as one soldier to another; as an officer to a man who had once been under his command. Forget the past. Forget the two years. Personal relationships were a minefield, and nothing he wanted to understand. Military rank made everything simpler.

 

"What’s your assessment of the situation, lieutenant?" he asked.

 

Ford looked over his shoulder. "Perhaps we can go somewhere less exposed?"

 

Sheppard followed him to a small balcony, open to the ocean, but sheltered from any overlooking eyes from within the city. The wind had picked up, and stirred his hair. Like her fingers in the fog. He shivered, and for a moment the cold made him remember what it had felt like to drown.

 

"Major?" Ford leant sideways against the railing.

 

Sheppard shook his head briskly to clear his thoughts. Ford was an officer, and on the inside. "What is Major Brett's assessment of the situation?" he asked.

 

Ford's shoulders slumped. "He's never talked to me about things like that."

 

Sheppard felt a sharp stab of disquiet. This was not the Ford he remembered. "Lieutenant…"

 

"I took over your position when you died," Ford blurted out. His left hand grasped the railing. "When reinforcements came from Earth we were about to be wiped out by three hive ships. I lost two jumpers, and two dozen men."

 

Sheppard was grateful for the near darkness. Ford was an outline and vague tones and shadows, but he couldn't see his face. With the lights of Atlantis behind him, he thought that Ford could see even less of him. "Atlantis is still here," he said. "You lose men in war. It happens."

 

"Not to you."

 

And that was something he had to counter - felt the words come fierce and heartfelt. "Bullshit. I've lost men. I've lost them here and back on earth. If I'd been here two years ago, perhaps I'd have lost even more than you did. Never put anyone up on a pedestal, lieutenant, especially not me."

 

Ford said nothing, but the shape that was his body turned away slightly, overlooking the water.

 

Sheppard looked up at the sky, where clouds were streaks of dark grey against the black. It had been cloudless in the desert, with the stars like ten thousand staring eyes. "It is never easy to lose men," he said, for the darkness still hid him. "The day you find it easy is the day you have to quit. But it happens. Sometimes you do everything you can, but it's not enough. Sometimes it's sheer dumb luck. But the dead become can't become more important to you than the living." Push it inside, lock it away, hide it with a smile. "You have to move on." Move on, ever forward. Always moving. Never look back.

 

"Colonel Caldwell blames me," Ford said dully. "They wasted no time in replacing me."

 

"And you think they'd have let me stay on as commander?" Sheppard laughed. "I'd have been busted back to Antarctica in an instant. It's nothing personal, lieutenant."

 

Ford said nothing. Sheppard fought a wave of dizziness, and forced himself to stay upright. He didn't have conversations like this. What would Teyla say? "No-one could fault your behaviour in the Gate Room earlier," he said. His voice felt detached from his body, as if he was falling ever further away. It suddenly felt as if far more than two years had passed. "You kept your head, and put the safety of your men first. I think you are far more capable than you give yourself credit for."

 

Ford raised his head like a dog scenting food.

 

Sheppard surreptitiously reached for the support of the railing. He felt a sudden desperate urge to flee. Rodney's hatred had been easier than this.

 

What had he hoped for, he wondered. The old team back together. Teyla, Rodney and Ford - the four of them unchanged, even if the rest of the world was different. At the very least - for he could not hide entirely from the realities of this world - he had hoped to use Ford as a source of information and weapons.

 

It couldn't happen. It was different for Teyla, who could make choices for herself. Rodney, too, had never cared what anyone else thought of him. But Ford had a place in the military hierarchy of Atlantis. He is not favoured, Teyla had said, and association with Sheppard would only make things worse for him. The best thing Sheppard could do was walk away and leave him alone. Fall off my pedestal. At another time the image might have made him smile.

 

"Lieutenant Ford," he said, giving a quick nod. He risked letting go of the railing, and managed to stay standing.

 

He had managed three steps towards the warmth of Atlantis when someone struck him from behind, and his legs gave way. He fell onto one knee, struggled half up, and then was wrestled to the floor. "I'm sorry, sir," Ford's voice hissed coldly in his ear. Then something sharp pierced him in the back of the neck, and claws reached into his brain, and after that all he could see was the darkness.

 

******

 

End of chapter nine

 

******

 

Chapter ten: Help

 

He opened his eyes to blackness and the stars. The stars were eyes. The blackness was the vast expanse of time that separated him from everything that he knew. He was alone in the universe, slumped on an icy surface, pinned beneath the black. The stars were not human. He looked at them, and they looked back.

 

Sheppard rolled onto his side, but the stars followed him, like needles in his back. Up onto his feet, and everything lurched wildly, and he fell again, his shoulder striking the wall. He slid down it, his legs bent and boneless. His head slumped forward, but he stopped himself from falling completely with a hand splayed firmly against the wall.

 

His lips felt swollen, as if his whole face was a mask of stone, and not really his to command. "Must…" he forced out. "Think…"

 

He remembered Ford attacking him. He didn't remember Ford leaving, but now he was alone. He was still on the balcony, so no-one had moved him. He was not bound. There was less cloud than there had been, so time had passed… How much time? Fear prickled through him. The world leapt on in stages every time he closed his eyes. Well, he thought grimly, the solution to that was never to sleep.

 

He levered himself to his feet again. The pain from his injured hand helped. It was something entirely real, unquestionably belonging to him. As he forced himself to press the hand against the wall, he felt a tiny degree of clarity returning to his thoughts. Only stars. Only the night. But when he withdrew his hand from the wall and stood unaided, he was adrift again.

 

One step… And the ground falling away from beneath him, stone slabs melting away into nothing.

 

Two. Pushing his arm into the greyness and feeling the moment when it ceased to exist.

 

Three. No footsteps behind him on the sand. His body shredded by a creature he couldn't see.

 

And drowning, drowning… The only one there, the only one alive, in a whole reality created solely to bring him to his knees.

 

He lurched into the edge of the doorway, and felt the distant whisper of Atlantis, like fingers stroking through the fabric at his shoulder.

 

There were other whispers, too. His vision surged and swooped, and he was flying above the city, looking down on the tiny figure that was himself, alone and exposed on its edge. Then further away and further up, until he was up in the atmosphere, up in space, and still the tiny figure remained, alone at the heart of the emptiness that was this universe.

 

He scraped his hand across his face, but the images remained. The reality of Atlantis was a faint overlay, as if it was painted on a thin sheet of plastic. He saw walls and corridors, and doors closed against him. Sometimes he lurched against a wall, and Atlantis flashed into focus, sudden and fierce. Then he was adrift again, and it withdrew into the background, receding back into the fog.

 

You've lost your mind, something told him. He thought it was the stars, but the stars were no longer there. He was weaving down a corridor inside Atlantis, heading… where? The voice had no answers. You were losing it already, and now it's gone. But come here and it will be restored to you.

 

Once he thought he saw Ford watching him, a look of confusion on his face. You attacked me, he wanted to say. I don't like men who attack me, as a general rule. Even thinking it required an effort; saying it would have been more than he could endure. Even then, Ford had vanished by the time Sheppard had managed to muster his sluggish thoughts.

 

All the while, his legs staggered on, taking him through the sleeping heart of Atlantis. He wondered where he was going...

 

"No." He stopped himself, forcing out the word with a physical effort. He curled his swollen fingers, and the pain helped. "Where am I going?" He felt an overwhelmingly strong urge just to give in and ride his body as a passenger. That's all he was now. He had lost his role in Atlantis, lost his team, and lost all those friendships that he had been beginning to build. Why fight it any longer? Everything had changed, and he could never go back to how things used to be. Give up. Surrender. Roll over and die.

 

"Like hell I will," he rasped. Blood was oozing from the re-opened scrapes on his fingers. He clenched his fist tighter, watching blood grow into a swollen bead, then drop onto the floor. He was still alive. Atlantis was still here. The people had changed, but they were still the same people they had always been.

 

She had urged him to give in, too. He pictured his hands around her throat, and remembered how she had faded, and become just a woman, dying on the ground.

 

With a groan of effort, he turned away from the direction his legs had been taking him. For a long while he just stood there, conscious of little more than his own breathing.

 

He took a faltering step, and it felt like wading through treacle. Pain lanced through his head. The air around him seemed to shimmer, and the floor turned to liquid mercury.

 

I need help, he thought – a distant, unfamiliar thought. Memory came in flashes now. Elizabeth, her face cold. "I'm sorry, sir." Teyla in Athosian clothes. "Go away!"

 

He pressed his lips together grimly. There was only one place he could go.

 

******

 

Something thumped against his door. "Go away," Rodney said, without looking up from his laptop. "Working."

 

The thump was repeated. It was a dull noise, followed by the sound of something sliding down the door.

 

"For God's sake." Rodney put the laptop down, and got up from the bed. "What do you have to do to get a bit of peace and quiet round here?" He swiped at the door release, opening the door. "What is it?"

 

Sheppard was swaying in his doorway, gripping on for dear life. He slumped forward when Rodney opened the door, and Rodney instinctively caught hold of him. He almost fell himself, and felt the quick burn of over-straining muscles. "You look dreadful," he gasped.

 

"Thanks," Sheppard said. "I feel just peachy."

 

Rodney guided Sheppard towards his bed. Sheppard seemed to be trying to co-operate, but his steps were barely co-ordinated. "This looks easy in the movies," Rodney gasped, as he struggled to steer Sheppard in the right direction. Eventually he got him to the edge of the bed. "Don't get blood on the bedclothes," he warned him, as he massaged his own aching back. "Or in the laptop! No! No blood in my laptop, Major. I'll have you know there's important work there."

 

He moved the laptop away onto the beside table, and watched Sheppard for a while. Sheppard's chest was heaving as if he had run a race, and his skin was pale and clammy. Rodney twisted his hands in front of him. "Maybe you should lie down."

 

Sheppard was staring at his blood-stained fist. "Don't think I should."

 

"Damn it, Sheppard." Rodney threw up his hands and started to pace. What was the man thinking of, coming here? And what was he thinking, to let him in? Just for a moment, it had felt as if… "What happened to you?" He hurled it like an accusation.

 

"Ford jumped me." Sheppard was listing sideways as if he was going to fall.

 

"Another of your team simply overjoyed to see you back." Rodney say down carefully on the far side of the room.

 

"Yup." Sheppard's lips barely moved.

 

Rodney watched him. There were no obvious injuries that had not been there before – though he had looked like hell even then. There was a lack of focus in his eyes that made Rodney think of drugs or a head injury. Visible tremors ran beneath his skin, and he looked as if he was holding on to consciousness like a man clinging to the edge of a cliff with one finger.

 

Sheppard slumped sideways. "Told you you needed to lie down," Rodney said. He did not get up from his chair.

 

"Yes. Told me so," Sheppard mumbled. "Doctor McKay: always right."

 

His eyes closed, and perhaps he passed out for a moment. Only second later, he opened them with a start, and visibly relaxed when his eyes came to rest on Rodney.

 

"How many times do I have to tell you to go away?" Rodney said quietly.

 

Sheppard's lips moved. If there were words there, Rodney could not hear them. Without making a conscious decision to do so, he moved forward and sat down beside the bed, his back against the wall. That close, he could hear the words that were almost lost in the sound of breathing. "Is this real?"

 

"What sort of an idiot question is that?" Rodney snapped.

 

Sheppard's lips curved into a smile. "Knew I was right to come here."

 

"To get blood all over my bedclothes," Rodney grumbled. "To disturb my work. I hope you go again. Go! Chop chop!" His room no longer felt remotely like a haven. It had been invaded by the past. Sheppard was a dark figure on his bed – a strain that ruined everything.

 

Sheppard rolled painfully onto his back. Rodney could only see his profile, but when he slumped further down the wall, he couldn't see him at all. He found a smear of blood on the heel of his own hand. "Ford jumped you?" he asked.

 

"Don't know why," Sheppard's voice said. "Must be my… charming… personality."

 

Rodney worried at his bottom lip. "That can't be right. The late great Major Sheppard can do no wrong in Ford-world." That was one of the reasons why Rodney had been so careful not to speak to him in over a year.

 

"Nothing's right."

 

Sheppard was just a voice. He was like that sometimes in dreams. Sometimes Rodney would wake up from his fragmentary sleep and hear Sheppard's voice. Sometimes he even heard his own, the two voices sparking off each other like swords. Sometimes they replayed old conversations, and sometimes they said things that had never been said, but could have been. Sometimes Sheppard was harsh to him, berating him for hiding in his room. It was only when he was fully awake that the voice faded away entirely.

 

"So what did Ford do to you, anyway?" he asked.

 

"Don't know," Sheppard mumbled. "Injected something. I don't feel right. He did that. I think he did that. Maybe it was her."

 

Oh, but this wasn't right. This wasn't right at all. "Don't go throwing up all over my bed." Rodney's voice sounded high and unnatural in his own ears.

 

"I won't." Rodney saw the bedclothes move, as if Sheppard had caught hold of a handful and was clutching it tight. "It's not that sort of not right. I feel as if… as if I'm going crazy. As if… not really in my own body."

 

"You always were crazy." Rodney felt the signs of incipient panic. "I'll get Carson."

 

"No!" Sheppard rasped, his voice hoarse. Rodney heard his sudden movement.

 

"Then you really are crazy. Carson's a doctor." He said it slowly, as if to an idiot. "He makes people better. Or do you still have that macho 'it's only a scratch, don't worry about me' thing going?"

 

"Can't… trust… anyone," Sheppard forced out.

 

"And what on earth makes you think that you can trust me?"

 

Sheppard didn't answer. Rodney was glad of it. There on the floor, next to the bed, he could almost pretend that the room was empty and he was alone. His words echoed in his head: trust… trust… trust… He wanted to laugh, and then did so. John Sheppard, his strength almost gone and his mind half-crazed, had come to find him. What had he been thinking? The brainless idiot probably hadn't been thinking at all.

 

He heard Sheppard shift on the bed, and of course he couldn't pretend that the man wasn't there. Even if he closed his eyes and pressed his hands to his ears, he would know that the man was there. Everything felt that little bit more alive, as if for two years he had been sleeping, and was now beginning to wake.

 

"Because you didn't pretend," Sheppard said.

 

Rodney frowned. "What on earth's that supposed to be mean, Major?"

 

Sheppard gave a short moan of laughter. "Don't know. Felt right, though."

 

Rodney almost felt an answering smile appear upon his face. No. Think. Sick man. Water! "Do you need a drink?"

 

Sheppard shifted again. "It's getting better."

 

No! Don't sit up! Rodney thought. I don't want to see you. "Good," he said. "Then perhaps you'll get out of here and let me get on with my work. This is my bed you're bleeding all over."

 

"I'm not hardly bleeding at all."

 

"And is that 'getting better' as in almost well, or 'getting better' Sheppard-style, as in only ninety-nine percent dead now, thank you very much for asking?"

 

"'Bout ninety percent now."

 

Rodney frowned. He had never been able to tell infallibly when Sheppard was joking. "What's wrong with you, anyway?"

 

"Let's see," Sheppard said. "I was sliced open by an invisible monster, drowned, watched my team get butchered, got stunned, beaten up, shouted at by people I don't know any more, then jumped by a man who a moment before was expecting me to be some sort of shrink, and all in not much more than one day, which, incidentally, appears to have lasted two years."

 

Sheppard was propped up on his elbow, and Rodney could see his face. He could see his face. Something snapped inside him, and all things dark and ugly came pouring out. "You want sympathy? What about us, Major. Can you begin to imagine the hell you put us through by disappearing like that? We didn't even have a body. There was always that hope… And then Caldwell came, and I wasn't allowed on a team any more… Which is quite okay with me, by the way, since I never liked risking life and limb with you posturing macho grunts, anyway. And all because you had to play the martyr. All because you had to go wandering off in that damn fog rather than sitting still like anyone with half a brain cell. Why did you have to die?"

 

The last words hung in the air between them. Hearing them, Rodney gave a small hysterical laugh.

 

"I'm sorry, Rodney," Sheppard said, but apology was worse. Apology was the worst thing of all.

 

"Please get out." Rodney was overflowing with fury, but he felt drained, without the energy for anything but a quiet plea.

 

"She said she'd chosen me," Sheppard said. "I refused to go with her, but she took me, anyway. There was nothing I could do. I came back as soon as I could. I didn't know it had been so long."

 

Rodney snapped his head away. The memory of that terrible day in the fog was a clear today as it had been two years go. First there had been that sense of overwhelming terror, then the sense of something passing, leaving him alone. Had he been tested and rejected? Had Sheppard been chosen only because he, Rodney, had been rejected as worthless?

 

Should it have been me?

 

He pushed himself up, and moved stiffly to the chair. After a moment's thought, he retrieved the laptop from the bedside table, and opened it up. The screen was out of focus, the symbols conveying nothing but gibberish.

 

Even with the laptop screen between them, he could still see Sheppard. Sheppard was sitting up gingerly, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. Setting his jaw in a defiant fashion that awakened memories, he stood up. Rodney's body tensed, as if it was preparing to catch him if he fell. But Sheppard did not fall. He wavered slightly, but the grin he shot in Rodney's direction was pure Sheppard.

 

"Can't you take a hint?" Rodney clutched the laptop to keep it from falling. "Why are you still here?"

 

"I'm going." The grin was slow to fade. Sheppard pressed two fingers to his brow, rubbing it as if it hurt. "Body hurts like hell, but at least my mind... I felt really strange earlier. I couldn't think…" His face took on a set look. "It's over now."

 

He's planning something, Rodney thought. He knew that look. This was Sheppard at his most resolved. This was Sheppard facing Kolya, Sheppard going in to the Wraith lair to rescue his men. Despite everything that had happened, Rodney felt a faint thrill of excitement. Something was going to happen. Nothing was going to be the same again.

 

Or Sheppard was just going to end up dead again, and life would continue as it always had done.

 

Anger was the easiest, but the insults that normally came so easily to him got stuck in his throat, and he could not muster them. "Then please just go away and let me get on with my work."

 

Sheppard looked at him, his head tilted slightly to one side. "Or you can come, too?"

 

Rodney slammed the laptop shut. "Why would I want to do that?"

 

"I don't know." Sheppard shrugged. "I just thought…"

 

"Oh, please, I don't want to hear what passes as thought in that brain of yours," Rodney sneered. He felt almost guilty afterwards, as Sheppard turned away.

 

Someone hammered at the door. "Oh, what now?" Rodney put the laptop down again, and stood up. "Is my room a public meeting place now?" He slammed the door open. "What?"

 

A collection of soldiers stood there, led by Major Brett. Brett stepped forward the moment the door was open, forcing Rodney to take a step back, or get far closer to the man than he ever wanted to get. "The information is correct, I see," Brett said. "Sheppard is here."

 

"He was just leaving," Rodney protested. "I didn't invite him here. He just came." Brett ignored him. One of his goons – they all looked the same to Rodney – raised his P90 just a little, and eyed Rodney darkly. "Backing off," Rodney said, raising his hands. "Backing off."

 

"Sheppard," Brett said.

 

"Brett." Sheppard's voice was cold.

 

Something struck Rodney in the thighs, and he realised that he had been edging backwards, and had now hit the chair. He caught hold of its back, but did not sit down. Brett was much bulkier than Sheppard – an effect exaggerated by his weapons and his tac vest. Sheppard was lean concentrated energy, but only minutes before he had been in a state of collapse, and the bruises were stark on his skin. He could never look frail; Rodney had never thought to see him looking vulnerable, either.

 

"John Sheppard," Brett intoned formally, "you are hereby detained…"

 

"Come to arrest me, Brett?" Sheppard said softly. "What's the charge?"

 

One of his men started forward angrily. Brett silenced him with a quick sideways gesture of the hand. "It is merely a precaution," he said mildly. "Come, Sheppard, you'd have done the same." He smiled, but Sheppard did not smile back. "A man returns after two years dead, and within hours all hell has broken lose."

 

"Looks bad, doesn't it?" Sheppard said lightly. Rodney could see him flexing his injured hand behind his back. "And you're right: perhaps I would have locked me up, too."

 

Rodney made an incoherent sound. He had no idea what he had been about to say – his thoughts always arranged themselves into words only after he had started talking – but he subsided in the face of the sudden sharp look that Sheppard shot his way. Stay out of it, it said. Leave it to me.

 

"The thing I don't understand, though…" Sheppard's hand rose casually to the side of his neck. "See… Why didn't you arrest me hours ago?"

 

What's he planning? Rodney wondered. He was never to know. Sheppard made a sharp move forward, but his body betrayed him. He was slower than he should have been, and he cried out hoarsely, his hand coming up to his head as if it was moving of its own accord.

 

Rodney surged forward. "Don't hurt him!" But Brett was disabling Sheppard with cold efficiency, twisting his arm behind his back, and driving him to the floor. One of his thugs forced Sheppard's struggling wrists together, and fastened them tight. When Brett released him, Sheppard rolled onto his side, glaring up furiously.

 

"Just a precaution," Brett said mildly. He nodded to his men. "Take him away."

 

After they had left, Rodney tottered to the chair, and sank into it. His hands were trembling. Groping blindly, he found a power bar on his desk, and tore it open.

 

It tasted like ashes.

 

******

 

end of chapter ten

 

******

 

Chapter eleven: Sleep

 

"You should get some rest, Doctor Weir."

 

Long ago, and for a few times only, Teyla had called her "Elizabeth." Elizabeth sat on the edge of the bed, and allowed herself a moment of weakness. "I don't think I can."

 

"I will stand watch."

 

Elizabeth got up, poured some water into a bowl, and splashed cool drops onto her face. "I don't need a guard."

 

"Major Sheppard thinks you do."

 

"Major Sheppard has no authority on Atlantis any more." Tension and weariness made it come out more harshly than she had intended.

 

"He asked me," Teyla simply said. She was sitting upright on a chair near the door, discreetly granting Elizabeth both space and privacy. It occurred to Elizabeth that Teyla could have said other, worse things. And you have no authority over me any more, if indeed you ever did.

 

How long was it since Elizabeth had been alone with Teyla Emmagen? One or two times shortly after John had died? The last time had been when Teyla had come to say that she was leaving Atlantis.

 

She poured a glass of sweet fruit juice and offered it to Teyla. Teyla took it with a faint smile. Pouring a second glass, Elizabeth walked back to the bed. The juice was pleasant and cool in her mouth, and she could almost feel it seeping into her pores, bringing refreshment to her parched and weary body.

 

"Really, Teyla, this isn't necessary." She looked into the dark red liquid, and saw snatches of her own face looking back at her.

 

"Do you really believe that, Doctor Weir?"

 

Elizabeth remembered how John had sat in this room not too long ago, hiding injuries in the darkness. She thought of Lieutenant Ford, covered with the blood of his own men, and of Caldwell, critically ill in the infirmary. She thought of the day that Teyla had left, and of the long litany of complaints that poured in about McKay's behaviour.

 

Sometimes, she thought, it took the eyes of an outsider to see what was obvious. Sometimes you had to look into the eyes of a stranger to see your own life reflected back at you. You never noticed yourself change, but when you looked back at a photograph taken two years ago, you saw the changes that you had been too close to see.

 

Elizabeth laid down her drink, and turned to face Teyla fully. "I owe you an apology."

 

"You owe me nothing." It was cold. Elizabeth knew that she deserved that, but a moment later Teyla continued, in a softer voice. "I chose to leave Atlantis, Doctor Weir."

 

Elizabeth remembered Sergeant Bates, hurling his accusations. Ford had clearly wanted to trust Teyla, but his defence had been cautious. Although Teyla had proved innocent of the specific accusations against her, Caldwell had never trusted her. Excluded from the Gate teams, and openly mistrusted by the military leaders of the city, Teyla had had no choice but to leave.

 

"I should have defended you," she said. Sheppard would have, her conscience added. She almost smiled at the thought of how fiercely Sheppard would have fought Bates' accusations. Elizabeth had wanted to trust Teyla, but had told herself that she had to put caution first. The safety of the city required nothing less.

 

Teyla shook her head. "It would have made no difference."

 

She was only half right. Caldwell would not have relented. Teyla would still have had no position on any Gate team. But she would, perhaps, have felt that she had at least one friend in Atlantis. It might not have been enough to keep her there, but it could have eased the sting of the parting.

 

Elizabeth reached for the juice again; took another sip. "Why are you here?"

 

Teyla's smile was less guarded this time. "Because Major Sheppard asked me to. And when a man such as John Sheppard brings himself to ask for help, I take the request seriously."

 

He has asked Elizabeth for help, too, with his eyes, with his stance, with the way he had let her see the injuries he had taken such care to hide in the darkness. He had asked for her trust, and she had responded as she had felt the leader of Atlantis ought to respond. She had dismissed his concerns, and reminded him that he no longer had the right to express them. She had rebuked Brett in private, but defended him in front of the man he had attacked. Professional, yes. But human…?

 

She swirled the red liquid, shattering the reflection of her face. "Do you think he's right?"

 

"That something is very wrong at the heart of Atlantis?" Teyla tilted her head to one side, as if considering. "I do not know. I no longer have a place here. It has seemed wrong to me for many moons. All I know is that Major Sheppard thinks something is wrong. If we ignore his concerns, and then discover that he was right…"

 

Elizabeth closed her eyes, letting out a breath. She was right, of course. She had argued as much to Ford when he had protested about Teyla's treatment during the incident with the Wraith. Any suspicion, however slight, had to be acted upon. The stakes were too high to ignore them. If anyone other than Sheppard had come to her with the same concerns, she would have authorised an investigation. But Sheppard has such an obvious vested interest. He was an outsider who knew nothing about how they had suffered. He'd been away - he abandoned us! - for two years. The very sight of him left her churned up with emotions, when she most needed to be calm.

 

"Do you know what he's planning?" she brought herself to ask. Then Doctor Weir slipped away, and Elizabeth took the fore. "How is he? He looked awful."

 

Teyla looked as if she was choosing her words carefully. "I think we have all thought over much about our own feelings about his return, and have spared little thought for his own. Has anyone asked him what happened to him while he was away?"

 

"It was only two days." The words sounded paltry as soon as she said them.

 

"Much can happen in two days," Teyla rebuked her softly.

 

They had mourned him as dead, and lived through the dark days that followed. They had endured siege and battle, pain and loss. Life had been more cold and lonely with Caldwell at the helm - for Elizabeth, for McKay, for Ford, for Teyla. Had she subconsciously blamed John for that?

 

"Perhaps we are not the only ones who suffered while he was gone," Teyla said. Elizabeth wanted to turn away from her voice, and cry 'no more'.

 

Teyla stood up, and walked to the door. She pressed her ear to it, listening for a while, then returned to her seat. "Get some rest, Elizabeth," she said gently. "Whether he is right or wrong, you will need to be strong to face the day to come."

 

******

 

At some point after being dragged from McKay's room, Sheppard must have lost consciousness. He opened his eyes to see a flat and featureless floor; raised his head a fraction to see bars. He blinked. Not long ago, he had stood outside these bars and talked to a Wraith. Stay positive now…

 

He rolled over onto his side. A faint sound behind him told him that he was not alone.

 

Sitting up required an effort; his bruises had stiffened while he had been unconscious. The other man in the cell was doing the same. Like twins of each other, the two of them dragged themselves up to sit leaning against the wall. Beneath the weary exterior, Sheppard was ready for action. He suspected that the other man was, too.

 

He tried his voice. "What happened to you?"

 

"Stunned," said the other man. "Wraith stunner, before they brought you in. If they hadn't, I'd have escaped. Broken their necks."

 

Sheppard nodded, raising his eyebrows. "I don't doubt it."

 

The man was tall, with a build that made him look even larger. He wore his hair in tangled dreadlocks, and everything about him shouted strength and ferocity. Sheppard suddenly regretted seeing quite so many prison movies when he was a teenager. Bad things tended to happen when your cell-mate looked like that.

 

"What happened to you?" The large man jerked his chin towards Sheppard.

 

"Got beat up." It was simpler not to say the rest of it.

 

There was silence for a while. At least the big man was making no move towards him. "What did you do?" Sheppard decided to ask.

 

"Nothing. You?"

 

"Well, there's a coincidence, because that makes two of us." He said it with a smile, but the big man did not smile back.

 

Another minute passed. Sheppard got to his feet, braced himself for a moment with a hand against the wall, and stalked to the edge of the cell. There was no way out, of course - he would never have kept a Wraith in this cell had there been any possibility of escape - but a man still had to check.

 

"If there was a way out, I would have found it," the big man said. Coming from him, it didn't sound like an empty boast.

 

Sheppard sat down again; it was a far better option than falling. He closed his eyes for a moment, resting the back of his head against the wall.

 

"You don't look too good." It sounded more like a threat than anything else. The big man, by contrast, looked stronger by the minute. If it came to a fight, Sheppard knew he would be overwhelmed within seconds, and after that…

 

He grinned, going for the mock-offended look. "Between you and Rodney, you sure know how to make a man feel good about himself."

 

He pressed his fingers to his brow, willing the throbbing to go away. He knew he had to stay alert, but waves of sleep were breaking upon him, and he felt as if he was drowning. When had he last slept? Unconsciousness didn't count. That made it two days… No, three days, by now. The correction, when it came, almost made him laugh. No, two years. No sleep for two years.

 

When he forced his eyes open again, the big man was looking at him intently. Perhaps talking would help. "So what's your story? I take it you're not from round here."

 

The other man said nothing.

 

Sheppard shrugged. "The silent type, huh?"

 

The other prisoner picked at front teeth with his thumb, then spat. "Thought you'd know."

 

"I… uh…" Sheppard stretched his legs in front of him. That, too, helped him stay awake. "I've been away. I didn't get the postcard where they told me about…" His voice cracked. "Anything."

 

The big man stood up, and walked towards Sheppard, then turned his back and walked to the edge of the cell. As he did so, Sheppard sucked in a breath, held it, then let it out again.

 

"I was running from the Wraith," the man said, his back still turned to Sheppard. "Been running for eight years. I ran into some of your men. I would have killed them, but they offered me a trade. I help them fight their enemies, and they take the tracking device out. I came back with them to the City of the Ancestors." One hand rose as if unconsciously to the back of his neck. "Your doctor took the device out."

 

Sheppard frowned; shifted position. "Yes… uh. Interesting. And you're in prison why?"

 

The man turned round. "A man has to win my respect before he can give me orders. Caldwell tried to give me orders. Two of his man laid hands on me..."

 

And were probably very messily dead in the morgue right now, Sheppard thought. "I see," he managed.

 

The big man sat down again, his legs pulled up, his body taut and predatory. "You?"

 

"Me? Nothing as interesting as that." Sheppard shrugged. "I used to have Caldwell's job. Some bitch-woman took me prisoner one day. So I strangle her, and get home two days later to find that two years have passed. Now everyone's gone crazy, and everyone I meet seems to feel the urge to beat the crap out of me."

 

"Oh." The big man's impassive face seemed to have been shocked into a reaction.

 

Guess I win that round, Sheppard thought. It was becoming harder and harder to stay awake. He fought against the temptation to hold his eyelids open with his fingers. The moment he slept, the big man would… No, he thought, that didn't feel quite right. Still, he had to stay awake. Atlantis was going to hell in a handbasket, and he had to stay awake. Not that he could do much locked up in prison with Conan the barbarian, but, still…

 

"What's your name?" the big man asked.

 

Sheppard opened one eye, just a slit. "Sheppard. John Sheppard. Major John Sheppard," he added defiantly.

 

"Dex," the big man said. He showed his teeth when he smiled. "Ronon Dex. Specialist Ronon Dex."

 

"Pleased to meet you, Specialist Ronon Dex." Now please don't jump me while I'm asleep.

 

Dex gave a sharp nod. "You should rest. Looks like you need it." Another flash of teeth. Perhaps it was a snarl, not a smile. "I'll wake you up if the enemy returns."

 

"Hey, that's my people you're talking about," Sheppard said, but he couldn't muster any real ire, and the words fell cold around him.


"Sleep, Sheppard," Dex said. It was almost a command.

 

The last thing he saw was Dex sitting over him, taut and watchful, as if he was on guard.

 

******

 

There was no possibility of sleeping.

 

When he sat in the chair, he remembered the feel of it against his legs as they had dragged Sheppard away. When he picked up his laptop, he remembered seeing Sheppard behind the shelter of its screen. When he sat on the bed, he remembered that Sheppard had been lying there just hours before. Rodney peered suspiciously at the bedclothes, but couldn't see any blood. Still, he would have to get clean sheets from store. It was downright unsanitary, not to mention the risk of horrible diseases.

 

Did Elizabeth know that Sheppard had been taken? Perhaps he should tell her. Not that Elizabeth listened to him much any more. No, she probably knew already.

 

He downed a glass of water - gulped it, rather, splashes dripping down his chin and onto his clothes. No, there was nothing he could do. There was nothing he should do. Nothing would happen to Sheppard - this was Atlantis, for God's sake, not some brutal prison planet. It was just a precaution. At least it kept him out of the way, and stopped him hovering around Rodney like a lost puppy.

 

He found a discarded power bar, still three quarters intact, and tore another bite out of it. Despite the water, it still felt dry in his throat. Consumed with a sudden unfocused fury, he hurled it at the far wall.

 

No, Sheppard deserved to be locked up. Brett was right. The bad stuff had only started after Sheppard had come back. And then there was that nonsense about some fairy woman… Yes, that was it. She'd given him freaky powers of mind control, and he'd forced an innocent young marine to shoot Caldwell. Of course Sheppard wanted Caldwell out of the way. He was jealous of him for taking his job. If Caldwell was out of the picture, Sheppard hoped to get his old job back. That was why he was babbling about vague dangers and the need to act. He wanted to set himself up as a hero and get the adulation of all.

 

"Well, you won't get it from me, Major," Rodney muttered.

 

He drifted to the door, and opened it. It felt different outside, as if the whole of Atlantis was thrumming with anticipation. It was a faintly familiar feeling. He remembered leaving his room and heading to the Gate Room, ready for some stupid, desperate mission with his team. He remembered opening his door to see Sheppard's irritating grin. Wanna explore some dusty labs, Rodney?

