Back to the rest of my SGA fanfic

White walls

by Eildon Rhymer

 

Four went out, and three came back. Sheppard has vanished, and the rest of his team lies injured. By the time they recover, the trail has gone cold. As Sheppard and his team fight their own separate battles for hope and survival, the true danger may be different from what any of them expect.

 

Spoilers: This is set shortly after the early fourth season episode Reunion, and has spoilers up until then, but not beyond.

 

Content: There is a lot of angst and emotional whump in this story. Don't come here looking for laughs. It's rated T for some violent imagery and general psychological darkness, though there's nothing graphic. It's gen.

 

As I said in the notes to my last story, we're back in those autumn woods in the rain… Not for long, though.

 

Chapter one: The killing ground

 

"Something's wrong." Sheppard held up his hand. His eyes flickered sideways, catching Ronon's answering nod, and Teyla's sudden watchfulness. "It's–"

 

"…and the ridiculous weather," McKay said, continuing some rant that had become to Sheppard like the background noise of the rain on leaves. "Couldn't we just have poked our heads through the Gate, seen the weather, and gone back until… Oh, I don't know. Until it was dry, perhaps? I am very susceptible to colds. I get them much worse than–"

 

Sheppard flicked his hand in a sharp movement sideways. McKay subsided. Once, not too long ago, he would not have noticed the signal, and would have ignored it even if he had seen it. "What is it?" he hissed.

 

Sheppard shook his head. I don't know. The leaves shivered with the touch of rain, and the falling water created a constancy of movement. It was a good cloak for an enemy's approach, and there was just so much cover.

 

"These are killing grounds." Ronon had his blaster out and ready.

 

Yes. Sheppard swallowed. The ground was covered with a layer of brown leaves, thick enough to hide any manner of traps. The ruined buildings, their stonework almost black in the rain, stood in a way that suddenly shouted deliberate to him. There were solitary walls, jagged at the edges, showing a square of grey sky through the shattered window. Sometimes two walls came together, their apex marked with a pile of rubble from the fallen roof. If this had once been a settlement, the houses had been arranged with no street pattern or order.

 

It was like a training ground, he realised – a place to practice killing.

 

"What?" McKay was asking. "What is it?"

 

McKay looked smaller than normal, drawn in on himself with fear, with his hair slicked close to his skull. Ronon, in contrast, always seemed to grow when danger threatened, standing tall and ready to fight. "A trap," Teyla told McKay, "or so the colonel fears." Her voice was soft, but her hands on her gun were anything but.

 

"Oh. Oh. We're being hunted?" McKay's eyes darted from side to side, surveying the ruins and the wood. Sheppard did the same, assessing it for defensive possibilities. There was plenty of cover, but the enemy would know its traps, while they did not.

 

"Perhaps not." Sheppard gestured with his hand again, and Ronon and Teyla moved into position. There was no need for words any more, not with them. "Best be careful, though." He managed a quick smile.

 

They moved slowly, avoiding the deeper leaves, and avoiding, too, those gaping windows, which would leave them framed for any watching enemy to pick off. The rain was cold on the back of Sheppard's neck, but he felt warm, the blood racing through his veins, ready for danger. "So much for getting to know the new neighbours, huh?" It was just words, just a smile, and did not affect the taut readiness that lay beneath it.

 

"I hate this place already," McKay grumbled.

 

"The rain, yes, I know." Was that a human shape pressed against that tree trunk? "Let's hope you don't have to add…" No, it was just a half-buried pile of stones. "…getting shot at and hunted by a bunch of crazy natives."

 

"Stupid planet, anyway. What sort of people can build a… a barn right around the Stargate, so you can't get a jumper through because of a wall right there?" From the corner of his eye, Sheppard saw McKay bring his hand to his face, his palm inches from his nose.

 

"Someone who wants to force their enemies to come through on foot," Ronon said, "then hunt them in the killing grounds."

 

"Yes. Uh. Well. Yes. There's that, and coupled with the rain… Shall we go back? Come back when it's dry, with a nice contingent of Atlantis' finest? And not me, I should add, just in case I didn't make it clear."

 

"Zelenka seems to be getting a taste for heroics," Sheppard observed casually. "I'm sure he'd agree to come back us instead of you."

 

"You wouldn't." A tall wall briefly sheltered them from the rain. The respite was almost unsettling. "Would you?"

 

Sheppard said nothing. All the while he had been talking, his eyes had never stopped scanning their surroundings. Ronon and Teyla, he knew, were doing the same. He had seen no proof of his misgivings, but the feeling of wrongness remained. "Anyone?" he asked.

 

"Oh." McKay was slow to answer. "That means me." Sheppard heard the sounds, almost drowned by the rain, of McKay pulling a life signs detector from his pocket. "Still no-one. No-one close, anyway. Just us."

 

Sheppard tried to tell himself it was just his imagination, but the sense of unease continued. He had done exercises in places just like this. He paused, studying the wall nearest to him. It was crumbling, pitted as if with shotgun pellets. A sheered-off stone revealed the paler rock beneath. It did not look like the natural damage that came from weather and age.

 

"Can we get out of the rain, at least?" McKay asked. Sheppard caught a vague impression of movement – a hand thrust out pointing, life signs detector still clutched tightly. Ahead, and to the left, three walls of a building still stood, topped with an almost-complete roof. "Take some readings. Plot and plan," McKay said, as he made towards it.

 

"Too tempting," Ronon said.

 

Sheppard lashed out with one hand, spinning round to grab McKay by the arm. "What was that for?" McKay protested.

 

"It's like Ronon said." Sheppard remembered a time when Ronon's sparse statements had sometimes been incomprehensible. Now he understood him perfectly. But still Ronon had wanted to leave.

 

"What?" Hair was plastered to McKay's brow. "Are the two of you playing some stupid war game?" He brandished the life signs detector. "There's no-one here."

 

Ronon strode for a few steps away from the building, and snatched up a fallen branch, as thick as his wrist. Glowering with concentration, he walked past McKay, half way into the roofed building, and jabbed the stick into the thickest pile of leaves. There was a metallic snap. He tried to pull it up again, but couldn't. As he pulled at it, the leaves were shaken away, revealing the teeth of a trap, sunk deep into splintered wood.

 

"Oh." McKay looked pale, his skin white against his rain-darkened hair. "Oh. Oh no. We should go."

 

"My people use traps like this to snare animals," Teyla said, "but I have heard of those who use them on people, too."

 

Sheppard pressed his lips together, tasting rain. Every instinct was urging caution. He had no desire to risk his team or himself unnecessarily. Death was an ever-present danger in the job that he did, but he would not risk his life without cause. It was better to be mocked afterwards for over-caution than to press on into disaster. He met Ronon's eyes; saw the same conclusion there.

 

"Okay," he said. "We'll–"

 

He never finished it. Something smashed into the wall beside him, sending shards of stone into his face. Dust blinded him, and a sharp pain sliced at the side of his neck. He blinked, struggling to see, struggling to bring his weapon up to return the fire. Then, before he could see again, McKay cried out, and he heard the sound of him falling, crumpling into the dead leaves.

 

"Cover us." Sheppard fell to his knees. Blinking fiercely, he scraped his hand across his face, thumb digging into his eyes. His vision was blurry, but it was enough to see McKay on the ground, see the way his hands were pressed to his thigh, see the thin trickle of blood seeping through his fingers. It was enough to see the solid shape that was Ronon, scanning the woods around them, ready to return fire. It was enough to see McKay's eyes, large with pain, and his lips that were pressed together, stifling sound. When McKay was silent, it meant that things were bad.

 

"Rodney," Sheppard hissed. "Rodney." That got the eyes looking at him. Sheppard rummaged one handed in his pocket and pulled out a field bandage. "I'm going to wrap that, okay?" There wasn't much else he could do until they got back to Atlantis. "Move your hands." He tried to convey confidence with his expression, but there was another impact against the stone wall, and Ronon returned the fire, once, then twice, and grunted.

 

Sheppard bound the wound. "Not too tight," McKay complained. "Are you trying to kill me?" And that, at least, was better. That, at least, was normal.

 

"Don't tempt me," he said, forcing a smile. He glanced up, seeing Ronon and Teyla, both watchful and ready. From the way their heads were constantly moving, they had not yet located their attacker. Ronon had a bloody gash across his upper arm, but seemed unaware of it.

 

He came to a decision. "I'm going to move you."

 

"Move me?" McKay's expression flickered between fear and hope. "Into the dry? If I'm going to bleed to death, I'd rather…"

 

The rain was already washing the blood away from Sheppard's fingers. He shook his head. The roofed building still looked too much like a trap, and he had no desire to get cornered. No, if they moved to the far side of the building, at least a wall would be between them and their assailant. Assuming there was only one of them. Assuming they weren't surrounded.

 

"Don't just lie there, but make yourself useful," he said, because McKay's sudden defensiveness was better than the lost look of fear and pain. "Tell us where they are."

 

"Oh." McKay groped for the life signs detector, almost buried in the leaves, and picked it up with bloodied hands. "There's no-one… No… Ow!" He glared up accusingly when Sheppard crawled to his head, and grabbed his shoulders.

 

"Teyla," Sheppard hissed. Teyla joined him, her eyes grave. "Concentrate on the life signs," Sheppard told McKay, and the man did, frowning at the screen as, between them, Sheppard and Teyla dragged him through the piled leaves in the lea of the dark wall. A moment later, Ronon joined them, his attention still turned outwards.

 

"There's no-one there." McKay's face was pale, and the dead leaves surrounded him so thickly that Sheppard had an unpleasant image of a body in the ground. "Look." He thrust the life signs detector towards Sheppard, showing their own four dots, grouped so closely that they were as one.

 

"So no-one shot you, then, McKay?" Sheppard retorted.

 

"I don't know, okay?" McKay snapped. "I could be dying here."

 

Sheppard wanted to exchange a glance with Ronon, but the other man was still looking away. Instead, he concentrated on McKay. "Can you walk?"

 

"Can I walk? I've been shot in the thigh, for God's sake."

 

Teyla was on guard at McKay's right side, serene and deadly. Unseen by McKay, she gave Sheppard a quick nod. "And we're out in the killing grounds, to use Ronon's encouraging phrase, with some invisible gunman trying to kill us. Do you really want to lie here all day? Because I don't. I think it's time we got out of here. I'm aborting the mission. We're going back to Atlantis."

 

"Oh." McKay's lips moved with the start of a complaint, but then he set his jaw, and sat up. It clearly hurt him, but he said nothing. Good for you, Sheppard thought, but he didn't speak it, only watched, ready to help. He had long since come to realise that there was steely courage beneath McKay's cowardly façade, but he never ceased to admire it. Some things were not said out loud, though. However he said it, McKay would hear sarcasm.

 

When McKay was sitting, Teyla offered him her arm, and between the two of them, they managed to raise McKay to his feet. McKay's skin was the colour of paper, and he was biting his lip tightly, stifling the words that made him what he was. Sheppard let him stand there for a moment, his arms around their shoulders, his wounded leg raised from the ground. Then it was time. "I'm going to let go," Sheppard told him quietly. He slipped out from under McKay's arm.

 

"What?" McKay protested. "Why–?"

 

Sheppard saw Ronon half turn towards him, then turn away again. It was to Ronon that he spoke, more than to the others. "I want you to take Rodney to the Gate."

 

Ronon's muscles tensed and went still. McKay had the words for all of them. "What? What are you going to do? Where are you going?"

 

"We don't know who's out there." Sheppard took his P90 in both hands, readying it. "You'll be moving slowly, unable to evade. I… won’t. I'll just lead them off a bit – fire a few shots, make some noise. You need to keep as hidden as possible." He smiled. "Don't worry – I won't do anything stupid. I'll be right behind you." He nodded at each of them. "See you at the Gate."

 

There was no time for farewells. Farewells suggested an ending. He darted away, showing himself briefly in the gap between buildings, and took refuge behind another wall. He could still see them – McKay and Teyla looking his way, small in the rain, and Ronon already focused on their goal. Then he turned away from them, and moved on. He did not look back.

 

******

 

"And we went along with this plan, why?" McKay grumbled. "We let him go off and do his crazy self-sacrificing thing without…" He gasped, groaning with pain. "Of course, I couldn't be expected to say anything, being wounded and all that, but you–"

 

"Quiet," Ronon hissed. The trees around them were still, with the falling rain the only movement. Rain blurred his senses, and he hated it. He kept them in the shelter of the buildings as much as he could. Shelter was good, but it was also like a blindfold, preventing him from seeing the true threat.

 

Behind them, there was the sound of gunfire – the rapid bursts of Sheppard's weapon. McKay's head snapped round. "Is that…? We should… I mean, you should…"

 

"Sheppard said he'd make a noise."

 

The Gate was only minutes away, but McKay was moving at half speed. Ronon hated this slow pace. When enemies attacked, it was supposed to be fast – a blur of movement, senses as sharp as a blade. Their lives were in danger, but they were moving along at this slow crawl, with time to see the curl of every leaf at their feet.

 

"Plan makes sense," he told McKay. What didn't make sense was that it was Sheppard who was doing it. Ronon itched with the urge to run alone, to lead the enemy on a wild chase away from his friends. Instead, Sheppard had given him this role. Protect McKay, his eyes had said. I'm trusting you with this. Trusting him, who had not been able to save his former friends. Trusting him, who had been prepared to leave this team and never look back. No, it should have been Ronon on the outside, and Sheppard here with the friends who had never betrayed him. But he could not, and never would, say such a thing. All he had done was return Sheppard's nod, and now here they were.

 

"Rodney," Teyla said, "concentrate on walking."

 

Ronon heard the sound of an impact far away, in the direction Sheppard had taken. McKay flinched. Ronon clutched his weapon, and was careful not to show that he was flinching, too. He remembered turning and leaving his old team without a word, because he had heard the sounds that told that his friends were in danger. He wanted to be running with Sheppard, but he wanted to be here, too, protecting his team. He wouldn't - couldn't - lose these ones, too.

 

"We could leave you behind," he said to McKay, because he understood by now why Sheppard liked to bait the man so much. "Go through the Gate and come back for you tomorrow."

 

McKay's squawk had the effect Ronon had known it would. He strode past them, scanning the woods on all sides. Something struck the ground beside him, and he snatched his foot back, and jerked his chin towards the shelter of the nearest wall. Show yourself! He fought the urge to bellow defiance. Supported by Teyla, McKay was hopping and trying to stay small. "I thought Sheppard was supposed to be leading them away from us."

 

"Didn't work." And fighting was better than creeping away, cowering from an enemy who was afraid to show his face. When the enemy was unseen, you only had formless anger, with nowhere to direct it at.

 

His eyes flickered from side to side, choosing a route that would keep them in cover. Get McKay to the Gate first, and then maybe come back… He chose his route, and took the first step. At the second step, enormous pain engulfed his foot. He registered the metallic click a moment later, but he was already falling, dragged to the ground by the metal teeth that had sunk into his ankle.

 

"A trap," McKay was saying. "Oh no. Oh no. They could be anywhere. I don't want to move. I can't… What if they're…?"

 

"Can you support yourself, Rodney?" he heard Teyla saying. "I need to–"

 

"Yes. Oh. Yes. Of course. I see. Go."

 

And Teyla was on her knees beside him, hands reaching for his foot, but Ronon snarled at her to go away. The points of the metal teeth were invisible, buried in his leg, but there was very little blood. The pain was terrible; the sense of being pinned here was worse. Raising his weapon, he blasted at the hinge, choking back a scream at the sudden movement. The edge of the blast caught him, tearing away fabric and skin. Gritting his teeth, he shot the trap again, destroying the other hinge. He tore the metal away from his flesh, and blood welled freely, staining the leaves.

 

"Oh." McKay looked sick, his face washed-out and pale. Even the dark wall behind him was fading, but Ronon blinked fiercely, and colour began to return to the world. "That's not right. That's one way of… I thought… I thought we were supposed to be keeping quiet." He looked around desperately, as if seeking enemies, but his gaze kept on returning to the blood-stained teeth of the trap.

 

"He is right," Teyla said quietly. "Can you–?"

 

"I can walk." Ronon stood up, and the pain was terrible, but nothing that he had not felt before. Once he had evaded the Wraith on a broken leg, and killed the two that were hunting him, too.

 

Teyla's hand hovered close to his arm, then was snatched back. She fell backwards, her head audibly hitting stone, and lay still in the dying leaves.

 

"What?" McKay's voice was shrill, disregarding silence. "What happened?"

 

Ronon was on his knees beside her, one hand on her chest, the other on his weapon, and attention warring between the two of them. "Struck in the shoulder," he said. "Vest stopped the worst of it, but–"

 

But Teyla was already stirring, her eyelids fluttering briefly, then opening. "I…"

 

Ronon thought. All three of them were injured, and they still had no idea who was shooting them, or where they were. They could make a stand here, or they could run. The Gate was only minutes away, and Sheppard had told them to head for it. Ronon had not survived as long as he had without knowing when to run from a fight.

 

"I can walk," Teyla said, answering the decision she must have seen in his face. She stood up, swayed a little, but didn't fall. Their eyes met. Help McKay, he said with a nod.

 

She moved to McKay's side, and after that there was just running. He went first, mindful of traps, and his foot slowed him, and the other two, hobbling behind him, matching his footsteps, slowed him even further. Not too far away, he heard the sound of Sheppard's gun, and he heard answering fire, but he carried on. No-one shot at them. The rain lashed his face, stinging his eyes. Leaves crunched beneath him, and he braced himself once on the corner of a wall, taking the weight off his foot for an instant, then he ran on, forcing it to hold him.

 

"Oh," McKay said from behind him. "This is… This is…" Then nothing.

 

More gunfire. Ronon snapped his head around, and saw a tree, taller than all the others, that stabbed him suddenly with a memory of home. Then the memory faded, and became other memories - woods and forests on worlds too numerous to remember, and always darkened with threat. He still saw no-one he could shoot.

 

"Still no life signs," McKay said, his voice jolting with the rhythm of his steps. "Only one. That'll be Sheppard. He's–"

 

"Quiet." Ronon held up his hand. They were nearing the large building that held the Stargate. He had to assume that it was guarded. "Stay here."

 

He dropped to the ground and crawled forward. As he did so, dead leaves bunched up in front of him, spilling over his face and shoulders like a wave. He supposed it was good camouflage, but if anyone… No, there was no-one. No sound in the building. He reached the door, covering the interior with his weapon, but there was no-one inside. He turned to the others, their faces like smears in the rain, and beckoned them on. No-one shot at them.

 

"Thank God." McKay unfolded in the sudden absence of rain. Supported by Teyla, he hopped to the DHD and leant on it heavily.

 

Gunfire sounded, fast and urgent. Stationing himself in the doorway, Ronon tried his radio. "Sheppard." No answer. "Sheppard. We're here."

 

He had counted to six before there was an answer. If he had reached ten, he would have pushed himself away from the wall, and headed out into the rain to find him and fight at his side. "By 'here' you mean the Gate? That's good. I'm on my way. Things are a little… interesting here."

 

"He's coming." Ronon turned to the others. McKay's hand was hovering over the DHD, clearly eager to dial, but his face had the set look of someone who had no intention of leaving until his team was complete.

 

Ronon waited. Teyla joined him, and they stood on either side of the doorway, guns trained out into the rain. Sudden movement made him jerk his gun around, but it was only a leaf falling slowly from a high branch.

 

"Tell him to hurry," McKay's voice said.

 

The rain grew even more heavy, pounding at the carpet of leaves, drumming at the roof. "Ow!" McKay protested. "This place leaks."

 

Ronon swallowed. His leg was throbbing in time with his heartbeat. When he glanced sideways, he saw that Teyla was listing to the side, but she met his gaze with fierce determination.

 

"Nearly there," Sheppard's voice said across the radio, just as Teyla said, "I see him."

 

Sheppard emerged from behind a building, running mostly backwards, ready to fire at any pursuit. "Start dialling," Ronon told McKay, and to Teyla he said, "Go."

 

Teyla left. Ronon took one step back, covering the door, but leaving it clear. Behind him, he heard the sound of the wormhole engaging. McKay was speaking. "This is McKay. We're coming in hot… ish. Warm, perhaps. I don't know. I… No, just get a medical team ready for us. I–"

 

"Just go through, Rodney." Teyla's voice was strained.

 

"Not until–"

 

"He's here," Ronon said, for Sheppard was only a dozen paces away from the door, and he was close enough now that Ronon could see that he was uninjured.

 

"Go." Sheppard was nodding at him, telling him to go through. Ronon stood for a moment longer, then turned and headed for the Gate. White-faced with relief, McKay looked at the doorway just once, then stepped through. Teyla followed, almost falling into it. Ronon's foot was hurting more with each step, strength bleeding out of him. "Go," Sheppard commanded him, only steps behind him.

 

Ronon stepped through. He emerged to find Teyla on the floor, unconscious. A medical team was already approaching. Colonel Carter was helping McKay to sit down, then turned to shout something over her shoulder. Someone Ronon didn't know tried to lay hands on him, too, but he waved him away, and turned to face the Gate and his team leader.

 

Sheppard wasn't there. Ronon looked around, frowning, wavering at a sudden bout of dizziness. There were people in black uniforms all over the Gate Room, but Sheppard wasn't there. "Where's Sheppard?" He said it aloud. McKay's eyes were already fixed on the Gate with hungry desperation.

 

The wormhole disengaged. "Colonel Sheppard didn't come through." Carter said it with no trace of emotion in her voice.

 

"Dial back!" McKay cried. "Dial back!"

 

"I can't," a technician said, a moment later. "Someone must be dialling out at the other end."

 

"Sheppard," McKay said, with hopeful certainty.

 

The Gate remained dead. No-one came through.

 

Teyla was wheeled away. Someone was clearly trying to take McKay away, but he was fighting them. Ronon saw it all only dimly. His eyes were fixed on the Gate, as colours bled away, and everything tended towards grey.

 

"Ready a team," Carter ordered. "As soon as we can, we're going back." She turned to Ronon. "Tell me what you can about what we're going to face there."

 

He still didn't look away from the Gate. "I'm going with you."

 

"No."

 

"You can't command me." As he spat it out, he almost hated her. She was not Weir, not Sheppard, not anyone he knew. She was a stranger, and how dared she…?

 

"You can barely stand," she said, her voice hateful in its reasonableness. "You'll slow us down – jeopardise our chances of retrieving Colonel Sheppard. Do you want that, Ronon?"

 

And he hated her more than he hated the Wraith, because it was true. All he could do was wait – helpless, useless, injured – and the Gate was still dead, and Sheppard did not come back.

 

******

 

End of part one

 

******

 

Chapter two: The Awakening

 

Rodney drifted awake, swimming through drugged bleariness. He felt very little pain. Someone was moving around beside his bed. Sheppard, he thought. When I open my eyes, I'll see Sheppard, back again, safe. He would smile, chide Rodney a little for getting himself shot, for worrying…

 

He opened his eyes. The young face of Doctor Keller was looking down on him, smiling. Strange how it still hurt. He remembered everything, but still, when he woke up in the infirmary, part of him expected Carson.

 

"How's…?" He moistened his dry lips. The drugs made his tongue feel thick. "Is everything…?"

 

"You'll be fine," she said, with that medical cheeriness that only Carson had been able to pull off. "The bullet missed–"

 

"No, no," he snapped. "Not me."

 

"The others will be fine, too," she said. "Teyla's–"

 

"No." He tightened his fist around a handful of blanket. "About Sheppard."

 

"Oh." He saw her swallow, saw her prepare herself for the bad news. He closed his eyes, turning away from her. "Oh, no, he's not dead," she said brightly. "It's just that he's still missing."

 

"Then you don't know if he's dead or not, do you?" He tried to sit up, but her hand was on his shoulder, pushing him back into the pillow, and she was strong, for all her slightness, or maybe he was just weak – weak and wounded and useless.

 

"They're doing everything they can," she said. "They–"

 

"How long?" he demanded.

 

She looked at her watch, frowning. "Eight hours."

 

Eight hours of Sheppard missing. Anything could have happened during that time. Rodney remembered the rescue team going out, but then they had dragged him away, and he had fought, desperate to stay, but then soft darkness had taken him.

 

"Do we have any leads?" he asked her.

 

"I don't know." She looked tired and very young. "I've been working on the three of you–"

 

"Then get me someone who knows something." He tried to sit up again, and this time she let him. When he expected to feel pain, he felt only numbness.

 

"I do know that Colonel Carter is preparing to go herself with the next team."

 

He threw off the blanket. "I'm going with them."

 

"No." The hand was back, pushing him down against the pillow. "I'm keeping you here for at least two more days. After that, I want you in a wheelchair–"

 

"No. No. No, I won’t." His head was spinning. Over her shoulder, the colours of the infirmary bled into each other, and his thoughts were jagged, his hands shaking with the rhythm of his fear. "I need to go. I need to go. They won't know what to look for."

 

"They know what they're doing." But she looked over her shoulder, clearly desperate for help, so she didn't know anything at all. She was just a little girl struggling to fill a dead man's shoes. "They're good people – trained. Let them do their job. Concentrate on getting better."

 

"No!" He fought her, as everything whirled hecticly around him. "Let me go. I'm fine. I'm well. I can–"

 

"No, you can't." And then there were other footsteps, other people trying to keep him prisoner her. "You aren't well…"

 

"You're not Carson," he spat at her. He saw her recoil; it was one of the last things he saw clearly in the swirling mass of colour and darkness that was his world. "You don't know anything. You couldn't… You didn't…"

 

Couldn't save Elizabeth. And, as he sank back onto the pillows, he was not far enough gone to say those words. She had failed to save Elizabeth, and so he had… with the nanites… and then… if he hadn't, then she would… then she….

 

He felt sweet forgetfulness steal through his veins, but it came with no words of comfort. It came with no words at all, only those which he provided for himself.

 

******

 

Consciousness returned in slow increments. Sheppard eyes opened first, seeing only whiteness above him. Except for that, he floated in a body that did not feel like his own. Something's wrong. Faint memories, only faint. Running. The rain…

 

He tried to move his head, and couldn't. He concentrated on finding his hands, and tried to move them. Coarse fabric scraped against his fingers, and even that simple movement sent an aching lethargy up his arms.

 

Rodney wounded. Dead leaves. Rain.

 

He thought he was dry, but he still had little sensation of possessing skin. It was as if he was flowing out into the whiteness, or floating somewhere else, a million miles away from his clumsy body that was not his own. He blinked again, and managed the faintest moment of his head. Still only whiteness, but it was no longer smooth. Suddenly the whiteness resolved itself into hard planes: a ceiling, and a wall. Even without a body, he thought he would sense the hum of Atlantis around him.

 

It was not there.

 

He found the muscles that controlled his face, and set his jaw, frowning with concentration. Digging his hands into the soft surface beneath him, he managed to move his head to the side. He saw a white door, closed, with no handle and no control crystal beside it. I've been stunned, he realised, and more than once. He concentrated on moving his arm, and the dull lethargy slowly fragmented into the familiar pins and needles. A few minutes later, he was able to move his other arm. Not too long after that - far too long after that ­- he was able to move his head, and slowly raised himself up.

 

He was on a narrow bed, lying on his back on top of coarse white blankets. A medical facility? he wondered, but he already knew that it wasn't. No, a prison. But his hands were not tied, and there was nothing keeping him on the bed.

 

"What happened?" He spoke aloud, forcing the sound past his numb lips, in case he would need his voice soon. The first word was silent, but the second came out as a broken rasp. He cleared his throat, and almost tried again, but he no longer had the urge to speak. He knew what had happened. He remembered running through the rain back to the Gate. He remembered watching the others disappear through the wormhole, and he was out of the rain, closing the last few steps…

 

And then nothing. His memory stopped from that point until this. The obvious conclusion was that somebody had stunned him and brought him here while he was unconscious. The question was: why? No, he thought, smiling wryly; there were far more questions than that. Why, and who, and what did they want from him? When would the questioning begin? Were the others…?

 

He half-started from the bed, before he remembered again the thing he had remembered only moments before. The others were safe. He scraped his hand across his brow, trying to fix his memories, trying to sharpen his sluggish thoughts. The others were safe. No need to… He could sit here, close his eyes, sleep…

 

"No." That, too, he said aloud. "Focus, John." His vest had been removed, as well as his belt, and all his weapons. He patted his pockets, and found them empty, and even his watch had gone. He had no supplies and no weapons, and he was a prisoner. Well, no… He smiled again, and lurched to his feet, staggering drunkenly towards the door. It did no harm to check… No. Locked. He curled his fingers into the gap around the door, but it was far too thin, and the door didn't move. The biggest gap was at the bottom, where there was a good two inches between the door and the floor. He noted it, but did not investigate it further, not yet.

 

On the far side of the small room there was a second doorway, this one without a door. Keeping his hand on the wall for balance, he lurched towards it, fighting dizziness. Inside was a crude metal tub, with two pipes leading into it, controlled by dials. A bath, he thought, turning the nearest dial and releasing a thin trickle of cold water. A smaller tub was placed in front of a mirror, and a third tub was ringed with a metal seat.

 

"Well, what do you know?" he said out loud. "A prison cell with a fully equipped bathroom. I like you guys better than the Genii already."

 

He headed back for the bed, and sat down heavily before he fell. His whole body was alive with pins and needles, but his thoughts still felt dulled. It was several minutes before he pinned down the pain that lurked beneath his muted senses. Turning his arm, he studied the small bandage, stained ever so slightly with blood.

 

That was the first time that he cursed. They must have removed his subcutaneous transmitter. That meant that… That meant… "Damn."