 

He knew the way towards the holding cells, but squashed the ridiculous temptation to go there. Elizabeth was… No, he had no idea what he would say to Elizabeth; had no idea, really, what he wanted to say. That left the labs, his cold little kingdom. If he couldn't sleep, at least he could work.

 

There were more soldiers in the corridors that there normally were. Despite himself, Rodney felt like cowering as he passed them, making himself as small as possible. Two of them were stationed at an intersection, and they looked coldly at him as he neared them. At least there was no cruel laughter as he passed. There was only silence.

 

Of course, he thought. With Caldwell in the infirmary, and with the attack on Ford's team, of course security would be high, and no-one would feel like laughing. But Sheppard was in prison now. They had their man. They thought they had their man. Why, then, would they…?

 

He shook his head in an impatient denial. No point thinking about it. Let the military worry about their own affairs, while he filled his head with the important things. He wasn't like Sheppard, to turn everything into his own battle, even things that had nothing to do with him.

 

The lab was quiet and empty. He logged onto his computer; briefly considered emailing Elizabeth, but decided not to. He realised that he had little memory of what he had been working on before retiring back to his room - though not, in the end, to sleep. Memories of two years ago were suddenly clearer than memories of the afternoon just gone. Standing on that cliff, staring fiercely down into the ocean. Racing out of the memorial service, shouting at Carson, pushing everybody away.

 

The sudden sound of footsteps made him look up sharply, but it was only Zelenka. "What are you doing here?" Rodney demanded.

 

Zelenka rubbed his eyes, his glasses riding up over his fingers. His hair looked even wilder than normal, and his clothes were crumpled, as if he had slept in them.

 

Rodney frowned, feeling the familiar anger. "What…?"

 

Zelenka's hand lashed out, and Rodney felt a sharp pain on the inside of his elbow. His mouth fell open in disbelief. "You injected…"

 

And then nothing.

 

******

 

He did not entirely fall. He was still in his chair when awareness returned, and when he pawed clumsily at his sleeve, pulling it up, a fresh bead of blood was welling from the wound.

 

Zelenka was gone. Rodney brought his hand to his head, fingers digging into the sides of his temple. They were all gone. Of course they were gone. He was alone.

 

Not alone.

 

His head was throbbing. Although the lights in the lab were low, they flooded painfully into his eyes. "Zelenka attacked me!" he protested out loud. Even his voice sounded far away.

 

He clawed himself to his feet, his hand spread on the desk. "Got to get help. Carson. Yes, Carson. What if he's killed me?"

 

Something was whispering in the back of his mind, buzzing just out of hearing. He flapped his hand, as if he was driving away an insistent insect. It faded away, then swelled louder; faded away again, then came back. It was almost as if there were words in it, but he could not make them out.

 

His legs did not want to obey him. "Oh no. Oh no. I'm dying, aren't I?" Speaking made the whispering fade a little more. His hand lashed out towards the desk, lunging for… what? Pens scattered, and a mug fell to the ground, spilling congealed coffee. He fell to his knees, fascinated by the dark liquid. For a brief, terrifying moment, he thought he would see a stranger's face if he looked into it.

 

"Got to get help." He stood up, almost slipping in the liquid. He went to the door, opened it… A gunshot rang out, and he recoiled, pressing himself against the wall next to the now-closed door. "What just happened?"

 

Nothing important. Now come.

 

"Nothing important?" he protested. "Someone just shot something!"

 

He didn't feel brave. He wanted to cower under his desk and wait for the shooting to die down. The military would have it under control. Sheppard with that deadly look he could get sometimes, wreaking bloody vengeance on those who threatened him. The whisper lashed out painfully; it didn't like him thinking about Sheppard. "Well, I don't like thinking about him, either, but it seems like he's pushing himself in here, too, so get used to it."

 

His hands were trembling. They wanted him to open the door again. "Are you crazy?" he told them. He watched them move. Safer outside than inside. "What? Safe?" he protested. His own words stabbed in his head like knives.

  

There was a body in the corridor, spilling blood. His legs wanted to walk the other way, but Rodney forced himself to approach it, edging slightly sideways, like a crab. It was a soldier; he didn't know his name. He looked quite dead, a bullet-hole between his eyes. Feeling sick and squeamish, Rodney fumbled for the still-holstered gun, and held it as if it was a bomb.

 

Zelenka. Brett. Elizabeth. Sheppard. Ford. Everyone. Everyone hated him. The snivelling scientists with their petitions to Elizabeth. Caldwell with his all-military teams. Laughter in the corridor. A solitary table at the mess hall.

 

He tightened his grip on the gun. It no longer felt threatening. Its grip was warm and it was smooth. No-one would laugh at him if he used the gun.

 

No. Not like that. Come.

 

His legs started moving. "But where am I going?" He gave a harsh laugh. "Zelenka attacked me. I need urgent medical attention."

 

The corridors started to sway drunkenly. A soldier saw him coming and gave him a wide berth. The whispering was louder than ever, and his head felt as if it was going to explode. He blinked once, and opened his eyes to find that he was a hundred yards away, about to walk into a wall. His left palm sprawled against the wall's surface, and he pressed his brow against his hand.

 

Alone, he thought. His feet wanted to take him to somewhere where he would be part of something. What? He frowned. "I'm not some brainless frat boy going to a party."

 

His fingers trailed down the wall. Zelenka. Zelenka had attacked him. And there was Caldwell, and Ford… It wasn't… just a military… issue. The thoughts were difficult to muster. He couldn't trust anybody. Couldn't trust… Couldn't trust…

 

Come…

 

"And you can shut up, too!" he shouted, slamming his fist into the wall. "I'm thinking here!"

 

The only sensible thing to do was to go to the infirmary. Alone… Alone…

 

With a hoarse cry, Rodney pushed himself away from the wall, and started to run.

 

******

 

End of chapter eleven

 

******

 

Chapter twelve: Shadows

 

Aiden thought he knew where he was going. Most things were clear, but every now and then there were… shadows.

 

He had done what he had to do with respect to Major Sheppard. He had talked to him and meant it all, even as another, higher part of his mind had known that he was just biding his time. He was waiting until Sheppard turned his back. The rest was just words. It meant nothing. It meant nothing. It meant nothing.

 

And then the blow; the moment of truth; the moment that should have led to Sheppard's awakening. It had been his decision to target Sheppard first. He wanted Sheppard to be part of the family, working on the same side as Aiden, not against him. "I'm sorry, sir," he had said, because of the violence he had been forced to use, but inside he had been gleeful. Soon Sheppard would understand everything, and forgive.

 

The first few minutes were difficult. Aiden remembered Beckett showing him the light, then remembered nothing for several minutes, until he had opened his eyes onto a changed world. Others, he knew, reacted with wild emotions and violent panic. He had stayed within earshot of Sheppard, then, waiting for his former commander to stand up again, with fresh understanding in his eyes. Aiden could then be the one to guide him, to help him, to tell him the plan.

 

But Sheppard had acted very differently from any of the others Aiden had seen responding to Beckett's gentle enlightenment in the infirmary. Aiden remembered a quiet drifting, a few moments of wild confusion, and then all thoughts slotting into place in a way that was almost miraculous. Sheppard had just seemed confused and distressed. Aiden had watched him, horrified. His hands had fought the urge to kill him there and then.

 

That had been the first shadow.

 

Sheppard was long gone now; Aiden knew, of course, that he was now confined. He knew, too, that Sheppard would remain locked up until things had progressed so far that a scapegoat was no longer needed, and then he would be killed. They knew that Sheppard was a formidable foe; Aiden himself had told them that.

 

If only you hadn't resisted it, Aiden thought. The sorrow was the second shadow.

 

He had wandered to the infirmary not long before. Ross had been desperate to get out of bed and assist in the struggle, but Ford had urged him to stay put. No matter what cause they now served, his team was still his team, and their safety was important.

 

You kept your head, and put the safety of your men first. Sheppard had said that, as Ford had stood there in the darkness, planning to unmake and remake his life. And so he did. So he had done.

 

But he would kill them in a heartbeat if he had to.

 

Another shadow.

 

He was stationed in a corridor near the physics labs, watching through the night. No-one had passed for hours. In his head, of course, he was no longer alone, and never would be, but that was only the faintest sense of connection. Their numbers were growing by the hour, but it was not the same as having people around you. His higher level thoughts continued in their new and marvellous fashion, but beneath them still ran the lower level - the thoughts of a man called Aiden Ford. That part of him worried about his men, and hoped one day to prove himself in the eyes of his commanders. That part of him was never entirely happy when alone.

 

Footsteps caused him to snap his head up, instantly ready. "Doctor McKay?"

 

"Ford." For an instant, McKay seemed relieved to see him, but then he froze, his face a picture of trepidation. "Ford," he said in a different voice. "What are you doing here?"

 

The lower level thoughts vanished. "What are you doing?" he demanded.

 

"Just going for a walk," McKay said. "A midnight walk. Though it must be halfway to morning now. Can the word midnight be properly applied, I wonder?" His hand was on his chest, tapping it incessantly. "Couldn't sleep. I had some work to do in the labs."

 

Aiden moved closer to him. "Don't!" McKay squawked. He turned away, then clenched his fists at his side, and turned back again. "Zelenka attacked me. Injected something. I don't feel well. I felt the urge… I don't know where I'm going. The infirmary?"

 

The higher level could sense something coming off McKay. It was a sense, almost a smell, of family. Zelenka attacked me. Ford stepped back, satisfied. "I don't think you need Doctor Beckett, McKay. Everything will seem perfectly clear in a moment."

 

"Will it?" McKay raked his hand through his hair. "That's good."

 

He hurried on, and Ford watched him. Both levels of his mind were smiling.

 

******

 

Sheppard started awake with a gasp. A large man had been reaching towards his shoulder, but he withdrew his hand when he saw that Sheppard was awake. Dex, Sheppard thought. So he wasn't a dream. That meant that none of it was a dream. That meant…

 

"Someone's coming." Dex jerked his chin towards the door.

 

There was no-one visible in the room outside the cell. Sheppard strained to listen, but could hear nothing. "Impressive hearing," he whispered, but he saw no reason to doubt the man. On the run from the Wraith for eight years. He stood up stiffly and leant against the back wall of the cell, outwardly nonchalant, inwardly ready.  Dex apparently felt no such need for nonchalance. Standing in the middle of the cell, he was the very picture of feral menace.

 

The outer door opened, and a hunched figure came in, head darting from side to side. Sheppard frowned. "Rodney?"

 

"How do you expect me to trust you?" McKay demanded. He jabbed a finger in Sheppard's direction. "You come waltzing back after two years in the grave. I don't know you any more. It's you against everyone else, and everyone else… I know them. I've lived with them for two years. Bosom friends, and all that. Family, you could say."

 

Sheppard said nothing. Dex shot him a look, but he pretended not to see it.

 

McKay started to pace up and down, his right hand high and active. "Everything was fine until you came back. Then the minute you get back, everything goes crazy. Oh yes, I'm on to you, you know. I bet you don't think anyone's noticed how convenient it is to you that Caldwell's dead."

 

"Dead?" Sheppard echoed sharply.

 

"As good as dead. You hexed them, didn't you? It's some freaky super power you picked up in Fairyland. No! No! Don't look at me!" He shielded his eyes with his hand, cowering away. "Don't put the evil eye on me." He lowered his hand slowly. "Not that I believe in such mumbo-jumbo, of course, not me. The clear shining light of science and reason: that's always been my first love. A marriage made in heaven, you could say."

 

Sheppard was aware of Dex smirking beside him. He shot him a sharp look of warning.

 

"Major Brett was right to lock you up." McKay was still pacing, never looking at Sheppard. "He's a good man, Major Brett. Like that, we are." He crossed his fingers and held them up accusingly. "He chose me for his last mission. Hand-picked me…" He let out a breath, and his shoulders relaxed for a moment. "Like you did." He raked his hand through his tousled hair. "Not that I enjoy getting rained on and shot at. Not that I enjoy the dead bodies and the running for my life and the death-defying leaps through the Gate, oh no, not at all."

 

Sheppard kept his face carefully expressionless.

 

"Zelenka attacked me!" McKay jabbed upwards violently with one finger. "He turned on me! It's not just the soldiers. I thought it was just the soldiers – boys will be boys, mindless space marines will be…" The hand subsided and twisted in the air as if to imply endless etceteras. "Ignore it and it'll go away. Not my problem. But Zelenka…! He injected something… It made me feel quite strange."

 

Sheppard edged forward, holding one hand behind his back in a command to Dex: Don't you dare say it. McKay's skin was pale, but the cheeks were flushed and sweaty. His pupils seemed to be spilling darkness across his face.

 

"And people are dying!" McKay squawked. "Everyone's gone crazy. Even Zelenka… And Ford! They're not right in the head. They're not who we think they are. Can't trust anyone. Can't trust… Can't… trust…" He stopped on the far side of the room, hand pressed against the wall. "No, it's just me – me alone. If you want a job done well, do it yourself. Can't trust anyone in case… in case they're really the enemy under their skin."

 

Sheppard stopped at the very limits of the cell. He brought his hand up, but could not touch the bars.

 

"Where was I?" McKay pushed himself away from the wall, brining up both hands clenched into hopeless-looking fists. "Yes, trust. Like I said, Major, there's no reason at all why I should trust you. No reason why I should trust anyone, but least of all you. I don't even know you any more."

 

Sheppard smiled. "Are you going to stand there chattering all day, or are you going to get us out of here?"

 

For the first time since he had entered the room, McKay looked at him, rolling his eyes as if Sheppard was an idiot. "Yes, of course, with my mighty muscles I mugged a guard on the way in and stole his code."

 

"Genius like you doesn't need a code." Sheppard jabbed his chin at the locking mechanism. "Do the lock-pick thing, McKay."

 

"Everything's so easy in Sheppard-world, isn't it? Rodney McKay can work miracles. It never crosses your mind that there might be something I can't do. That's what I always hated…" His voice faded. He gave a grudging hmph and moved forward to attack the lock.

 

Dex was looming at Sheppard's shoulder. "Friend of yours?"

 

Sheppard was on the point of giving a flippant answer, but something stopped him. It was difficult to say the simple "Yes", but it felt strangely good afterwards.

 

"I don't know why I'm doing this," McKay said, as he worked intently on the lock. "If the guard finds me, I'll say you forced me."

 

"Yes, the unarmed, imprisoned man threatened you, Rodney. With what, I wonder? Scary faces?"

 

"Not that there are any guards." McKay's face was intent. "None at all. See, Major? That's how unimportant you are. They know you don't have any friends here who'll try to rescue you. You're dead." His eyes flickered up, and he seemed to notice Dex for the first time. "And he's a… a… Well, I don't know who he is, but I don't think anyone's going to be rescuing him any time soon. You're just going to languish here, both of you, while all hell breaks loose around you."

 

"Yes." Sheppard smiled.

 

"Almost there," McKay said. "Pathetically easy for someone like me. Something should be done about that." He paused, considering. "Though what are the chances of a Wraith being imprisoned in here, with another Wraith loose in the city, possessing my sort of intellect? Very slight, I'd say. Practically non-existent."

 

Sheppard flexed his hand. "Rodney…"

 

"Alright, alright," McKay snapped. He prodded the lock a few more times, then stopped again. "Major." It was a stage whisper.

 

Sheppard leant forward. "What?" he asked in the same tone.

 

"What shall we do about him?" McKay jerked his chin at Dex in a way that was clearly meant to be subtle. "Can you knock him out?"

 

"No, Rodney."

 

"Do something, then." McKay was persisting with his whispering.

 

"Okay, then." Sheppard turned to Dex. "I'm going to take back the city. You with me?"

 

Dex grinned. "Sounds good."

 

"But… But…" McKay shrank back as far as he could.

 

"Just do it, McKay."

 

"Yes. Very well. Okay. On your own head be it." McKay prodded the lock at arm's length, then snatched his hand back, bringing both arms up to his chest.

 

"After you." Sheppard gestured expansively to Dex to go first, then followed him out of the cell into a city full of enemies.

 

******

 

For a while, Rodney had thought he was losing his mind. He felt more normal now, but didn't madmen always think they were sane? He could think of no other explanation for why he had let Major Sheppard out of an Atlantis prison. And as for the barbarian…

 

"Do I look crazy?" he asked Sheppard, as he struggled to match his pace. "It's just… I wouldn't know, would I? It stands to reason they'd attack my mind, after all. It's a formidable weapon."

 

"No more crazy than normal," Sheppard whispered, then held up his hand in a sharp gesture that commanded silence.

 

Rodney took his place behind him, his shoulders hunched down. Sheppard was peering around a corner. "Guards," Sheppard whispered. "Are there normally so many guards stationed inside Atlantis?"

 

Rodney shook his head, drawing in his lower lip anxiously. What on earth had he been thinking? Sheppard had been locked up by the acting military commander of Atlantis. By releasing him, McKay had turned himself into an enemy. He was a traitor. He would be court-martialled… "Can you court-martial a civilian?"

 

Sheppard's palm came up behind him, ordering him to stop talking. "Don't kill unless there's no choice."

 

Kill, Rodney echoed. He looked at his empty hands. They were trembling slightly.

 

"No." Sheppard held up his hand again, and Rodney realised that he was speaking to the barbarian, not to him. "Don't kill even if there's no choice. These are my men; they're just not themselves. You okay with that? If not, then…" He flapped his hand, indicating away.

 

Rodney swallowed. Yes, go, he thought. This wasn't how it was meant to be. But then he frowned, for he had no idea how it was meant to be. He had never had a plan. He had found himself at Sheppard's cell door, and then he had been opening it, even though he was sure he had just talked himself into the opposite.

 

"I can live with that," the barbarian said. Rodney thought he said it reluctantly. Those big hands were probably desperate to do some rending of flesh and those teeth to tear at human flesh.

 

Rodney never saw the signal that passed between the two of them, but suddenly Sheppard and the barbarian were gone, racing around the corner in perfect unison. Rodney pressed the back of his head against the wall, and closed his eyes. He heard the sound of scuffling, and heavy blows landing on places that had to hurt. There was clattering and a muffled gasp. Was Sheppard getting hurt? Perhaps the barbarian had killed them all. Well, at least Rodney could say I told you so over Sheppard's corpse.

 

Corpse…

 

He peeped around the corner just in time to see Sheppard coolly stripping a fallen soldier of his weapons. The barbarian was doing the same to the other one. "You know how to use one of those?" Sheppard asked.

 

The barbarian gave a brusque nod. "Saw one used." 

 

Sheppard's good hand moved to the soldier's vest. "Help me with this?"

 

Swallowing hard, Rodney looked away. Not dead, he reminded himself, but they looked dead, and Sheppard and the barbarian were like vultures, calmly stripping their bodies of anything valuable. He's a stranger, he reminded himself. Even before… before Sheppard had died, he had been a stranger. Just as Rodney had begun to understand him, he had suddenly become someone else entirely. The laidback flyboy had become a cold-eyed warrior, systematically wiping out the Genii one by one.

 

"McKay." He jumped when he heard Sheppard call his name. "Put this on." Sheppard was holding out the vest. Rodney shuffled forward and snatched at it, and fumbled his way into it. The shape and weight of it felt intimately familiar, although it was nearly two years since he had last worn one. A vulture? he thought. Well… He patted the sides of the vest. He had turned himself into a traitor. The whole of Atlantis' military was about the focus all their resources on bringing him down. Only a fool would turn down the offer of protection.

 

Sheppard put on the second vest. "Best clear out," he said.

 

"Yes, but where?" Rodney asked. If he went back to his quarters now and pretended to be asleep, perhaps they'd assume that somebody else had let Sheppard out. He could wash his hands of it. Who? I haven't the faintest idea who you're talking about.

 

"Rodney…"

 

"Don't snap at me," Rodney panted. "You're going too fast."

 

Maybe he should arrest Sheppard himself and take him somewhere secure. Maybe he should tell Elizabeth. "Do you think they'll try me for treason?" he asked. "They wouldn't, would they? I'm far too important to national security."

 

"They'd just shoot you," Sheppard said, without turning round.

 

See, Rodney thought. That's what I always hated about you. That’s what I hate about you. That's what I… "Wait for me!" he gasped, but Sheppard was already slowing, signalling to the barbarian to slacken his pace.

 

"You okay, Rodney?"

 

"No, I am not okay," Rodney protested. "Zelenka attacked me, and now I seem to have gone crazy." He gasped, suddenly remembering something. "You were acting weird, too. You could barely keep on your feet. Are you okay, Major?

 

Sheppard gave a quick grin. "Never thought you'd ask." The grin faded; turned into a shrug. "Been better, but I got some sleep. It helped."

 

The barbarian held up a hand. "Someone's coming."

 

"Stay behind me," Sheppard commanded Rodney.

 

The barbarian tilted his head to one side. "Only one. We can take him, Sheppard."

 

Sheppard edged forward. "Wait."

 

"Wait?" Rodney echoed. "Wait?

 

The gun rounded the corner first, held in a dark hand. Slow footsteps followed, and then there was Ford, his gun trained on Sheppard's head.

 

"You attacked me, lieutenant," Sheppard said coldly. As he spoke, he subtly shifted position, until his body blocked Ford from Rodney's view.

 

"You should be thanking me," Ford said. "Something went wrong. Why didn't it work? And Doctor McKay… He tricked me. That means you've both got to die."

 

"Put down the gun, Ford."

 

Shoot him! Rodney thought. Surely Sheppard knew places where you could shoot someone to disarm them without killing them. It was the sort of thing he would know. Or get He-Man to knock him out. He swallowed hard. Don't just talk to him!

 

"I can't." Ford's voice was ridiculously normal. "You're not one of us."

 

"Us?" Sheppard edged forward a step. Rodney felt suddenly cold and exposed, and edged forward with him. This took him inside the shadow of the barbarian's coat, with the big man a wall at his side. "How many of you are there?"

 

"More by the minute. Almost all the military is ours."

 

Oh yes, Rodney thought. Question the enemy and get him to reveal his whole plan. Haven't you seen the movies, Sheppard? But perhaps he had. It always worked in the movies. Rodney fought the insane urge to laugh.

 

Sheppard edged forward again. "Who are you?"

 

Ford smiled. "Lieutenant Aiden Ford, sir, just as I always was. It's just that I've woken up and am seeing things clearly."

 

Another movement. "What…?"

 

"Don't move any closer!" Ford shouted. "Stay where you are."

 

Sheppard raised his hands a few inches from his sides, as if to show that he was no threat. "Why are you doing this, Ford?" His voice was calm, but there was a hard thread of authority in it.

 

"Because it is right."

 

"It isn't right," Sheppard said. Oh God! Rodney thought. He's going to get himself killed! The terror of that thought was enough to make him tremble, but the ridiculous laughter still wanted to pour out. "Remember who you are." Sheppard's voice cut through Rodney's fears, and froze him. "Remember who I am."

 

Rodney saw the shadow of the gun in Ford's hand, dark and steady on the floor. Sheppard's body was blocking his view of the weapon itself. "You can't command me any more," Ford said.

 

"No." Sheppard shook his head. "But I'm talking about you - a good officer who just yesterday kept his head under fire and put his team first. Why should you, Aiden Ford, want to damage Atlantis? Fight it, Ford."

 

Fight what? But Rodney's hand rose unbidden to his brow, and he thought he knew.

 

Sheppard took another step forward. "It doesn't matter what you've done. There's still time to change. Join us, Ford…"

 

"No!"

 

The shadow of the gun jerked sharply. The barbarian's body smashed into Rodney's, hurling him to one side, and Sheppard was rolling to the side, coming up with his gun ready. Rodney's ears were ringing from the sound of the gunshot. Am I hit? he thought. Am I hit? He felt no pain. He tried to move, but the barbarian pressed his hand into his back, holding him down, and his long coat brushed against Rodney's face. He couldn't see what was happening. He couldn't see what was happening!

 

"I don't want to shoot you," Sheppard said, in a voice that chilled Rodney with both threat and memory, "but I won't let you do this. Do it, Dex."

 

Light flooded Rodney's eyes and the barbarian left his side, pushing himself to his feet with a firm pressure on Rodney's back. A gun fired again, and the barbarian threw himself at Ford, demolishing him with his bulk. Something struck hard against the wall.

 

Rodney sat up weakly, cowering backwards, but the gun in Ford's limp hand went off one more time, and Rodney was thrown back against the wall, twisting in the air so his shoulder struck it hard. He slid to the ground, and then the pain hit him, and he screamed.

 

******

 

end of chapter twelve

 

******

 

Chapter thirteen: Bolt-hole

 

"Attention all Atlantis personnel. I repeat, attention all Atlantis personnel. This is Major Brett."

 

Doctor Weir's eyes snapped open, and she raised her head from the pillow. "What…?"

 

"We shall see," Teyla said, with a calm that she did not feel. Doctor Weir had slept for three or four hours, and Teyla had not moved from her station in all that time. She had expected Major Sheppard to return before now. 

 

"As you all know," Major Brett's voice said over the speakers, "Colonel Caldwell was attacked yesterday. He remains in a critical condition. The attack was not an isolated occurrence. The safety of this city demands that I am entirely open with you as to the cause. As I am sure you are aware, Major John Sheppard has recently returned after two years' absence. He has come back changed. He is not the man some of you used to know."

 

"What?" Doctor Weir was on her feet, the blanket pooling on the floor. Teyla felt every muscle in her body tense up, but she did not move.

 

"He is no longer a friend to Atlantis," Brett said. "He serves other masters now. We must forget any memories we have or any stories we have heard of the sort of man he once was. He is our enemy, as much as if he wore the face of the Wraith or the clothes of the Genii."

 

Elizabeth sank back down onto the bed, her hand rising to her chest. Teyla remained perfectly still.

 

"We do not yet know how he is able to do it, but Sheppard is able to dupe unwilling victims to carry out his will. Using such means, he induced an innocent man to shoot Colonel Caldwell, and later caused an assault in the Gate Room. On both occasions, he was present. On one occasion, he was the only one there."

 

Elizabeth's hand rose further, pressing into her mouth. Teyla watched her, as if all possible reactions were shown on the other woman's face. Her own face was impassive.

 

"We had the enemy cornered, but regrettably not before he had spread his poison even further. Doctor Rodney McKay is known to have sided with Sheppard and is even now helping him wage war on this city."

 

Doctor McKay! Elizabeth's head jerked up. Teyla pulled her lower lip in with her teeth, then let it go.

 

"Rest assured that we will capture and subdue the enemy, but to that end, I am placing Atlantis under martial law. All civilians – I repeat all civilians - are to remain in their quarters and only leave them if told to by one of my men. I urge you to comply with this ruling. I am not responsible for the consequences of any disobedience. Brett out."

 

Teyla remained still. So it had come. From now on, her actions officially placed her in opposition to the people at Atlantis. If she proceeded along this course, there would be consequences, for herself, and possibly for all her people.

 

On the bed, Doctor Weir reached for her ear piece and tapped her radio. "Major Brett, come in." Her frown indicated the lack of response. "Major Brett?"

 

She surged to her feet, heading for the door, but Teyla was ahead of her. "You heard what he said. No civilians. He repeated that twice."

 

"It doesn't apply to me. Move aside, Teyla."

 

Teyla shook her head. "Major Sheppard asked me to keep you safe."

 

And, really, there was no decision to be made. It was a simple thing. Atlantis was no longer her home, and its internal politics were no longer her concern, but John had come to her and asked for her support, showing hints of a vulnerability that he usually hid so well. She could not give him that support, only to withdraw it when the cost proved too high. He had asked for trust, and he had given it, too. She would not break it.

 

She narrowed her eyes, watching Doctor Weir. Elizabeth paced back to the bed, then over to the mirror, where she splashed water on her face. Teyla caught a glimpse of her face in the mirror. It was taut, stricken with doubts. Teyla knew that she was not supposed to see that expression; that Elizabeth thought herself unseen.

 

"I believe that it is a lie," she said, her voice more gentle, "though perhaps Major Brett believes it to be true. When Major Sheppard came to me and said that something was wrong in Atlantis, I questioned his reason for feeling such certainty, but I never for one moment considered that he was the cause of the wrongness. From the start, he looked at me."

 

"That doesn't mean anything," Doctor Weir protested.

 

"Yes," Teyla said. "It does." Major Sheppard had always communicated far more with his eyes than he was probably aware of. His words could deceive and misdirect, but his eyes did not know how to lie. That was one of the first things she had noticed about him, as he had stood at the side of the cold-faced colonel who had looked right through her as if she did not exist.

 

Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment, as if lost in her own memory. "Yes, it does. You're right."

 

"And then there is the news about Doctor McKay," Teyla continued. "He was… not overjoyed at the Major's return. He would have been exceptionally inclined to disbelieve anything Major Sheppard said. If he is now helping him, then something has happened to make him sure."

 

Elizabeth splashed more water on her face, and drank a little from her cupped hands. Teyla watched as she ran damp fingers through her hair, and tried to smooth creases out of the clothes she had slept in. She watched as the mask of the stern leader was assumed. But, because she had seen that glimpse of Elizabeth in the mirror, Teyla knew that something different lay beneath it. It made her feel sympathy, but it would not cause her to betray a trust.

 

She was ready, then, for Doctor Weir's attempt. Elizabeth strode towards the door as if the possibility of having her escape denied had never occurred to me "Let me out, Teyla."

 

Teyla shook her head. "I cannot. Please, Doctor Weir. It is unsafe."

 

Elizabeth drew herself up, straightening her back in the pose that Teyla knew well. "I am still the commander of this expedition…"

 

That hurt, more than it should have done. "But I am not a member of your expedition." They drove me out with their suspicions, and you did not defend me.

 

"What I mean," Elizabeth said, hands clenched at her side, "is that I cannot hide here while the expedition is in danger. I need to be out there." She flexed her hands, as if debating whether to say more. "Teyla, you don't know what it's like. Caldwell erodes a little more of my authority each day, and makes more and more decisions a military concern. If I hide during this crisis, I could lose my authority completely."

 

The face in the mirror. Past betrayals meant nothing. Teyla wanted to let Elizabeth go where she wanted, but she had made a promise. No, not even a promise, but it meant as much. She's stubborn, John had said, and independent. She'll insist that she doesn't need guarding and she'll try to shake you off. No, I don't want you to knock her out or tie her to a chair. If she refuses to listen to you, then it can't be helped. But please do whatever you can.

 

"We believe that Major Brett is wrong about Major Sheppard," Teyla said. "That means that the true perpetrator is still at large. Your position as leader does not render you exempt; it only makes you more of a target."

 

"Then I will have to take that risk."

 

Teyla barred the door with her arm and her body. "If Major Brett is sincere, he will realise this and will send an escort for you. He will not respect you for venturing onto his battle-ground, Elizabeth. If anything, he will feel the opposite."

 

"Then I will have to take that risk," Elizabeth repeated.

 

Teyla did not retreat. "Please, Elizabeth. I promised John I'd keep you safe."

 

"But I made no promises to him." Oh, but she was cold, so cold. If Teyla had not seen that glimpse in the mirror, she could almost have hated her in that moment.

 

"Then trust him," she begged. "Stay where he wanted you to stay, and give him time."

 

"Trust," Elizabeth echoed. "Such an easy word to say. The safety of the whole expedition rests on the decisions I make. I want to trust him, but… I can't make decisions based on emotions. I have to consider all eventualities. The safety of the city comes first."

 

"That was why I left Atlantis," Teyla said quietly. "Last night, you apologised."

 

Elizabeth froze, and sat down stiffly on the edge of the bed. Her hand half rose to her face, then fell again, and she turned her face away. "It was always him, wasn't it." She did not phrase it like a question. "You stayed in Atlantis because of him."

 

Teyla shook her head. "I stayed in Atlantis because I believed that you were the best hope we all had at combating the Wraith. I believed I could better serve my people by assisting you…"

 

"And because he asked you to join his team," Elizabeth said flatly. "If he hadn't… disappeared… How would it have been, I wonder, if he had ordered you to do one thing, and I had ordered another?"

 

"But he never ordered me to do anything." Teyla smiled the regretful smile of memories. On missions, of course, he had snapped out orders to all of them, and she had obeyed, because all teams needed a leader, but everything else was based on trust and free will. When he had come to her room the evening before, he had asked her without even using words, and she had chosen to help him, no matter what the consequences. It went far deeper than a simple command. 

 

Elizabeth sighed. "And I never had the right to command you, Teyla. I'm sorry. It's just…"

 

"We will get through this," Teyla assured her. "This will pass."

 

But she did not relax her position at the door.

 

******

 

Rodney opened his eyes to semi-darkness, lit only by the slanting grey light of early dawn. Jagged dark shapes were strewn around him, some real, and some made of shadows. He had no idea where he was, though he knew that something had happened. Dreams and reality were all mixed up in his head. He had dreamt that Sheppard…

 

"You okay, Rodney?" Sheppard's voice said. "You fainted."

 

Sheppard. Still alive. Really here. Not a dream. He tried to sit up, but pain stabbed through him, ripping a cry from his throat. Even so, ridiculously, he felt the urge to smile.

 

"Rodney?"

 

"No, I am not okay," he stated. Memories came eagerly now, each one jostling to be heard. "Ford shot me."

 

He remembered running. He remembered blood, trickling between the webbing of his fingers. He remembered the barbarian racing ahead of him, and Sheppard constantly getting ahead, then coming back for him - ahead, and back; leaving him, and then beside him again. He remembered the breath heaving in his lungs, tearing through his throat. He remembered the sound of his footsteps, so loud, so horribly loud in the sleeping city, that he had been so sure that someone would find him and kill him; that someone would come and rescue him from this crazy, dead desperado who had swept him into his crazy bullet-ridden life.

 

"Besides," he added, as the most recent memories resurfaced again, "I didn't faint."

 

"Passed out. I know." He heard the smile in Sheppard's voice.

 

He remembered pounding up stairs, Sheppard hauling him along by the elbow. He remembered Major Brett's voice coming from the speakers, and Sheppard pausing for a moment. "You don't believe that story, do you?" and he had said, "No," the pain forcing the word from him, when surely he didn't mean it, and as soon as he had time to think he'd realise that the opposite was true. And then he had tried to carry on up the stairs, but Sheppard had stopped him, his eyes uncharacteristically serious. "Rodney, you don't have to get caught up in this. I'm the one they're after. If you…", and Rodney had gestured furiously at his blood-stained jacket and had hissed that he was already caught up, and what on earth did this look like: red paint?

 

"Want a hand up?"

 

"No, I do not want a hand up," Rodney snapped. "Dying here! Mortally wounded. In agony."

 

He remembered reaching parts of the city where the lights were dim. He remembered seeing the damage from the Wraith siege, and seeing Sheppard's eyes widen at the sight. "Where are we going?" the barbarian grunted, and Rodney's mind had screamed out danger! danger! and he had thought of the one place possible in moments like this. "Left," he had gasped out. "Right. Straight on." Darker and darker, to a place that was cold. Then, as the door opened gleefully to Sheppard's touch, he had fallen inside.

 

That was the last thing he had known until now.

 

Breath still came with difficulty, and all the muscles in his legs cried out in agony.

 

"About two minutes," Sheppard said, in response to his unspoken question. "Where are we?" There was no smile in his voice any more. "I need to know, Rodney. Is this a safe place to stay, or do we need to move on?"

 

"Oh." Rodney moistened his parched lips. Sheppard passed him a small canteen, and Rodney reached for it one-handed. He missed at first, his trembling fingers jabbing into the hard surface. Drinking when lying down was never easy. "Maybe help me up a little bit," he conceded, "but be careful with me."

 

Sheppard put the canteen down, and offered Rodney a firm hand. His other arm went to Rodney's shoulders, half lifting him, half letting Rodney lift himself. Rodney ended up sitting with his back to the wall, his legs stretched out in front of him. He accepted the water, downing it all between heaving breaths.

 

"Lab," Rodney said, his eyes darting around the room. "One of the many… Ancient labs we… don't use."  He took several breaths, but he could feel his heartbeat slowly returning to normal. "I discovered it. Sensors don't work here. Don't know why."

 

Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "Convenient. Though if they can't find our life signs, won't they know we're here?"

 

Rodney smiled. "That's the beauty of it, Major. No-one else knows about it."

 

The other eyebrow went up. "Even more convenient."

 

He would not say the rest of it, of course. It had just felt comforting to have a bolt-hole - a safe place no-one else knew about. If the Genii came again… If the Wraith… Of course, he would probably be out there in the thick of things saving everyone's lives again, but it was good to know that there was a place.

 

And strange to think that he had guided Sheppard right to it, not to mention the barbarian, too. Guess that means it's not longer safe, then. The thought carried little force.

 

"Let's take a look at the damage, then."

 

Sheppard's hands were coming far too close to the places that hurt. Rodney batted them away with his good hand. "Get off…"

 

"I'm trying to help you, McKay."

 

Oh. Rodney gritted his teeth while Sheppard helped him off with his jacket, and bit his lip when Sheppard started to work on his wound. He was quite proud of himself for not screaming.

 

"It only clipped you," Sheppard said, pulling a field bandage out of his stolen vest. "No real damage done."

 

"No real damage!" Rodney protested. "It's my arm."

 

Sheppard tugged at the sleeve of his own t-shirt. "Snap." There was a half-healed wound on his upper arm. Something about it stirred memories.

 

"Is that…?"

 

"The Super-Wraith." Sheppard gave mirthless grin.

 

But that was… Rodney bit back the words. That was two years ago. To see the wound still there on Sheppard's body… It was true, then. It was real. It was… His hand rose, and he felt an almost overwhelming urge to touch the scar, so that all his senses - sight, touch, and heart - knew that it was real.

 

His hand fell back to his side. He gave a laugh that sounded almost hysterical in his own ears. He was never lost for words - never - but he had no idea at all what he wanted to say. Instead, he closed his eyes, and let Sheppard finish his work. By the end, he knew that all he had was a shallow gouge on his arm. "Lucky I'm right-handed," he managed to say.

 

"Yes." Sheppard patted him on the shoulder, then stood up. Rodney could hear him walk away, could hear his footsteps as they faded to silence. When he opened his eyes, he saw only the twisted shapes of darkness, and the cold grey light from the small, high window. It made him think of fog on a lonely planet. The room was cold. The pain had driven away the memories of what had gone before, but now they were back. Zelenka had attacked him, and his thoughts had fled out of his control.

 

"Major?" He began to push himself shakily to his feet. "Major?"

 

Sheppard reappeared, and Rodney stopped struggling, subsiding back down again. "I was just talking to Dex. We're going to wait here for a few minutes - get our

strength back. He's doing what he can to make this place defensible, just in case."

 

There were too many questions there. He chose not to ask any of them. Instead, he watched as Sheppard sat down rather stiffly against the wall with the window. There had been three shots, he remembered. "Oh, God, he didn't shoot you, too, did he? That would be so like you to…"

 

"No, Rodney, he didn't. I'm fine. I…" He leant his head back against and wall, and closed his eyes. "It's been a long few days."

 

"I think I should know how badly you're hurt," Rodney said. "I am relying on you to defend me, after all."

 

"I'm just tired," Sheppard insisted. "I got a few hours' sleep in the cell, and it helped, but running for my life… didn't."

 

It didn't ring true. Rodney had seen Sheppard exhausted before, and he had also seen him shrugging off worse injury. "I hate it when you play Mr Stoic," he said bitterly. "You'd hate it if we did it to you."

 

"That's Major Stoic to you." But Sheppard seemed to come to some decision. He angled his head slightly away. In the dim light of the ruined lab, Rodney could no longer see his face. "When I was… away, the woman… She made me think I was dying. I drowned once. Got torn to pieces by a monster. It wasn't real, but it felt real. Even now… my body still feels as if it should be dead. I keep on remembering drowning." His hand rose to his chest. "I can still almost feel the wound."

 

"Oh." Rodney swallowed. It was a horrible feeling - terrifying, even - to be lost for words.

 

"So…" Sheppard turned back to him, his face bright with inconsequence. "Anything exciting happen while I was dead?"

 

"Don't say that!" Rodney surprised himself with the ferocity of his shout.

 

Sheppard's gaze was steady. "Why not? Everyone else thinks it. I don't have any illusions. I'll do my damnedest to get this city back, but I won't have a place in it when everything's over. This is the end - my last flight."

 

Rodney curled his fingers into his thigh, wincing at the pull of pain in his wound. "What happened while you were dead? Why, let me see… Two years of cold, hard struggle. The Wraith attacked, but we made them think we'd destroyed the city. I saved us all, more times than I can count, but do I get any thanks? The only time I make any request, with that Doranda thing, Caldwell goes and vetoes it. He even blew up an Ancient ship just because the Wraith were coming. He doesn't have your sense of wacky adventure. It's all caution, and 'remember our objectives', and 'it's not your job to question my decisions, Doctor McKay'."

 

"Wacky adventures? No more bugs, then?"

 

"No bugs. Oh. Carson tried to turn a Wraith into a human, but that didn't work. The Genii had a coup, which I'm sure is all very interesting. My sister visited. That was… strange. They…" Rodney stopped, running out of words again. "I don't go off world much. I'm not on a Gate team. I don't really know half the stuff that's been happening."

 

Sheppard looked at him. "I'm sorry."

 

"You're sorry?" Rodney shouted, and the sudden surge of anger felt like a release. "Why do you assume it's your fault? Why do you assume that everything's about you? There's a hundred reasons why everything's gone to hell and I'm holed up here with a barbarian and a dead man, with the whole of the expedition trying to hunt us down and kill us. It's… it’s… Blame the Wraith! Blame Caldwell. No, no, no… Ford! He shot me. Zelenka! See, Major, it's about everyone else. It's not about you. None of us gave you a moment's thought. You can't fix this thing. You can't just pick things up where they left off and expect everything to be the same."

 

The anger felt good, but it left him tired. He rested his head against the wall, and for the second time in minutes, he listened as Sheppard stood up and walked away. This time, he did not open his eyes.

 

******

 

Ronon knew how to make even the most unpromising camp defensible. This shattered room had materials for barricades and traps. He worked outside in the hallway first, the physical activity feeling good after his enforced stay in the small cell.

 

"Need a hand?"

 

He barely glanced up from his work. "Thought you were resting."

 

Sheppard shrugged stiffly, and took the other end of the piece of metal that Ronon was manhandling down the hallway.

 

"You don't have to do this," Sheppard said, when the metal sheet was in place.

 

Ronon did not answer.

 

"You heard what Brett said. Every single person on this base is going to be hunting me now. You saw how it was back there, with Ford. There's no reason for you to get involved. This isn't your war."

 

Ronon turned his attention to the ceiling, to see if there was anywhere that could take a rope.

 

"Anyone who's with me will be target, too. I shouldn't have asked you…"

 

"Couldn't have stopped me getting out," Ronon told him.

 

"No." Sheppard nodded slowly. "You're right there. But the way I see it… You aren't part of this expedition. Caldwell didn't know what to do with you. You were locked up because they couldn't work out what else to do. As long as you're with me, you're not an anomaly; you're an enemy."

 

"Going to say the same to the noisy little man in there?" Ronon jerked his chin at the door.

 

He caught the slight freezing of Sheppard's features. In the eight years he had spent on the run, he had forgotten many of the conventions of human interaction, but he was always intensely aware of every small movement that indicated how a person would move next. It was what had kept him alive. "Yes," Sheppard said quietly, "I am."

 

The first time Sheppard had asked him, back in the cell, Ronon had answered without a thought. This time, he considered things more slowly. He had nothing left. For eight years, his only aim in life had been to survive for one more day, to deny the Wraith their victory, to live so that he could go home. But home was gone. The future was bleak and empty. He was free from pursuit, but it felt more like a loss than a release. Caldwell and his men had looked at him with disgust and suspicion, and he had known that although these people, too, fought the Wraith in their own way, he would never be able to make common cause with them.

 

Sheppard, too, was an outcast, and now he, too, was hunted. He appeared to accept Ronon for what he was - for what the years had made him - without asking any more questions than were necessary. You with me? he had asked. To any other question, phrased in any other way, the answer would have been no.

 

They had fought well together, too, communicating their intent without words. That was, perhaps, even more important than anything else. Even if the cause not was not own, at least it was a cause. Ronon no longer knew how to live without an enemy to fight.

 

He clapped Sheppard on the shoulder. "I'm still with you."

 

Sheppard nodded once, but did not smile.

 

******

 

End of chapter thirteen

 

******

 

Chapter fourteen: A matter of trust

 

The room felt different when Sheppard re-entered it, and approached McKay. Dex was with him, and that meant something, but Dex was a stranger. Teyla, too, had given him her support, but she no longer lived on Atlantis. If he survived this, perhaps he'd have to go AWOL, and take his place amongst the natives.

 

The realisation had struck him without warning. Elizabeth, Rodney and Teyla had all in their own way tried to tell him, but he had persisted with his ridiculous optimistic hope. Something was wrong in Atlantis, he'd fight it, and all would be forgiven. Job back, team back, friends back… Magic wand waved, and everything right again.

 

What a fool he had been. When Ford had attacked him, and everything had gone crazy and confusing, his fuddled mind had sought out McKay. Then McKay had come to spring him from prison, and for a while he had almost let himself believe that things were back to normal, at least where the two of them were concerned.

 

Of course they was not. McKay had shouted at him a thousand times since Sheppard had known him. There was no reason at all why this time should have felt different, but it had. Perhaps it was because it had come so soon after McKay's account of the things that had happened over the last two years - things that everyone else had shared, but Sheppard had not. It had shattered the last tiny part of him that sought to deny what had happened. He would still do everything he could to protect Atlantis, but he no longer hoped to have a place in the city after all was done. He now knew that he would not.

 

"McKay." He sat down on a dusty work bench, and took care to keep his voice neutral. "We need to talk."

 

McKay looked startled. "What about?"

 

His face had always known how to smile, regardless of how he felt inside. "What about? Let's start with the fact that Atlantis has been taken over by unknown enemies. I want your assessment of the situation."

 

"Assessment…" McKay moistened his lips. "Uh…"

 

Sheppard tried to detach himself from the situation - forget the pains of his body; forget that this was Rodney he was talking to, his team-mate and perhaps almost his friend. This was another like Dex - a stranger, whose path crossed his for a while, and would then be gone. "First we have corporal whatever he's called acting out of character and shooting Caldwell. Then we have the attack on Ford's men. Then Ford himself. Zelenka. Ford again. You heard what he said. If there had been any doubts, he blew them right away."

 

McKay hand had risen to the inside of his elbow. "Everyone's gone crazy."

 

"More than that," Sheppard said. He tucked his hands under his thighs, legs dangling off the work bench. "After Ford attacked me, I thought it might be some drug that made people act crazy, but Ford kept saying 'we.' It's more than that - some sort of mind control, perhaps."

 

McKay's hand rose higher, his fingers rubbing his brow. Come on, Rodney, Sheppard wanted to berate him. It's normally you doing all the talking, and I trail along behind with the nods and the questions. "After Zelenka attacked me," McKay said, his voice far less sure than normal, "I thought… I almost thought I was hearing a voice, telling me what to do."

 

Of course, Sheppard realised. McKay prided himself on his mind, just as Sheppard prided himself on his control. It would strike McKay very hard if he couldn't control his own thoughts.

 

"I think I did, too, after Ford attacked me," he admitted, and was pleased to see a flash of relief on McKay's face. "It's hard to be sure. It was all mixed up with my memories of what she did to me."

 

"Mind control, then." McKay looked more like himself. "When you say that Ford attacked you, I presume you mean that he injected you with something?" When Sheppard nodded, he said, "Mind control facilitated by some sort of drug. It doesn't look like the work of that Goa'uld - that's something."

 

"Some shiny new Pegasus Galaxy version of possession, then." Sheppard smiled grimly. "The question is: how to stop it. Ford said that all of the military is theirs. If Zelenka's under their control, at least some of the scientists are…"

 

"Much as it pains me to say it," McKay said, "but we need Carson. The drug…"

 

"Carson's in on it," Sheppard stated confidently. McKay started to object, but he talked through him. "Think about it. Ford and Zelenka, and God knows who else, all armed with syringes. Ford was fine - at least I think he was fine - until he went to the infirmary."

 

"Oh! Oh! Oh!" McKay snapped his fingers. "The post-mission check-up. Carson was really insistent - far more so than normal."

 

"It makes sense," Sheppard said. "If someone was compromised off-world, the first place they'd go is the infirmary. Carson was probably one of the first to be affected, and then he was in the perfect position to pass it on."

 

"Oh God." McKay's hand was fluttering anxiously at his chest. "I can't believe how close I came. If you hadn't come back from the dead, I'd have gone for my check-up. Oh God, Carson… Luring people into his lair and then stabbing them with alien drugs."

 

"You didn't escape, Rodney," Sheppard reminded him. "Zelenka?" He frowned. "The question we should really be asking is why we both managed to shake off its effects."

 

"I'd have thought that was obvious, Major." McKay laughed. "Since when have you ever obeyed an order? I feel sorry for anyone who tries mind control on you. Go left! and you'd go right. Kill all your friends, and you'd try and kill him instead. Doing mind control on you would be like trying to herd cats."

 

"So what about you, McKay?" Sheppard retorted.

 

"Me?" Rodney gestured with one hand, as if Sheppard was being particularly idiotic. "Since when I have cared about anything people want? Genius, remember? I always know best."

 

On another day, at another time, Sheppard might have smiled, or made a sly retort. As it was, he just frowned. "Some people can resist, then. I imagine that's why they shot Caldwell - because they knew he would resist."

 

"No wonder the military fell like a pack of cards," McKay sneered. "They're brainless automata. Caldwell and his minions have them following orders like robots."

 

"As you clearly do to Zelenka, then," Sheppard said sharply. Regardless of what had happened, these were his men. He would not tolerate them being so dismissed.

 

But McKay's mind had already moved on, ignoring him. "How do I know you really did resist it? This whole thing could be a trap. You people would go to any lengths to capture my mind."

 

"I guess you can't know," Sheppard said quietly. "You just have to trust."

 

"Oh, please, trust." McKay shook his head disgustedly. "If this thing is true, I can't trust anybody. Nobody is who they seem. No, it's just me, like it always has been. Even if they smile, or come with some sob story about escaping the clutches of the enemy, I've got to assume that they're not themselves."

 

It was true. Sheppard looked up at the small window, at the sky that was already brightening to a pale, familiar morning. He remembered fighting the Genii, alone in a city that had become hostile. At least then it had been clear who the enemy was. This time, they wore no foreign uniform. There were no glowing eyes or deepened voices to show who he needed to fight. The safest thing was to assume that everybody was the enemy. The safest thing was to do this alone.

 

And yet… And yet… He did not give his friendship easily, but he was quick to give his trust. You had to in war. You had to know that the person you had never met before would defend your back in a fight. He had taken a chance with Teyla, and had been well repaid, just as he had taken a chance with Dex today. When Bates had accused Teyla of betraying teams to the Wraith, he had defended her passionately, not because he had known that she was innocent, but because if he had failed to trust her, he would have become somebody he had no wish to be.

 

"Sometimes you have to trust," he said slowly. "Without trust, I don't think any of us have a chance of getting through this alive."

 

McKay looked away.

 

It was time to say it. Trust, yes. He trusted McKay. But faith…? Certainty that trust was returned? He had almost had it just days before, but now it was gone. Elizabeth had dismissed his concerns and made clear that he had no right to say them. Teyla had helped him in the end, but even she had doubted his motives.

 

"You don't have to help, Rodney." He pushed himself off the table; walked towards the wall. With his arms folded, he looked up at the slit of sky, and imagined himself flying. Everything came easier in the air. "You heard what Brett said. You're a target because you helped me. There's still a chance…"

 

"Too late, Major. You've made me a marked man. I always knew you'd get me killed."

 

The jumper responding to his unspoken commands. Swooping and wheeling in the air, dancing on the clouds. "Then stay here, off the sensors…"

 

"My bolt-hole." McKay gave a bitter laugh. "No, I imagine they'd come looking for me, anyway, even if I've had nothing to do with you. I'm far too valuable. It'll be convert or kill, and they failed to convert so, yes, I'm a dead man."

 

The small speck of light appeared at the window, as the edge of the sun reached it. From only that tiny speck, light flooded the room.

 

"The thing is, Major, what are we doing to do about all this?"

 

Sheppard turned to face him, the light behind him. His shadow fell across McKay's body. "Find out the source. Find out who's doing the mind control. Find out how to reverse it. Stay alive. Join up with Teyla. Keep Elizabeth safe. Stop them from getting to Earth. Take the city back."

 

"Oh." McKay's eyes widened. "Only that." He swallowed. "Which one first?"

 

"I guess we have to work on them all at once," Sheppard said. "From what Ford said, we have to assume that the military is entirely under enemy control. It's possible that Major Brett is clean and genuinely believes I'm the bad guy, but I don't want to take that risk. Besides, I don't like the guy." His hand rose to his aching jaw. "I think he knows full well I'm innocent. I'm just the fall guy to justify his actions in the eyes of anyone not yet affected."

 

"So there's two of us taking on the whole of the city." McKay looked as if he couldn't quite believe that any of this was real.

 

"Three of us," Sheppard corrected, "and one of us is a genius, remember?"

 

"Yes. Yes I am." McKay cocked his head and smiled with reluctant contentment. "I'm worth at least ten."

 

Earlier, after Sheppard had bound McKay's wound, he had almost asked Are we good? They had talked for a while just as they used to talk, and McKay had come with him all this way, despite the risk to himself. He had refrained from asking it in the end. It was not the sort of thing he asked. He did not talk about feelings; actions spoke louder. He and McKay had never spoken about their burgeoning friendship; they had just let it happen. He had thought that they could save the city together, and things would resume their old course, without any words needing to be said.

 

Now, for a second time, he almost asked the question, but once again he did not. This time it was because he knew the answer. You didn't have to hear the word spoken to know when something was broken. A rejection did not have to be in words to hurt.

 

Oh yes, he thought. He would do everything he could to save the city, but after that…? No, there was no afterwards, just fog on an empty shore.

 

******

 

The summons came after an hour of waiting, after four abortive attempts to get past Teyla at the door. Elizabeth had tried Brett on the radio - tried everyone on the radio - but there had been no response from anyone. That in itself concerned her far more than she let Teyla know.

 

It was Carson Beckett who knocked on the door. "Doctor Weir?" His Scottish accent seemed less strong when filtered through the thick door. "Are you there? You aren't responding to your radio."

 

Ah. A malfunction, then. She let out a breath, but not all the way. "I'm here. Is there a problem?"

 

"Of course there's a bloody problem," Carson exclaimed. "Major Sheppard's going on a rampage and I've got wounded and dead half way across the city."

 

Teyla held her hand up, half-blocking the door. Her eyes were grave, and her head was slowly shaking. I wish I had your faith, Elizabeth wished she could say to her. Teyla had no official position on Atlantis, and decisions to her were easy things. Just as John had defended Teyla so long before, Teyla would defend him, refusing to contemplate that he could be guilty of these charges. Elizabeth did not have that luxury. He had been gone for two years. Even if it had only seemed to him like two days, much could happen in two days; Teyla had said as much.

 

It was nothing to do with trust. Did she trust the friend she hadn't seen for two years, or the people she had lived and worked with for all that time? The answer, of course, was that she had to be ready to distrust any of them, and put the safety of the expedition first at all times. She could not stake everything on a sentimental attachment to a memory two years dead.

 

"How's Colonel Caldwell?" she shouted to Carson.

 

"Still alive," he said, "but still critical. You need to come now, Elizabeth. It's not safe for anyone to be alone."

 

Elizabeth kept her gaze level, deliberately not looking at Teyla. "I thought all civilians were supposed to do just that, and stay in their quarters."

 

"Only until Major Brett's men got to them, and took them to safety. I've got some of the soldier lads with me here now. Don't worry, Elizabeth, you'll be perfectly safe as long as you come with us."

 

Teyla was shaking her head; Elizabeth saw it out of the corner of her eye. "Why Doctor Beckett?" Teyla whispered. "Why is he here, and not treating the wounded?"

 

"Major Brett knows that you and Major Sheppard were close," Carson said. "He feared you would be inclined to distrust him and to believe the best of Major Sheppard. I thought you'd listen if it was me. I knew Sheppard, too. I liked the man. But he's not the man he used to be. He's our enemy."

 

Elizabeth kept her hands folded in front of her. "You assured me that he was John Sheppard."

 

"Physically, yes. But mentally… He's not the man we knew. He attacked Lieutenant Ford - knocked him out and left him for dead. It's on camera, Elizabeth. I've seen it. You need to come with us. You were right to stay in your room before; it's not safe without an escort. But please come with us now. It's not just for your own protection. You're the commander of the expedition, and we need you."

 

"It is a trick," Teyla hissed, but there was doubt appearing even in her eyes. "He's lying."

 

Elizabeth put both hands together, and raised them to her mouth, the edge of her fingers pressing against her lips. Carson's words made sense - it's on camera. She understood Teyla's need to doubt, but there was no reason why Carson would lie to her. Even if he was, she was the commander of the expedition. It was not for her to skulk in her room just because of a possible risk. If her people were facing danger, it fell to her to face it alongside them.

 

She straightened her spine, assuming the pose that had carried her through so many days. "I'm going with him, Teyla. Please let me pass."

 

Teyla's eyes had lost any certainty that they had once held. "But…"

 

"This is clearly a misunderstanding," Elizabeth said patiently. "They think John did these things, when you and I know that he didn't. How can I defend him when I'm stuck in here? Brett implied that they were going to kill him. How can I stop that when I'm in here?"

 

The worst thing of all, though - the thing that she would never forget, and never, perhaps, forgive herself for - was that it was a lie. Oh yes, she would defend him if she saw evidence for his innocence, she would keep them from killing him even if he was guilty, but she felt none of the certainty that she put into those words.  She would defend him if she saw evidence. She did not have faith.

 

"I can't command you," she said quietly to Teyla, "but I can ask you. Please, Teyla, let me pass."

 

And with a look that Elizabeth could not read, Teyla did.

 

Carson was outside, looking rumpled and sleepless. Ford was with him, as were four others Marines. Remembering Carson's accusation against Sheppard, she narrowed her eyes suspiciously at Ford, and saw the clotted blood in his hair, and the slightly dazed look in his eyes. She supposed he was on his way to the infirmary under Carson's care.

 

"Lead on," she said to the Marines, keeping her gaze narrow.

 

"Yes, ma'am." They started to walk, their faces impassive. With one last glance at Teyla, standing alone in the dark doorway to her room, she started to follow them.

 

******

 

"Well, that was easier than it could have been," Doctor Beckett said, after Weir and her escort had gone.

 

Aiden walked away a few steps, and tapped his radio. "Teyla Emmagen is here," he said quietly. "What shall I do?"

 

The answer came over the radio in words, just as the same urge crystallised in his mind. She is of no use to us. Kill her.

 

He drew his pistol from his holster. Doctor Beckett was watching him, his eyes dark with understanding.

 

Both levels of his mind were fuming. He'd been attacked! Sheppard had attacked him, knocking him out, and leaving him in the hallway for Major Brett to find, his failure clear for everyone to see. He had to show himself useful again. And Sheppard… Sheppard had rejected his gift. And who was that big barbarian type who fought at his side, following his orders, moving without those orders even needing to be put into words? Ford had been like that once, and now… and now…

 

Kill her, said the voice that came from outside. We cannot convert her. She is strong of mind, and will resist. Alive, she will find some way to join Sheppard. She will be another enemy against us.

 

Kill her, said the higher part of his mind and the shadow alike. It will hurt him. And the lower part remembered that they had once been friends and comrades, but that she had left the city when he had been at his lowest ebb, in the immediate aftermath of Caldwell's arrival.

 

He opened the door; kept the pistol concealed behind his back. "Aiden." Her mouth smiled, but her eyes did not.

 

"Teyla." He nodded.

 

"Is it true?" she asked. "What Doctor Beckett said?"

 

He half raised his free hand towards his head. "You can see that it is." The wound was not crippling, but his head throbbed with a dull intensity, and his eyes hurt as if grit had been thrown into them.

 

"Was it Major Sheppard?"

 

"It was."

 

He saw doubt flood her eyes. Kill her, his mind urged. His hand was sweaty on the grip of the pistol.

 

Remember who you are, Sheppard had said. Why should you, Aiden Ford, want to damage Atlantis? Fight it, Ford. There's still time to change. Sheppard had called him a good officer. Despite everything, he had still found time to praise him.

 

He closed his free hand around the edge of the door. It meant nothing, the higher part of his mind reminded him. Sheppard was ignorant. He had rejected the chance to be made one with them. Of course he would use any trick, stoop to any lie, in order to get Ford to betray his own.

 

She doubts him now, thought the lower part of his mind - the Aiden Ford who had fought shoulder to shoulder with this woman for nearly a year. Isn't that enough? Isn't that better for our purposes than death?

 

Kill her. The order came with fierce pain. It was repeated in his ear - two harsh words through his ear piece.

 

His hand was shaking, but he raised the gun, and pulled the trigger. With a shocked cry, Teyla Emmagen twisted sideways, and fell to the floor.

 

Ford left the room without looking back.

 

******

 

end of chapter fourteen

 

******

 

Chapter fifteen: Contact

 

Rodney's arm was throbbing from his shoulder all the way down to his fingertips. And Sheppard treats it as if it's only a scratch! Sheppard had vanished again, plotting something with that barbarian friend of his. Rodney stayed sitting down, his good hand skittering anxiously, as if it was desperate to do something to bring this whole sorry situation to an end.

 

"On the run with a dead man and a tame barbarian," he muttered. "The rest of the city possessed and out to kill me. Yes, that's it, I want to wake up now."

 

The pain in his arm was his only answer. He needed to do something. Sitting down felt wrong. His place was to be at the heart of things, trying to do ten things at once, snarling at all the stupid people who kept on asking questions. How long before you save us all, Rodney? The questions had always infuriated him, but when there were no questions at all, it was worse. No questions meant there was nothing you could do. No questions meant that someone else was doing the saving, and you were stuck on the edges, left behind.

 

"Oh!" His head snapped up. "Radio!" He fumbled beneath his borrowed vest, reaching into his pocket. He'd taken the ear piece off hours before, when he had been intending to go to bed. How long ago was that…? He frowned, counting backwards in hours. Maybe Sheppard wasn't the only one in desperate need of sleep. No. Where was he…? "Yes, yes! Radio!"

 

He extracted the ear piece and put it on, then switched the radio on.

 

He had no idea what he was expecting. When the voice spoke his name, he gasped, and instinctively hunched in on himself.

 

"Rodney," the voice was saying. "Rodney. Are you there, Rodney? Come in."

 

He let out a breath by tiny, cautious increments. The voice was Carson's. Carson. He'd listened to Sheppard's theory was about Carson's role in the whole sorry disaster. Carson was the bad guy. Carson wasn't really Carson. Anything Rodney said to Carson would be transmitted straight to the enemy.

 

"Rodney. Can you hear me, Rodney?"

 

He didn't dare move. Maybe Carson could hear the whisper of clothing as he shifted position, or a faint brush of his breath. Were there sounds in the background that could pinpoint his position? It worked like that in the movies. The radio felt hot in his hands, as if it was burning him. It was a poisonous snake. If he moved, it would see him. It would strike. It would kill him.

 

"I don't know what Major Sheppard has told you, Rodney, but it's not true. None of it's true. He is not your friend, Rodney."

 

No, he wanted to protest. Of course he isn't! But even if he had been able to speak, he wasn't sure that he could have spoken the words.

 

"He isn't friend to any of us. He isn't the man you remember. He's changed. Something changed him in the time he was away. You hear about such things, don't you – prisoners of war who are brainwashed into siding with the enemy."

 

Changed, he thought. His memories of the man were two years old, and time had faded them. There were moments when Sheppard looked painfully, intensely like the Sheppard from his memories. A week ago, if asked, he could not have described that expression or that movement of the head or that trick of the walk. Now that he saw them, it was like an instant bridge from past the present. It made him feel dizzy, as if time itself had started to run backwards.

 

"He's spreading something. Some psychotropic drug, perhaps; I'm working on isolating as we speak, but I could do with your expertise. It makes people act out of character, but he's the one behind it. Colonel Caldwell, Lieutenant Ford and his team… He was there both times, Rodney. I don't know what story he told to get to you agree to free him, but it was a lie, Rodney. It was all lies."

 

Rodney's hands were trembling. Could Carson hear it on the radio? He didn't tell me any story, Carson, his mind said, but his throat was frozen, his body paralysed, and he couldn't say the words. I decided to do that all by myself. I still don't really know why.

 

"He needs to be somewhere safe – somewhere where he can't harm others; somewhere where he can get the help he needs. Bring him to us, Rodney. There will be no questions asked. No action will be taken against you for helping him. Bring him to us before he destroys Atlantis."

 

Somebody was nearing the door. "Rodney?" he heard, over the radio, in exactly the same tone as intonation as had started it. "Rodney. Are you there, Rodney? Come in."

 

He swatted at the off button, and threw the radio away. Sheppard appeared in time to see it sliding across the floor, coming to rest against a fallen work bench. His eyebrows rose. "Anything?"

 

Rodney shook his head. He was frozen in the headlights of Sheppard's regard. "Nothing." His voice was a high squawk. "They must have shut me out."

 

Sheppard's expression went very still for a moment, and then he was moving, heading away from Rodney across the scattered lab equipment. As he stepped over something that might once have been a work bench, he swayed, thrusting out one hand to steady himself. The sun had fully cleared the window now, and Rodney was dazzled by the light. In the mix of shadows and reflections, Sheppard seemed less real with every step he took away from him.

 

Rodney scrambled to his feet, and Sheppard snapped into focus again. "You really don't look well," Rodney said anxiously. "You need to…"

 

"Not good at sitting still," Sheppard said, without turning round. "I guess I'm like you there."

 

"Like me?" Rodney echoed. Like me? He and Sheppard had nothing in common. Sheppard was a glorified action figure, all shallow charm and sardonic jibes and macho posturing. Rodney, on the other hand, was a genius, one hundred percent cerebral… And never happy to be inactive. Always ready to solve everything with science. Hands always moving, words pouring out of him as soon as he thought them… Like me, he thought. He tilted his head slightly to one side, and almost felt a smile escape him.

 

"What are you doing?" He started to follow him, cradling his wounded arm at his side. "Shouldn't we…" Bring him to us, Rodney. "Reclaim the city, or something. Or stay… Get some rest. I haven't slept all night, you know. We're shielded. No-one can find us here."

 

"I know," Sheppard said, still moving away from him. "And I want to find out why. An abandoned Ancient lab… There must be something here. Come on, Rodney. I can't believe you knew about this place but didn’t go poking around until you discovered its secrets. That's not the McKay I know."

 

"Because I'm not the McKay you knew." As ever, the words came out before he stopped to think about them. Shaking his head crossly to clear the half-formed thoughts that wanted to follow in their wake, he asked, "What sort of something?"

 

Sheppard's face was neutral when he turned round, but bleached almost white in the sunlight. "Something that'll give us the advantage."

 

******

 

The door slid shut. Teyla blinked, and kept her breathing shallow. Very faintly, she thought she heard footsteps moving away. Another moment, she thought. Another moment…

 

When she decided that the time had come to move, she was on her feet in an instant, watchful and ready to strike out, but there was no-one there.

 

She brought her hand up to the side of her neck, wincing when it touched the skin. When she lowered it, her palm was smeared with blood. Pain throbbed in the middle of her back, and there was a sharp hurt in her side. She thought she had crashed into the chair when she had hurled herself away from the bullet. The bullet had clearly broken a large ornamental vase, and glass had rained down on her body while she lay shocked and stunned.

 

She had encountered attack before, but this was Aiden…! He had strolled into the doorway, raised the gun, and shot her without a pause, already turning away as he did so, dismissing her. He had tried to kill her. He thought he had killed her.