 

The last of the sluggishness vanished, driven away by necessity. He assessed his situation. Square room, about twelve feet by twelve feet. Locked door. No window. Cold white light. The ceiling… He cursed again, and coldness crept through his veins, the ice driving away the pins and needles. There was a large hook in the middle of the ceiling, and from that his eyes went downwards to the floor - to the stone floor that sloped ever so slightly towards a drain.

 

He closed his eyes just for a moment. It was to be questioning, then. Torture. He opened his eyes again, clenching his fists. This was nothing he had not been trained to withstand. Hell, he had withstood worse than this. Nothing could be worse than having your life ripped away from you an inch at a time by a Wraith. At least the others were safe. He could endure anything as long as it was only him, and no-one else was brought down because of his weakness.

 

Pressing his hand once to his chest as if to still his heart, he straightened his spine, keeping his head high. At least he knew. It gave him a focus, something to fight. They would come soon, and they would try to hurt him, but he would hurl all his strength at the expectation of pain. He would stay strong. He would not give them what they wanted.

 

And he would fight. They would come soon, and the gap at the bottom of the door would tell the tale of their approach. The after-effects of the stunning were completely vanished now, as he sat there, hands clenching and unclenching, every muscle alert and ready for the fight.

 

******

 

"Is she awake? I thought I saw her move. Is she… Teyla?" The words penetrated her sleep. It sounded like Rodney's attempt at a… a stage whisper, she believed it was called.

 

"Don't wake her," someone else said. "She–"

 

She opened her eyes. "I'm awake."

 

"See. See. I told you." Rodney turned in triumph to the young medic. "Now, be a good girl and clear off. We've got grown-up things to talk about here."

 

She waited for Sheppard to chide him with an affectionate "Rodney", outwardly impatient, but inwardly nothing but. No-one said anything. She moved her head, wincing at the pain. She had little memory of how she came to be here. It had been very wet, she remembered that. Rodney had been shot, and Ronon… Yes, Ronon's foot had been caught in a trap. After that, there was just a memory of lying here, being constantly awakened by Doctor Keller, until the soft and welcome words had given her licence to sleep.

 

"How long has it been?" she asked Rodney.

 

He looked at his wrist, but something about the way he answered told her that he had known the answer even without looking. "Fifteen hours."

 

She saw Doctor Keller standing on the far side of the infirmary, looking at them with something akin to pity on her face. Her hands were clasped in front of her. Of course, Teyla thought, she was very young. But no younger than Teyla had been when she had assumed the leadership of her people. Older, far older, than Teyla had been when she had seen her first death.

 

"Why…?" She struggled for words. Perhaps her head injury was making her thoughts sluggish, for she remembered that; remembering falling. She remembered running, a furious pain in her shoulder, and her vision swimming with every step. She moistened her lips, and tried again. "Why…?" But she could not say it. Pain did not give her a licence to be tactless. Why are you the one waiting at my bedside? Ronon or John would not have surprised her, but not Rodney. Until recently, she would have doubted whether he felt enough about her or about Ronon to even want to wait by their bed.

 

Rodney opened his mouth, then closed it again. "Sheppard's missing," he blurted out on his second attempt. "He didn't come back. You were unconscious. You missed it all." He sounded faintly accusing. "The effect of Gate travel on a head injury, they say. You've slept through it all, and I… They won't tell me anything. Too busy, they say."

 

"Too busy trying to get him back." She struggled to find the comfort of those words. Her mind was still two steps behind. Sheppard's missing. He didn't come back. And then earlier still, struggling to remember. Fifteen hours.

 

"So they say," Rodney said bitterly. "But it should be us out there. How many times have those mindless grunts saved this city? I have, as well you know. It's always us. We're the ones who go after him. And he comes after us, all the time. It's… it's how it should be."

 

Rodney's face looked raw with feelings she had never thought to hear him express. He was sitting in a wheelchair, hooked up to various drugs, and his skin was pale, with hectic flushes on his cheeks. On the far side of the infirmary, Keller's eyes flickered from Rodney to Teyla, and back again.

 

Movement to her left made her turn her head, wincing at the stab of pain in her head. Ronon was approaching on crutches. From the flurry of noise behind him, he must have ridden rough-shod through the objections of the medics.

 

"They say he's still missing." He sat down heavily on the chair beside her bed. "They wouldn't let me go. Drugged me."

 

"And me," Rodney said.

 

For a long moment, no-one seemed to be able to think of anything to say. Struggling for coherence past the pain in her head, Teyla thought of the possibilities. Sheppard, captured… wounded… dead. It was inconceivable that one of their team was missing, and that they were powerless to do anything about it. Fifteen hours. It hurt worse than the head injury.

 

"You should have gone with them." Rodney broke the silence. He was clutching the arm of the wheelchair with one hand. The other hand was jabbing at Ronon, one finger outstretched. "I saw what happened. Teyla was unconscious." He almost sneered the word. "I couldn't stand. I had a bullet in my leg. But you…" He turned sharply away from Ronon, and pinned Teyla with his desperate fury. "He said he'd go, but he let them talk him out of it. He walked away. I watched it. He walked away, and now… and now…"

 

"I would have slowed them down." Ronon said it with none of the anger she would have expected. He was looking down at his hands.

 

Now was not the time to give in to pain. She forced clarity, and looked from one to the other. "It would not have helped John if you had gone out wounded," she told Ronon. "Everyone here is exceptionally capable. If they could not find him, I am sure we would have been unable to find him, either."

 

She could tell that her words meant nothing at all to either of them. They felt hollow to her own ears, too. Even so, she turned to Rodney. "I understand why you want to blame someone–"

 

"No, you don’t," he shouted. "You don't understand anything at all." He tried to push the wheelchair backwards, but failed, and crashed into her bed. For a moment, she thought he was about to cry.

 

"Rodney," she said. "Rodney…" But then Doctor Keller came over and ended it all.

 

But no, she thought, as Ronon was led away, locked in silence. No, as Rodney shouted at everyone, and fought all the way back this bed. It was not over. It was not over at all. She would close her eyes and will herself well. John needed her. John needed all of them.

 

No, she thought one last time, because she was honest. They needed this.

 

******

 

Footsteps sounded on the far side of the door, loud on a hard floor. Sheppard's heart started to beat very fast. He tilted his head to one side, listening. Two people, he thought. No. Three. Three people, one with a longer stride than the others, and one light, almost silent.

 

Guys? Nothing could still the tiny spark of hope, but he dampened it ruthlessly. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

 

The steps came closer; slowed. He had stood up; stalked to the door without realising it. He stood just inside, clenching and unclenched his fists, standing lightly on the balls of his feet, ready to grab any moment that presented itself.

 

Patches of shadow showed through the gap at the bottom of the door. The feet with the long strides stopped. The soft steps halted silently. One set of footsteps carried on for three more irregular steps, paused, shifted, then were still.

 

"Guys?" His lips moved, but only the faintest sound came out. "I'm in here."

 

Silence. Only silence. He edged forward; raised his hand; lowered it. He listened for the rattle of keys, for the sound of other things, worse things. He imagined that he could hear breathing, but perhaps it was only his own.

 

Not his team. No, it was too much to expect that is was his team. McKay would never be so silent. Ronon could be stealthy, but preferred to fight. No, these were his captors, and they were going to come in, and… He swallowed, very aware of the hook on the ceiling behind him, but every last tiniest shred of his concentration was focused on the door, and the sounds beyond it.

 

As soon as it opened… As soon as they made the slightest move… As soon as they tried to subdue him…

 

A step. Something touched the door, like a hand pressing against it, resting on it for a moment.

 

He felt as if he was overflowing with adrenaline, his heart pounding, his skin tingling with the expectation of a fight. In a moment… In a minute… Any… minute… now…

 

The steps moved on. The long stride left first, followed by the faltering one. The soft one moved on so quietly that he barely heard it.

 

"Hey." His heart was still pounding, and it overflowed into sound. "I called for room service. A burger. Cheeseburger. Lots of bacon." The footsteps did not falter. They walked further away, faded, and then were gone. "Hey!" he shouted. He slammed his fist into the door, then spat out a curse at the pain in his hand. "I won't be recommending this hotel to any of my friends."

 

His voice echoed forlornly in the sparsely-furnished room. Beyond the door, there was only silence.

 

"Dammit." His fist were clenched so tightly that they were trembling, and he snatched it back a moment before it struck the door a second time. Instead, he started pacing, forcing his hand to uncurl, raking it through his hair. "Dammit." His heart was still pounding, blood surging in his ears. He sat down on the edge of the bed, but it felt like a bed of nails, and he surged to his feet again.

 

This time he went for water, splashing it on his face with one hand, while he turned to keep his eye on the door. Coldness trickled down his neck, almost like pain. He took another cupped palmful of water, and scraped both hands across his face, fingers digging into his eyes. Some of the water spilled onto the floor, and he watched it snake slowly towards the drain.

 

Above him, looking down on him like monster hunched on the ceiling, was the hook. He turned his face away from it, walked to the bed, and this time managed to stay sitting. His hands by his sides, though, were never still.

 

******

 

After twenty-one hours, Colonel Carter came to see him. Sitting upright in his bed, Rodney watched her approach. "How are you, Rodney?" she asked, but she did not sit down.

 

"Fine. Fine." He waved his hand in a circular fashion, hurrying her up. "Have you found Sheppard?"

 

She shook her head. Behind her, Ronon approached, faster on crutches than many people were with two legs. He heard Teyla's voice, saw someone push back a curtain from around her bed, and saw her watching them intently.

 

"What have you been doing?" Ronon demanded.

 

She folded her hands in front of her, fingers twining loosely. "We went back as soon as we could, but there was no trace of him. He had to move carefully because of the traps."

 

"And the gunmen." Rodney gestured at his leg. "Invisible gunmen… Have you seen what they did to…? Oh. No." He subsided, because words couldn't help, words couldn't delay the inevitable. "Being quiet."

 

"There were no gunmen." Her smile was faint. "We had four teams out there, searching on foot, but they've found no trace. We did, however, make contact with a local who says that off-world bandits frequently come on raids–"

 

"So he was taken by space bandits," Rodney interrupted. "Of course he was." He could hardly bear to look at Carter… And, yes, she was Carter suddenly, not Sam. This was not the woman he had hallucinated under the ocean, the woman who had saved his life. This was the leader who was trying to replace Elizabeth. This was the woman who taken charge of the mission to find Sheppard, and had failed.

 

"We've harvested all the addresses recently dialled…"

 

"Who did that?" he demanded.

 

"Doctor Zelenka went with one of the teams, and–"

 

"Radek?" He laughed, and had to look away. Zelenka, always so afraid of going off-world… Zelenka, whom once he hadn't trusted to… But that had changed, hadn't it? Zelenka had changed, and even Rodney had had to admit that he had skills that… No! "I want to check them myself," he said.

 

Ronon edged closer to Carter, standing at her shoulder, towering over her. Of course, Rodney was angry with Ronon – furious with him, blamed him, hated him. Ronon should have gone… No, he should have gone.

 

"Dr Zelenka knows his job," Carter said. "We have the addresses. We have teams working their way through the list. I've been out myself." Her hand moved as if she was about to touch his hand, but then she moved it back awkwardly. "I came to give you all a progress report when I got back the first time, but you were sleeping. Then I needed to sleep myself."

 

She looked tired and worn, her eyes shadowed with grey, and her hair looked as if she had twisted it up without a thought. Rodney turned away from her, and looked instead at Teyla, watching so fiercely from across the room. 

 

"I can't make promises, Rodney, all of you…" And then, for a moment, she sounded like the Sam Carter from his hallucination, and that was almost more than he could bear, for that thing had died, if it had ever existed at all outside his own mind. "I can't stand here and say that we will get him back unharmed. No-one can make promises like that. But we will try. We have tried."

 

"Just not hard enough." He could not stop the words from escaping.

 

A member of medical staff – he had no idea of most of their names now, after Carson – faltered to a halt near the foot of his bed. "You asked for another breakfast?"

 

"Yes." He spat the word. The young man folded out the tray, and placed the plate of pastries on it. Rodney saw him swallow nervously; watched him flee.

 

He remembered when it had felt good to have people flee from him, fighting tears.

 

"We have also made contact," Carter said, all stiffness now, "with the man who claims to speak for the city nearest to the Gate, one Lord Dareon. We are having a formal meeting tomorrow to discuss further relations. We will, of course, be–"

 

"He's probably the one who took Sheppard," Rodney exploded. A sharp edge of sweetness reached his nostrils, and he eyed the pastries, feeling almost sick.

 

 "I'm aware of that," she said quietly, "but confrontation isn't always the way to–"

 

Ronon snorted. Swallowing hard, Rodney reached for a pastry and took a large bite. It fragmented in his mouth into dry shards, and it tasted of ashes. He chewed it slower and slower, swallowed it with an effort, and put the rest of the pastry down.

 

"I want to be there for the meeting," he said. He saw Teyla nod, and saw, too, the agreement in Ronon's eyes.

 

"I'm not sure that's wise," Carter said. "Doctor Keller says–"

 

"We're going to be there," said Ronon. "Don't try to stop us." Rodney, normally so unstoppable with words, just looked at her silently.

 

Eventually, she nodded. "Get some rest until then." Again, she made almost as if to touch Rodney's arm, but withdrew. Her departure seemed awkward.

 

Elizabeth would have touched me, he thought.

 

No-one spoke for several minutes after she had left. In the end, Rodney flapped his hand vaguely at Ronon. "Have my breakfast, if you like. No no. Not all of it. Leave me some. No, no, leave me that one, with the cherry on. I need to eat often, you know…" It ended with a sigh, his hands limp on the bed covers. Ronon took the other pastry, though. Perhaps it was a sort of apology.

 

"We'll get him back," Ronon said, but in the light of Carter's honesty, it was no promise at all.

 

******

 

End of chapter two

 

******

 

Chapter three: Numbering the days

 

Sheppard never expected to sleep. His eyes were starting to sting with tiredness, but relaxing was an impossibility. After a while, though, he pulled the thin pillow up against the wall, and leant against it.

 

He had no memory of closing his eyes. His perception ran in a straight line, with no gaps in it. One moment he was staring at the gap at the bottom of the door; the next he was starting up, his heart racing at a noise that echoed in his ears, but cut away to silence as soon as he moved. It happened again not long after. The third time it happened, he saw Kolya's Wraith coming at him with outstretched hands. He felt tearing pain in his shoulders as he hung from the hook. He saw his own blood circling hypnotically around the drain. The noise was metal chains and scraping footsteps; knives being sharpened against bone, and the soft sigh of someone entirely forsaken.

 

It was only then, sick with sweat, and breathing hard, that he realised he had been falling asleep – dropping off, perhaps, for just minutes at a time, and starting awake at imagined noises.

 

He tried with a fierce effort of will to keep his eyes open. He almost resorted to using his fingers, but decided he was not that far gone yet.