 

"But I am not dead," she said aloud, meaning it as declaration and defiance. The question now was: what to do about it. Her sticks were at home, and she was not permitted to be armed when she was a guest in the city. Major Sheppard had given her a pistol when he had asked her to guard Doctor Weir, but it was not her chosen weapon. Elizabeth had no weapons… But perhaps she did. Murmuring an apology for the breach of privacy, she opened drawers and chests until she found a small pistol, stowed close to Elizabeth's bed. With a grim smile, she tucked it in her belt, next to the other one, but she would have preferred sticks.

 

If she encountered Aiden in the hallway, could she shoot him?

 

She stood in the middle of the room, and surveyed its sparse decorations, looking for things that could used to fight with. It was so different from her own chamber at home. Even in her own room, it seemed, Elizabeth allowed little of herself to shine through. Perhaps it had been different once. The small personal touches in the room looked dusty and ill-tended. It made Teyla sorrow. Ever since she had left Atlantis, she had nurtured a seed of resentment against Doctor Weir. Perhaps that seed should instead have been one of sympathy.

 

But this was not the time to think of such things. Aiden had attacked her, and that meant everything. That meant that Major Sheppard was right, and that something was very wrong in Atlantis. The previous evening, she had agreed to help him, but she had not been entirely convinced that he was correct. She had helped him because he had asked her, and because she had known that he needed an expression of faith. Only minutes before - forgive me, John - she had doubted even him. She had kept her faith in him through all of Elizabeth's doubts, but even she had fallen at the last.

 

All that was changed. Aiden Ford had tried to kill her, and that meant that at least some of the people of Atlantis were not in control of their own actions. She could not trust anyone. She was far away from her home and her people, trapped in a hostile city. There was not even the possibility of escape, because the only way home lay in a vessel that she could not pilot herself.

 

Blood was trickling down her collarbone, seeping into her neckline. She moved to the mirror, and splashed water on her face, remembering how she had watched Elizabeth do such a thing only hours before. Was her own face in the mirror as revealing as Doctor Weir's had been? There were shallow cuts on one side of her face, and her eyes were shadowed from lack of sleep, and perhaps from something else. The face in the mirror looked anxious, unable to comprehend what had just happened. The woman who stared at that face felt almost detached, as if those emotions could not belong to her.

 

She turned away from the mirror; it was easier to think without the reflection there, telling her things she did not want to see. She was alive when they expected her to be dead. If she hid in this room, then she might as well be dead - a useless corpse who contributed nothing to the battle.

 

Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and headed out into the hallway. It was second nature to her to move silently, but the light left her no place to hide. A speckled gown was no camouflage in the harsh tones of Atlantis.

 

The sound of footsteps made her dart into doorway, taking a chance on an empty room. Voices made her rush around a corner, into a place where the lights were dimmer. A gunshot sounded, but it was far away. Even so, she strained towards it, standing frozen in the corridor, searching back the way she had come.

 

She never heard them coming. "Teyla Emmagen," said a voice that she still heard sometimes in dreams. In dreams, though, she smashed that hateful mouth and stood over him until he retracted every one of his lies. This time there was nothing she could do but hear him. As Sergeant Bates strolled slowly forward, the other man moved to flank her, and she was caught between the two of them, pinned by the blankness of their eyes.

 

******

 

Elizabeth followed her silent escort through hallways that seemed strangely dead and empty. The corridors were often empty, but even at night there was a sense of life and activity buzzing just below the surface. Now it just felt empty.

 

No, she thought, a moment later. Dangerous. It was the emptiness of a deserted road at night, when all manner of predators could be watching from the dark. This was not her Atlantis. This was a place where Caldwell could be shot by one of his own men; where a team could be cut down as they returned from a mission. This was a place where a man could return from the dead, and overturn every certainty that she held.

 

She was not accustomed to feeling such doubt.

 

Where are you taking me? she almost asked, but she was commander of the expedition, and the way to lose your authority was to act as if you were not in charge. She had conceded the need for an escort for her own protection, but she would concede nothing more. "To my office please, gentlemen."

 

One soldier spoke without looking at her. "I am afraid that's not possible, ma'am."

 

"I'm afraid that it is," she said coldly.

 

"Security's compromised," he said. "We're to take you to a safe place for your own protection. Major Brett's orders. He'll be with you as soon as possible for a briefing."

 

She didn't like it, but there was nothing she could do. She had made her decision in her quarters, and she would see this thing through. Head high, she followed them.

 

She could not let herself doubt. John, she thought, and sorrow and betrayal and fear were all mixed up with the thought of him. The city was quiet, but somewhere Brett's men were hunting Sheppard. McKay was with him, but was he a prisoner, or a dupe, or the only one who saw things clearly? She thought of Teyla, so unwavering in her faith throughout the night. Even Teyla had doubted in the end. The thought of Teyla's doubt-filled face made her feel strangely guilty, as if she had broken something precious.

 

"In here, ma'am."

 

It was a little-used conference room not far from the Gate Room. The last time she had used it, she had been questioning suspects. Am I a prisoner? she wondered, but this, too, she could not say. With a gracious nod, she entered the room. There were only two chairs, but she took neither of them, remaining standing with her hands clasped loosely behind her back.

 

******

 

McKay made an inarticulate sound that could possibly have been triumph. Sheppard found himself close to a surface that looked as if it would hold him. He leant against it surreptitiously, closing his injured hand around the edge of the cold metal. "What?" he asked.

 

"Oh, yes, excuse me, I can tell what it is in the two seconds I've held it in my hands." McKay was bent over a small flat item. With his hands busy, he was reduced to jabbing impatiently with his chin.

 

Sheppard brought his arm to his stomach and held it there. It did nothing to ease the vague and formless pain that was flooding his body, but it made him feel a little better, even so. He was holding himself in; stopping himself from flowing outwards into the fog and disappearing completely.

 

McKay started talking – a litany of unfinished sentences. "What if…" and "Oh!" and "I think I…"

 

The sun had moved past the window, and the light in the lab was the usual light of day, slanting in from the high window. He saw dust in the beams of light. He remembered cold waves closing over his head, and water filling his lungs. He remembered falling through the paving stones into the emptiness of non-existence.

 

He tightened his bruised fingers on the metal, using pain like a lance. "McKay…"

 

"Working!"

 

 McKay like this was fiercely familiar. Nothing's changed, it said. Bruised and battered, struggling against impossible odds… McKay intent on his work, talking incessantly, snarling at every interruption… The knowledge of the lie made it almost painful to watch. Everything had changed, of course.

 

He moved towards McKay, picking his way through the obstructions on the floor. His legs quivered with every step, and the pain in his body no longer had a single source. His bruises were bright concentrations of pain, but his whole body felt dull and heavy, as if his bones had turned to thick mud. Sleeping in the cell had helped, but only for a while. Now he felt worse than ever, and worse by the minute.

 

"McKay," he said again, as the air swirled around him like water.

 

"Yes!" McKay pointed upwards in triumph, then howled in pain at the movement of his wounded arm. "I think I've got it."

 

Sheppard stood near him, careful to lean on nothing at all. "Just think?"

 

"That's the thing with you military types," McKay grumbled. "You always want a yes or no answer. Will big gun go boom? Well, Major, we deal with probabilities. Theories. Though, of course, my theories are usually right."

 

"So what does that thing probably do?" Sheppard asked. Nothing's changed, laughed the lie.

 

"Remember that personal shield I found years ago?"

 

Years ago. He didn't comment. "When I shot you in the leg and pushed you…?"

 

"Yes, yes, that. This… Well, it isn't anything like that, really. It's a shield, but it only shields you from sensors."

 

"A personal cloaking device." Sheppard raised his eyebrows. "Cool."

 

"Don't start getting fantasies about cloaks of invisibility," McKay berated, "though I'm sure your little mind is already thinking of infuriating little things you could do if invisible. No, no, this won't turn you into Captain Invisible. You'll be completely visible, as in people can shoot you if they can see you…"

 

"But not on the sensors. I still say, 'cool'."

 

"Yes, well, of course we need to test it - prove that I'm right, and so on. Although my conjectures have only been proved wrong twice in the last three years, and the second wasn't fair…"

 

"Rodney," Sheppard said warningly.

 

"A test. Right." McKay gestured with his head towards the door. "Walk down that hallway. Oh, wait! I need a life-signs detector." He rummaged one-handed in his jacket pocket. "Right. Now go." He jerked his chin towards the door again.

 

Sheppard started walking, concentrating on the rise and fall of each step. His bruised ribs hurt more when he was moving, but the formless pain in the rest of his body was eased by physical activity. He could almost feel the motion of his blood around his veins, anchoring him in the physical world. He wanted to press his hands into his face, to drive his fingers deep into his skull. Perhaps I really did go crazy when Ford attacked me.

 

But Dex was there, and Sheppard kept his voice level. "Need to test something. Go to go through your barricade."

 

Dex watched him with those steady eyes, perhaps scenting weakness, but not commenting. He opened a small gap in the barricade, enough for Sheppard to step over. When Sheppard looked back over his shoulder, Dex was on his knees, his P90 raised and ready, covering Sheppard's back.

 

He walked half a dozen steps, alone in the gloomy corridor. If I turn round, they'll all be gone. He tightened his hands into fists. Another step. Another…

 

"Yes!" McKay shouted, his voice muffled with distance. "Come back now!"

 

Sheppard turned and walked slowly back, very aware of Dex's eyes on him, and the unwavering barrel of his gun. McKay appeared behind him, the familiar light of discovery in his eyes. "Now again," he said, "and I'll stand… here." His eyes flickered down to Dex, and widened at the sight of his defensive stance.

 

Sheppard turned away again, and they were both gone again. In and out of existence, with the waving of my hand. He heard it in her voice. You aren't here, he told her. I killed you.

 

He walked further this time, almost reaching the section exit. "Yes!" McKay's voice exclaimed. "You can come back now."

 

He started back. "Now I see you," McKay said, "now I don't. You've gone. Just like that. Life-sign vanished." His triumphant look froze and faltered.

 

In and out of existence. In and out of life. He returned to the barricade and let Dex repair it. "I was right," McKay said. "It does what I thought it did, and now we know its range. About thirty feet. It must have initialised when I found the room months ago."

 

Sheppard nudged him. "You realise what you've just done, Rodney." McKay looked blank. "If anyone's watching the scanners…"

 

"Oh. Oh. Oh no." McKay's face took on its familiar mask of horror.

 

Sheppard shrugged. Simple, really. Stay positive now. Never troubled by anything. "Then we'd better make sure we're somewhere that's not here." McKay just stood there. "I mean: get going, McKay."

 

McKay blinked. "Where?"

 

"Well…" Sheppard pressed his lips together. "We'll work that one out when we get there." He snapped his fingers in imitation of McKay. "Let's go."

 

"For ridiculous and suicidal heroics that will doubtless end in almost-certain death." McKay's expression was strange.

 

"Yup." Sheppard smiled. "Home sweet home. Bet you've missed me."

 

McKay said nothing.

 

******

 

End of chapter fifteen

 

******

 

Chapter sixteen: "The charade is over"

 

Elizabeth heard low voices at the door. Prepared, she drew herself up, pulling everything inside.

 

Major Brett entered in a way that she knew was deliberately done so that his body blocked the entrance at all times. It was something she would not have noticed before she had come to Atlantis. He was either preventing her from leaving, or preventing a danger from outside from getting in.

 

She pushed her hands down her legs, pressing them against her thighs. "Major Brett."

 

He nodded in greeting. His mouth smiled, but there was no smile anywhere in his face. 'He looked at me', Teyla had said, and Elizabeth had remembered how John's eyes had always conveyed far more than he doubtless wanted them to. Major Brett was a different sort of man. Or maybe he was not. Maybe those cold eyes told the truth.

 

"I have many questions to ask you, Major Brett," she told him. "I have many concerns about what is currently taking place in the city."

 

He sat down without asking her permission. Standing, she should have felt at an advantage, but felt suddenly that he had taken the initiative in some way. It was like this with Caldwell, too - this constant battle for superiority, waged through the tiniest nuances of voice and posture. She sat down smoothly, placing both hands on the table. His were hidden, concealed by the table, but she could tell that he was moving them incessantly.

 

"Major Brett," she said warningly.

 

"You feel yourself a prisoner." He brought one hand onto the table, matching her own. "It was not my intention, I assure you. This…"  - the hand moved outwards, encompassing the dreary room - "is purely for your own protection."

 

"I am not convinced that I need protection."

 

He smiled with his lips. "Which is why the military is here - to make those decisions that civilians lack the expertise to make. With all due respect, Doctor Weir: you do need that protection. You do need to be here. You do need to stay."

 

"Because of Major Sheppard." She said it as a statement, not a question.

 

"Yes." The hand went back beneath the table. "Do I need to explain the situation again? I'm wasting time that I could be spending…"

 

"Wasting time reporting to the commander of this expedition?" she said coldly. "Wasting time briefing the person whose orders you follow?"

 

"With all due respect, ma'am, any orders you give in this situation are suspect."

 

She pressed her hands so hard into the table-top that the muscles of her arms started to quiver. "Care to elaborate on that accusation, Major Brett?"

 

He seemed unconcerned by her icy tone. "I never knew the man, but everyone knows that you and he were… close. Everyone knows you never gave the colonel a chance because you were always comparing him with Sheppard. Now Sheppard's back from the dead… Of course you're going to favour him. You want him to be back. It blinds you to the truth."

 

Carson had said as much, but to hear it in Brett's words… Her fingers were white with fury, but something was twisting inside her, because it was true. She had never stopped comparing Caldwell unfavourably to the man who had come before, and then when John had returned… Ever since she had seen him in the hands of Caldwell's men, she had been a mass of conflicting emotion. Her judgement was flawed.

 

"So tell me the truth." She managed to keep her voice level.

 

He flapped his hand - a terse, dismissive gesture. "You know the truth, Doctor Weir. You heard my broadcast, and you heard Doctor Beckett. Sheppard serves other masters now. He aims to take over Atlantis, and we need to stop him."

 

What could she say? He had already disarmed her, already found a way to dismiss any argument she made against him. If she defended Sheppard, if she objected in any way, she was only doing it because she was blinded by emotion. "How do you plan to do that?" she asked, playing for time.

 

"We have patrols out. Sooner or later, he will make a break for the jumper bay or the Gate Room. We will have him. One man can't defeat an army."

 

"He defeated the Genii." She regretted saying it the moment the words had left her mouth.

 

His face darkened. "I'll cut to the chase, Doctor Weir. I take your point about the importance of briefing you, but this whole expedition is facing a serious military threat, and my place is out there, facing it." He stood up, the chair scraping noisily on the floor. "I need your command code for dialling Earth."

 

She hoped she managed not to show her shock on her face. After they had discovered the Wraith's intention of getting to Earth, Caldwell had asked McKay to block Earth's address. Both Elizabeth and Caldwell needed to enter a code before the address would dial. Caldwell had clearly confided his code to Brett. "What purpose would that serve?" she asked.

 

She stood up. She had not intended to do so, but her body made an unconscious move in the direction of the door. She saw Brett jerk in the same direction, as if he had been on the point of physically restraining her, but had stopped himself just in time. Inside, she went very still, breathing shallowly. It seemed to her as if she could feel every molecule of air in the room. It was all still, waiting for either of them to move.

 

"We have an uncontained military threat on Atlantis." She had no idea how she managed to sound so normal. "Dialling Earth is the last thing we want to do right now."

 

"I am acting military commander," he said, "and this is my military assessment."

 

She remembered crouching over John Sheppard's unconscious form, and watching him wake up. She had seen his eyes as he had asked about his team. In that moment, she had known beyond all doubt that this was really him. She remembered looking through the glass and watching him sitting disconsolately in her office. She remembered him sitting in the dark of her room, begging her - though not in words; never in words - to trust him. He had shown her his bruises, resisting his natural urge to hide them and pretend that all was well.

 

Something's wrong, he had said, and of course it was wrong. It was terribly, shockingly wrong… and part of her had hated him for seeing it, when she had been so blind for so long. He had turned a mirror on the things she had not wanted to face in her own life. He had seen things from outside, and told her unwelcome truths, and she had responded by dismissing his concerns, by pushing him away, and now, in the end, by doubting him.

 

Her judgement was flawed indeed.

 

"I will not give you the code." She sat down easily on the chair, and clasped her hands in her lap. Her chin was high, her gaze was steady, and she felt more clear-headed than she had felt for a long time.

 

"You will not?" His eyes narrowed, and he gave a thin-lipped smile. "Then the time for masks is over. This time I merely asked. Next time…" He moved to the door, and struck it once with his palm. "Next time we will do more than ask. Think on that, Doctor Weir."

 

The door closed behind him. She did not have to test the door to know that it had been sealed.

 

******

 

"Teyla Emmagen," Sergeant Bates said again. "I always knew you were our enemy."

 

"I am not the enemy." She spat the words out, but even as she said them, she realised that she should have stayed silent.

 

"Our enemy," Bates said. "Colonel Sumner saw you for what you are. Then Colonel Sumner died; Sheppard shot him. Then he came back with your trailing behind him, and took the position of the good man he had killed. Why did he defend you, Teyla?"

 

The other man spoke from close behind her. "Pretty, isn't she? I bet I know why Sheppard defended her. I bet she was…"

 

"No!" she cried. She bit the other words back. Do not let them know that they have riled you. Do not let them know that they have touched a nerve.

 

"And still trailing after Major Sheppard," the man sneered. "His obedient little lap dog."

 

"I always knew you were the enemy." She had never forgotten the self-righteous look in Bates' eyes as he had spouted his lies. This time, his eyes were different. "You were trying to betray us to the Wraith. Sheppard refused to listen. Then he died, and at last we got a proper commander. He listened, but we still didn't do enough."

 

You did far too much, she thought. She was taking slow and careful breaths, readying herself for action. She was aware of every nuance of Bates' stance and movement, and aware, too, of the movements of the man behind her. If he lunged towards her, she would know it - would hear the intention in his breath before it even translated itself into movement.

 

"If I'd had my way," Bates said, "you and all your people would have been shipped far away to a planet without a Stargate, and left to rot. Doctor Weir didn't even have the courage to send you away, but waited for you to leave of your own accord. Even then, she lets your people live on our doorstep. She calls you allies."

 

The violence rippling beneath his skin was unmistakeable. "Allies," she repeated. "I am a guest in Atlantis." If you harm me, there will be consequences, she conveyed with her tone. She only wished she could be so certain.

 

The intake of breath from behind her told her that the other man was about to speak. She angled her head minutely towards him, but did not take her eyes off Bates. "We hear you've sided with Major Sheppard, Teyla. Sheppard wants to bring down everyone on Atlantis. Anyone who sides with him becomes our enemy. If you persist in siding with him, there will be consequences. I'm sure you don't want to face the consequences."

 

The cuts on her neck were throbbing. The memory of her doubts was like a scar on her soul. She would never forget that Aiden, once her friend, had tried to kill her.

 

"You will become our enemy," the man said. "Your people will become our enemies. We have weapons that can raise your settlements to the ground. We can deny you access to the Stargate and keep you from trading turnips."

 

Bates smiled. "We can destroy your people, Teyla, as you wanted to destroy us."

 

"Not that we would, of course," laughed the other man, "because we're the good guys. But we can still make things very uncomfortable for them. If the leader of the Athosians is supporting a terrorist in his attack on the city, the Athosians can't remain our allies. They won't thank you for that, will they, Teyla?" The other man was almost close enough to touch. "So why not be a good little girl and come with us. Stop this silly wandering around Atlantis. If you come with us now, we won't take action against your people."

 

"I have wanted to take you into custody for two years, Teyla." Bates moved closer. If she had sticks, she could take both of them, but all she had was her pistols, and no matter what they were saying, they were Elizabeth's men - Sheppard's men - and they had skills that could be used in the fight against the Wraith.

 

"Come with us," urged the man behind her. "You won't be harmed."

 

Bates' eyes belied the words.  Teyla lowered her gaze, and fractionally relaxed her stance.

 

"It's Major Sheppard," the man said, "or your people. Surely he's not worth that." He gave a coarse laugh. "He can't be that good in bed that you'd risk all that for him."

 

"No." She let her shoulders slump.

 

She heard the sound of triumph from behind her, and saw it reflected in the mirror of Bates' eyes. It was all that she needed. As they moved to take her, she lashed out with the pistol, smashing Bates under the chin. She was already moving, darting around, low then high. The clumsy blow from behind her passed over her head, and she snaked around to wrench the man's feet out from underneath him, and snapped out with three quick blows to body: chin, chest and stomach. Blood smeared on the pistol-grip, sticky on her hand. The fallen man was groping for his own gun, and she stamped on his foot, and kicked the gun away. He was coiling himself to spring to his feet, so she struck him in the side of the head, then rounded on Bates again, kicking him between the legs.

 

There was no time to finish them; there was no possibility of finishing them. Crouching over the nameless man, she kept her gun trained on Bates. With the other hand, she tore at the man's radio, and wrenched off his ear piece. Still holding the gun steady, she started to edge backwards.

 

Throughout it all, none of them had spoken a word.

 

Her hands and arms were throbbing from the blows she had struck. Fresh blood trickled down her neck from the reopened cuts. Bates was writhing on the ground, but his eyes were a constant in the frenzied movement of his body, never leaving her face. The other man was still.

 

It was the difference in sound that told her when she had reached an intersection. With one last look at Bates, she darted down a side passage, then proceeded to run as fast as she could, jamming the radio into her pocket as she did so. Lights waxed and waned around her, and she passed doors, some empty, some closed. She entered a transporter, stabbing the controls randomly. She ran towards the darkness, and leapt from a platform to the level below, falling into a crouch, one hand on the floor, and the other already coming up with the gun. Sometimes her feet pounded on metal; sometimes her feet made no sound.

 

At last, breathless, she slowed, and came to a halt in a room full of storage crates. She rested against a crate, its hard surface pressing into her body from hips to head. Jabbing the pistol back into her belt, she pulled the radio from her pocket and put on the ear piece. She took a deep breath, and let it out again. Then, slowly, deliberately, she switched the radio on.

 

There was nothing for a while. Her breathing gradually slowed. The blood on her neck was drying, making her skin stiffen. Nothing moved in the shadows, and no footsteps approached her.

 

"The charade is over," a voice said in her ear. She sucked in a breath, then stopped it with her teeth.

 

"And Sheppard?" someone else said.

 

"We have the entire city," the first voice said. "We no longer require a scapegoat."

 

Silence again. Alone in the dark, hand poised halfway between radio and ear piece, she listened, and almost imagined that she could hear voices beneath the silence.

 

"He's resourceful, sir." She frowned. Was that Ford?

 

In the silence, there was only the faint sound of her own breathing. She remembered what it had felt like to be inside the mind of the Wraith, with that strange layering of verbal communications and communication of the mind.

 

"…doubt he can stop us now," said the first voice. "Take appropriate action, even so."

 

There was no answer. The radio was silent for the space of twenty breaths, and then went dead with a click. Her hand rose to her mouth. Had her breathing been too loud? Had they heard her? She tore the ear piece from her ear, and hit the button that turned the radio off.

 

The charade is over. She gave a mirthless smile. It was indeed. The only question now was: what was she going to do about it?

 

******

 

They had travelled for two hours without being bloodily killed, which Rodney had to admit was a good thing. He stayed in the middle of the group, the shield clutched protectively in his good hand. This left the wounded one unsupported, and pain stabbed through his upper arm with every step. He had told Sheppard so several times, but the barbarian had snarled at him - really snarled at him, teeth and all!

 

Sheppard led them, holding up his hand every now and then in a vain attempt to communicate in that military sign-language thing that Rodney had never mastered. Thankfully, he also added words, hissing them perhaps for Rodney's benefit, and perhaps for the barbarian's. The barbarian travelled at the rear. Rodney had complained in fierce whispers to Sheppard at the start - I'm blaming you when he shoots me in the back - but his presence had become strangely comforting. No enemy could get past him.

 

Sheppard held the life-signs detector, holding it level with his gun. Sometimes Rodney could see its screen over his shoulder. It was disturbing to see a blank screen where their own three dots should be. It had been worse watching Sheppard's dot disappear, when they had been testing the shield. For a moment, he had been back on the planet where they had lost him, staring at a life-signs detector that showed only absence where Sheppard should have been.

 

"I hate to put a dampener on this merry little party," Rodney said, after the blank screen had jolted into sight, then out of it, "but do we actually have a destination in mind, or is this navigation Sheppard-style?"

 

Sheppard raised his hand. That signal, at least, Rodney could read. The screen was raised, and he saw the distant dots - three of them, and closing. Sheppard pointed down - down! - and directed them towards a narrow flight of shadowed stairs. The problem was, Sheppard had explained, that it wasn't enough just to hide. They had to hide far enough away that the patrol's own life-signs didn't suddenly blank out. That meant at least thirty feet - which, really, was far closer than Rodney wanted to get to armed patrols that wanted to kill him.

 

The stairs led them to an insalubrious little room, with a faint green light that showed that it was barely above sea level. Sheppard looked around, then directed them to a dark alcove. It looked barely big enough to hold the barbarian, let alone all three of them, and Rodney opened his mouth to protest, but this time it was Sheppard who silenced him with a look.

 

They squeezed in. The barbarian's body was as solid as a boulder, and Rodney felt small and fleshy beside him. Sheppard's shoulder pressed into Rodney's horribly close to his wound. He looked sharply at Sheppard, jerking his chin at the injury. Careful, you clumsy oaf. Then he became aware of a fine trembling at the place where their shoulders touched. He had no idea if it came from Sheppard, or from himself.

 

Sheppard raised his finger to his lips. You don't have to tell me that, Rodney thought, but he almost said it aloud, so perhaps Sheppard was right to warn him. It's just hard to think without speaking. If he couldn't speak, the emotions welled up like boiling water. Words were their vent.

 

The screen showed three dots, closing above them. This was the moment of truth. This was the test. No, no, of course Rodney was right in his conjecture about the shield. He had tested it. Still, it was harder to have faith when your own life was on the line. He remembered dishing out impatient reassurances in the past - yes, yes, of course it's safe; now get out and do your job and let me do mine. When you were cowering in the darkness and were unable to speak, it was hard to have faith in anything.

 

Footsteps sounded, perfectly in step; only the dots on the screen revealed that there were three. Rodney could hear his own breathing, high and fast, and tried desperately to still it. Sheppard was leaning ever more heavily on his shoulder, despite his wound. When Rodney glared at him, he saw that Sheppard's eyes were closed and his head was sagging. He jabbed him in the side, and his eyes opened, but only slowly. He smiled, but Rodney had seen all manner of this man's smiles, and this was one associated with some of his worst memories.

 

The dots moved away. Rodney waited at least three minutes before he started to slump forward with relief, and even then he stopped himself, waiting for Sheppard to decree it was safe. He did so. "Rest for a while." Sheppard sat down carefully. The pale green light gave him the complexion of a corpse.

 

Rodney positioned himself on one side of him, and the barbarian crouched on the other. "We do have a destination," Sheppard said, "and I don't get lost. I've told you before. We're taking a… scenic route, to throw off pursuit."

 

"So where are we going?" the barbarian asked.

 

"To take out the power, of course."

 

Rodney raised his eyes heavenward. "Not again! Just like you did with the Genii. I'll have you know that I stubbed my toe stumbling around in the dark."

 

"Takes out important systems." Sheppard's smile was a faint shadow of what it once had been. "Makes us invisible, or near enough."

 

"Unfortunately, Major, over the last two years I've lost my infrared vision," Rodney said. "They won't be able see us, true. But what's wrong with this picture? Oh yes! We won't be able to see them."

 

Sheppard waved the life-signs detector. "We can see them. They can't see us."

 

"And we…" Rodney lowered his pointing finger. "Yes. Well. You're right. But we need the 'important systems', too."

 

"We aren't anywhere near them," Sheppard said, "while they're in the control room. This weakens them far more than it weakens us. Can you do it?"

 

"Of course I can." Only a few people had the codes necessary to cut power to the base, but he, of course, was one of them. The trouble was… "Zelenka or Brett or half a dozen other people can switch it right back on again." Only Caldwell and Weir had codes that allowed them a total over-ride.

 

"Then make it so they can't," Sheppard said, with emphatic patience. He said it as if it was inconceivable that there was anything that Rodney couldn't do.

 

"Do I look like a miracle worker?" Rodney grumbled. "That's the thing with you: you always expect miracles."

 

It was true. Right from the start, Sheppard had demanded the impossible from him, and never doubted that he would receive it. No-one else did that. They asked him if he could. They questioned whether he could. They asked him for a time-scale, and took it on face value, rather than insisting on half of that. It had seemed infuriating at the time. It was only now that it was back that he realised how much he had missed it.

 

"Yes," he conceded. "Yes, I can do that."

 

Sheppard pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. The barbarian was up before him, in a move that reminded Rodney of a very large panther, and towered over Sheppard, watching him with glittering eyes.

 

"Well…" Rodney said. "I guess it's onwards. Let's wreak havoc."

 

And here he was, with a dead man and a barbarian, preparing to commit sabotage and violence against his own people. It should have felt ridiculous. The strangest thing of all was how normal it felt. It felt like waking up from a long dream.

 

It felt like coming home.

 

******

 

end of chapter sixteen

 

******

 

Chapter seventeen: Comrades

 

"Three of them." Sheppard held up three fingers.

 

Ronon nodded. "I'll take two."

 

Sheppard looked as if he was about to object, then gave a sign of assent. It was plain that the irritating scientist was going to be no help. "You're going to fight them this time?" he squawked. Ronon wondered just what sort of a mission he had thought they were on.

 

Sheppard edged forward along the metal walkway. Ronon watched critically, ready to find fault with his silence and his stealth, but he saw little that he could criticise. Beside him, the scientist was quivering with nervousness, shifting his weight from foot to foot. Ronon had discovered that he could make the man recoil with just a look, but he didn't try it now. This was a time for action, and there was too much at stake.

 

"They're standing still," Sheppard reported in a whisper, when he returned. "One of them's got a life-signs detector."

 

Ronon understood; he had never seen such a device before today, but understood its purpose. They would have to be quick, before the enemy had time to react to their own life signs disappearing. But Sheppard had one last order. "No killing."

 

"If you can't kill your foe, it's like going into a battle with a broken weapon," Ronon told him.

 

"Maybe." Sheppard nodded. His eyes were steady in his pale face. "No killing."

 

Ronon narrowed his eyes. "Is that an order?"

 

"Yes." So Sheppard was one of the few men who did not falter when Ronon chose to stare at him. "It is."

 

Ronon gripped the unfamiliar weapon, and felt the weight of the alien city above him. "I'm not in your army. You can't command me."

 

"You chose to come with me," Sheppard said, "and that means that for today I command you. You knew the score. I gave you a chance to leave. You still can."

 

Ronon elbowed past him, moving forward along the narrow walkway. Behind him, Sheppard hissed some quick instructions to the scientist, who yelped in high whispers in response. Ronon slowed his pace. No matter how angry you were, a battle could be lost if you went before your comrade was ready. He was no longer fighting alone. For the first time in eight years, he was no longer fighting alone.

 

"Those two are mine," he mouthed, when they were above their men. "You take that one." If it sounded like an order, he made no attempt to stop it. Sheppard did not comment, but merely nodded.

 

And then came the usual fierce exhilaration of the fight, just flashes of movement and fierce and frozen images. He remembered landing, and was up again, floor cold beneath his hand. A cry, a gun coming up… then the solid feel of flesh collapsing under his fist. He leapt, and landed… Cold black metal, and crashing into it, arms wrapped around an enemy, dragging him to the ground. A nose breaking, and blood spraying from his hands. Glimpses of Sheppard bearing his man down, tenacious like a hound. A head smashing into the ground again and again. A glimpse behind him, and whirling round with a roar, both arms together. A knee grinding beneath his foot. Flesh beneath his fingers, and a mouth open, gasping for breath… Pouring his hatred into the pool that was the pleading eyes beneath him…

 

"Enough."

 

The word was distant, and nothing to do with him. He fought alone. No-one could command him. No human voice could speak any word that bound him.

 

"Stop."

 

Choking beneath his hands, flesh bulging around his thumbs. Traitor, Wraith; enemy; rival… Fighting back against those who would kill him. How many had he killed? How many?

 

"Enough!" A hand on his shoulder, and he lashed out, striking at the person who dared to stop him. And then he blinked, and looked upon what he had just done. The man on the ground was gasping faintly, barely conscious. Sheppard had struck the wall, both hands pressed against it as he held himself him up. He looked on the point of collapse, but his eyes were unyielding. "Enough, Dex." He pushed himself off the wall, and knelt down heavily. Picking up the plastic bindings he had dropped, he offered them to Ronon. "Use these."

 

Ronon did so; Sheppard's man was already bound. He readied himself for Sheppard's tongue-lashing, and readied himself for the confrontation that would ensue - the confrontation that would end this fleeting comradeship - but it did not come. "Reckon it's safe enough for McKay?" was all Sheppard said.

 

The scientist was peering over the edge of the walkway, keeping close enough to stay within the shelter of the shield. "I can't jump down that far," he hissed. "I'll break my neck." He clattered far too noisily towards the stairs. Ronon could not begin to understand what had possessed Sheppard to bring such a useless man along with him.

 

Sheppard lurched badly as he rose to his feet. Reacting instinctively, Ronon reached out to steady him. For a moment, he held the man by both shoulders. There was no resistance there at all, the man sagging in his hands. But then, as he tightened his grip, Sheppard regained control, and pulled away from Ronon's support.

 

"You're not well," Ronon hissed.

 

"No." Sheppard looked bleak for in instant, then pressed his mouth into a thin line, raising his chin. It was a look Ronon remembered well, although it was eight years since he had fought with another man at his side; eight years since he had looked for signs of injury beneath a comrade's strong façade.

 

"Are you injured?"

 

Sheppard shook his head. "No. It's worse than that. I… don't know how much longer I'll be able to keep going."

 

Ronon studied him sharply, and saw truth. That was good. A comrade who lied about his fitness for battle was no true comrade at all, but a bringer of death.

 

Then Sheppard's hand closed briefly around his upper arm. Ronon twitched, and fought the urge to wrench himself free. "Don't tell McKay. He'll only panic. Believe me, you don't want to see a panicking McKay."

 

As the scientist approached, Sheppard and Ronon stood side by side, their struggling enemies at their feet. McKay's eyes went from one to the other, to the enemies, and back to Sheppard again. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again.

 

"Over to you, Rodney." Sheppard gestured to the door beyond.

 

They both moved, Sheppard going one way, Ronon going the other. The scientist started his squawking again. The journey resumed. But changed, Ronon thought. Changed.

 

He had spent eight years fighting alone. When you fought at the side of others, they gave you orders you did not want to obey. They pulled you back. They got wounded, and left your back uncovered because they had fallen. They died, blood spilling through your useless hands. They betrayed you to the enemy.

 

When you fought at the side of others, you communicated without the need for words.  They made decisions, so sometimes you could rest, and let things unfold as they would. They pulled you back when you needed to be pulled back. They covered your back, and helped you if you stumbled. They fell, but because you were there to hold them, their life was saved, and your killing hands brought life instead of death.

 

Eight years had passed, but he had not forgotten what it felt like to have a comrade.

 

******

 

Sheppard kept his hand on the surface of some machine that looked more or less safe. His face set in the familiar frown of concentration, McKay was working on the power. Dex was positioned in the doorway, and Sheppard's eyes flicked from the life-signs detector to McKay, to the door, and back again. It required absolute concentration to do even that much. The pain was everywhere, and his vision was suffused with grey.

 

"Can you do it, McKay?" Talking made it fractionally better, although it sounded to him as if his voice came from somewhere else entirely - from two years in the past; from a place of fog in another world.

 

"Yes. Yes. Quicker if you stop asking me." McKay couldn't resist the urge to look up, to accompany his rebuke with a glare. "I don't want to switch the power off until I've set up the block. The minute the power goes, I plan to run for my life."

 

Sheppard drifted again. His hand slid along the grey surface of the machine. He slid it back, and lurched towards the wall, three paces away. Dex didn't look away from the door, but Sheppard knew the big man was intensely aware of all his movements. If he fell, he thought that Dex would catch him, but he did not intend to fall.

 

"Rodney, wait."

 

"What now?"

 

Even with the wall at his back, he wished that he could use both hands to keep himself upright. "Can you leave power on in the infirmary? Caldwell's in intensive care."

 

McKay rolled his eyes impatiently. "And his doctor's turned into a murdering psycho. Power's the least of his problems."

 

Death was lapping around him, like the waves that had drowned him. "Do it, McKay." He lacked the energy to sound anything but weary. If Caldwell lived, he would send Sheppard home, but that made no difference. You didn't leave a man to die if you could do anything to save him. You didn't fight to stay in Atlantis unless you deserved a place there.

 

"You want everything, Major," McKay grumbled. Sighing theatrically, he returned to his work.

 

The blank screen of the life-signs detector was quivering in his hand. Dex was ready and deadly in the door. No killing, Sheppard had ordered, but Dex had argued, and had almost strangled a man with his bare hands. A man has to win my respect before he can give me orders. Ronon knew how close to collapse Sheppard really was. There would be no respect there.

 

"Right." McKay took a step back. He spread his hands in triumph, but his expression was nervous. "We're ready to go."

 

Sheppard nodded to him. "Then what are you waiting for?"

 

"Uh. Yes. Right." McKay pressed a button, and the lights went out.

 

"And that's our cue to run," Sheppard said.

 

******

 

At the far end of the hallway, daylight flooded in through a window, but the place where Teyla stood was dark. The power had gone.

 

She knew exactly what that meant. Major Sheppard!  After the Genii invasion, Sheppard had made sure that everyone in his team knew exactly where to go to cripple Atlantis. She knew where the generators were, and she knew where the main power room was. Major Sheppard was in one of those places.

 

She started to run. As she did so, she stabbed at the radio again, fumbling the ear piece into position. "Taken out the power," she heard. "As many as can be spared: go, go, go!"

 

Her own steps were faster. She was unencumbered with armour or weapons, and she wore soft shoes of supple leather. The people of earth were large and clumsy, almost blind when their artificial light did not surround them. Teyla was accustomed to moving in the dark. Since she was a girl, she had moved through the night, hunting prey. In the dark, she had the advantage over anyone else in Atlantis.

 

She ducked left, keeping away from the windows. Light would blind her, and would take away her advantage. Sunlight would pin her like an animal frozen in the huntsman's sights.

 

The radio was silent, but she heard other feet. She heard the sound of gunfire, but she thought it came from the wrong direction. Down hallways, up staircases, darting in and out of rooms. Please, she thought, do not let me be too late.

 

******

 

"They're following us!" Rodney squeaked. "They're on our tail."

 

Sheppard had the shield now, tucked into his vest. The barbarian was racing ahead, his long stride meaning that he kept on vanishing completely into the darkness ahead of them, then looming into view again whenever he slowed. Sheppard was matching his pace with Rodney's, or perhaps even falling behind.

 

"How do they know where we are? Oh no. This shouldn't be happening."

 

"They know, Rodney, because…"

 

Sheppard said nothing more. Rodney glanced sideways desperately, but he was still there, running beside him, just visible in the near darkness. Sheppard grabbed at Rodney's arm. "I can keep myself upright thank you, Major," Rodney told him. "You didn't check that it wasn't my wounded arm." Then he felt the need to fill in what Sheppard hadn't finished. "Yes, yes, I know. They don't know where we are, but they know where we were. There aren't many routes out. And your great hulking feet are making a terrible noise."

 

"Not as much as your mouth."

 

"Running for my life here," Rodney told him. "Is it too much to expect some relief from your so-called wit?"

 

Sheppard pushed the life-signs detector into Rodney's hand. "What can you see?"

 

"And you haven't got eyes yourself?" The screen were lurching in time with his running, and at first the two dots looked like four, like eight, like twenty. "Only two close on our trail," he said. He looked back over his shoulder, peering into the darkness. "Unless there are some close enough to be inside the shield." He hunched low as he ran, making himself small for bullets.

 

"Two," Sheppard said in a low voice.

 

There was nothing in his tone to show that he was now talking to the barbarian, but the barbarian seemed to realise it. He turned round, grinning. "Easy."

 

"Carry on." Sheppard clapped Rodney on the shoulder. Rodney trotted six steps, a dozen steps, twenty, thirty…

 

He stopped, hand rising to his heaving chest. Something crashed to the ground, not far behind him. He heard the unmistakeable sound of blows. Someone groaned - was it a familiar voice? Was it Sheppard? A gun went off, and then he was the one moaning, because the noise would bring the others, they'd be surrounded, they'd be cut down. He'd die here in the darkness of his own city, and…

 

Bring him to us, Rodney.

 

"No," he moaned, pressing his hands to his mouth. He took a step forward, then another. Perhaps he could help. Sheppard had been teaching him to fire a gun before he had… before everything had… And he hadn't been on a Gate team for nearly two years, hadn't been in a fight, hadn't faced fire, but that didn't mean that he couldn't do it. Waiting uselessly in the dark was worse. If Sheppard died again, he… "No," he whispered. "No."

 

Footsteps approached him. He cowered back, then straightened forward, then recollected himself in time to dart sideways and press himself to the wall. Better arrange an ambush, even a pathetic one, than stand there in the middle of the path and just wait…

 

No, wait. Two figures taking shape from the darkness. One was tall, with long tousled hair. The other was leaning on him, and he could hear them now - hear the way one set of footsteps was faltering, almost lost in the steady stride of the man who was helping him stand.

 

Rodney tottered forward, hands fluttering. "Were you shot?"

 

"No." Sheppard's voice was just a shred of itself. The barbarian left him. Rodney braced himself to take the place he had vacated, but Sheppard stood by himself.  "Carry on."

 

They moved less quickly now, though Rodney had no idea whose idea it was, and how the decision was being transmitted. The three of them kept pace. Rodney found that he had assumed the position on Sheppard's left, while the barbarian strode at his right. He kept the life signs detector in his hand. Although he was the one who had taken out the power, he wished for a moment of light so he could look at Sheppard's face. In the darkness, you could hide from the truth. In the darkness, you did not have to ask the question.

 

They descended a twisting flight of stairs. "Wait!" Rodney cried, holding up the life-signs detector. "There's someone…"

 

"How many?" The barbarian spoke where Rodney had expected Sheppard.

 

He frowned. "Just one."

 

"I'll go," the barbarian said.

 

Light was filtering in from a distant window on the level below. It showed Rodney that Sheppard was standing with his head bowed, his hand gripping the railing. Rodney bit his lip, wondering if Sheppard was aware of anything that had just been said.

 

As he stood there worrying, the barbarian passed him, and strode silently into the darkness.

 

******

 

The man was silent, moving swiftly in the darkness, seeking out shadows. It was only her senses, honed since childhood, that made Teyla aware of him. She stopped, and flowed into her own patch of darkness. If he chose to attack, she was ready. If he did not, she would launch an attack of her own.

 

He was on her within seconds. On her journey through Atlantis, she had found a length of metal that would serve as a weapon, and she swung it around, striking him in the side. His breath exploded in a grunt, but his attack did not slow. His hand grabbed her weapon, closing round it even as she swung it away from another blow. Holding the rod one-handed, she lashed out with her other hand, blocking the punch he was aiming at her head. There was so much weight there. It drove her backwards towards the wall, but she turned it into her advantage, ducking down and twisting. Her attacker wavered for a moment, but kept his balance.

 

He was still holding the end of her weapon, and he hauled at it, trying to rip it from her hand. Slowly her hand slid down the metal, burning hotly as it went, but she did not yield. He landed a blow on her cheek that made her head snap round painfully, but he was too far away for her shorter reach. Both holding an end of the rod, it was as if they were chained together, held at a fixed distance. Recovering with a cry, she made a decision and let go of the weapon entirely, darting in to strike him on the chin and in the stomach. The sudden weight of the metal rod put him fractionally off-balance. She hooked her leg behind his knee, but he twisted sideways, and they both fell together, her attacker below and Teyla above, but he was already rising up, and she struck at his face again, but she couldn't hold on, she couldn't hold on.

 

"Stop that." The voice came from outside the magic circle of self and foe. She might not have registered it at all, except that she knew the voice. Her attacker seemed to know it, too, for he pulled back his attack. Watchful and defensive, they eyed each other, faces a hand-span apart in the dark.

 

"Dex," Major Sheppard said. "Quit trying to kill her. She's a friend. I should say the same to you, Teyla. He's a friend." There was the faintest chuckle in her voice. "Who was winning?"

 

"I was," her attacker growled, as he stood up, but she saw his hand come up to his chin, rubbing it painfully.

 

"On the contrary," she said, "I believe that I had the advantage." The palm of her right hand was stinging from the friction burns, and her cheek was throbbing horribly.

 

"We can decide that later, then." Sheppard started to walk away.

 

Teyla and her attacker both remained still, as if neither of them wanted to let the other one get behind them. Foolish, Teyla berated herself. Major Sheppard had called this man a friend, and Major Sheppard had her trust. Her trust had wavered once upon this day, but it would not waver again.

 

"Teyla Emmagen," she introduced herself.

 

"Ronon Dex."

 

They walked side by side. She almost said something else, but decided not to. You had a strange bond with a person you had fought. In the middle of the fight, you had an insight into the way their mind worked that was closer in a way than friendship.

 

"Oh. Teyla. It's Teyla."

 

She smiled. "Good morning, Doctor McKay."

 

"It's morning. Is it still morning?" McKay's face was a smear of grey, and his eyes were specks of light, ever moving.

 

John was resting heavily against the wall. His voice had not sounded entirely right, she realised. She moved to his side, and spoke in a low voice. "I tried to protect Doctor Weir, John, but she went with them willingly. Everyone in the city… They are not themselves."

 

"It's okay, Teyla." She couldn't see his face. "I know you tried."

 

"No." Now that she was here, she had to say it. "It was Doctor Beckett. He said things – things about you. Forgive me, John, but I…" She took a deep breath, and touched his arm, fingers fluttering across the fabric. "I began to believe them. When Elizabeth decided to go with them, I let her go."

 

John said nothing for a long time. She allowed him that time, although she could hear Doctor McKay shifting impatiently behind her. "Well…" She heard the shrug in John's voice, although his body was still. "Elizabeth can be stubborn. You couldn't have stopped her without using actual violence."

 

The cuts on her neck were stinging, re-opened by the fight. "You asked me to guard her."

 

"Asked," John said. "That was all. Not an order. You don't… You aren't… It was just…"

 

Just a request. Just a plea for trust. It was not an order. It would have been a lesser sin, she thought, to have disobeyed an order.

 

"No. Teyla." He pushed himself upright, moving away from the wall. "Don't beat yourself up about it. You did what you could. Things change as circumstances change. At the time, neither of us had any idea how bad things were. I didn't know that Carson and Ford and the others weren't themselves. It's past."

 

"Well, that's good," McKay said from behind them, "because you all seem to have forgotten that we're running for our lives here, and have been standing still for far too long. Save your heart-rending for later."

 

"Where are we going?" asked the man called Ronon.

 

"Armoury," Major Sheppard said. "We need stunners."

 

It's past, he had said. No, Teyla thought, as they started to run. It was not. The past was never over. Everything you had ever done lived on into the present, and the present shaped the future, and sometimes they were was no escape.

 

******

 

Rodney was the last to notice. "Doctor McKay!" he heard Teyla hiss from behind him. The barbarian grunted something urgent about stopping. Even so, he took half a dozen steps before he faltered to a halt. Then he whirled round to see the others only as vague shapes in the darkness.

 

He edged forward, each step taking him closer to pursuit and a painful death. "What is it? Why have you stopped?"

 

He knew, of course. He had seen it coming for hours; had tried to ignore it for hours. Sheppard's strength had run out, and he had collapsed. Both of the others had tried to catch him, and his upper body was held off the ground, half-cradled in both of their arms.

 

"You can't do that here!" Rodney protested, panic making him say unforgivable things, as usual. "You've got to get up."

 

"Can't." The darkness was not so complete that he couldn't see Sheppard's faint smile.

 

"Well, you've got to try harder." Rodney snapped his fingers.

 

"Been trying," Sheppard murmured. "Kept on… Kept almost passing out. Kept going…"

 

Rodney felt a flare of pure, white panic. Sheppard couldn't die! He couldn't! He couldn't! "You lied to me!" He fell to his knees, taking his own station around Sheppard's fallen body. "You did get shot."

 

"Didn't." Sheppard flapped his hand; even that small movement looked as if it was more than he could manage. "You need to go, all three of you."

 

"Did you hit your head when you fell?" Rodney demanded. "Of course we're not leaving you. I can't take on an army, just me and Conan and Xena here. We need you."

 

"And here's me remembering all those times you said that a scientist could…"

 

His voice faded. Rodney grabbed his wrist – pawed at it, clung to it, gripped it. A pulse fluttered beneath his fingers. Perhaps it was his own. "Of course a scientist can." He laughed wildly. "But with instruments. In my lab or in the command room. Not here."

 

"Then go to the command room."

 

Rodney's hand tightened on his wrist. "We can't do it without you." I can't do it without you. "You have to…"

 

"I'll carry him," the barbarian told him. "Find us somewhere with a door we can bar."

 

"And then what?" Rodney stood up, scraped his hands through his hair. "What then, if he's… if he's…?"

 

"Can walk a bit." Sheppard's voice was a tiny wisp of a thing. "Help me, Teyla, Dex."

 

"Ronon," the barbarian corrected him.

 

Rodney stood in the darkness, worrying his hands. Teyla and the barbarian helped Sheppard to his feet, but it was clear that the barbarian was taking most of his weight. Teyla's hands fluttered over Sheppard's chest. Rodney could only stand and watch. Even their faces were hidden from him by the darkness.

 

******

 

end of chapter seventeen

 

******

 

Chapter eighteen: Enemies

 

Elizabeth was ready the moment she heard movement at the door. With her head high and her back straight, she stood in the doorway, barring the entrance.

 

Left alone for several hours, she had sat, and paced, and thought. At first she had hammered at the door and demanded that they let her out, but there had been no response. Her commands had been refused, and that was bad enough, but she would not give them the satisfaction of hearing her desperation. Back to the table, then, to press her hands to the cool surface, and think. What would Caldwell do? What would John do? What would Teyla do? They would be improvising weapons and preparing themselves to attack the next person who came in through the door. But Elizabeth was no warrior. Her weapons had always been words. Over these last few days, she had wavered, but she would waver no more.

 

"Major Brett," she said loudly, standing closer to him than any military man would find comfortable. "If I am not allowed to leave this room right now, I will be forced to take this as a hostile act against Atlantis. I am commander of this expedition, and you are imprisoning me against my will."

 

When Brett had threatened her, the scales had finally fallen from her eyes. Brett was not a good officer who mistakenly blamed John Sheppard for a series of crimes. No, Brett must surely be behind the crimes himself. But how many other people were in on the plot? Carson, she was sure, was an innocent dupe of Brett's lies. She could only assume that many of the soldiers were, too. Brett was the ranking military officer in Caldwell's absence, and few soldiers were willing to disobey a direct order. If Brett ordered them to keep her locked up, most of them would probably do so without question, trusting that there was good reason for it.

 

It was to those soldiers, then, that she appealed. It was to the blank-faced Marines who flanked Brett; to those cold-eyes guards who stood so impassively on the far side of the corridor, guns at the ready, and eyes never leaving her face.

 

"I am commander of this expedition," she told them, although her focus was ostensibly on no-one but Brett. "Ultimately you do obey my command. I have friends in high places on Earth. I may not be military, but I have the power to ensure that anyone who keeps me here against my will faces the full power of military justice."

 

The soldiers did not move. The guards did not waver. Inside, her certainty wavered, but she kept her head high, and did not show it. "Major Brett." Her voice was steel.

 

She was not sure what she had expected. For him to waver and back down? Perhaps. For him to appeal to his men? Probably. She had expected him to tell them that she was not herself, that she had been duped by the wanted criminal, John Sheppard. Instead, he did nothing, and that, to her, was the worst thing of all. It showed that he had no doubts at all about their loyalty.

 

So it had finally happened. The two cities of Atlantis had finally split apart completely. The soldiers would obey their officers without doubt or question, even if the command was to imprison the civilian leader of the expedition. She had no authority left. It was gone.

 

Perhaps he saw the flicker of despair in her eyes. He closed on her, and she was no match for him, not physically. Her words had bounced off him like arrows off armour, but her body was crushed beneath him like grass. She struggled, but the soldiers helped him. They were not unnecessarily cruel, but they were firm. Twisting her head sideways, she caught a glimmer of something moving, and then there was a pricking pain in the back of her neck.

 

She was only dimly aware of them climbing off her. What came immediately afterwards, she was not aware of at all. 

 

******

 

Sheppard hated being slave to the weakness of his own body. He lay propped up on folded jackets, too weak and racked with pain even to sit up without support. McKay hovered over him, alternately babbling and silent. The silence was worse. Sheppard had never hoped to be in a situation so bad that even Rodney McKay was robbed of words.

 

Teyla and Dex – Ronon – sat on either side of him, stationed to fight. They had found a small empty room, and had taken refuge there. The life-signs detector had shown people milling around not too far away, but none of them had come close. With the power still off, the only light came from the P90s. Ronon's light was still and unwavering, but Teyla's kept moving as she turned to check on him.

 

Faces were unnatural in the beams of bright light, with deep shadows in places where there were normally only smooth planes. "Ever tell spooky stories with a flashlight under your chin?" Sheppard asked McKay. "Guess we're in our own spooky story now."

 

He wondered if he would die here. He would never tell the others, but he needed the beams of light. They cut through the fog that was trying to claim him. They told him that he was still alive, not drowning in the ocean in a place far away.

 

"I don't know what's wrong with him!" McKay protested, sounding almost angry.

 

"Hey. I'm still here,"  Sheppard told him.  When they talked about him in the third person, the waves closed over his head, and told him that he was already dead.

 

"I don't know what to do." McKay's eyes flickered towards him. In the moment that their eyes met, Sheppard saw something in McKay's eyes that he had never hoped to see again in the eyes of any man.

 

"You should go," he rasped. "Please, Rodney. All three of you. Teyla and Ronon can take on anyone. You know better than anybody how to bring this city to its knees."

 

It was the wrong thing to say. "We are not leaving you." That was Teyla. McKay just looked away. Even Ronon angled his body slightly nearer, closing in.

 

He couldn't even begin to comprehend it. Teyla and McKay had lived two years without him. McKay hated him, for God's sake. Ronon was a stranger, with ties on other worlds.

 

"We need to regain the city." He clenched a fist to give himself the strength for words. "Don't. Please. I don't want you to."   

 

"Rest," Teyla urged him. "We will reclaim the city together when you have regained your strength." Did she really believe that? She said it more firmly than she needed to.

 

"Don't know my way around," Ronon said.

 

"Last time we left you, you…" McKay struck the floor with his fist. "Damn it, Major, since when are you so defeatist? Suicidal and self-sacrificing, yes, but defeatist…"

 

It was true. Sheppard clenched the other fist, and fought the fog. The waves receded enough for him to grab hold of a beam of light and bring himself entirely, intensely into this room, and with these three people.

 

"Got a plan, then," he told them. He turned his head fractionally towards McKay. "You won't like it."

 

******

 

Elizabeth opened her eyes to a patch of floor. She raised her head, and saw a chair, looking so far away that it could as well be on the moon.

 

I should lie here, she thought. Lie here on the floor. Discarded. I've lost everything.

 

Memories came. They hurt, as if they were being dragged into a mind that did not want to see them. She saw a hundred different instances of Caldwell undermining her authority. She saw herself walking into the military quarter to confront Brett, and knowing that this was enemy territory. She saw the truth of the situation reflected in John Sheppard's eyes, and in his bruises, and in the stiffness of his shoulders as he had turned away; as she had pushed him away. She saw Teyla trying to stop her from leaving, and heard again her own misguided confidence.

 

And now she lay here, broken and imprisoned, because her commands no longer held any weight in Atlantis. The military had won, and now Brett would… Now Brett…

 

She blinked, and forced herself to concentrate on the chair. No, she was not entirely broken. She would not give up. She had never given up, and never would. She pushed herself to her feet, and lurched towards the chair, grasping at the table as she passed, gripping onto the chair-back as if it was the only thing keeping her alive.

 

She managed to sit. She wanted to slump forward, head in her hands, but she managed to sit upright. She closed her eyes; opened them again. Major Brett was there, sitting calmly in the chair opposite. His dark eyes pinned her with their steady regard.

 

Lost, she thought. I've lost everything.

 

She had lost her command. There was no coming back from this. The entire military contingent of Atlantis accepted the orders of a compromised officer, even if those orders were to physically attack the expedition leader. John had tried to warn her, but she had refused to see. This was no sudden catastrophe. It had been slowly approaching for two years, and she had done nothing to stop it.

 

She deserved this. She deserved this. John had seen things with the clarity of the outsider, and she had refused to listen. For a while, she had even come close to believing Brett's lies about him. Her judgement had been comprehensively flawed, and she had let all this happen without taking any steps to prevent it.

 

I should resign, she thought. Go back to Earth. Go to the Gate Room right now, and dial…

 

Her head had been sagging. She forced it upright again, and saw Brett sitting opposite her, watching her.

 

No, she thought. She felt as if she was dragging the word out from deep inside her. Perhaps she had lost her command, and perhaps she had lost all right to command, but she would not surrender Atlantis. She was fairly sure that Brett served some enemy organisation, and that he had designs on Earth. She might not have any right to be the commander of Atlantis, but she could still be its champion. Nothing was served by regret. Nothing was served by guilt. If she rolled over in defeat, it would help nobody but the enemy.

 

"No," she said out loud. It felt like something falling away from her mind; like a dirty, ragged shroud falling away from her body.

 

"Too bad." Brett shrugged, smiling a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "We didn't think it would work, but it was worth a try." He brought out a knife and laid it deliberately on the table. "But there are other ways." 

 

******

 

Ronon walked alongside the woman who said her name was Teyla. He hated having to rely on a someone else for directions, but she did it well, indicating turns in advance with hand or chin, and never leaving him to follow her without knowing what was to come. As they walked, he committed each turn to his memory. No matter what happened, he could be able to find his way back to Sheppard and the scientist.

 

Sheppard had given them the shield. "But that means we're unprotected," the scientist had squawked.

 

"Which is why I said that all three of you should go." Ronon could not understand how Sheppard managed to speak to the scientist with such patience, sometimes even with amusement in his voice.

 

The scientist had subsided. Perhaps he was not as useless as he had at first appeared. His name was McKay, Ronon remembered. Rodney McKay. He squawked and whined and grumbled, but he had stayed with his fallen comrade, despite the risks, and he had glowered mutinously when Sheppard had tried to command him, showing a strength of will that would have been the envy of many soldiers.

 

"You aren't from Atlantis," Ronon said in a low voice, for the device showed that there was no-one near them. "You aren't one of them."

 

Teyla shook her head. "I am from Athos."

 

"Athos was culled."

 

"Yes."

 

Ronon suddenly felt large and clumsy. She was small and lithe, and she spoke as if she had considered every word. Ronon had forgotten how to speak to people who were not enemies. He felt a strange, impossible urge to say that he was sorry.

 

Instead, he offered her a confidence. "My world was destroyed, too. Sateda. I've been a Runner for eight years."

 

There was just enough light to see her face. He had expected fear or revulsion. If she had given him pity, he would have walked away and left her there and then. All that happened was that her eyes widened for a moment, then her face composed itself in a slightly new fashion. "I see."

 

They crept down a staircase, keeping close to the wall. Leading, and a step ahead of him, she barely came up to his chest, but he had fought her only hours before. She had a strength that he had never expected to find in such a slight woman. His face bore bruises from her hands, and his side hurt with every breath. He wanted to fight with her again, without anyone calling a halt. He thought he would win, but the fight would be glorious.

 

"But you're here in the City of the Ancestors," he said, when they were on level ground again. "Are you the last of your people?" Like I am. That was a hurt that he had not yet comprehended himself, and it could not be spoken of.

 

"My people live." She brought her finger to her lips, held it there, then lowered it. All was still silent. "I chose to stay here."

 

"Why?" Their weapons were impressive enough, and their vessels had the potential to be formidable. Their doctor had removed the tracker, and that at least he would never forget. Except for Sheppard, they had not impressed him over much apart from that.

 

"I believed that they were our best hope against the Wraith," she said, in her careful way. "I believed I could offer them knowledge that would help them."

 

"Believed?" he echoed.

 

"Believe," she said firmly. "Things became… difficult, and I left."

 

"You're here now."

 

"Yes." She nodded, but did not elaborate.

 

They carried on in silence. Ronon did not need the device to tell him that they were drawing closer to the enemy. "Two," Teyla whispered, indicating to Ronon that they should stop. "There is no way round them."

 

Ronon smiled grimly, and for the third time in one day – for the first time in eight years – readied himself to fight with someone else at his side.

 

******

 

Rodney had no idea if Sheppard was even conscious.

 

"…and here I am," he grumbled, "locked in a glorified closet in the dark, with no way of knowing if blood-thirsty mind-controlled Marines are going to come bursting in at any moment and kill me."

 

He looked over his shoulder at the door; shuffled around to a position that felt safer. Sheppard stirred slightly, but perhaps he was only moving in his sleep. Rodney bit his lip; released it again. His 'safe' position was not safe at all, he realised. Whenever he moved, he put himself more squarely between Sheppard and the door. He wasn't quite sure what idiocy was possessing him.

 

"And I know you told me to go with them on their ridiculous, foolish, stupid adventure – and where do you come up with these plans, Major, that's what I'd like to know? Well, I'll have you know, I couldn't go. It's far too dangerous out there. I intend to cower here in the nice safe darkness, and hide."

 

He placed a tentative hand on Sheppard's chest, and let out a breath when he felt the heart still beating.

 

"I never finished telling you what happened while you were… dead." He unfolded his legs, then settled down again. "Well… Actually… If I'm honest…" Another breath. "Nothing happened. No, no, of course things happened, just not to me. Occasional bouts of saving the world, of course. Finding solutions to problems when everyone else was stumbling in the dark. But not… actual… happenings."

 

His arm was hurting badly. His legs ached, and his eyes felt as if they were full of grit. He was sleep-deprived, hunted and hiding. He was terrified. He was facing certain death. The only two people who could fight had gone off on an idiotic mission and were probably being slaughtered even as he spoke.

 

"You'd have thought it was what I wanted, wouldn't you." He laughed, but there was a tremor in it, closer, perhaps, to tears. "A lab of my own full of technology that was quite literally out of the world. Minions at my command. No-one nagging me with idiotic interruptions. No-one shooting at me, trying to kill me. But it just felt… boring."

 

His hand moved to Sheppard's wrist. Still a pulse. Still no further movement. He could hear no sounds outside, but that didn't mean that no-one was there. He had seen these military teams in action, taking their places in absolute silence, then smashing down the door in an explosion of shouting and violence.

 

"You know when you're a child at school, and you have to pick teams for some ridiculous game or other…? No-one ever picked me. Stupid for me to remember it, eh? Not that I cared. I didn't want to play those games, anyway." He closed his eyes for a moment. "But you picked me. You chose me for your team. It made me feel… It… It felt good. Even though we plunged straight into one ridiculous adventure after another and I kept on coming that close to dying… It still felt good. I don't think I realised just how good it felt until it was gone."

 

The light faltered. He switched it off completely, suddenly terrified that it would show through the door. Some things were easier to do in the darkness, anyway.

 

"And afterwards… Caldwell's okay, but he's not you. I never expected to like you. You were the arrogant, cocky flyboy with the super-powered gene. But nothing I said seemed to bother you. I've never met anyone like that before. Usually, people… they back away. Dislike me. Fight back and mean it. You just…" He brought his hand to his face, where his eyes were dry, but close, perhaps, to being something different. "You brought out the best in me. I think you brought out the best in all of us. We missed you." He lowered his hand; grasped Sheppard's arm again, this time not even feeling for a pulse. "I missed you."

 

Sheppard lay still. Rodney hoped desperately that he was unconscious.

 

No, he thought, a moment later. Part of him hoped that he was not.

 

******

 

There was blood on Aiden's fingers. It was sticky and thick, more dry than wet. He brought it up to his face, and stared at it with fascination. It roused the shadows in his mind; almost made him fall into them. 

 

Teyla, falling. He had raised the gun, aimed it, pulled the trigger… She had fallen, and he had walked away. Teyla, dead. Teyla, dead. Teyla, dead.

 

She had to die; that was what the higher part of his mind told him. Anyone who was an obstacle had to be killed without a thought, unless they had other uses. He had known that, and so he had pulled the trigger. But ever afterwards, in the hours that had followed, his mind had been mired with shadows. He had listened to orders, nodded, and obeyed, but all along he had seen the image of her falling, over and over and over again.

 

Teyla, dead. A broken body in a pool of blood. Lifeless eyes that had once looked at him with compassion and friendship. A lifeless body that had once fought at his side, so lithe and quick.

 

The smear of blood showed him images, but he had no idea which ones were true any more. He saw her lifeless body, but now, hours later, his slow and agonised steps had brought him back to the room, and there was no-one there. A vase was shattered on the ground, its shards speckled with blood, but that was all. Someone had taken her body.

 

Or I didn't kill her after all.

 

He sat very still. If he hadn't killed her, that meant that he had failed. He had let down his masters and his new family, and had let an enemy go. Once again, he had failed his commanders. He had been given a simple task, and he had failed to carry it out. He had failed.

 

I have to atone. It came with that now-familiar sense of doubling – a sense of this thought coming from outside and within, both at the same time. Wiping the blood from his fingers with a grimace of revulsion, he stood up and hurried to the door.

 

I didn't kill her. He knew it was a cause for shame. Why, then, did the shadows persist in telling him that it was something he should rejoice about? No matter how hard he tried to shift them, the shadows only grew stronger and more deep.

 

Not any more, he resolved, clenching his fists. For over a year, he had buckled under Caldwell's disapproval. His missions had been one failure after another, and he had come to doubt everything that he had ever held as certain. I think you are far more capable than you give yourself credit for, Major Sheppard had told him. It was time to show everyone that Aiden Ford was not a failure. He would prove himself once and for all. If he had to kill, then so be it. Aiden Ford was not going to fail.

 

******

 

"Sheppard." He was drifting slowly in the fog, floating face-down in the ocean, but someone was shaking him, calling his name. "Sheppard. Wake up."

 

He blinked. The ocean withdrew, but he knew it was only a retreating wave; it would soon come back again. "Rodney."

 

"I think I someone's outside."

 

That was enough to rouse him, of course. "Give me the gun."

 

"You can barely hold it."

 

"Give me the gun," he hissed.

 

It was all done by touch. McKay appeared to have switched the light off, or maybe they had waited here so long that the battery had died.  McKay's arm closed round his wrist, as if feeling the way, and then the familiar grip of the pistol was in his hand. It was one more thing that penetrated the fog and the pain.

 

"No life-signs," McKay breathed.

 

Sheppard waited, gritting his teeth against the waves of pain. There was a faint tap at the door, and then another. "Teyla." He didn't relax, though.  If Teyla and Ronon had been successful, another battle was still to come.

 

The door opened. The hallway had seemed dark, but it seemed light in contrast with their windowless room, daylight filtering through the levels from far away. Three figures came in. Once the door was closed, he heard a click, and a beam of light shone slantwise across all three faces.

 

"You got him." McKay seemed torn between moving forward, and retreating.

 

Another light came on, and the faces were illuminated from both sides. Ronon had a fresh graze high on his cheek, and Teyla was favouring one leg. The man held between them had been sagging, but he looked up sharply at McKay's voice.

 

Sheppard was about to gamble everything on a hunch. He could still change his mind. Teyla and Ronon could take the man away again, without the blindfold ever coming off. But Sheppard didn't see that he had a choice. He was useless like this. He could either give up completely, or risk everything on a chance. 

 

"Let him go," Sheppard said, "then go yourselves. Leave me alone with him."

 

"What?" McKay protested. "Leave you alone with a…?"

 

"We will not." Teyla spat it, her voice low with hatred. She was showing none of her usual serenity. She had argued against the plan more passionately even than McKay. Drifting and in pain, he had barely noticed, but he could not miss her signs of disturbance now.