 

Sleep was best, perhaps, he decided some time later, when he had stared so hard at the white walls that his eyes felt stripped of all moisture. By training and practice, he knew how to sleep in a war zone, when you had to snatch every tiny opportunity for rest when it presented itself, yet be able to return yourself to full combat readiness within an instant, when you had to. If he was exhausted, his chances of fighting and escaping were lessened. Pain could be endured, but pain coupled with exhaustion was… difficult.

 

Difficult. He echoed the thought with a wry smile, even as cold steel ran up and down his spine.

 

This time he lay down. The moment he started trying to sleep, sleep became elusive. He tried his back, his front… So much for snatching sleep in a war zone. His back again, where the ceiling was the same white as the walls. Even when he closed his eyes, he could see that whiteness, driving through his eyelids, flooding his mind.

 

With a sigh, he headed for the bathroom, and did what he needed to do. "Hope there aren't cameras," he said. He gave a little wave in case there were, just his fingers. There were some things, at least, that he refused to let himself feel humiliated by. Brazen it out. Offer them bravado and a smile. That way they don't know…

 

No. Cold water, then, splashed on his face. He drank as much as he needed to keep himself well. He had tried some already, and was fairly sure it wasn't drugged. Its coldness should have made him feel more alert, but only made him feel more exhausted. He trudged back to the bed, pausing to touch the door, to crouch and feel the gap, fingers touching the floor outside.

 

After that, he lay down again. He lay on his side, his eyes open, seeing the hairs on the back of his wrist, out of focus, and the coarse fabric of the pillow. It melted away into scenes of violence and blood. This time, when he started awake, the footsteps were already there, already appearing as a dark shadow at his door…

 

And he was scrambling to his feet, heart racing so fast that it hurt. He leapt out of bed, landed in a crouch, pushed himself to his feet. They were already touching the door… No, no, a spreading darkness in the gap at the bottom. Something scraping, metal against metal, or stone against stone. Something at the gap; something, something…

 

It slid through, and he stared at it, and then he was at the door, but the footsteps were already retreating. "Hey!" he shouted. "That's not what I ordered." His voice was already beginning to sound not like his own. "I ordered a cheeseburger."

 

The footsteps faded to nothing. "Can't let McKay know I made the same joke twice," he muttered.

 

He did not allow himself to touch the food until he had counted to a thousand, and back down to one. By then, his heartbeat was almost back to normal. Didn't hear him coming, he told himself. Didn't wake up until he was right there. He crouched down; touched the food; withdrew his hand. If he'd been coming to torture me, he would have been inside before I…

 

No. There was no use in tormenting himself with what-ifs. "Leave the tormenting to the bad guys." He'd woken up just in time, and he hadn't needed to be awake, anyway.

 

Instead, he studied the tray of food. "Doesn't look exactly appetising," he said. "I guess that's why you're the bad guys." He picked up a chunk of coarse bread, and found that it was at least fairly soft. "Better than dry bread and gruel, I guess, whatever gruel is." He peered at the bread. There were no maggots. "I could have made a maggot into a pet. It would be something to talk to. I'd call him Rodney."

 

He took the tray over to the bed. As well as the bread, there was a chunk of red meat, leaking blood. Stringy vegetables lay beside it, thin and green. "You could have given me something to eat it with." He picked up the meat, and thin blood trickled down his hand all the way to his wrist. "That is not right."

 

He placed it down again. There were still no further footsteps at the door. Slowly, he raised his hand to his mouth, and tested the blood on his tongue. As he did so, his eyes were drawn to the hook above him, to memories, to his dream.

 

It was hard to swallow even that. His hand tightened on the edge of the tray, and he wanted to put it down, to push it back through the door, to defy them. If he accepted food from their hands, wasn't that one step on the way towards being broken?

 

He let out a breath. No. That was fool's talk. You were either broken, or you weren't. If he refused food now, it was only because of meaningless pride. The proud man was the first to go under. A survivor did what he had to do, and accepted the small humiliations that were necessary in order to keep him alive for the moment that mattered.

 

The more important issue, of course, was whether the food was drugged, but he reasoned he had no choice but to risk it. Hunger was beginning to be a real problem, and hunger led to weakness. If he refused to eat, he was as good as drugged, anyway.

 

"I'd rather have had a cheeseburger," he said, as he raised the meat to his lips, ignored the touch of blood on his wrist, and kept his eyes stubbornly turned away from the hook throughout.

 

Swallowing was difficult, though, and afterwards – for far too long afterwards – he kept imagining the numbness and dizziness of poison or drugs. He sat stiffly on the bed, and told himself that he was fine. Then, when enough time had passed that he was sure he had no physical symptoms, he remembered that not all drugs had an immediate effect. Some were cumulative. Some were irreversible.

 

But if they came again with food, he would eat it. He had no choice.

 

******

 

They called themselves diplomats, but Ronon knew soldiers when he saw them. He eyed their guns, and thought that it was very possible that the wound in McKay's thigh had been caused by a weapon such as these. He himself had brought every weapon that he normally carried into the field, and he would not give them up without a fight. This was a peaceful meeting, Colonel Carter had insisted, but Ronon had his own thoughts about that.

 

Ten men had met them at the Gate, to match their own party of ten. "Follow closely where we walk," they said. Ronon was sure that their smiles were not matched in their eyes. "There are traps between our city and the Ring. We are much troubled with bandits."

 

"Bandits," McKay echoed. "Right." He was walking on crutches, struggling through the soft ground, with its carpet of leaves. Ronon had refused to step through the Gate except on his own two feet. The injury from the trap still hurt, but he refused to limp in front of these people, who were enemies until proved otherwise.

 

Teyla moved close to him. "Are you remembering this route?"

 

"Of course," Ronon told her.

 

It was no longer raining, but the ground was softer than it had been on their previous visit, showing that the rain had lasted for a long time. The sky was leaden and grey, making everything flat, and reducing visibility. Ronon looked for clues and marks that would indicate a safe route. In between that, his eyes scanned the trees, ready to respond emphatically to the slightest glimmer of a weapon.

 

"Wait." Teyla nodded back behind them, where McKay was struggling to keep up with them. Ronon slowed. He had no objection to bringing up the rear. He preferred to be behind an enemy, than to have that enemy watching his back.

 

"I don't like this," McKay said, as he caught up. "I nearly died, just over there. And Sheppard–"

 

"You chose to come," Ronon pointed out.

 

"Yes. Yes, I did," McKay said. "I couldn't do anything else, could I?"

 

"We feel the same," Teyla said. Ronon turned his attention to the way the enemies walked, and drew conclusions about how they would fight.

 

McKay said nothing for nearly a mile. After that, the trees grew thinner, and the ground grew clearer. Clear paths were visible, and the terrain began to look like a place where people would live, rather than a killing ground. Far ahead, the trees thinned completely, and Ronon narrowed his eyes at the sight of movement.

 

"Rodney, you need to rest," Teyla said.

 

Ronon turned to look. McKay's face was flushed with effort, and sweat beaded his brow. "I'm fine," he said. Even his voice was strained.

 

Ronon remembered when he had almost despised the scientist, thinking him a coward. Not so long ago, really. He also remembered a time when these people had seemed like temporary companions, to be left without a moment's regret if better, older friends came along.

 

"Lord Dareon awaits you at the city border," he heard one of the enemy tell Colonel Carter.

 

They left the trees entirely. The city started not far from the tree line – tall buildings of dark stone rising abruptly from the coarse fields. A few people were travelling on distant roads. Their own path led straight to an archway that connected two buildings that were clearly defensive. Ronon narrowed his eyes at the high windows, but saw nothing to suggest the presence of weapons. Well concealed, then, he concluded. A dozen other buildings offered hidden vantage points over where he stood. I don't like this. He echoed McKay's earlier comment. But, as with McKay, there was no other place that he could be.

 

A short man was standing in the shadow of the archway, leaning heavily on a stick. "Colonel Carter," he greeted them, smiling expansively, but then the smile faltered into quick regret. "Ah, but you have people with you who suffer from my affliction. I apologise with all my heart for the necessity of walking this far. Vehicles cannot approach the Ring. It is a necessary sacrifice to protect us from bandits and the Wraith."

 

"Yes. Well. A chair would be good right now." McKay was drooping on his crutches.

 

"Come to my audience room," Dareon said. "Then you can rest all you like."

 

McKay's head sank even lower. Teyla moved to his side, steadying him with a hand on his back. "No." McKay's head rose with the suddenness of a darting snake. "I'm not going anywhere with you until you tell us what you've done with Sheppard."

 

It was all the signal he needed. Ronon tore his weapon out of its holster, and pointed it at Dareon's head. "Rodney!" Teyla hissed. "Ronon!" But she, too, raised her gun, and stood there, fierce and protective as she covered both of them.

 

"You say it was bandits," McKay shouted, "but he isn't anywhere else. I don't have an affliction, I was shot, and by one of your men, I'm sure of it, and look, there are their guns, and Keller said it was a bullet like an old-fashioned revolver, just like those, and Sheppard came here, and he didn't come back, and here you are with all this talk of welcome and let's be allies, and how convenient it is, but we won't be bought off." His crutch slid sideways, and he fell to the ground, but didn't seem to notice. "We're not taken in by your… your smiles and your… Well, we're not. We're not leaving without Sheppard."

 

Colonel Carter had been calling McKay's name throughout. Dareon had a frozen smile on his face; Ronon saw it down the barrel of his weapon. His guards, the so-called diplomats, had trained their weapons on Ronon, and he could sense the soldiers, armed and watchful behind him. "I will kill you," Ronon swore, "if you have anything to do with what happened to Sheppard."

 

"He does!" McKay's voice was high and shrill. "Of course he does."

 

Ronon's hand did not tremble. "Where. Is. He?"

 

"Ronon!" It had been drilled into him since he was a young man that he should obey without thinking a tone like that, but a commander had to earn the right to his obedience. Colonel Carter was not Sheppard, and she was not Weir. He saw only the eyes of his enemy, frozen in their false smile.

 

"This is not the right way, Ronon." And Teyla, at least, he would listen to, for she had earned his respect, and never tried to command him.

 

He narrowed his eyes. He imagined this man's false smile exploding in a torrent of blood. He saw himself fall beneath the guns of this man's guards. The soldiers behind him were Sheppard's men, and they would avenge him, but even if they killed many, they would be lucky to escape alive. Then he remembered that last, hurried farewell to Sheppard, as McKay lay bleeding in the killing grounds. Keep him safe, those eyes had said. This was Ronon's task, while Sheppard had gone on alone.

 

Even so, it felt like a defeat to be lowering the gun. When Carter started her urgent apology, it felt a little like mourning the death of a friend. "They're both recovering from injury," she was saying. "They're worried about Colonel Sheppard, as are we all."

 

"I understand," said the lying, smiling villain. "I can only say as I said before: that I offer my people's most profuse regret for what happened to your friend on our soil. We have lost many of our own to bandits over the years. Terrible. Terrible." He shook his head, a look of sorrow plastered on his face. "I understand your anger and your need to blame someone. I have seen many times over the years, in others, robbed as you have been robbed. For my part, I forgive you." He turned to Carter. "Let us put this behind us. However, I am sure you will understand if I ask that these people – McKay, did I hear you call him, and Ronon? – are escorted back to the Ring immediately. Negotiations such as these are not the place for ones so raw with grief."

 

"Of course," Carter said. She looked at Ronon just once, but Ronon didn't know her well enough to read what she was thinking. He hadn't always been able to read Weir, either, but at least he had trusted her.

 

******

 

Sheppard thought the footsteps were overdue, but, really, he had no way of knowing. Time stretched out into an eternity. When he thought that hours has passed, he suspected it was only minutes. There were no windows, and never any change to the constant white light that left no shadows.

 

He had spent hours – days? – staring hungrily at the gap under the door, looking for changes of light that spoke of distant windows, listening for sounds that spoke of a pattern of night and day. Not once in all that time had the light altered. Except when the footsteps passed, there was only ever silence. The feet by his door were the only shadow ever cast on the threshold of his room.

 

He tried to count time. He drummed his finger on the side of the bed, using all the words he had ever learnt for measuring out the seconds. One, two, three… He remembered playing hide and seek as a child. Ten, eleven, twelve… He remembered basic training, and years spent in various war zones. Two hundred, two hundred and one, two hundred and two… He counted down to take-off, and flew amongst the stars, as free as a bird. One thousand… Two thousand…Three…

 

Seconds slowed. His hand grew stiff from the drumming of one finger, pain shooting across its back. He slowed to nothing at ten thousand, and had to start again. He reached six hundred, and was fairly sure it was accurate, but he had no way to mark it off. He wanted to fence out those six hundred seconds, to mark it at either side with a peg, so ever afterwards he would know that a length of time this long was ten minutes. But as soon as he stopped counting it, it slipped away. The next ten minutes were uncounted, and he had no idea when they passed.

 

Prisoners were supposed to carve a count of days into the stone wall of their cell, or mark it off with a finger-mark of their own blood. He had never understood that before. If you were forgotten and dying, did it matter if it had been forty-seven days or forty-eight?

 

It mattered. He leant back, resting his head against the wall. It mattered terribly. It mattered… No, not more than anything else, but it was "certainly up there in the top three," he said, completing his thought out loud.

 

He wanted to imagine the pattern of day and night in the life of Atlantis… But, no, even that was meaningless. They were on another planet, for God's sake. Even if it was dawn here, it could be the dead of night on Atlantis. While his captors slept, his friends could be rising to greet another day, strapping on their weapons, and searching for him.

 

He was beginning to wonder what they would find.

 

Meals still came. He had eaten four now, after that first one. Four times, feet had come to his door. Four times, a plate had been pushed through. Once he had shouted, a pathetic attempt at humour. Once he had threatened them. Once he had sat there in stubborn silence. Once he had bitten his lip and kept from saying things that should not be spoken aloud.

 

He thought there was no regularity to the meals, but perhaps they were coming with clockwork regularity, but his own perception was expanding and contracting until he had no idea even how long a second was.

 

He tried to count… No, no, he'd tried that already. He lay back and stared at the ceiling, and made himself see numbers there. He did powers of two until the numbers were too long to say. He listed primes and calculated square roots. Time passed, and he had no idea how long it had been, but at least it had passed quickly… Unless it hadn't passed at all. Maybe it had been only an hour, only twenty minutes, only five.

 

Food always came after his hunger had become painful, but the meals were never quite big enough, so even that gave him no clue. Normally, he thought, he would begin to feel hungry some five or six hours after a meal, but when the meal was too small, and he had been so hungry before it that he had felt dizzy…? Seven hours between meals, perhaps? Eight? Ten? Twelve? Twenty? Sometimes the hunger merely cramped in his stomach, but other times it made his head spin when he stood up.