 

He reached for a lie, for something that would placate them. "It makes sense for you to be stationed outside. Head them off at the pass, and so on."

 

"But I don't want to leave…"  McKay sounded almost plaintive.

 

"Ronon." Sheppard looked as commanding as he could manage when lying on his back, barely strong enough to raise his arm.

 

Ronon responded. He was the only one who understood. "Do as he says." He made it sound like a threat. When he took one step towards McKay, McKay yelped, but he gave up the fight. With a desperate backwards look, he left the room. Ronon left with his face impassive.

 

Teyla shoved the prisoner to his knees, and cut away first the gag and then the blindfold.  She let the knife linger a little too long at the side of the jaw.

 

"That's enough," Sheppard told her. Then Teyla, too, left, and Sheppard was alone with Carson Beckett.

 

******

 

end of chapter eighteen

 

******

 

Chapter nineteen: One more hour

 

"We should not have left him." Teyla was pacing, overflowing with restlessness.

 

Ronon was leaning against the wall, but Teyla had known enough warriors to see what lay behind his still façade. "Doc won't hurt him."

 

Teyla stalked towards him. "How can you know that? You know nothing about these people."

 

"Doc helped me." Ronon's hand rose to the back of his neck. "He was afraid, but he was still gentle. He fought Colonel Caldwell – wouldn't turn his back."

 

Teyla was very aware of Doctor McKay listening, almost invisible in the darkness. Several times she heard him draw in a breath, as if he was about to speak, but he remained silent.

 

"That means nothing," she spat. She fought the urge to raise her hand to her own neck, where she, too, bore wounds that taught a lesson about trust. Aiden Ford, raising his gun… "Nobody is who they were. We must forget everything we thought we knew about them."

 

She had not expected the sheer fury that she had felt when she and Ronon had grabbed Doctor Beckett in the infirmary. Her blood had still been racing from the fight in the hallway, and she had never had to struggle so hard to hold back. She had wanted to grab him, to wrestle him to the floor, to strike him, to subdue him. You tricked me! she had wanted to scream. You made me feel doubt!

 

Carson Beckett, clothed in lies and softness, had come to Doctor Weir's door. Carson Beckett, so mild, so treacherous, had told the tale that had caused Elizabeth to put herself into the hands of the enemy. If it had been anyone else, Teyla might have doubted it, but Carson was incapable of inspiring anything other than trust. She had watched Elizabeth walk away, and had done nothing to stop her. For a moment, she had wavered in her trust in Major Sheppard. If Aiden had not attacked her, she might have doubted him still.

 

She hated Carson Beckett, because he had made her hate herself.

 

And so she had twisted the gag into his mouth, twisted his hands behind his back, and snapped at Ronon to hold him. Ronon had been firm, but gentle; Teyla had not been cruel, but she had been harsh. She had bitten her lip to keep herself from reproaching Carson on the journey back. Instead, she had said nothing at all. And now Carson Beckett was alone with Major Sheppard, with those gentle hands that held only death, and that soft voice that now was wreathed with lies.

 

"I still can't see anyone coming." McKay was visible only by the faint glow of the life-signs detector, but the sounds of his nervousness were as loud as a shout. "How long has it been? Perhaps we should go back in, just to check on him."

 

"No." It was Ronon who spoke. He made it sound not like an order, but like an absolute expression of certainty – as if no alternative was even conceivable.

 

The form of McKay took shape in the darkness. "Excuse me, Conan; who made you…?"

 

"He told us to leave."

 

"What? Are you his servant, now – his obedient little soldier?"

 

"No." Ronon turned his head a tiny fraction, but did not otherwise move. "The things that pass between an injured man and his doctor are not for others to overhear. Sheppard doesn't want us to listen. That's his right. I'd do the same."

 

"What makes you the expert on Sheppard all of a sudden?" Teyla heard something else beneath McKay's predictable outrage, but the darkness hid his face, and she could not tell what it was. "Who are you, after all? Just some stray wild animal that Sheppard picked up in a moment of madness. How do we know you're not one of them? How do we know you're not the one behind all this?"

 

Ronon surged forward. McKay was a struggling figure against the wall. "I could say the same about you, little man. You were raving when I first saw you. I know you were injected with this thing."

 

"Let him go!" Teyla commanded, but Ronon had already done so, stalking away in a way that made clear that he had only released McKay because he wanted to, and not because Teyla had told him to.

 

"It's true," McKay muttered, huddled on the floor. There was none of the outrage that she would have expected from him. "We don't know anything. Even Carson's turned into the enemy. I can't trust either of you. You shouldn't trust me."

 

"Injected?" Teyla crouched beside him, but not so close that she could touch him.

 

McKay rubbed the inside of his elbow. "Something that makes people receptive to mind control. At least, that's how we think it works. Sheppard was injected, too. We think that a few people are able to resist it. I mean, have you ever known Sheppard to do what anyone wants him to? Look at him now. Alone inside with Carson Beckett, while we're stuck out here. Case in point."

 

"Or you could be pretending," Teyla said slowly. "You could have been under the enemy's control all along." She had known it all along, of course. As she knelt beside McKay, all her muscles were tense, ready to fight.

 

"Yes, yes." McKay sounded more weary than she had ever heard him. Even in those early days after Sheppard's disappearance he had been restless and angry, never quiet. "I could be, and you'd have no way of knowing. Just like you could be one of them, and I wouldn't know."

 

She remained very still, breathing in, then out again. Sometimes deep breathing could clear away her doubts and make everything seem clear. Now it was no more than a tiny glimmer of light in the darkness. She relaxed her muscles slightly, and edged towards him, but no more than by the width of one finger. Ronon was standing behind her, but took a step back.

 

McKay gave a short bark of laughter, full of bitterness. "You know what the most ironic thing is? Carson asked me to bring Sheppard to him. He contacted me on the radio; tried to convince me that Sheppard was the enemy here; tried to persuade me to betray him."

 

She heard Ronon stiffen, and suddenly, amazingly, she could have wept, and not with sorrow. They were broken and fractured; they were strangers, or they had become strangers; but, at the same time, they were a team. Here, in the darkness, she felt something she had not felt for two years. Sometimes disparate people could come together and become something magical.

 

But so fragile, too. A single false step in the fog;  silence, where words should be said; and all came crashing down.

 

"Were you tempted?" she asked McKay now, touching him on the wrist.

 

His head snapped up. "Of course not."

 

She withdrew her hand; slowly, deliberately pressed it against her chest. She could feel the beating of her own treacherous heart.

 

"I just hope…" McKay ran his hand through his hair – a strangely desolate gesture. "What if Carson thinks I believed him? What if Sheppard thinks…? I brought him to Carson, after all. I played right into their hands."

 

"It was his choice." Ronon's voice was gruff, but Teyla saw McKay draw himself up, and knew that Ronon's gruffness served McKay better in that moment than any amount of sympathy and soft reassurance.

 

If Ronon had not spoken, she thought she would have given him nothing but silence. She had believed Carson. Rodney, so angry, so bitter, had not. She had thought herself a friend to John when everyone else had failed, but McKay, the most hostile of all, had passed the test of friendship, while she had failed.

 

McKay stood up. "I shouldn't trust either of you, but it's like Sheppard said. We can't trust anyone, but we can't fight this thing unless we trust someone. We just have to carry on and hope for the best. We're probably doomed, anyway. We just have to pretend that we're not."

 

She breathed in, and out again; in, and out. This time, an element of the looked-for clarity appeared. McKay was right, she realised. She had doubted Sheppard, but this was no time for reproach. Carson had tricked her, and Aiden had attacked her, but she could not hate. The past lived on in the future, but the past should not be allowed to dictate the future. She would right the wrongs of the past through her actions now, and in the time to come.

 

Carry on, and hope for the best. Live, and love, and laugh, and hope, even as the Wraith light took your friends and your kin. Look to the future.

 

Hope.

 

******

 

"You kidnapped me!" Doctor Beckett massaged the sides of his mouth, red from the gag.

 

"Quit it, doc," Sheppard said wearily. "I know the truth."

 

Carson remained standing. Sheppard was lying on his back, his head and shoulders slightly raised by a small pile of jackets, and he knew that Carson was one of the enemy. It was difficult to hold the fear at bay, but he had years of practice at such things, after all. If McKay and the others had stayed, it might have been harder. Without them here, he was the only one who could fight his battles. It was one of the reasons why he had sent them away.

 

"If you know the truth, then..." Carson knelt down beside him. His voice was mild. "Why bring me here? Why let me near you?" He reached behind him for his medical bag, dragging it to his side.

 

Sheppard curled his fingers into the floor. The pain of his crushed hand was an old pain, almost lost in the all-over pain that was his existence now, but it still served its purpose. "I don't see that I have a choice. I can't carry on like this."

 

Carson opened his medical bag, and pulled out a syringe. The beam of light from the P90 shone through it, showing its dark amber colour, It seemed to swirl with movement that did not come from Carson's hand.

 

Sheppard clapped his hand around Carson's wrist. "No. Ford already tried that. It didn't work." Beneath his fingers, Carson's pulse was strong and slow. Sheppard's was fast, his heart beating twice for every pulse of Carson's heart.

 

"No. Of course." Carson returned the syringe to the bag, his wrist pulling out of Sheppard's grasp. Sheppard didn't try to hold him, knowing that he couldn't. "Some do resist." Carson's eyes were dark with sorrow, like a teacher gravely disappointed by their pupil.

 

Dizziness swirled around him. His eyes kept sliding almost shut, and every time they did so, it was as if a great patch of shadow reached out from the corner of the room to claim Carson's face. Then he blinked, and saw that Carson had moved between him and the light. He was just a shape, with no eyes at all. His shadow moved over Sheppard's body, and flowing over his face like water.

 

He shifted as much as he was able, moving himself back into the light. "See, the way I see it..." He thought of Ford, pouring out his fears and insecurities on the balcony. All the while, he must have been under the control of whatever it was that was causing all this, but he had still spoken as Ford.  I am Aiden Ford, just as I always was, he had said, when he had confronted them later. Carson, too, had treated Caldwell and Ford's team, even though he, too, must have been controlled all the time. "This thing, whatever it is... I don't think it can change your essential nature. You're still a healer. You'd shoot your best friend if you were told to, but you'd still try to heal him afterwards. You can't help it."

 

"It's a bloody stupid risk to take." Carson's face was still shadowed, and his voice was unreadable.

 

"I know." Sheppard smiled. "The others think I've gone crazy. But, like I said... I don't see that I have a choice."

 

"No." Carson was very still.

 

Sheppard moved his arm, trying to grab Carson's wrist again, but his body failed him. His fingers slipped away like water flowing from a stone. He saw Carson raise his head at that, and he knew that there was no possibility of lying. All his cards were on the table. Carson knew the extent of his weakness, knew that he could kill him now, and there was nothing he could do to stop it from happening.

 

Carson reached for the P90, moving it closer. The light raked across Sheppard's face, dazzling him for a moment. He blinked, and only started breathing again when the weapon was on the ground again. The light was between them. It ironed out the new lines in Carson's face, and made him look looked no different from how Sheppard remembered. He wondered what Carson saw when he saw him.

 

"What's wrong with you?" Carson asked, as he reached into his bag.

 

He gave the small twitch that was the closest he could manage to a shrug. "Don't know. Aren't you the doc? Thought you were supposed to tell me that." He let out a breath. It was time for honesty. He was putting his trust in a man who could not be trusted. Against the enormity of that, the usual small deceits and lies didn't seem to matter much any more. "I feel..."  Dead. "I hurt all over. Dizzy. Can't focus."

 

Carson had pulled something out of his bag, and he held it ready in one hand. "I need more to go on, son."

 

Honesty. To McKay or Teyla, he would have veiled the truth in light words, but Carson Beckett was his enemy - his one hope, and his enemy. He felt suddenly that he could pour out every secret he had ever held - every hidden fear, every midnight doubt. In this darkened room, they were bound together, the two of them, in some surreal and impossible relationship. You could say things to an enemy that you could never say to a friend.

 

"When I was... where I was, she made me see things. Illusions." He shifted painfully. His vision flooded with grey fog, but there was Carson before him, an anchor binding him to reality. Nothing else existed but him. "I died at least once. I drowned. I... keep seeing it happen, over and over again, and it's more than just memory. It feels... It feels as if my body is catching up. It's as if I died for real, and everything since then has been borrowed time."

 

"The health of the body can be very tied up with the health of the mind." Carson's voice was unchanged. Sheppard remembered waking up after the nightmare with the iratus bug - how he had swum up through the waves of unconsciousness, guided by this man's voice. "Illusionary injuries can cause real pain."

 

There was more, too - something he had never thought to say to anyone. It was for this, too, that he had sent the others away. "Before I escaped, she said something. She said that I thought I'd won, but I hadn't – that escaping wouldn't bring me happiness After I got back, I thought she was talking about the two year jump. Now, I wonder..." Grey fog. Pain. Drifting away. And Carson... Carson's voice the anchor. "McKay would try to tell me it's some entirely scientific effect of the time dilation field, but she… she was like a story that can't be true. What if she… Like in the stories… If you… cursed me? No, no, not cursing, but something like that. She killed me. I'm living on borrowed time. I was two days in there... Two days out, and then I die."

 

McKay would have protested loudly that it was ridiculous. Carson did not. "There are stories... My grandma used to tell me stories about the Fair Folk, and people who were taken by them. They'd return to find that a hundred years had passed. The Fair Folk let them live long enough to see the ruin of their homes and the graves of their loved ones, and then they would crumble to dust."

 

Sheppard could hardly raise his hand. In the shadowed room, with fog swirling across his vision, it took little imagination to see the hand fading away to nothing. His bones already felt as if they were water, and his flesh like clay. "Do you believe that?"

 

"Just because I come from a Celtic country, Major, it doesn't mean I believe in bloody fairy stories."

 

Sheppard managed the faintest sliver of a smile, then that, too, died. He was closer to the fog with every breath. "I think she's coming for me. I thought I'd beaten her, but she's getting the last laugh. She let me go deliberately, for this. I'm going to die unless I go back to her. I just need more time."

 

Carson touched his arm. Sheppard could not muster the will to flinch. Carson was his enemy, but he had already trusted him with every secret of his soul, and had laid his body before him like a sacrifice, entirely at his mercy. "Come to the infirmary, Major. I can't help you here."

 

But in the end, trust only went so far. Carson was the enemy. The world expanded again, encompassing things outside their small pool of light. He was very aware of McKay and the others, and of Elizabeth, a prisoner, and alone. "No." He shook his head. "All I want is something to keep me going. I need more time. Adrenaline. A stimulant. Some Ancient… thing. Something…"

 

Carson was shaking his head. "As your doctor, I would advise..."

 

"You haven't been my doctor for two years."

 

For a moment, it looked as if Sheppard's words had stung Carson. "No," Carson said, recovering, "but I am still a doctor. You said you trusted me not to hurt a patient, but what you're asking…

 

"I won't be masking injuries," Sheppard interrupted, "because I'm not injured. This doesn't fall into your normal categories of normal. All I'm asking you to do is to give me a bit more time, because if you don't, I'll die here." He summoned all his strength, and managed to grab Carson's wrist, and hold it tight. "Do it, doc."

 

Carson's eyes were shadowed and unreadable. His wrist strained against Sheppard's grip. Sheppard held on for as long as he could, but it was only seconds, after all. His fingers relaxed, and his hand fell down to his side, palm upwards. "Do it," he whispered. "Please."

 

"Very well." Carson reached into his bag.

 

Just let him do it, whispered the part of Sheppard that was entirely claimed by the fog. Poison, or an overdose... What does it matter? You're dying anyway. But he was not entirely claimed yet. Even when drowning, he had refused to give up. "Let me see it."

 

Carson's face changed, and he looked like the old Carson, hurt and offended. "I'm a doctor, Major. I took an oath. I'd never deliberately harm a patient."

 

Trust, Sheppard thought. He had asked for this, after all. Trust. He lay still, and let his enemy inject the substance into his body. He watched the needle go in, then watched Carson's face, intent on his work.

 

It was finished. He had hazarded everything on a hunch, and now it was done.

 

Carson stood up. The world expanded even further, and he was aware of the whole city around them, and of the world beyond. Perhaps he had reached Carson, but perhaps he had not, and for now he still had to assume Carson Beckett was his enemy, serving a master that Sheppard was determined to defeat.

 

"It won't do you any good, of course." Carson had felt the change, too. The treatment over, all traces of doctor had left his face. "You can't stop us."

 

Sheppard didn't answer. He could feel the frenzied beating of his heart, driving blood and strength and resolution through his body. The ocean receded, the tide withdrawing by slow increments over shingle. The fog quivered and began to fade away. But not forever. Only for such a little while. He knew he had gained only hours.

 

"The whole city is ours," Carson told him, "but soon we won't need it. As you struggle in vain to reclaim Atlantis, we have our eye on a larger prize."

 

Earth. He felt strength reaching his hands, tingling through his fingers. He lay still, biding his time, and did not show it.

 

"Why stay in a world ruled by the Wraith? Why stay in a city where we cannot use its weapons or its technology? They entered his body only to survive, but as soon as they did so, they saw Earth in his mind. It became their target from the start."

 

"They?" The pain was still there, but pain could be ignored. Carson's soft voice had been his anchor; now his harsh voice was the goad that drove away the last of the fog. "Who are you?"

 

"Carson Beckett." Carson smiled. "I am as you see me."

 

"Then who are they?"

 

Carson's smile was almost sweet. "Our masters. Their host is on the verge to taking them to Earth."

 

"And there's nothing I can say to make you… I don't know… snap out of it?" Carson shook his head, looking affronted, but Sheppard had to try, anyway. "The real Carson Beckett's still in there. Do you really want to be part of this? Pinning people down and injecting them against their will? Robbing them of free choice? There must be an antidote - something to end this. Can't you…?"

 

"No," Carson declared. "There's nothing you can do to stop them, Major, even with the extra hour of life I have given you."

 

Lying always came easy to him, especially in the dark. "No." He veiled his new-found strength. "But at least you've given you time to say goodbye."

 

Carson stood over him, his expression unreadable. His mouth opened, as if to speak, then closed again. Then the door opened, and the world flooded into the room again, and anything that had bound them together was now ended.

 

******

 

Rodney waited until Carson had been bound and led away. His mouth felt dry, unwilling to utter the words. He licked his lips; swallowed. "Did it work?"

 

Sheppard began to sit up. Rodney started forward to help him, then stepped back again. Sheppard still moved as if he was deeply weary, but he managed to sit upright, then stand. He walked a few steps, as deliberate as a drunk, then leant against the wall. He was outside the pool of light, and all shadow.

 

"It appears so." Sheppard brought his hand up, as if studying his palm and spread fingers. "A bit shaky, but it's getting better. I don't think he's poisoned me."

 

"Don't joke about it," Rodney said sharply. "Of all the crazy, ridiculous, stupid ideas…"

 

"But it worked."

 

Sheppard's tone was final, but Rodney had never been one to accept such a thing. "Carson's the enemy, Major. He talked to me on the radio – did you know that? He tried to persuade me to turn you in, and I didn't. I risked my life to keep you alive. And how do you repay me? You go and turn yourself in, anyway."

 

"It's done," Sheppard said. "It's over. There's no point…"

 

"No point?" Rodney felt as if he was spilling over – as if his skin could not possibly contain all the things that boiled inside him. These last few days had been too much, too much! He had felt fury, betrayal, fear and grief. He had been shot at and injected. His mind had nearly been taken over. Sheppard had come from two years in the past, and had awakened things he thought he had come to terms with losing. There were times when it seemed as if nothing had changed, but sometimes he knew that this was all just a dream, and Sheppard would be gone in the morning, and everything would be dull and safe again. "No point?" he screamed.

 

"No." Sheppard's voice was utterly serious. "No point. Earth's in danger. The only thing that matters is saving it."

 

"Earth?" Rodney bit back his tirade.

 

"Yes. Carson said something… Atlantis doesn't matter, he said. It's just a stepping stone on the way to Earth. He says they're about to get through the Gate."

 

Rodney moved closer to Sheppard. "Who?"

 

"Some… parasite, by the sounds of it. He talked about a host body – a man, not a woman. 'As soon as they entered him', he said…"

 

"Oh!" McKay snapped his fingers, feeling again the old familiar thrill of an approaching breakthrough. "Major Brett!" Sheppard looked at him quizzically, and he continued. "I was off-world with his team – that's where I was when you came back. He found a dead body. It was odd… He asked me to come, then suddenly told me not to. Then he went somewhere by himself for about twenty minutes... Oh! What if something in the dead body crept into him, and then he had to go to… I don't know… Oh! Get some serum, or something, that he could inject into other people to control their minds."

 

"That would fit the time-scale." Sheppard nodded his head slowly. "He'd have gone to the infirmary for the post-mission check-up…"

 

"And injected Carson…"

 

"Who was in a perfect position to inject everyone else."

 

"Yes!" Rodney smiled in triumph, and Sheppard grinned in return. Both smiles were slow to fade. Here they were, discussing the fall of Atlantis and the threat to Earth, and suddenly all Rodney wanted to do was smile.

 

"I never did like that man." Sheppard gestured to his bruised face with his crushed hand. "Turns out he's been possessed by aliens all along. I guess I was right not to like him." He let out a breath. "The question is: what to do about it."

 

Rodney considered it. "We could work on a way to reverse the mind control."

 

"No time." Sheppard shook his head. "Not yet, anyway. Carson said they're about to get to Earth."

 

"The Stargate!" Rodney snapped his fingers again, but this time the realisation brought nothing but coldness. "No-one can dial Earth," he explained, "without two security codes – Caldwell's and Elizabeth's. Brett must know Caldwell's. If they haven't dialled Earth yet, it must be because Elizabeth hasn't… And if they're about to dial, then Elizabeth…"

 

Sheppard did not wait for him to finish. "Then we need to go now." He pushed himself away from the wall, and stood without swaying. "As soon as Teyla and Ronon are back. No diversions. No waiting. No doubts. We take control of the Gate Room, and we hold it until we work out how to stop this thing. It's as simple as that."

 

"Simple?" Rodney echoed. "Simple?" But he still smiled.

 

******

 

End of chapter nineteen

 

******

 

Chapter twenty: Last stand

 

In nearly three years on Atlantis, Elizabeth had never been physically hurt by an enemy. It had been her lot to stay behind, to watch, to wait, to worry. She had sent teams out and seen them come back bleeding. She had spoken eulogies over the dead. She had applauded courage under fire, and had seen every possible way that a person could react to pain. Physical pain was something that other people endured. She just endured the pain of watching it, of knowing that they had been hurt under her command.

 

Major Brett was lingering over his knife. The blade seemed almost dull in the uniform light of the room, but she found it almost impossible to drag her eyes away from it. Brett's eyes were worse. There was no mercy in there, none at all.

 

"Why are you doing this?" she asked, desperate to buy some time.

 

His smile was cold. "We do not have to explain ourselves to you."

 

Two soldiers had taken up positions behind her chair, one at each shoulder. They were not touching her, but the flesh of her back crept with the knowledge of their proximity.

 

"You want my command code." Only her years of experience with diplomacy kept her voice level. "You must know that I cannot give it."

 

He held the knife lazily, twirling it from side to side. "We think you will."

 

She swallowed. "We?"

 

He smiled with only one side of his mouth. "I, if you prefer. Major Brett still exists. I can still speak as him. Now that the masks are off, we prefer to speak as who we are, using the language he has given us."

 

His voice changed subtly as he spoke. There was no change of accent, and no change of pitch. Even so, she had the sudden certainty that the person who had spoken the final sentence was not the same as the one who had started to speak. It was a tiny, subtle change, and she had no idea what the difference was.

 

Every certainty, every theory changed yet again. She felt cold all the way through. "For how long?"

 

"Only yesterday," said the entities controlling Major Brett.

 

She closed her eyes. She should have noticed. Someone should have noticed. It must have happened off-world. Major Brett had gone out as himself, and come back as something else entirely. Possessed. Controlled. Someone should have noticed. She played back her conversation with him after his attack on John, and wondered if he had seemed different from normal. The thing was, she just didn't know. She didn't know these officers. She didn't really know anyone, not any more.

 

This shouldn't have happened, she thought sadly. She remembered John's insistence that something was terribly wrong in Atlantis. Something was wrong, and had been wrong for years. This threat should have been contained far earlier. Someone should have noticed, and she bore a large part of the blame. John had noticed, of course, but she had refused to listen, because of the mirror he had been holding up to things that she had not wanted to face.

 

"We will get what we want eventually," he said, his voice entirely reasonable.

 

He gave no visible command, but the men behind her grabbed her by the shoulders, pushing her down into the chair. She struggled, snapping her head from side to side, but suddenly Brett had a gun in his hand, the barrel pointing directly at her head.

 

He can't kill me, she thought, trying to calm the rising panic. He needs…

 

"How much pain do you think you can take, Doctor Weir?" The gun did not waver. "There are things far worse than death. You will tell us in the end."

 

I won't. I won’t. Her palms were cold with icy sweat. She lashed out, but they gripped her wrist; lashed out with her other arm, and lost that one, too. They twisted her forward, and fastened her hands behind her back. Her cheek pressed into the table, its surface cold against her lips. She heard his feet, saw him moving around, saw a glimpse of the gun, but had no way of knowing where he was pointing it. Cold tremors ran all over her body. She tensed and cowered, anticipating a bullet in her back, in her side, in her shoulder, in her arm.

 

His feet moved all the way around. She felt his breath, warm on the back of her neck. "But not here."

 

Again, no audible order was given, but the men who were holding her dragged her upright, holding her under her arms. Her feet caught in the chair, and she almost fell, the chair crashing to the ground. She lost her footing, but they dragged her forward, and she struggled and flailed, managing to get her feet on the ground again.

 

"Where are you taking me?" she demanded.

 

"I have a gun trained on you, Doctor Weir," he said, with that subtle change in his voice. "I can shoot you in a place that will cause maximum pain without killing you. I really do advise you not to struggle."

 

They hauled her through the door, into the hallway of a city that had not properly felt like home for over a year, and now felt like the city of an enemy, full of horrors.

 

******

 

"So this is it." Sheppard looked at the others in the light of their P90s. As soon as they stepped out of the small room, even those lights would be extinguished. "There's no time for caution, no time for creeping about. We're heading for the Gate Room and we need to keep it for long enough to disable the Gate or get a warning through to Earth."

 

His body felt stronger, but he knew that he had only bought himself an hour or two. Strength felt like a borrowed coat that didn't fit him. Weakness lay beneath it. His body was dissolving into mist, and the memory of the woman who had tried to claim him lurked always at the back of his mind, calling to him. His heart drove blood through his veins, but it felt like the actions of a machine, speeding up before the end.

 

That was a truth that he could not tell them, but he would not hide other truths. "You must know that it's very possible that we won't make it. They've shown that they're not afraid to kill."

 

McKay's sleeve stained with blood, glimpses of bandage showing through the tear. Teyla had blood at the neck of her gown. Ronon was grazed and bruised. And Colonel Caldwell lay in a critical condition in the infirmary, and McKay had reported seeing other bodies. The charade is over. Teyla had heard them say that on the radio, and Carson had confirmed it when he had said what he had said. Major Brett and his men were no longer going to pretend to be the good guys. The gloves were off.

 

"We know that." Teyla met his gaze, though Ronon did not. McKay was silent. That seemed like the worst thing of all. If even Rodney McKay had been reduced to silence, what hope did they have?

 

Perhaps he said what he said only to bait McKay into a reaction, and end that silence. "You don't have to…"

 

"What?" McKay's head snapped up. "Don't have to what? Go on, Major. Say it."

 

He did not back down. "Don't have to come with me."

 

"I don't believe it!" McKay rounded on him, hands held in impotent fists. For a moment, Sheppard really thought McKay was going to start pounding him on the chest. "How can you say that? How can you say that? If anything, it should be me saying it to you. You've not been here for two years. You've… You kept saying something was wrong and we didn't listen. Why should you be the one to die for us? Not that there's going to be dying involved, no, oh no. But the heroic last stand. The suicidal sacrifice thing. Why does it have to be you? You haven't even been here. And we… And I…"

 

I'm sorry, Rodney, he thought. He could not say it. I'm dying, anyway. I'll be dead in an hour or two, whatever happens, but you have so much life ahead of you. McKay was always so active, so noisy, so full of life. The thought of him dying was unbearable.

 

But he said the only thing he could. "It didn't feel like two years to me, Rodney. The way it seems to me, the security of the city is still my responsibility and my job. You have a job, too, but the last time I looked, heroic last stands didn't fall into the job description of the chief scientist, so…"

 

"I'm coming," McKay said, "and don't try to talk me out of it. When I make up my mind to face near-impossible odds, you can be damn sure that I mean it." He touched the wall, fingers resting on it. "It's my city, too, and it's my home planet that they're threatening." His eyes said something more.

 

Sheppard turned to Teyla. Unlike McKay, Teyla was not from Earth. The city they were trying to defend had cast her out, and she owed it nothing. If Carson had been telling the truth, the enemy had no interest in Teyla's people. She…

 

"No." She spat out the word like a cold, hard stone. "I can see what you are thinking," she said, "and I am with you."

 

He could not understand it. McKay at least made sense, but Teyla… It couldn't even be personal loyalty. She had barely spoken to McKay for two years, and Ronon was a stranger. And as for him…

 

"I doubted you for moment," Teyla said quietly. "Perhaps I am trying to atone. But it is more than that. I do not abandon friends in time of danger. And I, too, have been wronged by this enemy." Although she did not gesture towards it, Sheppard's eyes moved to the blood at her neck. Ford had shot her, of course, and Carson Beckett had tricked her and caused her to betray a faith, or so she saw it.

 

She touched him on his arm, then pulled him towards her for the Athosian greeting. "I would not be able to live with myself if I walked away now. I faced death every day that I was on your team, but I do not regret those months, not for a moment." As their foreheads touched, he wondered if the same gesture also served as a farewell.

 

"Well…" Sheppard was never quite sure what to do with his hands after the greeting was finished. He rubbed his bruised jaw. "Ronon…"

 

The big man turned towards him, his eyes considering, and his face impassive. "Sheppard."

 

This was the third time of asking. The first time had been quick and casual, and the second had been more considered. This, the third time, suddenly felt so awkward that he could not find the words. Hey, Ronon. You've only known me for hours. Wanna come on last-ditch stand that will end in almost certain death?

 

"No." Ronon answered his unspoken question. "I won't."

 

He thought he had half-expected a refusal from all three of them - "Go away!" Rodney had shouted; "I doubted you," Teyla had confessed  - but Ronon's refusal wrong-footed him. He had expected them all along the say yes, he realised. He remembered his realisations in the shielded lab, when he had finally known that there was no future for him in Atlantis. But after that, as his body had drifted towards death, he and McKay and Teyla and Ronon had started to feel like a team. Team members stuck together. It was only the knowledge of his impending death that had caused him to offer them the choice.

 

Ronon's gaze was unwavering. "But if you let me kill, I will."

 

Sheppard shook his head. "I can't do that."

 

"Then it's suicide," Ronon stated calmly. "I've faced impossible odds before, and I'll do so again, but not with one hand tied behind my back."

 

Sheppard heard the words. The people of Atlantis were still themselves underneath the mind control; his conversation with Carson had shown him that. If Sheppard and his team shot to kill, they would be killing their own men - men who, by rights, should be under his command.

 

But there was too much at stake. Atlantis. Earth. Every single member of the military contingent of Atlantis had to be willing to die to protect the expedition. Ronon was right. This thing was real; it was not a game. There could be no hiding from the realities of the situation. If Sheppard was serious in his intention of stopping this thing, he could not hold back. He was asking these people to risk death alongside him, and he had to equip them with every weapon that he could.

 

"Okay." He said the word calmly, but inside it felt like yet another failure; like one more step towards the fog of death. "We kill if we have to, but only if we have to. If at all possible, we shoot to disarm or to disable. We don't kill unnecessarily."

 

He saw mutiny in Ronon's eyes; heard it in his silence.

 

"Ronon." He took a step forward, his eyes locked on Ronon's own. "We don't kill unnecessarily. Got that?"

 

It seemed like a very long time before Ronon answered. Behind him, Sheppard heard McKay shifting anxiously from foot to foot. Teyla was a vague smear in his peripheral vision.

 

"Yes." Ronon raised his P90. "Then I will come."

 

"Good." Sheppard swallowed. "Glad that's settled."

 

"What about you?" McKay said unexpectedly. Sheppard turned towards him. "You've given us all the chance to stay behind. What about you? You… We got ourselves into this mess by ourselves. You tried to warn us, but we didn't…" His hand was tapping his leg nervously. "None of this is your fault. Why should it be your job to fix it?"

 

Because it is. The whole question was inconceivable. He had doubted many things, but one thing remained entirely beyond doubt. Even if the people of Atlantis no longer wanted him, he would do his damnedest to save them. "It's just how it is," he told McKay. He could find no other words for it.

 

McKay bit his lip; almost said something, but did not.

 

Sheppard gave him a brisk nod, then led the way to the door. "Lights off, guys."

 

As the room went into darkness, he wondered if he would ever see their faces clearly again.

 

******

 

Aiden watched as they hustled Doctor Weir along the hallway. Two large Marines were holding her, and she looked rumpled and afraid.

 

"Ford." Her lips framed his name, though no sound came out. Her eyes met his, and were burning. He did not look away. He had no idea what expression his face held, but he saw her expression falter, saw the moment that she realised that he was not a friend.

 

The shadows stirred.

 

"Sir." He made his decision, stepping forward. "Major Brett, sir."

 

Major Brett turned round. His eyes were like hooks that reached into Aiden's soul. They were a physical pain ripping through his head. He felt himself melt away, until barely a scrap of him remained.

 

He clawed himself back, but there were no shadows left when he was done. "I want…" All thought of military language left him. He could barely frame words, but words were not necessary, not when Major Brett was looking him full in the face, with the eyes of his new master. To prove myself. To be there when it ends.

 

The Marines had stopped. Doctor Weir had twisted her head around and was looking at him, but this time there was neither pleading nor despair in her eyes. All levels of his mind were united: the higher, the lower… ; even the shadows surged and told him that this was right. "I want to prove what I can do," he said, and stood as upright as he had ever stood on parade ground.

 

"Very well." Major Brett nodded. "Follow me."

 

******

 

Rodney saw nothing but the life-signs detector. The darkness made everything else a bewildering smear of dark shapes and grey. Sheppard and the barbarian walked just ahead of him, and Teyla was behind him. Even though he could not see them, he was intensely aware of him. The barbarian and Teyla made hardly any sound at all. Sheppard was noisier, but Rodney was grateful for the sound of his steady footsteps. Less than an hour before, Sheppard had looked as if he was dying.

 

"Three dots," he whispered. "Leftish, more or less." He sensed rather than saw Sheppard's look of patient impatience. "Two o'clock," he said, with a long-suffering sigh.

 

They changed their course. Although Sheppard had admitted that they had to be prepared to kill, he clearly had no desire to charge through Atlantis with guns blazing. They were heading inexorably towards the Gate Room, but in a twisting path that ensured that they avoided patrols. Sheppard seemed to remember his way around Atlantis well, despite his two years…

 

No, he corrected himself, remembering the barely-healed scar on the man's arm. Not two years. This was all real. Sheppard had spent two days in hell, and had come back to find his entire world changed. Rodney remembered his own furious rejection, and felt a twinge of guilt. I'm not used to seeing things from other people's points of view, he thought defensively. I never pretended to have good people skills.

 

Sheppard moved on, oblivious. Rodney moved a little closer, suddenly terrified that this was only a temporary respite, and that he would fall again. I don't want to do a last stand around your dying body. That, too, he didn't say.

 

There was too much to think about, there in the dark. There was nothing to do. Normally, if danger threatened, he would be busy in the labs, working faster than any mere mortal ought to be able to work. Now here he was with a gun, engaged in some suicidal commando raid. There was nothing to keep his brain busy… Well, except for the threat of almost certain death. He just had to worry about Sheppard, about the past, about things that had been said, about things that had not been said.

 

"Down here," Sheppard said.

 

Rodney bit his lip. He wanted to grab him by the sleeve, to arrest him mid-step, to apologise to him. Those last few minutes in the store room had felt like a farewell, and he, always so quick with words, had had no words for it. But there had never really been words between them, had there? On the surface there had been so many words, but the things that really mattered showed in actions, not words. They had just become friends without really speaking about it. And now, since Sheppard's return, Rodney had never really thought about whether he should trust him, and never spoken about it. He had just acted. The thoughts and the words were nothing, really, compared with that.

 

They had just reached the bottom of the stairs when the lights came on. Sheppard cursed.

 

"It had to happen." Rodney was amazed at how calm he sounded. Normally he would be loud with his oh noes, expansive with his gestures. "Zelenka or one of the others was bound to get through the code eventually."

 

"And you didn't think to tell me this?" Sheppard sounded grim, but not angry.

 

"I did," McKay protested. "You were too busy being your usual self - not listening…"

 

His words petered out, as he blinked and saw clearly in the newly-restored light. Sheppard look awful, and there was no darkness to hide it this time. He was flushed and sweaty, with a rapid pulse very visible at his throat. His bruises were deepening, and his eyes were shadowed with grey. 

 

Sheppard saw him looking. His jaw took on a set look. "Then I guess we'd better hurry."

 

He set off at a jogging pace, the barbarian keeping pace with him. Teyla overtook Rodney, then shot him a stern look. "Oh. Okay. Running." Rodney followed her, the life-signs detector bobbing in his hands.

 

It felt horrible, repulsive. He felt pinned by the light, sure that every hostile person in Atlantis could see him. His wounded arm hurt with every jolting step, and the life signs detector lurched in his hand, and he couldn't read it. And how long was it since he had eaten, for God's sake? Sheppard was ahead of him, and then there was nothing, just the tearing feel of his breath in his lungs, and pain shooting up and down his legs. The gun smacked against him with every step. Their footsteps were too loud, doubling, trebling, quadrupling in the hallways that surely only looked empty, but were full of eyes that held him in their sights.

 

Wait, he wanted to gasp. Wait. But of course he couldn't. He had chosen to come along, after all. This was his place, here, as part of a team. He would die as part of a team. He would die trying to save his city and his planet. He had always thought to save the world with his brain, but perhaps this was not too bad. There were worse things - giving up; becoming bitter and lonely; sitting alone, wrapped in anger and misery.

 

Teyla smiled encouragingly at him, waiting for him to pass her. Sheppard paused at a corner, and looked back at him. The barbarian - Ronon - nodded.

 

Yes, Rodney thought, there are worse things.

 

And then he was crying out in terror, and almost dropped the life-signs detector as his arms reacted by instinct and tried to shield his head. The dots meant nothing now. At the far end of the corridor, unmistakeable in the unforgiving light, two soldiers stood with raised guns. They fired, and he cowered, snatching up his pistol and firing madly in their direction. Sheppard shouted something - he didn't know what - and then he was there, a hand on Rodney's shoulder, urging him on, urging them all on, while he took the rear, shooting at the enemy, but low, surely, far too low, not wanting to kill them but to warn them, to scare them off.

 

It didn't work. Bullets slammed into the floor, into the wall. The ran, and Rodney was running backwards, watching Sheppard run backwards towards him, willing him not to fall. The barbarian pushed Rodney to one side, a firm hand on his shoulder. He, too, raised his gun, and one of their assailants whirled round, P90 trailing from one hand, the other hand coming up to his shoulder.

 

"Quick!" Sheppard was commanding them. "Through the door. Quick!"

 

But the door was no defence at all. It opened at their approach, and it would give them mere seconds of time before the enemy, too, was through it. And beyond it was the last stretch of corridor leading to the Gate Room, and surely Sheppard couldn't think that it would be unguarded. Oh no, this was out of the frying pan, into the fire; from the devil to the deep blue sea; from… and, oh no, this was it, they were going to die, gunned down in their own city, and…

 

And then sudden, shocking pain. He screamed, and his pistol was ripped from his hand, his wrist snapped back with a flash of agony. Pain shot all the way up his arm, and he lurched, but Teyla was there to catch him. Her hands were busy with her P90, but she caught him with her body, shoring him up, even as she fired around him. His wounded arm impacted against her shoulder, and he screamed again, though fear reduced the scream to a whimper.

 

"I've been shot!" he exclaimed, but then they were through the door, and Sheppard was slamming his palm into the control crystal, shouting, "Close! Close! Stay shut!" It closed, and they had a moment, a second or two, if that, before the door opened again, but Sheppard had his eyes closed and was saying, chanting even, "Stay shut. Stay shut."

 

And then, despite the pain, Rodney had to laugh at the sheer stubborn optimism of the man. "It's not magic," he said, and he flexed his wrist, and found that it still moved, although the pain was sharp. There was no blood. Perhaps the bullet has just struck his pistol, then. He gave a high laugh, and didn't seem to be able to stop.

 

"Perhaps not magic," Sheppard said grimly, and raised his gun. As the door began to open, he fired into the panel, and the glowing light turned blackened and dull. The door stopped, the gap just wide enough to let a man through. With a quick glance at Sheppard, Ronon shot the soldier who was trying to come through. Rodney saw him fall, but there were others behind him, their bullets smashing into the closed door. Then Rodney raised the life-signs detector, forgotten in his left hand, and saw just how many of them there were. Twenty of them, thirty, approaching this one doorway, and perhaps even more within the area of the shield.

 

"We can't," he breathed, but Sheppard snapped a sharp gesture with his hand, and Teyla and Ronon went to different sides of the corridor, out of reach of stray bullets coming through the gap. Sheppard went with Ronon, but Rodney stayed frozen in the middle, staring in horror at the screen. "Rodney!" Sheppard hissed, and Rodney just shook his head, and breathed, "There's so many."

 

The Gate Room was barely fifty yards away. As Sheppard hauled him, pressed him back against the wall, as Teyla and Ronon fired into the gap, Rodney swung the life-signs detector around behind him. There were dots in the Gate Room. He took a deep breath, and let it out. "Not many in the Gate Room yet, although more will be on their way by other routes," he told Sheppard. "They… Oh! Wait a minute!" One of the life signs was like nothing he had ever seen before. Instead of one dot, there were three or four superimposed, their edges blurry. "Brett's there," he said firmly, "or whoever it is." Because it wasn't necessarily Brett; that was only his theory, and he hated to admit it, but he could be wrong.

 

Sheppard looked down the expanse of empty corridor, then at the gap in the door. "We won't make it." There were just too many of them. Even if they ran, they wouldn't be able to cover the gap well enough. Somebody would get through, and once somebody was through, others would come, and then… A bullet in the back. Falling to the ground, arm outstretched, on the very threshold of their goal.

 

"Go!" Teyla hissed. Rodney's head snapped up. "You go. I will hold the door."

 

Ronon fired into the gap. There was the sound of something hitting the door, of something sliding slowly down it. He glanced round quickly, and looked at Sheppard, but Rodney had no idea what passed between them. Whatever it was, it caused Sheppard to give a quick nod, and then to jerk his head towards the Gate Room, his eyes on Rodney.

 

"Oh," Rodney said. "Oh no." But he followed, skulking like a shadow against the wall, expecting any moment to feel a bullet between his shoulder blades. He heard gun shots behind him. Teyla. Ronon. It didn't feel right to leave them behind… But, no, he and Sheppard were going into the worst danger of all. Teyla and Ronon were… They were…

 

"So…" Sheppard said quietly, when they reached the threshold of the Gate Room. And that was all there was. There was no bracing speech, no joke, no farewell. There was just that one word, and perhaps there was a wealth of meaning in his grey-shadowed eyes, but Rodney couldn’t read it.

 

And the door opened, and then they were in, and Major Brett was ready for them.

 

******

 

End of chapter twenty

 

******

 

Chapter twenty-one: Gate

 

Sheppard saw everything at once. Elizabeth stood in the middle of the Gate Room, held by two large Marines. Brett stood near her with a gun, but his attention was entirely on Sheppard and McKay. Zelenka was working at the controls, and Ford stood near him. Four Marines stood by the door, two on each side, their guns steady; Sheppard knew that if he turned his head to the side, the barrel of a gun would be only inches away from his forehead.

 

He thought just for a moment. He stopped walking, but didn't relax his grip on his P90.  "What, no clichés, Brett?" He shrugged, smiling. "I expected something like 'How nice of you to… drop in', complete with all those pregnant pauses."

 

"Major…" McKay hissed.

 

Sheppard edged forward, one inch, two inches, three. The gun followed him, but no-one told him to stop. Zelenka was the only one apparently unaware of him, focused on his work. McKay, he could see through his peripheral vision, was staring at Zelenka with outrage and betrayal, apparently more bothered by the scientist's presence than by the gun that was trained at his own head.

 

"How nice of you to drop in." The quotation marks were audible. "We knew you were on your way."

 

"Doctor Beckett." Sheppard nodded. "And all those guys out there." The door was too thick, and the corridor too long. He had no idea if guns were still firing, if Teyla and Ronon were still standing. If they had fallen, a surge of reinforcements would soon be racing into the Gate Room. But if they had fallen, he would find it hard to care, even if there were a hundred reinforcements, and he fell beneath them.

 

"You were an unforeseen bonus," Brett said. "A scapegoat, while we cemented our control. A thorn in our side, too. But in the end, I think, a bonus."

 

As he was speaking, Sheppard caught Elizabeth's eye. Are you all right? he asked her silently. She looked at him, nodded slightly. Yes. For now.

 

McKay was all nervous restlessness at his side. Don't do anything rash, Sheppard thought, but he didn't want to take his eyes off Brett long enough to look at McKay. McKay was such a curious mix of cowardice and desperate bravery. He hated to be inactive for too long. Hell, Sheppard was the same. If this was an impasse, he suspected he would end up breaking it, no matter what the cost.

 

"Look at you all," he said to Brett. "Big men with guns. Well, I have a gun, too."

 

"It's him," McKay hissed, twitching the life-signs detector in his hand.

 

Well, gee, thanks, McKay. I'd kinda guessed. His gaze didn't waver, but here, just at the worst possible time, he felt the first touches of the fog. His vision wavered; the joints in his legs turned ever so slightly to water. His mind was fogged, too. Come to me. She spoke in the fog, and had drawn him all unconsciously to this place. Of course they had never had a chance of holding the Gate Room, not outnumbered as they were, but perhaps there was still a chance. "And the way I see it," he said, "all I have to do is kill you, and all this will be over."

 

"Kill me," Brett said, "and my followers will kill you

 

Sheppard raised his P90. Beside him, the gun barrel tracked his movements. He could get the shot off before he died. And, really, what loss was it? He was dying anyway, even if nobody knew it but Carson and himself. The woman was coming to claim him.

 

Brett smiled. "Ah, but you are one of those heroic types who doesn't care about such things. Kill me, and you kill Doctor Weir." One of the Marines snaked his hand around her throat, not yet pulling tight, but threatening it. He saw the brief flash of terror in her eyes, before she mastered it and looked at him with impassive command. Do it, John.

 

His gun did not waver. "He won't do it," McKay whispered, in a tone that he clearly through no-one else could hear. "He needs her codes."

 

"I don't, actually," Brett said casually, but then his voice changed subtly. "The one called Zelenka assures us that he can over-ride the need for codes in time. We do not need to keep Doctor Weir alive. And it matters not if you kill this human host. We can transfer ourselves into any other host in an instant. Into you, Major Sheppard? Into Doctor Weir?"

 

Sheppard cursed silently, but showed nothing on his face. "Then I guess it's deadlock"

 

"Not really." Brett smiled. "We have eight on our side, with far more on the way, and there's just the two of you." His gun rose threateningly towards Elizabeth's head. "I suggest you surrender your weapon, Major Sheppard. We will kill her."

 

There was resolve on Elizabeth's face, but beneath it was fear. He saw that, and let out a breath, lowered his gun. McKay sucked in a shocked breath, then was silenced when the Marine next to him grabbed him around the body, holding him with his arms pinned at his side. Sheppard let himself be disarmed, let them begin to lay their hands on him…

 

I'm sorry, Elizabeth. His eyes flickered briefly towards hers, but there was no time to see if there was understanding there. He had to risk it - he had to. Earth could not be surrendered for the sake of one life, no matter whose it was. When they moved towards him, he lashed out, striking the Marine who had come to grab him, ducking under the blow of the second one. He threw himself to the floor, catching himself on his hands, as the bullets smashed over his head. Then to his feet, knife ripping out of its sheath, and down the steps…

 

He never made it. The fog was surging in too fast. The tide was racing up the shore, and he was bound to a post, drowning in the ocean. His heart was beating slower with every second. He had no idea if he fell naturally, or if he was wrestled to the ground. For a moment, everything went grey. When his vision recovered, he was being hauled to his knees, and placed before Brett, a gun cold against his forehead.

 

He refused to look at Brett. Her head caught in the frame of the Marine's arm, Elizabeth was looking at him with terror and sorrow. McKay was audibly struggling behind him. I'm sorry, he thought, for he had tried everything, and it wasn't enough. 

 

******

 

"You must not forget," Brett said, smiling at her over Sheppard's defiant head, "that we saw into your mind, at least for a while."

 

Elizabeth struggled, pulling uselessly at the arms that held her. "Don't hurt him." McKay was shouting the same, fighting the people who were holding him, kicking, struggling.

 

"And I have worked with you for over a year." His voice performed that minute change. "I know the sort of woman you are. You were afraid of being hurt, but you wouldn't have given in, no matter what I did to you. But pain inflicted on someone else…" He grabbed John by the jaw, twisting his head upwards. "Pain inflicted on someone you care about…"

 

"…means nothing," she told him, digging her fingers into her palms. "If you know me as well as you claim, you must know that."

 

McKay cried out something, the words inarticulate. Elizabeth drew everything inside, reined everything in and held it captured within the shell of her body. Brett looked at her, and nodded. A Marine fired, the bullet striking John in the flesh of his thigh. He gasped, but bit his lip against any further sound of pain. Brett was still holding his jaw, keeping him upright, forcing him to stay kneeling.

 

"Really?" Brett said. "Look at him, Doctor Weir. His life is in your hands. Major John Sheppard. The man you never stopped comparing Colonel Caldwell to. The man you wept for when no-one was looking. The man who's come back two years after you gave him up for dead. Do you want to be responsible for his death a second time?"

 

Her hands were trembling. She clasped one with the other, and dug her nails into it, hard enough to hurt. McKay was making the noise for the two of them, shouting out curses and pleas, berating the people who were holding him, and crying out with pain when they restrained him. She tuned him out; she had to.

 

"I don't want to," she said, and although she was a prisoner, her head was still high, "but I will if I have to. I won't let you reach Earth."

 

There was spreading stain on John's thigh, and a small but growing puddle at his knee, but it was not the uncontrollable flood that would have come from an artery. He was trying to stay upright, but he was sagging badly. When Brett wrenched his head around, forcing Elizabeth to look him full in the face, she saw that he looked barely conscious. Do something, she urged him, but she couldn't give a sign of it, not even with her eyes. She remembered being held by Kolya only yards away from this spot. Sheppard had saved her then. He would save her this time, and get her out of this cruel and impossible choice that was no choice at all.

 

"See, Sheppard?" Brett said. "That's how much these people really care for you. They're throwing you away like trash."

 

Brett pushed Sheppard away, making him sprawl on the floor. Slowly, painfully, John clawed himself up again, pushing himself up with his hands, then bringing his legs underneath him until he was kneeling. The gun followed him, and Brett's finger tightened on the trigger, telling him when he had gone far enough. "Go to hell, Brett" he spat.

 

"You first." Brett smiled. "She could have saved you, Sheppard, but she chose not to. Remember that. No-one wants you here. You came back two years too late. She's killing you without a moment's regret."

 

Sheppard was pinned at the centre of a wheel made up of three guns. A Marine stood on either side of him, and Brett stood in front of him. Ignoring the guns, he turned his head until he was facing her. That's not true, she tried to tell him with her eyes. I can't give him the codes, not even for you.

 

He nodded. There was acceptance in his eyes, or maybe resignation. There was nothing he could do. Elizabeth realised it with a surge of despair. It was clear that simply kneeling was taking almost more strength than he possessed. It was over. It was finished.

 

She couldn't let him die with even the slightest possibility of doubt. "John, I…"

 

But Brett was already preparing to fire. Elizabeth closed her eyes, then opened them again. She could not hide from the death of a man she had condemned. To do so would be the worst betrayal of all. "No!" McKay shouted. "Stop! I know her codes! I'll do it! Just don't kill him! Please don't kill him!"

 

******

 

Rodney's mind had been racing, the thoughts spilling out in incoherent cries, in babble that he couldn't remember a moment later. Apes held him, hurting his arms, but that meant nothing, really. Major Sheppard was on his knees. They were going to kill him, and Elizabeth wasn't… Elizabeth was… As cold, cold as ice, saying nothing when he would have said everything.

 

Sheppard was going to die, and Rodney saw it all, remembered it all in a flash. Standing on the top of that cliff, looking down into the empty ocean. The last jumper flying back to Atlantis, and the Gate closing. The memorial service, and the weeks that followed, on a team with a gaping hole at its heart, and then after that, on no team at all, just drifting through a cold life of intellectual achievement. And then Sheppard had come back, and Rodney had shouted at him, had pushed him away, but he had just kept on coming back, demanding everything, never doubting Rodney's abilities. In the last day, Rodney had been shot at and had almost died, but he had also lived.

 

I can't lose that again! he thought, and everything else has come clearly after that, as if some final barrier had been breached, and everything behind it was pure and bright.

 

"No!" he shouted. "Stop! I know her codes! I'll do it! Just don't kill him! Please don't kill him!"

 

Brett took a step back, but didn't lower his gun. Sheppard's head snapped up, and he turned as far towards Rodney as he could, but the guns held his body still, and he couldn't turn all the way round. Rodney could see only his profile, but the fury there was unmistakeable. Elizabeth was silent, her face still with horror.

 

"Yes." Rodney swallowed. "I know the codes. Of course I do. Like you know Caldwell's. Don't put all your eggs in one basket, and all that. Have a back-up. Can't risk leaving us stranded here just because the Wraith or some other enemy's killed the only person who can get us out of here."

 

Brett began to lower his gun. "And you'd give them to us?"

 

"Rodney!" Sheppard shouted, his voice sharp despite his obvious exhaustion. "Don't do it!" Elizabeth had shaken off her initial horror. She echoed Sheppard's words, her voice high, but McKay very deliberately didn't look at her.

 

"Yes." He swallowed again. "Just don't hurt him any more."

 

"Rodney," Sheppard hissed. "I don't need…" Brett back-handed him across the face, barely pausing to look at him, and approached Rodney.

 

Rodney wanted to back away, to press himself against the wall, to shrink into it. The Marines were still holding him, and the wound on his arm was throbbing horribly. "Yes, yes, I know I should be doing everything I can to keep you from Earth, but I'm a coward. Don't like the sight of blood. Did they ever tell you that? And Earth can take care of itself, that's how I see it. If you go through, it doesn't mean that Earth's automatically doomed. They're a tough lot at Stargate Command. Even if we couldn't stop you, they'll be able to."

 

"The codes." Brett's eyes narrowed.

 

"Yes. Ah. Them." Rodney pulled at the arms that were restraining him. "Call your apes off me. I need… And it's a long code. It shouldn't be spoken aloud, really."

 

Brett was so close to him now that he was blocking everything. Rodney could hear the sound of a struggle down where Sheppard was, but he couldn't see what was happening. Don't hurt him! he thought. The thought of Sheppard dying was pure white panic, almost enough to drive away the clarity. Then Brett nodded, and Ford came forward, and now Rodney could see two people, both of them enemies.

 

Brett smiled. "It would be fitting for you to be the one to doom your planet, as you put it." His eyes flickered briefly towards Ford. "Watch him. Shoot him if he shows any sign of betraying us."

 

"No!" Sheppard was shouting. "Rodney, don't! That's an order, damn it."

 

Their eyes met, but there was no signal that Rodney could give him, no promise of hope. I have to, he thought, but all he said was, "You never could give me orders, Major. Not military, remember?"

 

He wanted to say more, but he could not. They dragged him to the controls, and Zelenka scrambled away, making room for him. Ford stood over him, a gun in his hand, and his old friends, the two Marines, still flanked him.

 

"Do it," Brett commanded, and took his place in front of the Gate.

 

And Rodney did.

 

******

 

They were both wounded, bleeding from ricochets, and from worse. Ronon fought on the far side of the corridor, firing impassively into the gap. There was blood on his sleeve, and a splash of it on his face. Her own pains felt distant, lost in the clarity of the fight.

 

Nothing else mattered. They were to defend the door. They were to give Major Sheppard and Doctor McKay time to do what they had to do.

 

There was a lull in the attack. Teyla rested, but remained watchful. She thought she had been grazed across the shoulder, and that she had twisted something in her side while leaping to avoid a bullet. "Perhaps they've given up." His weapon concentrated on the gap, Ronon did not turn towards her as he spoke. "We've taken out many."

 

And that, too, brought its own pain. She knew that John had not wanted anyone to die, for all that he had reluctantly admitted that it might be necessary. How many had they killed? She had been aiming to wound and to deter, but feared that she had killed at least one. There had been so many of them. If they had broken through to the Gate Room, Major Sheppard would not have stood a chance.

 

But it had to be done, just like this had to be done. John had offered her the chance to stay behind, but she had refused. It was not just about atoning; nothing was served by dying through guilt. No, this was her place. Her choice was made. She was prepared to die for her own people, and she was prepared to die, too, for the City of the Ancestors, and for friendship - for friendship, perhaps, most of all.

 

She heard the faint sound of footsteps on the far side of the gap. Realisation struck her, cold and slow. "No." She shook her head. "They have brought explosives."

 

******

 

Aiden watched the movements of the scientist's hands. His masters' command had been clear: watch McKay, and shoot him if he had any tricks up his sleeve.

 

His masters, in the form of Major Brett, stood in front of the Gate. Although they could speak into his mind when they wished to, their own thoughts did not leak out except when they wanted it to. Now, though, he could sense their eagerness and impatience. They were done with Atlantis and were no longer really thinking about it. They wanted the wealth of Stargate Command and the weapons it held on Earth. Long ago, they had been beaten to near extinction in this Galaxy, but in time they would rule another.

 

It was a good cause. He was part of the family, and never alone. A new and wonderful dimension had opened up in his mind, and life before it seemed dull, trapped in the loneliness of his own mind, never able to truly reach anyone else.

 

He would prove himself. Ah yes, he had resolved that. He would prove himself.

 

McKay's hands skittered over the controls. His right hand he moved awkwardly, as if it hurt him, and there was blood on the sleeve of his left arm. I did that, he thought. This man had been on his team once, long ago. Our job is to defend the civilians, Major Sheppard had told him, uncharacteristically earnest. They come first - and, yes, that includes McKay, no matter how irritating he gets.

 

Where was Teyla? McKay was pressing buttons. Brett was shifting impatiently. Aiden was intensely aware of the grip of his pistol in his hand. He had shot Teyla, then walked away, but he hadn't killed her, had he? Where was she? He moistened his lips, and fought the urge to ask McKay.

 

"Rodney!" Major Sheppard was shouting, but his voice was getting weaker each time. Aiden wanted to turn round and check on him, but he had been ordered to watch McKay. "Don't do it!" Then he heard the sound of struggling, and the sound of fists hitting flesh. Doctor Weir cried out, short and sharp. Aiden bit his lip harder, almost hard enough to draw blood.

 

McKay's hands were trembling, and there were beads of sweat on his face. Aiden watched those hands, almost lost himself in the dance of movement that was the scientist at work. He remembered the swirling movement of the fog that had claimed Major Sheppard; the play of stars and clouds in the sky above Atlantis, when he had spoken to Major Sheppard before he had tried to bring him into the family. Too many hours had passed now, and his brain was too full of other things. The exact words were gone, but the message remained. You are a good officer, Lieutenant Ford. You did well.

 

"McKay," Brett said warningly.

 

"Almost there," McKay squawked. "Zelenka's meddling… It changed something. I needed to fix it first." The swift hands moved, then stopped. "There. It's ready to go." But there was no gesture of triumph, no gloating cry. There was no smile, not even a sigh of defeat. All there was, in that moment, was silence.

 

A good officer. Sheppard was somewhere behind him, beaten, perhaps dying. Aiden had been one of the people hunting him. He had shot at McKay and shot at Teyla; only chance and his own incompetence had saved her. Incompetence? he thought. His teeth broke through the skin on the inside of his lip, and he tasted blood.

 

McKay started to dial.

 

I want to prove myself, Aiden thought, and he kept his pistol steady, and looked not at McKay's hands, but at his face. I'm sorry. Aiden's lips moved, but no sound came out. He had no idea who he was apologising to. Perhaps it was to himself - one layer of mind to another; light to shadow.

 

******

 

"We need to move." Teyla's eyes were dark with urgency.

 

Ronon twirled his gun, levelling it at the gap. This felt good. For years, he had fought for his own life, killing to survive, and killing, too, for revenge, but before that he had fought as one of many. He had been part of a team, fighting alongside brothers. He had protected the backs of others, and they had protected him.

 

Was that why he had agreed so readily, when Sheppard had asked him. After he had found out what had happened to Sateda, he had had no idea what he intended to do, except that he would do it alone. It turned out that this was not to be. If he died here, then so be it; his people were gone, and he had nothing to live for. But if he lived… If he lived…

 

"Come on!" Teyla hissed.

 

Ronon began to run backwards, his weapon still trained on the door. No-one shot at him.

 

He had only managed a dozen steps when the door exploded.

 

******

 

It was over. Through the door, Sheppard heard the sound of an explosion. Teyla, he thought. Ronon. He closed his eyes, and the fog took him further, stealing him to a place where the realities of the Gate Room were no more than tracings of a film of paper.

 

He could hear, though. The wormhole surged into existence, and Sheppard made one last desperate attempt to reach Brett, to stop him from going through, but his muscles were water and his bones had turned to dust.

 

Brett stepped through. I need to shout a warning, Sheppard thought, but his voice would not obey him. The wormhole disengaged, and all was silence.

 

Sheppard let the fog take him. It was over. He had failed. It was finished.

 

******

 

End of chapter twenty-one

 

******

 

Chapter twenty-two: Into the mist

 

Sheppard drifted slowly through the fog. He had no desire to open his eyes. Opening his eyes would show him the lady, cold and gloating in her final triumph. He was back with her; part of him had never left. This time perhaps he wouldn't even fight. What had fighting achieved last time but failure?

 

"It's about time."

 

That had sounded like McKay. The fog shimmered minutely, and he felt sheets beneath him, and felt the soft hum of Atlantis in everything that surrounded him.

 

He opened his eyes, and McKay was there, sitting impatiently in a hard chair beside his bed. McKay had broken, Sheppard remembered. He had let the enemy reach Earth, and he had done it for Sheppard's sake, and that was the worst part of all. It made it into a personal betrayal. It made it so that he could hardly bear to look at the man, but yet… but yet…

 

"What's wrong with you, anyway?" McKay sounded no different from his old self. "Oh, yes, there was a bullet in your thigh - that's gone, by the way - but all this hovering on death's door business? Carson acts as if he knows something, but he isn't telling."

 

Carson. Sheppard's thoughts were sluggish. But Carson… There was too much of an enormous mis-match between what he was seeing and hearing, and what he had expected to see. It felt as if another two years had passed; as if he had passed out in the Gate Room, and woken up in another Atlantis entirely.

 

"He's Carson again, just like everyone's back to normal. Embarrassed, though. No, worse than embarrassed. Heightmeyer's going to have appointments from now until next Christmas."

 

Sheppard closed his eyes, and opened them again, but nothing changed. The fog was still there, though. His body was suffused with pain, though she recognised the warm fuzziness that came from drugs, and knew that somebody had been trying to help him. He had to concentrate to keep McKay's face in focus. If he relaxed just for a moment, the fog would claim him, and perhaps this time there would be no return.

 

"What…?" he managed. He swallowed. "At risk of sounding like an idiot, what the hell happened back there?"

 

"There. Oh." McKay's anxious expressed faded, replaced with the old familiar smugness. Sheppard had missed that smugness, he realised. A smug McKay was a happy McKay. "That was me saving the day."

 

"But you sent…"

 

"Credit me with some intelligence, Colonel. You military types don't have the monopoly on plotting. I didn't really have Elizabeth's codes, though of course I could have over-ridden the need for them, given that I was the one who put in the block in the first place. But here's the good bit: I only pretended to dial Earth."  McKay sounded it out slowly, like someone explaining something to a child. "I guessed - rightly, as it turned out - that Brett was too busy doing his evil overlord-style gloating to notice little things like the address being too short, or Earth not talking back."

 

Sheppard struggled to comprehend it. "But…" He swallowed. "That was a stupid plan, Rodney. What if he hadn't let you do the dialling? What if he wasn't…" Another thought struck him. "And what about Ford…?"

 

"Ah." McKay's expression faltered. "That was the biggest risk. I was terrified, I'll have you know. I just remembered what you'd said, and how you'd trusted Carson to inject God knows what into your veins just because you knew what sort of a man he used to be. I just had to trust and hope that Ford… That in the end, when it really mattered…" He let out a breath. "He could see I wasn't dialling Earth. He didn't say anything. If he had… Well, of course I hadn't really put in Elizabeth's code, just pretended. Even if they decided to shoot me, they still couldn't reach Earth."

 

Sheppard closed his eyes, but the fog almost drowned him. "It was a stupid plan." He said it quietly, without fervour.

 

"It worked, didn't it?" McKay bristled. "And yours was no better. Let's storm the Gate Room with just four of us, and hold it against all comers. I'm no military tactician, Major, but…"

 

Come to me. "Teyla?" Sheppard interrupted. "Ronon?"

 

"Battered. Bruised." McKay shrugged as if it didn't really matter, but Sheppard was getting better at reading McKay every day. "They'll be okay. So will everyone else. As soon as he went through the wormhole, everyone collapsed. It was quite dramatic. I suppose their brains couldn't cope with the sudden absence of commands. They started to wake up after an hour or two, but we had to tiptoe around over a ridiculous amount of bodies for a while. I'll have you know that before Carson woke up, I looked after you myself. Well, Teyla did. But I helped."

 

It was too much. The fog closed on him in waves, lapping over his head, threatening to drown him. "So once again," McKay said, with infinite satisfaction, "Rodney McKay, PhD, saves the day."

 

Sheppard's eyes slid closed. He was clinging onto consciousness only by a thread. "Of course," McKay added, the words far more awkward, "I couldn't have done it without you."

 

Sheppard gave half a smile, then clawed himself back, anchoring himself with the sound of McKay's voice. "Where did you dial, then, if not Earth?"

 

"Well…" Sheppard felt movement on the bed and knew that McKay was toying with his blankets, clenching and unclenching the fabric in his hands. "To the place where we lost you," he blurted out. "I thought… I'd never forgotten the address, and… Well, it didn't seem fair to kill him, since it isn't really Brett's fault, but I just thought… what if he disappears for two years, like you did? It'll give us time."

 

I have to go back. He had no idea if the thought came from himself, or if the fog itself was behind it. Of course he had to go back. If he stayed here, he would die, or linger in this waking death. She wanted him to return so she could keep him for ever. He had never truly escaped, and part of him had never left. This would only end when he returned, and now McKay had given him another reason to go. No, there would be no hiding from this, and no escape.

 

McKay was still speaking. "…and from your questions earlier, am I to assume that you thought I'd actually dialled Earth? You thought I'd do that?" Sheppard thought there was genuine hurt beneath the outrage.

 

"Think of it as testament to your acting skills, McKay," he said, "and add to it the fact that I wasn't thinking straight, due to a bloody great hole in my leg, as Carson would put it."

 

"Oh." McKay didn't sound entirely mollified.

 

But there was no time for this, no time. He could feel the fog beginning to eat at everything he held dear. It would not just be his body next time, but his mind and his speech, and everything he saw, and everything that he did. He would be mired in illusion, trapped in this bed, incapable of leaving.