 

He pressed his hand against his side, wondering if he could feel the weight falling off, if he could feel the hours pass in the sharpness of his ribs. He stared at his nails, wondering if the white tips were growing, turning into claws. He ran his hand through his hair, and wondered if it felt longer, running through the webbing of his fingers. His chin… Ah, yes, his chin…

 

He stood up; made for the bathroom, his hand grasping at the door frame, grasping at the sink, holding it with both hands. So it was one of the times of dizzy hunger, then. His head sagged for moment, but then he drew it up, and stared at the stranger in the mirror. Was that three days' growth? Four days'? He brought his hand to his face, masking it. Stubble pressed against his palm… and then he was laughing into his hand – a strange laugh that he didn't recognise as his own – because the stubble on his chin gave him the safest, most reliable way of measuring time, when light and hours and science had betrayed him.

 

Back to his bed, then, staggering, almost falling. He knew he had read once how much a human hair could grow in a day. Whenever he needed to know how long had passed, he could pluck out a hair, measure it, and… And then he was laughing again – or heaving silently, really, without sound – thinking of prisoners in stupid medieval movies, white beards down to their feet.

 

No, he thought, the laughter cutting off as if with a knife. He wasn't that far gone, not yet. No laughter, no words, no wondering, no counting. The footsteps would be here soon, and he would tense up again, readying himself for the fight, and relax again in slow and tiny shivering increments when they walked away again, leaving only food.

 

******

 

Teyla was unable to find Ronon anywhere, but Rodney she found in the infirmary. "Your leg…?"

 

"I've suffered a relapse, yes." He flapped his hand angrily, pointing at his leg. "Too much walking, and I shouldn't really have bothered, should I? Oh no! I should have stayed in this nice, warm bed, getting better."

 

She touched the back of his hand, because she knew what he really wanted to say. She was about to speak, when Rodney stiffened in the bed. She saw fear flicker briefly in his eyes, and then his face settled on defensiveness and anger. It was Colonel Carter. Teyla touched Rodney again, taking hold of his wrist, and held it. Her eyes met Carter's briefly. I am staying, she meant.

 

"That didn't help, Rodney." Carter remained standing.

 

"Didn't it? How terrible! Because - oh yes! - I was trying to help you as you sold Sheppard's life away for a… a… a… a mess of potage."

 

"That isn't fair–"

 

"Oh? Oh really?" Teyla could feel Rodney's pulse running swiftly at his wrist. "You took your time getting back. Do you have your alliance now? Are we to look forward to a rich supply of tava beans and woven pot-holders? Have you given them lots of C4 and thirty pieces of silver and a pound of Sheppard's flesh?"

 

Carter moved to the far side of Rodney's bed, and sat down. Her face was hidden as she walked, but she seemed composed once she was there. "The talks proceeded well. They have a lot of knowledge about this sector, and that's the sort of intelligence that we need. Their technology is more advanced that it might appear at first glance–"

 

"Technology?" Rodney threw back at her. "I don't care if they've got a field of ZPMs. What about Sheppard?"

 

Teyla knew Rodney well enough not to have to look at him. Carter, on the other hand, was someone she barely knew. She watched the other woman now, and saw the softening in her face that greeted Rodney's words. Rodney missed it, she thought, and when Carter spoke again, there was little of it in her voice. "Rodney, they deny all involvement in Colonel Sheppard's disappearance."

 

"And you believe that?"

 

Carter hesitated. Watching her, Teyla saw in her a leader, torn between what she had to do, and what she would do if she was free. She had seen the same thing in Elizabeth at times, and she had felt the same herself. But she did not remove her hand from Rodney's wrist. Perhaps this was not a confrontation in which she had to take sides, but her loyalty had been given, even so.

 

"Not entirely," Carter said at last, "but I don't disbelieve them, either. We have to consider the possibility that they're lying; of course we do. But this, I believe, is the best way to get the truth. We're in a perilous situation here, and we can't go round accusing people without evidence. We can't take a jumper through the Gate, and that weakens any military advantage that we could have had, and remember that it is true that someone dialled out just after Colonel Sheppard disappeared. These people have a wide net of allies across this sector, and if we antagonise them for no reason–"

 

"No reason?" Rodney tried to sit up, his wrist jerking free from Teyla's hand. He stopped with a gasp of pain, and fell back onto the pillow.

 

"I've been given this role," Carter said firmly, "and with it comes responsibilities." How tired she looked, Teyla realised. She doubted that Rodney saw that, either. "I did what I had to do to gain a foothold on their world, from which we can search. It was the only way. At least now we can come and go, and if he is there–"

 

"You've condemned him."

 

"No," Carter said, and No, Teyla thought, but she knew the delicate path that had to be walked in diplomacy. Ronon saw things in terms of a fight, and Rodney always needed to be seeking answers, but sometimes the true way was a slower way. Carter's eyes seemed to rest on Rodney's wrist, where Teyla's hand once more lay. "Sometimes things can be won with diplomacy that can't be won any other way," she said.

 

"Too bad you're not Elizabeth, then." Rodney shifted on the bed, his face twisted with misery and pain. "At least she knew how to play that game. You're just… just stumbling in the dark."

 

We all are, Rodney, Teyla thought. Holding Rodney's hand, she shouted for Keller, but she made sure that her eyes met Carter's as she did so. The other woman looked quite alone as she sat on the hard chair at Rodney's bedside, and even more alone as she stood up and left the infirmary. Teyla wanted to say something, but she was not quite ready for that, not yet.

 

******

 

Seven meals had come. He was just eating the seventh when the footsteps returned, slow and heavy.

 

He didn't start to his feet, not immediately. He dropped the half-eaten chunk of meat back on the plate, then very carefully laid the tray down on the bed beside him, although the person outside drew ever closer while he did so. Did that mean he was already beginning to break? No, he thought, it meant that he was still holding onto his sanity. Food was scarce, and only a fool wasted it.

 

He was still quick enough when the food was safely down. His skin trembled with readiness. His aching muscles quivered with expectation. Now. It's going to be now.

 

For days? weeks? footsteps had only come with food. That first time had been the only exception. Footsteps meant food; food meant no more footsteps until hunger was clawing again at his belly, and he had drifted in an everlasting eternity of counting and white light and snatched dreams.

 

This was wrong. This was change. Change meant - hooks, blood, pain. It meant the test. It meant an ending.

 

It's going to be now.

 

The steps slowed.

 

Please be now.

 

He swallowed, his mouth dry. The steps started up again. He yearned after them, straining to hold onto them, but they went all the same.

 

"Stupid," he told himself, a very long time later.

 

******

 

End of chapter three

 

******

 

Chapter four: Near and Far

 

Rodney remembered only flashes of what they told him were the next few days. He remembered sharp pain in his leg, jangling all the way up to his throat, but he also remembered floating in delicious numbness. He remembered Teyla speaking in the sort of voice that made everything okay. He saw glimpses of Ronon, who seldom said anything, but seemed to sit beside his bed for hours on end, and once - but maybe it was a dream - was heard to tell someone quite emphatically that he had no intention of leaving, unless it was to go where Sheppard was.

 

He remembered drifting between sleep and waking, searching for a Scottish voice that would call him home. He looked for a dark-haired woman, but she never stood over his bed. Several times, when he opened his eyes, he was sure that Sheppard would be there, quick with his insults, but he never was.

 

When his perception was clear again, he saw Keller leaning over him. "You're past the worst of it now, Doctor McKay."

 

He remembered waking here before, and remembered the shadow that had hung over the waking. Sheppard? This time he couldn't ask it. "What happened?"

 

"A secondary infection," she said. "You were quite unwell for a couple of days, but the bullet wound itself is healing nicely. You'll be on your feet soon."

 

On my feet, and facing what? He still was not quite able to ask it. He knew the answer, of course, because Teyla soon arrived, and her smile was the sort of smile that someone wore at a funeral. Ronon came not long afterwards, and Radek paid a quick visit, but that was all.

 

Although Keller was not Carson, it seemed that she was right in some things, at least. Within hours, Rodney was sitting up. By the next morning, he was standing. The evening after that, he was able to walk with a single crutch. Flapping at the hovering nurse to send her away, he managed the short walk onto the balcony. He had never been one for cherishing the feel of the outside, but there was something about the ocean air on this particular day that seemed to flow through his veins, and awaken things that had atrophied during his illness.

 

It was there that Carter found him. "How are you feeling, Rodney?"

 

He closed his hand on the railing, and tried to remember when she had been Sam. "Fine."

 

She heard her smile. "That doesn't sound like you."

 

He whirled round, his back to the railing. Pain stabbed through his leg, but that only made things worse. "Yes, yes. Surprise surprise. Pathetic, selfish Rodney McKay doesn't spend all of his time obsessed with his own well-being. Come on, tell me how much I've changed. Say something patronising about how the old me wouldn't have cared about his friend going missing. No! Say that the old Rodney McKay wouldn't have had friends. Go on. I know you're thinking it."

 

She moved to the railing, leaning on it, while he stood with the railing at his back. She was close enough that the old McKay's heart would have been fluttering with excitement. "If I was thinking it," she said, "it was with nothing but admiration."

 

"But you still can't bring me good news." He wanted to edge towards her, to catch a tiny fragment of her closeness, but at the same time, he wanted to back away, and face her over an empty space.

 

"No." She shook her head. "We've scanned exhaustively while talking to Dareon's people. We've explored all the other worlds that have been dialled recently from there."

 

He heard truth in the way she finished her last word. "You're calling the search off."

 

"Scaling it down," she said. "It's been eight days, Rodney. There've been no demands from anyone. There's a very real possibility… Rodney, sometimes there's just nothing you can do."

 

"What about Sheppard, then?" He snapped his fingers several times. "He's not as stupid as he looks. Are you scanning all frequencies? He always gets himself free in the end. He's probably trying to contact us right now."

 

She shook her head. "We've tried. There's nothing." She stepped back, leaving only one hand on the railing. Rodney turned his back on her, and watched a bird flying high, revelling in the thermals.

 

"There's a Wraith hive ship," she said, "closer than I'm happy with. It's probably nothing, what with the Replicator war, but there are still lots of repairs to be done to the city before we're ready to face any sort of combat situation."

 

He knew what was coming. "Zelenka can handle that."

 

She tried to touch him, just briefly on the arm. "I understand how you feel, Rodney. I know what it's like when a team-mate – a friend – is missing. But sometimes we just have to–"

 

"What?" he interrupted. "Have to what?"

 

"Push it aside," she said, "and do what we have to do. I can't risk the expedition just for one man, even if that man's Colonel Sheppard. I nearly lost a man yesterday on one of the search teams. We need our teams to be out exploring this new sector, and our scientists – you – working on repairs."

 

The bird passed behind a tower, and was gone. A patch of cloud, like a fist, began to obscure the sun. "I can't believe you're saying this to me," he said. "You. To me."

 

"No." He heard her sigh. "But it has to be said."

 

The cloud edged ever further across the sun. "Elizabeth wouldn't have given up."

 

"That isn't fair." There was only the slightest hesitation before she answered. "It isn't true, either. I didn't know Doctor Weir well, but I know that she was not afraid to make hard decisions."

 

He thought of Sheppard being killed before their eyes by the Wraith, and remembered how Elizabeth had stood there and watched, refusing to give Kolya what he wanted. "Sheppard wouldn't give up, if it was one of us," he said.

 

The hesitation was longer this time. "No, he wouldn't… until he had no choice, but I believe that he would recognise when that choice came, like he did with Doctor Weir."

 

"No!" He groped for his crutch, and found it on the third attempt. "You don't really know either of them, do you?" The wind was cold fingers on his face, and his leg was hurting, and his eyes were stinging, and he pushed past her, and she let him go. He pushed past her, but he had nowhere to go, because Carson was gone, and Elizabeth was gone, and Sheppard had gone, and Ronon had wanted to leave, and now even Sam was gone, and there was nothing he could do about any of it.

 

******

 

Between the eighth meal and the ninth, he tried desperately hard not to try to measure time.

 

Smell became his torment then. His senses had been straining outwards, trying to catch every breath of a whisper that spoke of the passage of the minutes. As soon as he stopped trying, it was as if he took a step away from himself, and was able, for a while, to see things dispassionately.

 

The stranger in the mirror agreed.

 

He stank. He had used the water in the tub to wash, but he had not taken all his clothes off to have a proper bath. He was still wearing the clothes he had put on days ago. Weeks. Eight days? Ten? His fingers moved, but told himself that he wasn't doing that any more. He wasn't counting the seconds, fingers drumming on the side of the bed. One, two, three… He snatched the fingers back into a fist, and drove it into the metal bed. Stop doing that.

 

When he stood up, he scattered trays. From the fourth meal onwards, when the weakness of hunger was becoming more of a problem, he had started licking every last smear of blood and sauce from the plate, and swallowing every last piece of gristle. Gristle and congealed blood from the first few meals were rotting on the plate.

 

With a harsh cry, he pushed the tray out through the gap, then another, then another. Each tray pushed the other one further through, until he felt resistance on the seventh, and then once more he gave a silent, mirthless laugh, because he'd proved that whatever lay outside was no wider than seven trays, and look at me, McKay, I can do an experiment, too, but it wasn't an experiment at all, was it, but an attempt to map out his environment in order to obtain a tactical advantage, and so was the sort of stuff he should have been doing all along, though I'm in prison, for God's sake, and they won't talk to me, so how in hell am I supposed to have a tactical advantage?

 

He found himself in the middle of the floor, not entirely sure how he got there. Bath. The word was slow to articulate itself in his mind. "New clothes would be good."

 

He tried not to look at the stranger in the mirror, the bottom half of its face covered with darkness, like the scarves of men who had tried to shoot him, once, in a world far lost from here.

 

He ran water into the bath, and heard counting in the rhythms of its landing. He closed his hand on the edge of the bath just for a moment, then looked up, plastering a smile on the mask of his face. "If you're watching on your cameras now, give a guy some privacy, okay?" He had scoured the whole place and found no obvious cameras, but he had to accept that they were probably inevitable.

 

Stripping naked in front of your enemy… He remembered his classes, and things said about torture that gave every one of them nightmares afterwards. It's not about pain as much as it's about humiliation. Injuries heal, but the knowledge that you grovelled naked in your own shit and begged them not to hurt you… That never leaves you.

 

He had often wondered - because you had to, really - what it would be like to be stripped of his clothing by someone who meant him harm. Now he was stripping himself. Did that make it a worse humiliation because I'm complicit in my own assault, or was he keeping control of it. Doing it as and when I choose, refusing to be broken by it.

 

"Yes," he said aloud, as the last of his stinking clothes fell to the floor. Something only breaks you if you let it. "No different from the locker room, really." But, although he stepped into the bath with his head high, and with an attempt at a smirk, he washed as quickly as he could, with hands that trembled, because what if they came when he was in the bath? What if this is what they've been waiting for? What if they come in and take me naked? Because even the strongest of men were shorn of their strength when naked, and he would fight – Oh, God, he would fight – but they would already have stripped away half his chance of victory.

 

He stepped from the bath, and reached for the clothes that had seemed repulsive only moments before, but now felt welcome. That was when he noticed it. Something else had been pushed under the door, and lay on the floor like a goad and a threat.