 

"I need to go back," he said, and he saw McKay freeze, saw him open his mouth for a loud protest. Please, Sheppard said with his eyes, adding a plea that he would so seldom say in words. "I need to."

 

******

 

"But why?" Rodney asked, for at least the fourth time.

 

Sheppard had conceded to inevitability and allowed himself to be placed in a wheelchair. Carson had protested loudly, but even lacking the strength to raise his hand, Sheppard had command in his voice and stubbornness in his eyes, and Carson had yielded. Some understanding had passed between Sheppard and Carson in their time alone together, that much was clear. Rodney didn't like it, and neither did he like the fact that Carson was refusing to meet anybody's eyes, except for Sheppard's. But all that was for the future. Some stubborn, crazy, infuriating fool of a Major had set his heart on going back to the planet that had almost killed him, and Rodney counted it as his duty to make sure that he came back.

 

Teyla and Ronon were walking on either side of the wheelchair, each of them battered and bandaged, but neither of them showing any sign of injury in their walk. Rodney supposed that the barbarian had nothing better to do, and had tagged along with the only people he had a passing acquaintance with.

 

"Why?" he asked again, when no answer came.

 

"Brett's still himself, despite those… things," Sheppard said. "We can't condemn him to a life like that without making some effort to bring him back."

 

Rodney frowned suspiciously. It sounded like a lie, but it was the sort of ridiculous thing that Sheppard's sense of duty would lead him to do.

 

They were nearing the Gate Room. Atlantis felt different, Rodney realised suddenly. Perhaps it would never feel the same again. It had been full of enemies before, but never before had the enemies worn the faces of friends. These hallways would never feel quite so safe as they had felt before. He would never again be able to look at Zelenka or Carson or any of the others without remembering what they had done.

 

Perhaps he said as much, his thoughts spilling out into words before he consciously ordered them, because Sheppard said quietly, "They won't be able to forget, either. Grant them that much."

 

The last section division before the Gate Room was blackened and blasted, huge holes blown in the walls on either side. Rodney was aware of both Teyla and Ronon looking at it, but they were silent as they passed through. The blood had been cleared up, and that was at least something. Only two soldiers had died in this, the nearest this war had come to a proper battle, but many more had been injured. Rodney saw Teyla wishing to say something, saw the movement of Sheppard's shoulders that showed that he, too, was thinking of speaking, but both of them remained silent.

 

"No, really, why?" Rodney blurted out. "Why are you going, and I'm coming with you."

 

"As am I." Teyla spoke it as if there was no possible question. Ronon said nothing, but he kept on walking beside the wheelchair as if his course, too, was not in doubt.

 

"I'm going…" Sheppard began, as they entered the Gate Room. The technicians were back at their posts, but their movements were dull, and their faces were flooded with guilt and misery. Elizabeth was in her office, and she hurried down when she saw them. "And then there were five," Sheppard said, and Rodney slapped the back of his head, because this wasn't the Sheppard he knew; the Sheppard he knew didn't talk like this.

 

"John?" Elizabeth was smooth and well-groomed, but her face, too, had changed. "I'm writing my report on this whole affair. I'm making it quite clear to them that you were the one who saved us all."

 

"Hey!" McKay protested. "What about me?"

 

Elizabeth smiled, but her eyes were still on Sheppard. "You, too, Rodney."

 

Rodney almost protested further, then remembered. His place, at least, was secure. Caldwell had been on the point of sending Sheppard home. A glowing report about his own behaviour was just one more certificate for his wall, but for Sheppard it could make all the difference. Hey, he thought. Look at me. Where did I become so perceptive all of a sudden?

 

"I couldn't get to the infirmary," Elizabeth was saying to Sheppard, "but I need you to know… Those things that Brett said…"

 

"I know," Sheppard said, in a voice that didn't entirely ring true. "I wouldn't have wanted you to do anything else."

 

She looked as if she wanted to say more, but was reining herself back. She seemed to fully see him for the first time. "Why are you out of bed? You look awful."

 

"I feel awful," Sheppard said, and Rodney almost gasped aloud at the surprise of it, since this was a man who never spoke about how he felt - never. "Carson knows. I'm not getting better from this. I need to go back to the planet. She caused this. Something that happened there…" He let out a breath, and his head sagged, and Rodney felt a stab of panic and almost grabbed at him bodily, thinking, No! You're not dead! Don't die!

 

"John," Teyla said quietly.

 

Sheppard raised his head. "She's killing me," he said. "If I don't go back…"

 

Rodney gripped the wheelchair until his knuckles were white. "What if it's another two years…?"

 

Sheppard turned his head towards him, and gave a smile that made Rodney feel cold right through. "Better than dying, right, Rodney?"

 

"We will come with you." Teyla said, and Rodney felt a stab of anger at her, that she could say it now, when he had no words at all.

 

"No." Sheppard shook his head. "I need to do this alone. I want to do this alone." He pushed himself up from the wheelchair, and managed to stand, although Rodney could see the enormous effort it cost him. "I… No, I… uh… I'm not good at saying these things. Take care of yourselves, okay?"

 

And then he was gone.

 

******

 

Sheppard stepped through the Stargate to clear sunshine. How long has it been? he thought, as he took one unsteady step away from the Gate, and then another. Each step could be a month, a year. But he quelled that fear. Until she had taken him away to her place of illusion, time had flowed at its normal pace.

 

There was no fog in the world; inside, though, the fog was almost drowning him. He limped half a dozen steps, then a dozen, but he had no idea which way to go. Instead, he stopped, spreading his hands and looking at the sky. "You know I'm here."

 

"Yes." She was there with no warning, appearing behind him like frost on a summer's day. "You are here."

 

He knew that he absolutely had to stay standing. Mist wreathed around him, either exuding from her, or flowing from his own body like steam. He didn't want to turn around, didn't want to see her, but it was worse like this, with her standing at his back. He turned to face her, and at last the fog was his ally, clouding his vision, protecting him from the sharp edge of her beauty. Even so, she was hard to resist. He clung to the memories of everything that he knew about her, and everything that had happened since he had left, and managed not to waver.

 

"You sent me a gift," she said. Her voice was neutral. "A man, though not as handsome as you. A man with something else inside him."

 

"Where is he?" Sheppard asked. "Are the things…?"

 

"They are gone," she stated. "They are an enemy my kind has faced before, long ago. They were old and desperate, which is why you were able to trick them - yes, I saw in their minds what you did, and how you resisted them, my brave, defiant John. Not this one, though, this Brett.  Although they have gone, his mind is… not as it was."

 

The grass stretched out behind her, a perfect green beneath the blue, but there was no-one else there. "Can I see him?" he asked. "Can I…?"

 

"Take him back?" Her perfect face showed the hardness that always lurked beneath it. "Are you here to do a swap, John: yourself for him?"

 

He could not answer. It was the right thing to do, he knew that. He would have done it for McKay or for any of the others, but Brett was a stranger. Brett had beaten him, turned his friends against him, and tried to kill him.  Yes, he knew that none of that had been Brett himself, but rather the beings that were possessing him, but it seemed that made little difference.

 

"Can I see him?" He stalled for time.

 

She shook her head. "He is happy. Unlike you, he accepted what I had to offer. He is content in an illusion of everything he has ever wanted." Her voice turned petulant. "Why did you fight me, John?"

 

"You know why." She had looked deep inside him, and knew everything about him; he knew that.

 

"Yes." She looked almost sorrowful, and for a moment the grass and the sky faded away, and all he saw was her face, and the small circle of world that contained the two of them.

 

He pulled away first, deliberately taking a step that would jar his wounded leg. The pain cut through the fog, but only barely. "What did you do to me?" he asked.

 

"Ah, but you know that, too." She reached out as if to touch his cheek, but he turned his head away. She did not react to the rebuff. "I can see it in your face. You dared to reject what I offered you. You dared to threaten me. I chose to give you the semblance of freedom."

 

"But it wasn't proper freedom."

 

"Of course not." Her smile was sweet. "Time runs differently in my domain - fast, or slow, as I will it. You thought you had escaped back to everything you had left behind, but it had all gone. I gave you just enough life to see the wreckage of what you once possessed…"

 

"Wreckage," Sheppard interrupted, with a harsh laugh. He gestured sharply at his injured leg, at the bruises on his face. "You're right there. They'd all moved on without me. McKay told me to go away. Elizabeth wouldn't trust me. Teyla supported me, but only out of pity. Ronon was okay, but I don't even know the man. Caldwell's going to send me back to Earth as soon as he recovers. Even if he doesn't, there's no place for me in Atlantis. Everyone's made that clear."

 

She moved closer, her hand rising to his face again, and this time he didn't stop her. "Hush," she whispered. "Hush." Her thumb caressed him below the eye, as if wiping away tears that he had not shed.

 

"I kept on fighting it," he told her, remembering again all the lowest, darkest moment of the last few days. Sitting on the pier, too exhausted to run any more; in the lab with McKay; on the balcony, attacked by Ford. "But I realised in the end… Whatever happened to Atlantis, I don't belong there any more. They don't want me."

 

"Hush." She looked at him with love, as if he was a naughty child who had done wrong, but was now forgiven. "Come with me. I will give you everything you have ever wanted."

 

The mist wreathed around him, taking shape. He saw McKay and Teyla and Ford, striding beside him, ready to take on the world. He sat beside his team, a bowl of popcorn in his lap, and tried to explain football to Teyla. Elizabeth trusted him and listened to his advice. His men obeyed him, but better than that, they respected him. He had a home and place to stay, and even, perhaps, the beginnings of a family. Forever and ever, the fog told him. Unchanged and forever. Friends. A home. Everything. "And me," the mist said, in her voice, "loving you."

 

He pulled away. It was hard - oh God, it was hard! "No," he said. "Not even tempted."

 

"But…" Her face was clouded with incomprehension. "It's everything you have ever…"

 

"It is a lie." He drew himself up, preparing to face death there in the perfect green fields. "I'd rather live with reality, however bad it is."

 

"You reject me a second time?" There was nothing of beauty about her face, not any more.

 

He put his weight on his wounded leg. "I do."

 

"Then you will die." She spat it out like a curse.

 

The fog had almost closed around him now. Everything that he saw was suffused with grey, and merely standing up required almost more strength than he possessed. Pain was everywhere, but worse than the physical pain was the knowledge of what awaited back on Atlantis, if by some miracle he lived.

 

"Die," she said, more quietly, "because nobody escapes me by choice. Nobody ever escapes me."

 

He bowed his head, then sank further, collapsing awkwardly to his knees. His thigh screamed with pain, and he fell even further, sprawling to the ground, catching himself at the last minute with one hand. He knew that he looked the picture of abasement. "Then kill me," he begged her. "I've known it was coming."

 

He flooded his mind with images. McKay, recounting everything he had missed, and then shouting at him. Elizabeth turning away. Teyla telling him that she had doubted him. Carson looking at him as if he was dead already. They're throwing you away like trash. Facing Brett with the knowledge that it didn't matter if he died, because he had nothing left to live for, anyway.

 

He remembered them all, felt them all, and there, at the very end, wept for them all. Tears came so seldom to him, but they pricked at his eyes now, for he had reached the very end, and his own people had hurt him beyond enduring.

 

"Anyone who defies me pays with their life," she said quietly, almost gently. Her hand found his cheek again, sharp nails curling into his skin. This time, when her thumb caressed him under his eye, one warm tear smeared across his skin. "But perhaps, with you, there is another way. There is more than one way to lose your life."

 

And she left him then, as simple as that. The Stargate stood behind him, the DHD so innocent, and almost close enough to touch.

 

******

 

Rodney hopped from foot to foot. "Why isn't he back?" He looked at his watch for the hundredth time.

 

"It's barely been five minutes, Rodney." But Elizabeth looked as nervous as he felt.

 

They had lost him on that planet for two years. Minutes could turn into months. You could turn your back and find that you were alone, and that a friend you had never really admitted was a friend was just… gone.

 

All of them were gathered: Rodney, Teyla, Elizabeth, Ronon. They stood around the empty wheelchair, facing a silent Gate. "I should…" Elizabeth gestured weakly towards her office. "Things to do." She let out a weary breath. "So many things to do."

 

Something else occurred to Rodney - something he had been trying not to think about. "Was he saying goodbye, there at the end?"

 

Teyla touched his arm gently. "I think he was. But nothing is certain." Her eyes were fixed on the Gate with a fierce concentration.

 

What do we do if he doesn't come back? Rodney thought, but he didn't say it. Normally he said everything aloud, but some things needed to be stay silent. If Sheppard didn't come back, could he return to the way he had been for the last two years?

 

"I would like to stay," Teyla said suddenly, looking at Elizabeth. "Whatever happens with… with John, I would like to stay. You are the best hope for fighting the Wraith. I want to help."

 

"You are most welcome," Elizabeth said. "I will make sure that… Caldwell extends his trust towards you." There was the slightest faltering before his name.

 

Perhaps they said other things, but Rodney didn't know and didn't care. His eyes were flooded with the emptiness of the Gate. Did they expect him to say something himself - to make some stupid pledge about how he'd continue after Sheppard vanished a second time? He didn't say it, he wouldn't say it, he refused to say it.

 

But I won't… he thought. Won't… retreat in the same way. I won't go back to how I was. Life had been so cold for the last two years. He had been justified and right, but he had also been hated.

 

"Ronon?" he heard Teyla say, and heard her introduce him to Elizabeth, formally, with full names.

 

"We owe you a debt," Elizabeth said. "If you want to stay…" Her voice trailed away, perhaps in the face of Ronon's expression, but Rodney had eyes only for the Gate.

 

How long? he thought. Hours? Days? Weeks? You went away to your lab, and you busied yourself with other things, because you had to, but before you knew it, months had passed, and he still hadn't come back.

 

"Ma'am." Someone called for Elizabeth, and she broke away first. Giving up on him. Rodney swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. He hadn't slept for a ridiculous number of hours, he realised, and had been shot at and terrified out of his life. If his thoughts were stupid and over-emotional, then it was only to be expected.

 

Rodney remaining standing there, with Teyla and Ronon. They stood on either side of him, and it felt far more comforting than it ought to. It made him have ridiculous thoughts - like about how fitting it would be if they all held hands right now. God, he really was sleep-deprived.

 

The wormhole activated. "Incoming wormhole," called the technician. "Major Sheppard's IDC."

 

"Let him in!" Rodney shouted. "Let him in!" A moment later, Sheppard was limping through the Gate.

 

Rodney ran towards him; stopped short of grabbing his arm. "You're back."

 

"Well, yes, Rodney. I am."

 

"But… But…" He remembered what Sheppard had said. He was dying. "Are you…?" His hands flapped uselessly.

 

Sheppard let out a breath. "I don't know. I think… I think she decided that living here was a worse punishment for me than dying."

 

Rodney's hands fell to his sides. "Is it?"

 

But Sheppard was slumping to one side. While Rodney stood by uselessly, Ronon was the one who caught him as he passed out.

 

******

 

End of chapter twenty-two

 

******

 

Chapter twenty-three: The future

 

Sheppard opened his eyes slowly. "This is becoming a habit," McKay said, but his voice sounded strained.

 

Sheppard blinked. There was no trace of the fog. His leg hurt, but there was no pain anywhere else. He tried cautiously to move his hands, and managed to do so without any difficulty. He moistened his lips, and realised suddenly that he felt hungry and thirsty. He had lost track of the last time his body had been aware of such a basic thing as that.


"Are you going to stay awake this time?" McKay asked. "At least this time we didn't have to carry you. Ronon put you in the wheelchair. You looked ridiculous."

 

Sheppard shifted, pushing himself up against the pillows. "How long?" His voice felt rusty.

 

McKay frowned. "Since you fainted? A day. Leaving us with all the hard work of putting the city back together again, while you slept the night away." He saw Sheppard looking at him, and seemed to understand the thing that Sheppard couldn't ask, for he added, "And it was only a few minutes before that - between you going through the Gate and coming back, I mean."

 

He let out a breath, sinking into the pillow. "Hard work?" he echoed. "I don't see you doing any work."

 

"I'm taking a break," McKay snapped. "Though why I doing that while sitting by your bed, I don't know. Probably because Elizabeth told us not to leave you alone."

 

You liar, Rodney. Sheppard smiled. He saw the laptop at Rodney's feet, and saw, too, the other chairs that sat nearby, empty now, but looking as if they had recently been filled.

 

"Did you… uh… did you mean it?" McKay was looking at the ground. "When you said this was worse than… you know."

 

Oh. Sheppard blinked. "Of course I didn't. It was a trick." He chuckled. "She should have learnt not to fall for the same trick twice. You really can't believe everything you see in a guy's mind."

 

"Oh. I thought…" McKay looked up. For the slightest moment, before his face became McKay's face again, he looked almost vulnerable.

 

He had been through far too much to lie now. "It did seem true for a while," he admitted. "There were moments…" When you shouted. When you told me how much I'd missed. When Elizabeth refused to listen. "But, in the end… no." Actions speak louder than words, Rodney. He decided to say it, after all. "Actions speak louder than words. I know what people said. But in the end, you all…" But it turned out that there were limits to what he could say out loud, after all.

 

McKay cleared his throat, smoothing out creases in his jacket. "I suppose I should tell someone you're awake."

 

Sheppard shook his head. "There's nothing wrong with me." He hoped it was true. He felt okay, but he didn't put it past her to have one final trick up his sleeve. No, he couldn't think like that. Except for the bullet wound, refreshingly explicable in his thigh, he felt physically better than he had felt since he had first seen her. He had to act as if he was going to fine. To act any other way was to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. If he acted as if she had killed him, then she had won. He had to start every day with the utter confidence that she had left him alone forever.

 

McKay stood up; walked away a few steps, and came back. "What are you going to do now?"

 

Sheppard didn't pretend not to understand. The danger was over now. Everything would return to normal, and he would be back where he had been before Caldwell had been shot.

 

"It's just that you're the ranking military officer now, or kind of, what with Caldwell still out of action, and Brett…"

 

So Caldwell was still alive. "Not for long," Sheppard had to tell McKay. "They'll send someone else in a heartbeat." He sighed, listening to the gentle hum of Atlantis all around him. He could get used to this, he decided. He had never looked to be military commander, after all. As long as he had a place here, and perhaps a team to lead, he could be content here. He could accept another man's command, as long as they listened to him and allowed changes to be made to how things were run. He had only seen this new Atlantis at crisis, but he was fairly sure that something had been deeply wrong with it even before that had happened.

 

"You'll stay?" McKay said. "Well, I suppose I could get used to your nagging and your insanely high expectations."

 

"That'll depend on Caldwell or whoever comes to replace him," Sheppard said, "and the Air Force back home." But he was still too close to the fog to hide things entirely behind lies. "But I will do my damnedest to stay."

 

******

 

He was still ridiculously weary. His watch told him that it was eight hours before he woke again. McKay had gone, and this time it was Carson who was looking down at him.

 

"I'm so sorry, Major." Carson's eyes looked bruised with guilt.

 

"Wasn't your fault, doc," Sheppard told him.

 

"But I…" Carson wrang his hands. "I injected people with that stuff, that serum. I did more than anyone else…"

 

"And no more than anyone else did," Sheppard said firmly. If his conjecture was right, Carson had been one of the first to be infected, by Major Brett himself. Sheppard and McKay had resisted, but many strong people had succumbed, including many military officers, and scientists accustomed to standing up to McKay. There was no shame in it. "And I trusted you," he said, "and you didn't let me down."

 

Carson still looked tormented. It occurred to Sheppard that there was a long, slow recovery ahead for many people in Atlantis. It was easy for him, on the outside, to say that they should move past it and forget about it, but how would he feel if he had shot one of his own men, or hunted a friends through the city? He shook his head, dismissing it. He would not judge them, but he could not help them heal. He didn't have the words.

 

"Colonel Caldwell…" Carson seemed to remember what he had come to say. "He'll live, but he's not good. I don't know if he… I didn't give him proper care while I was… while I was not myself. What if I…?"

 

"I saw you treating him." Sheppard felt embarrassed by all this, but he knew that this was something Carson needed to hear.

 

Carson heaved a shaky breath, passing his hands across his face. "Anyway, he wants to see you. Can you…?"

 

Sheppard swung his legs over the side of the bed. Apart from the wound in his thigh, which caused Carson to exclaim and shout for crutches, he felt fine. "Where is he?"

 

******

 

And at times things seemed almost like a dream, as if he was still half-lost in the fog. Caldwell was wired up to far too many machines, and he looked like an outline of a man, without the colours fleshing him in. "Major Sheppard." He nodded with his eyes, seemingly too weak to do anything else.

 

Sheppard settled himself down on the chair beside his bed. He hated seeing strong men like this; there were too many memories involved. "Colonel." A little late, he remembered to add a rough approximation of a salute.

 

"I'll cut to the chase," Caldwell said. "Don't think I can stay awake for much longer. This…" His eyes gestured at his body. "Not going to kill me, they say, but unless the doctors on Earth have a different taken on it, apparently the prognosis is grim for a full recovery. Enough for normal life, but for the Air Force… No."

 

Sheppard said nothing. There was nothing that he could say that was not an insult. To never fly again…

 

"I've been hearing things about you," Caldwell said. "Doctor Weir, in particular. And Doctor McKay had some choice things to say."

 

Sheppard stared straight ahead, his hands gripping the sides of the chair.

 

"Doctor Weir has friends in high places, she tells me." Caldwell smiled, but the smile soon turned into a grimace of pain. Sheppard pretended not to see. "I was going to recommend it, anyway."

 

Sheppard breathed it, and held it.

 

"I was too hasty when I first met you," Caldwell said. "From all accounts, you're the only one who saw clearly through this whole sorry mess. You risked your life to save the city. I'm going to recommend that you're given the chance to do so again."

 

He let out a breath, tried not to show the hope on his face.

 

"Of course, they'll insist on a promotion. I can't promise, mind, but that'll be my recommendation." He shifted; grimaced again. "Now please get the doc."

 

Sheppard left.

 

******

 

Hours passed quickly, and the fog still didn't return.

 

Sheppard drifted through Atlantis, not sure what his place was. He still had no quarters, though he had no desire to return to the infirmary. Caldwell's news was a recommendation only, and not confirmed. Caldwell was still in command, but when men Sheppard had once commanded came to him almost sheepishly for orders, he gave them. News seemed to have spread. By the time evening came, he felt as if he had his sleeves rolled up, and was deep in the work of restoring the city to normal.

 

Elizabeth found him as he wandered through a lull, wondering whether to head for a balcony, or to try to find himself somewhere to spend the night.

 

"I just wanted you to know…" She looked uncharacteristically nervous. "What Brett said… And what I said to you before that…"

 

"Doesn't matter," he told her. It wasn't entirely true, but it was true enough. It had hurt at the time, but he supposed she had ever cause to distrust him. Hell, he'd probably have asked serious questions had someone he known returned two years after apparently dying. As he had said to McKay, what mattered was how you acted afterwards.

 

"But I…"

 

"It doesn't matter." It was the same as he had said to Carson. He couldn't help if people felt their own private guilt. All he could do was freely give his forgiveness for any wrong they felt they had done to him, and hope that was enough.

 

She smiled, clearly not entirely buying it, but managing to live with it, for now. "It was just because you were completely right." Her words belied her smile. "I didn't want to hear it. But it will be different from now on. Whatever happens with… with that. Whatever happens… I'll make sure things are different."

 

With that. He thought he knew what she meant, and her next words confirmed it. "Caldwell talked to you, I know. I'm recommending really strongly that you're allowed to take up your old position. Even if they don't allow that, I'll fight them tooth and nail if they try to get rid of you. You'll still have a team and a place at the conference table."

 

He hoped she wasn't motivated out of guilt. He searched her eyes, but couldn't read them. He was not always good at such things.

 

She grabbed his hands and squeezed it tightly, just once. "I'm glad you're back, John." Her eyes were shining, but when she turned away, he thought she looked a little embarrassed.

 

He knew he should give her a reply, but he had no words, just a nod.

 

******

 

In the end, he just appropriated a spare room, grabbed some bedding from the stores, and made himself at home. He wondered what had happened to the sparse quantity of personal items that he had had in his old room. A few things had meant something to him, although items were less important than people… and until a few months ago, he would have said that people didn't mean that much, either.

 

He lay down on the bed, but couldn't sleep. After an hour of it, he left the room, wondering if he could find one of the others.

 

His limping steps took him to the training rooms, where he heard sounds that showed that one room was still in use. He opened the door, and saw Teyla and Ronon practicing stick fighting. They became aware of him instantly - he knew that by minute changes to their stance - but finished their bout before stopping.

 

"I thought you guys were injured," Sheppard said.

 

"Which is why we are not fighting properly," Teyla said. "I am teaching Ronon the initial techniques of the style."

 

Ronon grinned. "I'd kick her ass if we fought for real." Sheppard wondered if Ronon had always known that phrase, or if he was picking things up from the Marines already.

 

Sheppard sat down on the bench at the edge of the room, stretching his leg out in front of him. Despite having slept for the best part of a day, he was deeply weary, and suddenly hoped very sincerely that Teyla, too, didn't come to him with her face full of guilt, begging for forgiveness. We're good, he thought at her. Surely they had both shown that by the manner of their last words in the small room, in the way she had stayed to guard the door, in the way she had walked with him to the Gate that final time. Actions meant more than words, always.

 

"Wanna try, though," Ronon said, still grinning. "Then I'll fight you."

 

"You'll kick my ass, that's for sure," Sheppard said, with no trace of regret.

 

He traced his finger up and down the seat beside him, tracing patterns. Breathing hard, Teyla came and sat beside him, not close, but close enough. "Even before I knew you were going to live," she said, "I told Elizabeth that I wanted to stay. She has already let it known that I am allowed to carry weapons, and that I can walk freely through the city. Though perhaps she should have asked you first."

 

His finger froze mid-pattern. "Then you've heard. It's not certain yet. But it does look as if I'll be staying, yes." It was so easy to say, but it meant so much. "Even if they send someone else, I'll have a team…" His words ran out. He had never been able to say the truly important things.

 

But Teyla always knew. "Yes,  I will." She smiled.

 

Sheppard nodded his thanks, then his eyes flickered to Ronon. "I know you probably want to go…"

 

"Got nowhere to go." Ronon stated it like fact, with no apparent emotion.

 

"Uh… Yes…" His finger started moving again, but he stopped it. "If you want to… It doesn't have to be permanent, just for as long as…" But he remembered Ronon saying that he wouldn't follow the orders of someone he didn't respect. "Of course, if you don't want…"

 

Ronon flashed his teeth. "It was good to fight with others. I'll stay."

 

And it was as simple as that.

 

******

 

Ford found him not long after, and Sheppard cursed himself, knowing that he should have sought out the young lieutenant earlier. Looking after the physical well-being of his men came so easy; looking after the emotional well-being was something he was just not equipped to deal with.

 

"Sir…" Ford looked terrible, as if he hasn't slept for a week.

 

Sheppard gestured to him that he should follow, and led the way to a balcony. And then he cursed himself again, for it was the same balcony that Ford had attacked him on.

 

"I'm so sorry, sir," Ford blurted out, as soon as they were private. "I shot at you. And I need to find Teyla and McKay. I hurt both of them. I tried to kill them."

 

"But you didn't."

 

Ford slammed his fist against the railing. "But I tried to."

 

"And you didn't," Sheppard said patiently. "Teyla told me what happened. You didn't aim at her. You didn't look to make sure that she was dead. I bet that's because you didn't want her to be dead, but you didn't want Brett to know."

 

Ford gripped the railing. "I…"

 

"Stop it." Sheppard barked it like a command. "You succumbed to mind control, just like virtually everyone else on the base. And, no, McKay and I managed to resist, but don't beat yourself up about that. Everyone else was taken. But who else managed to shake it off in the end?"

 

Ford was looking away, out across the ocean.

 

"Lieutenant," Sheppard commanded. "Listen to me. You shook it off. You saved us all. You knew that McKay wasn't dialling Earth, and you didn't tell anyone. You didn't kill Teyla. You came good in the end. You have nothing at all to feel bad about. Of course…" He smiled. "I doubt McKay will see it that way. He'll probably moan for months about the life-threatening scratch you gave him, but that's McKay for you. Just ignore him."

 

"I…" Ford turned towards him, desperate hope on his young face. "They say you're staying here. Can I be on your team? Please?"

 

And this was something that he had to crush. Aiden Ford had been so confident and so cheerful, capable of anything. Life had driven all that out of him, and the rot had started with Sheppard's own disappearance. "No." He shook his head. "I should never have put you on my team, Ford. You deserved to lead a team of your own. You still do. And that's my deal. If I get the prime off-world team, you get the second. It's what you deserve."

 

Ford stood blinking, the lights of Atlantis suffusing his face with silver and making him look very young.

 

"I've not seen you do anything you can be ashamed of," Sheppard told him truthfully. "I saw you keep your head under fire, and put your team first. And in the end, McKay gambled everything on your strength of character, and he was right. You're far more able than you think you are, Ford. I'm going to give you the chance to find out."

 

Sheppard himself stood in the shadow, and was grateful for it. He was not made for such speeches, and he was no shrink. The memory of the fog was close enough, and today he could still speak of such things. He grinned, clapping Ford on the shoulder. "Best get some sleep, lieutenant. I plan to make you work hard for your pay."

 

"Yes, sir. Thank you sir."

 

"Ford…" Sheppard said warningly.

 

Ford hurried off, but Sheppard caught a quick glimpse of him in the doorway, and saw that he was smiling.

 

He let out a breath, and stood at the railing, looking up at a sky that was entirely free from fog.

 

******

 

And it was there, hours later, that McKay found him. "You're staying," McKay said, without preamble. "Going to get promoted. Lieutenant-Colonel Sheppard. That'll be hard to remember. And leading a team."

 

"Did they put it up in lights?" Sheppard asked. Honesty forced him to admit, "And it's not certain yet. It's just a recommendation."

 

"From Caldwell and Elizabeth. And Elizabeth has friends in high places, as I've heard her say at least three times today. She can be one scary lady. I'd kind of forgotten that."

 

They stood together in silence for a while, looking at the stars. But Rodney was not really made for silence. "So this team…"

 

"You're on it, McKay."

 

"Oh. Oh." He couldn't see McKay's face, but he heard the pleasure, badly concealed by the complaining. "Oh God, back to the life of wacky adventures and running for our lives. I'll have you know that I've been injured twice since you came back. I suppose this is what I'll have to get used to now - running along behind you as you lead me into one ridiculous…"

 

"And Teyla," Sheppard added. "And Ronon."

 

"The barbarian?" McKay looked at him as if he had gone crazy. "Just don't blame me when he disembowels us all."

 

Sheppard let out a slow breath, suddenly ridiculously content. He knew he had no right to be. His future was not yet ensured, but he was fairly sure that Elizabeth would pull strings to ensure that he had at least some position on Atlantis. Several men were dead because he had given the order that they could be killed, and although he could not regret that order, he could still mourn them. Brett had gone, and he could perhaps have brought him back, but he had not fought it. But all of those were guilts for late at night, when he was alone.

 

For now, he stood above the ocean in a city that whispered to him and told him that he was at home. McKay was beside him - irritating, infuriating, familiar McKay. There was no talking with McKay. There was no I'm sorry I said… or How can you forgive…? McKay had pushed him away, and then, somehow, along the way he had slotted back into his old position as comrade and sparring partner and… yes, and friend. Sheppard had not really stopped to think about it, and he doubted that McKay had thought about it, either.

 

So much was still uncertain. Atlantis had a long road to recovery, not just from this latest crisis, but from the distrust and the breaches that had apparently risen up over the years. He had no magical answer for that - he was no shrink - but no matter what position he ended up in, he would do whatever he could to help it recover. Deeds, not words. Action. Look to the future. Stay positive now, and forget the fog - forget that the fog had ever existed. Look forward, never back.

 

But there, as he stood with McKay beneath the stars that spoke of the future, he remembered Elizabeth's last words to him. I'm glad you're back. He hadn't been able to answer her, but perhaps now he could. "I'm glad I'm back." He breathed them quietly under his breath, then turned to McKay, grinning.

 

"Fancy a late night raid on the mess hall?"

 

"As long as there's chocolate involved."

 

They turned way from the ocean. As they did so, Sheppard trailed his fingers softly over the wall, feeling the city's hum. "I'm glad I'm back," he said out loud, and McKay snapped his head towards him, startled, perhaps, into honesty, and said, "So am I."

 

Yes, Sheppard thought, and he smiled. The city enfolded him, warm with the sense of home, and Rodney was beside him, and Teyla and Ronon not too far away. I'm glad I'm home.

 

******

 

END

******

Notes:

I agonised long and hard over the ending. There are a tonne of character issues that need to be worked out, and I could easily have filled 4 or 5 chapters of aftermath. However, it would have felt like just that - like aftermath. The tension was over. So I opted to keep it short, and have the final chapter just imply the way things are going to go, without going into details.

However, it had occurred to me that a sequel is entirely possible. I don't mean a "return of the nasty fairy woman person thing", or a "return of the things that possessed Major Brett, whatever they were." No, I mean a completely different and self-contained adventure, that just happens to be set in this AU, a couple of months after this story. This would allow me to explore such issues as Ford's self-confidence, Carson's guilt, the healing of Atlantis, and all the other things that are outstanding at the end of this story.

I'm making no promises. I have a few shorter story ideas I want to play with first, and don't as yet have any clear ideas on the actual plot of any such sequel. But one day, perhaps, I might return to this AU.

Speaking of AUs… This was actually my first ever SGA fanfic idea, but I forced myself to sit on it for a while, while I wrote some shorter pieces that weren't AU. It seemed a bit foolhardy to launch myself into a new fandom by writing a long AU, before I'd even written the "real" versions of all the characters. However, I do love AUs, especially ones where one small change has led to a darker future, so may very well write others. I like the freedom AUs offer to take characters on a long emotional journey, without having to return them in the same condition as they were when I got them.

Thanks once again for reading!

Feedback is always wonderful! You can email me here, or leave a comment on LJ, or fanfiction.net

Back to the rest of my SGA fanfic