 

He moved towards it, skirting it as if it was an angry snake. It looked like a set of clean clothes. That meant that they were definitely watching. That meant that they had come to his door, their footsteps entirely concealed by the noise of the running water. That means that they could have come in, and he would have had no warning. That meant… That meant…

 

"No." He stopped himself with an effort. They hadn't come in. Once again, they had left him alone… And there was a feeling there - a tiny, faint shadow of a feeling - that he shied away from. They'd brought clothes. Clean clothes were better than dirty ones. "After all, I'm the one who has to live with myself."

 

He picked them clothes up, and shook them out. They appeared to be pants and some sort of tunic thing, made of a fairly soft wool. He pulled the pants on; made himself smile wryly at the relief he felt to be clothed. "Well, I'm decent, at least."

 

But it felt like one more thing stripped away. He was accepting food from their hands. He had been naked before them. His face was turning into the face of a stranger. And now he was even forced to wear their clothes. It was ridiculous - but true. Sad. Pathetic. But true - how much of your identity was bound up with the clothes you wore.

 

An image came, although he tried to drive it away, of a frozen lake. You could strike at it again and again, and each time, almost unseen, a tiny crack opened up. It could stay like that for weeks, until at last there came a crack, no bigger than the others, that caused the entire ice sheet to shatter.

 

******

 

They were sitting in the mess hall, the three of them and one empty chair. "Are you eating that?" McKay jabbed towards Teyla's plate with a fork. "Because, if not, there are starving masses…"

 

"By which you mean you."

 

"Well, yes."

 

Ronon looked beyond them – beyond the hunched form of McKay, attacking his food as if someone was about to steal it; beyond Teyla's indulgent smile. The sun was sinking in a blaze of fire, and even the city looked as if it was burning.

 

"Zelenka stole my coffee this afternoon." McKay sounded as outraged as if Zelenka had assaulted his mother. "It was definitely mine. That…" He clicked his fingers repeatedly. "Short woman. Brown hair. What's her name? Well, it doesn't matter. I'm sure she made it for me."

 

"I'm sure she did, Rodney."

 

The first stars would be appearing soon, and it would be yet another night. Sometimes Ronon wondered how many of those worlds up there he had run to, and how many were lifeless because of the Wraith. Now he had another question. Which speck of light held Sheppard, alive or dead? He thought these things, but he kept them wrapped inside him.

 

The mess hall was almost deserted, and the only other people in it were far away, their conversation impossible to discern. He listened to the sound of McKay's fork scraping the last scraps from his plate. When he turned back from the ocean, he saw that Teyla was looking at him.

 

He wondered afterwards what she had been about to say. McKay spoke first, though, the words half-hidden behind a mouthful of food. "Are you two going to stay? If he never comes back, I mean."

 

No need to say who the 'he' was. The empty chair was presence enough, as were the gaps in conversation that should have been filled by the ghost who sat there. Sometimes Ronon heard Sheppard's responses quite clearly in his head. Several times, he had almost said them aloud himself, but he knew they would sound wrong coming from him. McKay continued to dance half a dance, without a partner. But that, too, was something Ronon would never say aloud.

 

"I will stay," Teyla said. "I still believe that I can best help my people by aiding you here on Atlantis."

 

"Nowhere else to go," Ronon said, "not any more."

 

 "Oh." McKay's smile looked uncertain. "That's good. I mean… Not that I… I… Everything's changed. Elizabeth's gone, and now Sheppard. I wondered if the team–"

 

"What I mean to say, Rodney, is that you have all become friends, and Atlantis has become as much a home to me as anywhere else could be." Teyla touched McKay's sleeve. "I have no desire to leave you."

 

Ronon grunted. He had said as much just weeks before, and there was no need to say it again. He had gone with his old comrades, but now he knew that the past could not be brought back. As soon as he had heard the sound of gunfire, he had known. His place was here, with these people, and it was no longer just by necessity. Sheppard was the one who had asked him to stay on Atlantis, and Weir had won his respect, but his ties to these people went far deeper than that.

 

"But we're not going to accept it, right," he said, not bothering to frame it as a question.

 

McKay froze. "What?"

 

"Sheppard being gone," Ronon said. "We're going to look for him. Right?"

 

"I am sure that Colonel Carter has done everything–" Teyla began.

 

"But she's not us." Ronon looked at them, first Teyla, then McKay, as the empty chair gazed at them all. "She's not even Weir."

 

"Colonel Carter did what she had to do," Teyla said. "She is not our enemy, Ronon."

 

McKay still hadn't moved.

 

Ronon pressed his hand into the table. "We're his team, but we're just sitting here. It's been…"

 

"Twelve days," McKay said quietly.

 

Behind him, the last trace of the sun set into the ocean, and the faces of his team-mates were suddenly dark. Across the mess-hall, someone stood up, their chair scraping on the floor, and a tall man waved to his friend. Ronon could never stop being aware of such things. Small movements on the fringes of his vision could spell danger, even death.

 

"I understand Colonel Carter's reasons." Teyla's face was turned towards Ronon, but her eyes were on McKay.

 

"She'll never let us go," McKay said. "It's like with Elizabeth. Sheppard tried and tried, but they wouldn't let him go." He was staring at the empty chair. Did he, too, see the ghost that sat there? "People just keep going, and there's nothing we can do about it."

 

Movement flickered out over the ocean, and he saw a puddle jumper returning from a scan of the planet, heading home at the end of the long day. All three of them watched it pass.

 

"There's always something we can do about it," Ronon said.

 

The jumper vanished behind a tower. High in the sky, the first few stars had appeared, and the light of Atlantis shone upwards and outwards, calling people home.

 

"Yes. Yes. Yes, there is." McKay raised his head, and light shone in his eyes, too. 

 

******

 

Sheppard began to fear that he would be too weak to fight them. They fed him, but not enough. He slept, but only in fragments. Even if his body retained the ability to fight, he began to fear that his brain would forget how to do it.

 

Some time after the twelfth meal, he started up and began to exercise. Just because he was a prisoner, there was no reason to let his body go. He had to be ready to fight when the footsteps no longer brought just food, but entered his room. He had to be ready to throw himself at a crack in the door, to elbow his way out, to wrestle for a gun, to run.

 

This is something they can't take away, he thought, as he did press-ups - twenty, twenty-five, thirty. He stood in the positions Teyla had taught him, and when he let his mind go blank, he could almost see her, moving fluidly opposite him, always ready to counter no matter where he moved. He fought Ronon, and he bullied Rodney into taking exercise. He ran across the room from wall to wall, from corner to corner. He counted steps, reaching two thousand, then tried to work out how many seconds that was.

 

His vision started to blur. He was pouring with sweat, his clothes clinging unpleasantly to clammy skin. Muscles screamed, grown lax with lack of use. Soon he was panting breathlessly, the pounding of his heart louder than he had ever heard it before. It filled the world, counting out the seconds, faster and faster, time accelerating into a blur, a flash, a Black Hole, while he was stuck behind, unable to keep up with it, no matter how hard he reached.

 

More exercise. More. More. It passed the time. It was practice. It was a vestige of real life. It was normality. It was control. He ate their food, he wore their clothes, but this was something he did because… because…

 

Head dropping. Hand on the wall, sliding with sweat. Spots before his eyes. No. No. He curled his hand into a fist, and lay down on his back on the floor, sitting up again and again, feeling his muscles pull… And then there was moisture on his face, dripping down into his eyes, dripping down from his eyes…

 

And then footsteps - not faint, behind the pounding of his heart, but louder than anything - a tiny whisper of a sound that penetrated, and stopped everything.

 

He leapt to his feet, but everything lurched. He made it to the door, but everything stopped.

 

******

 

It was two days before they were able to go. Rodney was in favour of elaborate subterfuges and tactical sabotage, and had come up with increasingly elaborate schemes. Ronon just wanted to stun anyone who stood in their way. Saddled with the task of reining the two of them back, Teyla had no time to consider the preferred manner of their departure.

 

Rodney selected which jumper they would take. "Sheppard's favourite," he admitted, when Ronon questioned him. Ronon seemed to understand the concept better than Teyla did. She understood Rodney's sentiment, but to her the jumpers were dead pieces of technology, for all that they were built by the Ancestors.

 

As Teyla watched Colonel Carter, during those last days, she wished she could apologise to her. We have to do this, she would have said, for ourselves, if not for John. It is nothing to do with you.

 

Rodney spent an entire afternoon worrying loudly about food. "We don't know how long we'll be. We need to stock up. What if we run out?"

 

"Then we hunt some more," Ronon told him.

 

Rodney looked horrified. "It's all right for you rugged barbarian types, but I have very specific dietary needs. I–"

 

Ronon stalked out impatiently half way through the afternoon. I understand, Teyla wanted to tell Rodney. Rodney was not accustomed to caring for people, but in recent months, he had lost half of the small number of people whom he might, if pressed, call friends. And then, when Ronon sparred with her, ruthless despite his still-healing foot, she wanted to say the same to him. His old friends had betrayed him, and he had turned back to this, his new family, only for it to be ripped apart. He thought he had betrayed his old comrades by not being there when they were taken by the Wraith, and of course he would fear that the same thing was happening again.

 

And I need this, too, she thought, for she had seen so many loved ones and friends get taken before their time. She was still Athosian, but these were her people, too. She could not stand by and watch them suffer, not without a fight.

 

We have lost so many, she thought. We have all lost so many. We cannot lose John, too, not so soon after Elizabeth, after Carson; not at all.

 

Even while he worried about food, Rodney was working without a break. "They'll come looking for us, so we'll need some way to block their sensors. That's where these little things come in." He held up a small flat box. "Yet another miracle created by the genius of yours truly. Though Radek was persistent, sniffing around. I had to lure him away with coffee. No! No, you idiot! Don't switch it on yet!"

 

Later that evening, he assured them that he would be able to over-ride any attempt to stop them from going through the Gate. "Piece of cake," he said. "At least, it is for me. And I have the Gate addresses right here." He also had a pair of crutches, and a dazzling array of pills and tablets, most of which were precautionary, but some of which were prescribed. His leg was healing, but he still walked with a limp. Ronon showed no sign of his injury, but she knew it had to hurt him still. Her own injuries had healed completely, leaving only a few residual headaches, and yellowing bruising to her upper chest.

 

On the morning of their departure, a young Marine came to them as they left the mess hall. "You're going after the Colonel, aren't you?"

 

Rodney looked around nervously, the very picture of suspicious activity. "Why? Who told you that? Why do you think that?"

 

"So what if we are?" Ronon stepped forward, his arms folded, his muscles bulging.

 

"It's just…" The young man looked nervous. "Can I come with you, sir?"

 

How high did it go, she wondered. She saw two off-duty Marines watching them from a far table. She was sure they had been discreet, but it seemed that even people she thought were strangers knew them all too well. If these men knew, did their officers?

 

"No." She shook her head, pre-empting anything Rodney had been about to say. "This conversation did not happen."

 

"Why not?" Rodney hissed, when she had led them away. "I know he's only a grunt, but hired muscle has its uses. Look at Ronon."

 

"Because we have nothing to lose," she said. Nothing to lose? No. We have everything to lose, but only if we do nothing. "If he came - if any of them came - he would return to face a… court martial? Is that the term? Ronon and I are guests, and you are a civilian. We might be forgiven, but I doubt the military masters will forgive."

 

Then later, when she passed Major Lorne in the hallway, when he nodded at her, she wondered if he knew, too. She hoped he did not. After Elizabeth, she had not expected to like Colonel Carter, but then had come that moment of understanding beside Rodney's bed. It would be a terrible thing of all of Carter's officers were silently condoning a conspiracy. And then she was back again to the urge to apologise. It is nothing to do with you. This is all about us, and about what we need.

 

She saw Carter herself, barely an hour before they were due to leave. She nodded at her, and smiled. Carter nodded back.

 

Unless she knows, too, Teyla thought, but she decided to keep that thought to herself. 

 

******

 

Pain filtered through the darkness, calling him back. "Ow," Sheppard murmured, shifting a little, but not opening his eyes. "That was a lucky shot." Ronon was silent. "Help me up, will you? Think I passed out."

 

There was still silence. Ronon was standing over him, watching him, so he opened his eyes… and of course Ronon wasn't there. White room. Footsteps. Seconds like hours. Had they finally come? Had they finally opened the door and…? No. Blinking slowly, each time seeing the shimming whiteness of a room that never changed. The pain was just the pain from falling; that was all. You fainted, McKay told him.

 

"Passed out." The retort was a reflex. It helped him feel a little stronger. It helped him remember that he had exercised too hard without adequate food to sustain his body. McKay was jubilant about that, too. See? I've always told you it's necessary to eat while running for your life. Brain power uses up calories, too - did you know that? Of course, with a brain as big as mine…

 

"Shut up, McKay." He pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, his head sagging as he struggled to keep himself steady. His heart was still racing, and his skin was still slick with sweat. He couldn't have been unconscious long. Just long enough to…

 

The footsteps! He snapped his head up, and his racing heart sent ice through his veins… No, it sent hot coals, prickling and burning, goading him to fight. Was the person still there? They could have come in when he was unconscious, and done anything they liked to him, and…

 

No. No. Concentrate on the now. He edged forward towards the door, straining to listen. He heard his own breathing… but there it was – a tiny whisper of sound, as loud as a shout. Someone was outside. Someone was outside!

 

He put his hand to the gap, feeling the tiny change of temperature there, cool on his fingertips. The noise came again. A shadow flowed onto his fingers like a spreading stain. He edged his hand forward, intensely aware of the feel of the floor beneath his fingers, rough and cold. The back of his hand scraped against the bottom of the door. He counted slowly, and he no longer noticed that his shoulder hurt, no longer noticed the pain in his other arm. Everything that he was had flowed into that hand. It was his eyes, his body, his soul, and it was edging forward, edging forward…

 

The fingers hit something. He reached further, and found the smooth curve of the front of someone's shoe. Someone! Someone! This was a person, separated only by a thin layer of leather. He held it, his fingers curling in, and it felt like holding the sun.

 

"Who are you?" Far away from his hand, his lips framed the question, but fingers could not give voice. There were eyes in his fingertips. Touch bled out from his hand, and gave shape to a man. He saw legs and a body, clothed in unadorned black, and he saw a face. It was Kolya, with the eyes and the hair of a Wraith. "I'll call you George," said those faraway lips, still without sound.

 

George began to move. Don't go away! Sheppard wanted to cry. Then part of him pointed out, in quiet voice, that he could grasp this person by the ankle, could try to pull them down, try to grope through the gap with both hands, try to get a key, to get a knife. It was a hard voice to listen to. It was hard to try, to reach…  but the gap wasn't big enough for his hand to go any further through, and he was already so far through that the door pressed painfully on the back of his wrist, and to get the other hand through, he would have to prostrate himself utterly, and…

 

George stepped back. The foot withdrew, and he opened his hand, all his fingers reaching, but there was nothing there, only cold air on his palm. George walked away, and the hand saw it. It saw his retreating back. It saw and winced at every footstep. Then it saw him dwindle and go.

 

It was a long time before he drew the hand back through the gap. It rose as if of its own accord to his face, and found it wet.

 

******

 

"Right." Rodney flexed his hands nervously. "Here we go."

 

He had expected more opposition. He had been all ready to use subterfuge to gain access to supplies, and had been prepared to lock down the jumper bay while they loaded what they needed. He had half expected Carter herself to be blocking the hatch, and he had even prepared a noble, defiant speech in which he told her to stand aside and let him do what was right. You don't leave people behind, even if it costs you your career. You can shoot me or threaten me, but you can't stop me from leaving.

 

He had been prepared for a fight. He was armed with a stunner, in case teams came surging into the jumper bay, determined to take them down at all costs. He had dreamt, the night before, of being cut down by bullets emerging from the façade of a Wraith stunner, and of lying in his own blood in the entrance of the jumper, as Sheppard faded ever further away beyond the windshield. He had been nervous about the prospect of a fight, but ready for it, too.

 

The jumper bay had been empty. As his hand hovered over the controls, it remained empty.

 

Ronon was pacing in the back, still clutching the blaster that he had not had cause to fire. "Go," he said. "Go."

 

Once he powered up the jumper, everyone would know. Once he dialled the Gate, no-one would be able to stop him. He remembered leaving Earth in a stolen jumper, heading back for Atlantis, as General Landry's voice had threatened Sheppard with the end of his career. This felt bigger, for some reason. It also felt more right, but at the same time, less.

 

Should we really be doing this? he wanted to ask Teyla. It was the quietness that brought doubts. He was never more sure of himself than when fighting for his life, overflowing with adrenaline, pouring every ounce of brain power and energy into solving a problem. Right and wrong were clear when the bad guys were the ones trying to kill you. Nothing at all was clear when they stepped back and let you go.

 

"Go!" Ronon jammed his blaster into its holster, and smashed his fist into the wall. He threw himself down into the seat, then surged up again. Teyla was just sitting very still, her hands clasped tightly on sides of the seat.

 

We don't leave people behind, he thought, but we did. We already have.

 

He closed his eyes just for a moment. Before he opened them, he powered up the jumper, and opened the hatch that led to the Gate. As he manoeuvred the jumper into position, he saw them watching. He saw someone start up from a bank of controls. He saw Carter emerge from Elizabeth's office. Someone pointed. Carter's mouth moved. "Rodney," he heard her say through the radio.

 

Goodbye, Sam, he thought, and then they were gone.

 

******

 

End of chapter four

 

******

 

Chapter five: Stories

 

Even when you stopped trying to count time, you still needed to help it pass. Sheppard sat on the bed, rhythmically moving his arms and legs in order to avoid the muscles going slack, and recounted stories.

 

"So Frodo decides to go to Mordor all by himself, but Sam discovers him, and goes with him. Meanwhile, the others…"

 

Flexing his arm – bend, and straight; bend and straight. Eyes always on the gap at the bottom of the door, but George had not returned. The person who always brought his food was Homer, but looked a bit like Carson. Hank was the one he liked least. He liked to prowl, rather than walk. He looked like Sheppard's first drill sergeant.

 

"And then Boromir tries to… No, I've done that bit. And then Frodo and Sam…"

 

Climbing through grey cliffs, all alone and lost. Wraith rearing up and trying to eat them. "No, that was Gollum." The tiny, wizened form of Gollum, with sorrowful eyes in a shrunken face. I did that, said the Wraith, the blood lurid on its killing hand. I sucked the life out of him, and then there was the pain and the burden, and Wraith in black cloaks on black horses. "Ring Wraith," he said, and laughed, as ash fell in a dying land, and the eye of the Wraith gazed into his soul, as it reached into him and ripped out his life, and…

 

He jolted awake, but he thought he had not been asleep, not really. He grasped a handful of blanket. "So there's this boy called Luke Skywalker. He's a pilot, but Han Solo's cooler. This is in a galaxy far far away… Worse than this one, really. There's an evil Emperor, and he's wiped out the Jedi, but I'm telling it backwards. Let's start again."

 

He never quite made it through to the end of any story. Stories were safer than memories, though. Sometimes he walked his way through old memories, but everything turned dark. Narrow escapes became disasters, and the bug sucked his life away, and they were never able to reach McKay's jumper because it lay too deep, and he couldn't stop the transformation and he killed his team, and Kolya took Elizabeth away, and the bomb went off and he died, and everything went white, because death was whiteness for ever more, in a place without human contact, where every second brought the threat of pain.

 

"Once there was a girl called Buttercup and a farm boy called–"

 

"I can't believe you like The Princess Bride," McKay scoffed. "It's a fairy tale."

 

Sheppard turned his back on McKay, and told the story. "But the ship is attacked by pirates, and he doesn't come back." His eyes slid shut. He lay on his back, hands on his chest. "And the prince chooses her…" And there was Kolya, smiling coldly. I'm sure you've discovered my deep and abiding interest in pain. Strapped to a torture device, life being sucked away, drained…

 

His eyes snapped open. "I wasn't asleep," he said. "I wasn't asleep."

 

He sat up again, wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, and started to tell the story of Top Gun, but it drifted into memories of flying, and he couldn't even see the sky, couldn't yearn for it, couldn't dream. He tried Lethal Weapon, but his hands itched for a gun, and McKay was on hand to mock him for liking the cliché of a mismatched pair of reluctant friends. He tried to remember his childhood favourite books, but that brought memories of his mother reading aloud, and when he awoke from the dreams that followed that, his eyes were wet.

 

He avoided stories after that.

 

******

 

Ronon was not accustomed to failure. When he had lived as a Runner, every day that

he remained free was a triumph. Every Wraith he killed was a victory. Every step that he took without being caught was a success.

 

He wanted to smash things. He wanted to drive his face into the face of an enemy, to shoot those who stood against him, to mow them down like grass beneath a scythe as he made his way to rescue his missing friend. None of these were available to him, and so he sparred with Teyla when he could, and ran until he was exhausted, but it was not enough.

 

"It's been four days." McKay was the only one counting, clinging, as all these people did, to the time scale of a distant planet that Ronon had never seen. Ronon had grown accustomed to using their definition of hours and minutes, but such things were meaningless when you ran from world to world. You could leave a world at dusk, and emerge a moment later at dawn. Sometimes daylight stretched interminably, and sometimes light was only a snatched moment out of an eternity of darkness.

 

They had visited eight worlds, and McKay had scanned each one desperately, but there was no trace of Sheppard. Three of the worlds showed no signs of ever having been inhabited by humans. "Looks like people come here for hunting," Ronon commented, as he slung the still-warm carcase of a brown mammal over his shoulder. "A bit like a rabbit," McKay said, wrinkling his nose, "but… not." He ate it afterwards, though, and said it tasted like chicken. The second uninhabited planet was mostly water, and it yielded fish whose flesh was bland, but whose spines would make good darts. The third was a mass of flowers and brightly-coloured insects, and made McKay sneeze.

 

Two worlds were uninhabited, but had not always been so. These were the ones that had been destroyed by war and the Wraith. One had been abandoned by the last of its survivors, though the ruins still stood, speaking of a world that had once been proud and full of life, and it was clearly visited by scavengers from other worlds. On the other, small groups of refugees were scraping out an existence in the ruins, but they were cowed, possessing just enough will to survive, but none left for fighting. They knew nothing of Sheppard – "it's like we told the others" -  and when he looked into their dull eyes, Ronon could not bring himself to disbelieve them.

 

The fifth planet caused McKay to get excited about minerals. It supplied fuel to many worlds, they learnt. "Oh! Oh! I know it! They've brought him here to join their slave army of miners," McKay cried, "but something in the mine is blocking our scanners." For several hours, they felt rejuvenated with hope, but in the end, even McKay had to accept that the mines were automated, and that there were no slave armies hiding out of view.

 

On the other three worlds, they were greeted by people who recognised their weapons and their clothes, and knew what they had come for. "We gave Colonel Carter all the help we could," they said. Ronon, Teyla and McKay asked every question they could think of, but all questions had been asked before, and every line of enquiry had already been taken. One of these worlds was only inhabited in a small circle around the Gate, and McKay had to admit that they had seen every living soul on the planet. Another was scattered, but possessed no vehicles, and no way of taking a prisoner to the far corners of the world.

 

"Of course," McKay said, sitting uncharacteristically still at the back of the jumper, "if he really was taken by bandits, they could have used one of these planets as a staging point. He could be anywhere in the galaxy now."

 

Later, Ronon was on watch, through a twilight that counted as night, because they had gone from day to day to day for twenty-four hours, without seeing true night. He had thought that the others were asleep, but McKay suddenly stirred, his face bleached by the dusk. "I thought they hadn't looked properly. I thought it was only waiting for us."

 

Teyla rolled up, propped herself up on her elbow, but said nothing.

 

"They did everything we did," McKay said. "They asked what we asked, and they did it for longer, and with more of them. I read the reports, but I didn't believe them. I thought I'd find something obvious they'd missed. It's like when Radek says something's impossible, and I have to try myself, because, well, Radek's clever enough, but he's not me." He let out a breath. "He's usually right, though. I know that now."

 

Ronon gripped his weapon tight enough to hurt.

 

"We needed to see it for ourselves," Teyla said.

 

"Don't use the past tense!" McKay rounded on her, suddenly furious.

 

After that, they were all silent. Perhaps the others fell asleep in the end, but Ronon did not.

 

******

 

It was horrible, when he came to think about it, how quickly some things became normal. The second bath was easier than the first. The third change of clothes he put on with barely a thought. He barely tensed up at all when he heard Homer's distinctive footsteps, bringing his food. He moved to get it only after Homer had gone, and he no longer shouted out anything at all, not to him.

 

Then he lost count of how many meals he had had. "Eighteen," he had repeated, over and over again, in between the rhythms of his counting and the rhythms of the running water. He told McKay and Ronon and Teyla, and they repeated it back at him. "Eighteen," they said. Teyla was especially grave. Then the meal came, and he suddenly had no idea if "eighteen" meant "I have had eighteen meals" or "the next meal will be number eighteen."

 

His vision sheeted white. All he was aware of was his own breathing, speeding up, racing, until he could barely suck in enough air to keep himself conscious. Perhaps he really did pass out. When the world came into view again - but still white. Everything still white - his skin was covered with goose flesh, and the meal was scattered on the floor.

 

"That was a panic attack," Carson told him - Carson, who wore the face of Homer; Carson, who was dead. McKay just snorted triumphantly.

 

"I never panic," Sheppard told McKay, but this was a McKay who could see inside him. This was a McKay how knew that he often wasn't as calm inside as he tried to appear, with all his light words. "Not as much as you, anyway."

 

But his hands were trembling as he tried to scoop the food back onto the plate. His chest hurt, and his throat felt scoured from too much breathing. When he turned his hand over, the palm was bloody all the way to his wrist, and he imagined the ghostly flash of a silver knife across the skin inside his wrist, blood welled up around the blade.

 

He hauled himself to the wall, and ran one finger down it, making a mark close to the floor, at the foot of his bed. Then he dipped his finger in again, and made an 8, the first curve clear, and the second fading into white. A third dose of blood, and he made a question mark. From now on, he would mark each meal.

 

But he would never know for sure. All along, like a shadow on the threshold, would be the knowledge that he could be out by one. "But it doesn't matter if I'm out by one," he told himself. "It's near enough." But near enough wasn't near enough, not when this was the only thing left to him to count, the only way he could mark time, the only thing left to him, the only thing he could control. Lines on the wall meant I have not given up. Lines on the wall meant that his thoughts still ran in order.

 

Lines on the wall meant that he was still alive.

 

******

 

"It's a paradise." Rodney had smeared cream over every inch of exposed skin, and it shone in the light of the control panel. "A beach paradise, with sun, sea and… and something that could pass for a palm tree if you squint. Is it too much to ask that it's full of hot alien women playing beach volleyball? Of course it is! The universe hates me. I get the camp of gun-toting bandits."

 

Ronon was still, readying himself for combat. Teyla had her sticks, but the first task would fall to Rodney. She knew now that his babbling was often just a way to cope with nervousness, but although she tried, she was not as good as John was at saying the right things to keep him in full flow, distracted from the things that were making him afraid. Sometimes he needed provocation as much as reassurance. If John does not return, she thought, Rodney will take it the hardest, I think. But then she chided herself for thinking so. This was their best lead yet - their only lead - but the hope was sharp and painful.

 

Cloaked, they came in low over the camp they had discovered in a cluster of trees. Twenty life-signs, Rodney had told them. As they had passed over for the first time, slow and silent, Ronon had peered down, and apparently liked what he saw of their weapons. They had ships, too - two small ones, no bigger than a puddlejumper.

 

On this second pass, they came in faster. As they descended, Rodney fired a drone, destroying one of their huts. "There was no-one in there." His voice sounded strained.

 

"Shame." Sometimes Ronon could still look like a stranger, cold and deadly.

 

As the men below them ran around in panic and confusion, Rodney opened the rear hatch, and Ronon started shooting them down. Five had fallen before they noticed the floating circle that was the interior of the jumper, still surrounded by its cloak. Bullets smashed into the side of the jumper, and Ronon rolled, and came up, still firing. Then they were low enough, and both Ronon and Teyla jumped out, firing as they did so.

 

Teyla started to count. "One," she said, as a man with sandy hair froze, his arm halfway towards coming up to aim at her, and fell. "Two." That was a dark-haired man, with a face that reminded her slightly of John. Her heart lurched as he fell, but she was already coming around for her third one, who was older, and was trying to speak as she hit him.

 

Ronon was unstoppable. She saw him briefly, a dark silhouette against the flickering fire of the burning hut. The flash of his weapon made the fire burn as red as blood. Then even Rodney was there, determined at her shoulder, shooting, even as he kept his shoulders slightly hunched, subconsciously trying to make himself small.

 

Two men tried to make it to the ships. Three shots converged on one of them, and Teyla smiled grimly, but still took aim at the second, even as she knew that Ronon and Rodney were doing the same. The second man fell mere paces in front of the first one. "I missed." Rodney sounded disconsolate. "But you hit the other one," Teyla told him, breathless with hope, and with the fight.

 

The battlefield was orange with fire and black with smoke. Ronon strode towards them over bodies, as if he was emerging from the flames. "I see him," he said, and despite herself, Teyla felt a surge of joy. But she already knew what he really meant. Ronon's face was dark with contempt and resolution, as he hurried away into the trees, and came back dragging a thin-faced man behind him. "Tried to run," he said. "This is the one who'll talk."

 

He did talk, but only after Ronon had calmly set his weapon to kill, and shot one of his stunned comrades. Teyla heard Rodney gasp. She just pressed her lips together, and wondered what they had become - what this situation was turning them into.

 

Yes, the man admitted, they were bandits - bandits of a sort, anyway - that's what people sometimes called them, but it wasn't fair, because a man's got to earn a living, and it's a harsh universe, and you have to take what you can, or you go under. That earned him a knife at the throat, and a twist of the arm that caused it to audibly snap. When he could speak again, he admitted that they travelled between worlds, going where the pickings were rich, but the risks were small. This planet, uninhabited because of its heat - "because this is its winter," said Rodney, wiping his brow - was one of their occasional bases.

 

Teyla asked him about Dareon's planet. He denied all knowledge. The knife snaked slowly across his collarbone, leaving a trail of blood. He still protested ignorance, until Rodney, his voice breaking a little, described the area of around the Gate. As the knife stilled, their captive said that they'd only been there once, years ago. "Too many traps," he said, "and they always watch the Gate. They have…"  He flapped his hand. "…eyes." Rodney thought he meant cameras. "Gunmen, too. They come here sometimes, though." Why? He didn't know. "Perhaps they like the beach." The knife drew fresh lines at that.

 

Had they been there recently and captured a man? "Dressed like me," Rodney said, "but with hair like his." He pointed at one of the fallen men, but not the one who had reminded Teyla of John. Perhaps they all saw shades of their friend in every dark-haired man, and felt a surge of hope whenever they saw someone just his height. The man repeated that they hadn't been there for years. "Don't trade in people, anyway," he added, and the knife jabbed into his arm, Ronon showing his disgust at the very words. "Goods is easier. People fight back and have to be fed. Then you get people like you lot sniffing around."

 

"Like us?" The knife was back at his throat.

 

Teyla did not make a decision to move, but she found herself moving, anyway. "I believe he is telling the truth," she told Ronon, but she reserved nothing but hatred for the captive. "Or, rather, I am sure he is lying in an attempt to save his skin, but I think he is telling the truth about what matters." Then, seeing how tightly Ronon was gripping his knife, she stunned the prisoner, and calmly met Ronon's eyes when he whirled on her. They stood like that for only seconds, but it felt like much longer.

 

They checked the ships before leaving, though, and checked all the huts. Sheppard was not there. "But we know where we need to go now," she said, and neither of them disagreed.

 

******

 

He was marking out the twenty-second meal when the footsteps returned. He stopped, finger frozen in the middle of a line. Each time they came, the steps were a little louder than the time before. "No," McKay had told him, not so long ago, "it's because your hearing is getting more sensitive because of the lack of other external stimuli."

 

He wasn't sure whether to believe McKay. Still crouching by the wall, he turned, and listened to the steps approach. This was not Homer, who had brought his meal only moments before. The steps sounded firmer than Hank's, and he didn't recognise George, the one he had touched. This was someone else, and was that the sound of a key? Was that the sound of something worse, dangling from a hand?

 

He moved to the door, lurching a little as his heart tried to force the blood to run too fast through his starved body. The steps slowed as they neared his door; sped up as they passed. Sheppard shouted something, but, really, he had no idea what. By the time the world outside was silent again, the side of his fist was throbbing. He had a brief flash-like memory of striking it against the door, but had no memory of deciding to do so.

 

The smell of the food pierced him like a dagger. Every meal smelled a little more intense than the previous one. Sometimes the smell seemed almost delicious, but often it was repulsive - not sweet, but cloying even so. It just too much, coming as it did after hours of nothing. When he ate, the taste was as fierce as ecstasy and as sharp as pain.

 

He managed one mouthful before the steps returned. Once again, he scrambled to the door, to be ready for the attack. The food burnt the back of his throat. He felt it all the way to his stomach, falling like a line of fire. This time the steps stopped, and he counted to three before they started up again. Once again, he shouted, but this person was a stranger - not Homer or Hank or George, whom he knew. He tried for a light-hearted joke, but something broke inside him as soon as he opened his mouth, and the words came straight from a part of him that he didn't know existed. He didn't want to know what they were. If he refused to listen, he could tell himself that he was still strong.

 

The steps came back after three more mouthfuls. After that, he touched the food, snatched his hand back; touched the food, snatched his hand back. Eventually, his jaw set, he picked up the hunk of meat, and raised it to his mouth. He unclenched his teeth, and chewed it, but the taste was dull this time. Sound was everything. Taste had faded away to nothing.

 

The footsteps returned. He stayed where he was, this time, but he was still coiled, ready to spring if the door opened. The hook on the ceiling stared down at him, grimly amused. The steps passed. He thought he heard laughter in the silence, but perhaps it was only his imagination.

 

And then he had something new to count - not just meals, but the number of times the footsteps passed his room. He made it to twenty-seven.

 

"Just ignore it," McKay told him, as he sat on the end of Sheppard's bed, more calm than he ever was in real life. "They're playing with you. They have no intention of coming in. Ignore them, and they'll go away."

 

But if he lay back and lowered his guard, then they would come. No, then they could come, and it was not a risk he wanted to take. He would not lie down and be complicit in his own torture. He would be ready. He would fight. It was something to focus on. It was something to keep him strong.

 

"You're losing your mind," McKay said, "because of this constant readiness."

 

The twenty-seventh set of footsteps faded to silence. He counted, and reached a thousand, but the steps did not return.

 

He tried to swallow the last few mouthfuls of food, but his throat was sore, as if he had been shouting for a very long time. The sides of his fists were red and tender. His whole body hurt, as if he had been running a race, his heart and his muscles pushed beyond endurance.

 

Perhaps he passed out for a while, or perhaps he just stared at the whiteness, while time passed without him noticing it. By the time he finished his meal, the meat was dry and beginning to curl, as if hours had passed. His throat remained sore, though, and never really got better.

 

******

 

Once you started, you could never stop.

 

"Is this how people end up in a life of crime?" Rodney wondered. "I think I'd make a good master criminal, as long as someone else did the actual crime. Someone like you." His eyes flickered to Ronon, sitting impassively beside the case. "I have an honest face."

 

Ronon just looked at him. He was the only one of them who looked unchanged. Rodney had brought changes of clothes, but you could only get so clean when washing in rivers and in the primitive bathrooms of people who might have kidnapped your friend, even though they said they hadn't. Not that he had a mirror, except for the tiny one that came as standard issue in a tac vest pocket, though he had no idea why. Maybe Sheppard wasn't the only soldier to be ridiculously vain about his hair, although he hotly denied it, of course, but why else would it look like that? Anyway, the mirror showed Rodney to be less changed than he felt. His leg, though, was healing ridiculously fast. If it's completely better, and Sheppard still hasn't come back…

 

"Is this an act of war?" he asked. "I wouldn't make a good intergalactic warlord. Haven't got the temperament for it. The brains, on the other hand…"

 

"McKay."

 

When Ronon looked like that, you had to listen, even when you knew that he was softer than he seemed, and when he had once hugged you and called you buddy.

 

"Yes. Of course. Yes. Ready."

 

But once you started, you could never stop. You made a decision to leave, but staying away led to one decision after another. It led you to stand and watch as your team-mate killed an unconscious man. You justified it, because you were doing it to get Sheppard back. But with every day that went by without any leads, you had to take stronger action to try to get a lead. For every new day that you stayed out despite the lack of leads, you had to stay out another day, and another week, because how could you give up hope? How could you ever give up hope?

 

But the wormhole enfolded them, and they were out on the other side, Rodney slamming on the brakes to avoid crashing into the wall. As soon as they were still, he opened the hatch, and Ronon leapt down, the case in his arms. He placed it beside the small doorway in the building, then climbed back into the jumper, Teyla helping him up. "Done," Ronon said.

 

Rodney's hands took over, as they always did when there was work to be done. He closed the hatch, and pressed the detonator. It was only a small charge - enough to take down a wall without obliterating the building. As the viewscreen erupted into orange, he accelerated forward, heading through the storm of flying stones, trusting to shields and inertial dampeners. The jumper didn't even shake. They unleashed destruction, but flew on, unharmed.

 

Cloaked, he began to fly towards the city. Beneath them, looking so innocent now, were the ruins that Ronon had called a killing ground, and the place where they had last seen Sheppard alive.

 

"He must be here," Rodney said, "and now we're going to find him."

 

He had blown up hundreds of things in his time. Once, he had even blown up the control room of Atlantis, but Sheppard had been there, then, and Carson, and Elizabeth. That had been their own home, and this was just a stupid building on a stupid planet that was not their own.

 

Why, then, did he just feel that he had broken something that could never be rebuilt again?

 

******

 

Twenty-eight meals were marked on the wall. "Why do you no longer tell stories?" Teyla asked, as she watched him exercise.

 

"Because they all turn dark, and I forget them, anyway." As long as he didn't look directly at her, she wouldn't disappear.

 

"I like hearing stories from your world," she said. "Recounting tales keeps your mind sharp."

 

"Yes. Yes." McKay seemed to agree. "If you keep forgetting how the stories go, that's all the more reason to tell them. Your brain needs exercising as well as your body, you know." It didn't really sound properly like McKay, though, for all his talk of brains.

 

"What about telling the story of what's going to happen?" Ronon was eager. This was clearly something he wanted to hear about.

 

Sheppard settled on the bed. "One day, they'll come," he said. "They can't keep this up forever. One day… Maybe if they realise they can't break me this way. They'll come in, and I'll be waiting. They're going to try to hurt me. I…" He stopped talking, remembering that it was not just his team that was listening, but the men behind the cameras. He carried on silently. His team wasn't really here, and they could hear him just as well if he spoke only inside his head.

 

They would be expecting him to attack the moment they opened the door, so perhaps he would hold back. Perhaps he would let them wrestle him to the floor, let them begin to lift him up to the hook. Then he would fight. He had continued to exercise, and although he wasn't in peak condition, he wasn't too bad. Hunger was a problem, but adrenaline would counter that, at least for a while. Yes, he would bide his time and strike out, driving his foot between someone's legs, smashing his fist into someone else's face.

 

They were bound to have weapons. He'd get his hands on one, and then he could be the aggressor. He'd hold them at bay, force them to let him leave this room, and then he'd lock them in, and see how they liked it. But he wouldn't torment them with footsteps, oh no. Let them strain into the silence, and hear nothing at all. He'd be far away, heading back to the Gate, back to Atlantis, back to his home.

 

"They tried to break me," he'd say, "but didn't manage it." And Elizabeth… No, Elizabeth was gone. Carson. No. Who was the new…? Keller. Yes. Keller would… And the others… Back on active duty within days, perhaps, and then he would come here with a dozen teams at his back, and he would raze this place to the ground. He would find every one of them - Homer, who sought to control him by bringing food; Hank, who prowled; George, who had let himself be touched. He would let them plead for their life, and then he would kill them. He would kill them without mercy. He would break them. He would shatter them. He would slaughter them.

 

"How?" Ronon wanted to know. His glittering eyes stole into Sheppard's heart, and fed his words. McKay was not entirely sure he wanted the details.

 

"Shoot them," Sheppard told Ronon, but Ronon didn't feel that was good enough. Ronon wanted him to dwell on every bullet as it tore into flesh. He showed him lingering scenes of faces shattering into pulp. He showed the delight of feeling someone die beneath your hands, when you hated them. He showed Sheppard a knife slipping deliciously into flesh, and twisting.

 

McKay said that he didn't feel well. Teyla said she was worried about you, John. This is not like you, and of course it's not like me, he told her, because normally I haven't been incarcerated for weeks by these… by these…

 

"Monsters," Ronon filled in for him.

 

"I notice that your little escape scenario didn't include a role for us as rescuers," McKay pointed out.

 

"Because if you were going to rescue me, you'd have come by now."

 

And, there. It was said.

 

"And the last time I saw you, you were all injured."

 

They were no longer there. He was alone in a white room, and there were no shadows to hide in.

 

"And when I think too much about the real you," he told the spaces where they had been, "you go away, like you did just now."

 

But he went back, even so, and crafted a fresh story - one in which the footsteps approached his door, and there were three sets of them - a warrior, a beautiful woman, and a scientist. They opened the door, and he was ready for them, and together they turned this whole place into smoking ruin, awash with blood.

 

******

 

End of chapter five

 

******

 

Chapter six: The dead of winter

 

In some ways, it reminded Ronon of his time as a Runner. Like then, he had no proper home to go to, and he lived on what he could forage and kill. Like then, he had a goal. But then his goal had just been to live. Now his goal was specific, and appeared to be growing more unattainable with every day that passed.

 

And then he had been alone, and now he was with friends.

 

It made it easier, and it made it harder, being with other people. He had people to protect, and that honed his will to survive. Teyla, it was true, needed little protection, although he couldn't stop himself from wanting to try. McKay, at least, needed a bodyguard, although he was resourceful in ways that Ronon was not. There were times – had been times, and would be many more – when Ronon had owed his life to the scientist's tenacity, brains… yes, and courage, too.

 

McKay's task was to keep them hidden. The cloak only had limited power, he said, and he tinkered with it endlessly to make it last as long as possible. Whenever they were confident that they were hidden, they decloaked, but several times they had been forced to move the jumper to a fresh hiding place. McKay had another task, too, of course. He scanned constantly, trying every contrivance he could think of, trying to find evidence of Sheppard, or evidence of anything out of the ordinary.

 

Teyla was the one who made contact with the inhabitants. She had been reluctant to steal - "even if John is here, the ordinary people are not our enemies" - but had consented to steal clothing. She looked like a stranger, her hair dyed dark with boiled roots, and wearing a long red gown kirtled up to her knee. She spent days and nights talking to people on the streets, infiltrating taverns, and discovering the places frequented by the servants of the great ones. She had discovered many secrets, but none of them led to Sheppard. Watching her return one evening – a stranger, until she came close – Ronon was suddenly struck with the impression that she felt less hope than any of them, although she was always the most optimistic one, when they talked.

 

Ronon's job was to keep them alive. That, at least, he could do, and would do, with every drop of breath in his body. He had lost too many friends. And so he hunted, and brought them food. He slept just enough to keep himself alert, but no more than that. He kept watch during the long nights, and through the rain and wind of the short days.

 

McKay still counted the days, marking them off on the page of a notebook. "Old-fashioned, I know," he said, "but Keller wouldn't let me have my laptop in the infirmary. I started then." Teyla had kept it up, Ronon discovered, when McKay had been lost in fever for several days. He felt obscurely disappointed that he had not known about this. Still, he found McKay's markings meaningless. A day was shorter here than on Earth, so McKay waited for a day and a night to pass, and only made his mark half way through the following day.

 

"Time's running away from us," McKay said once, gazing at the notebook in his hand. "It feels as if the days are going faster and faster…" He ran his hand across his brow. "I'm sorry. I… uh… I'm tired. Speaking nonsense." So Ronon told him to sleep, but he didn't think McKay did.

 

When it was Teyla's turn to watch, Ronon started awake from a nightmare. Teyla didn't say anything about it, but he knew that she knew. Rather than feeling exposed, he felt… Loved, his mind said. Part of something. Protected. He had always known that he was their protector; he had seldom stopped to realise that they protected him, too. But they had come after him when the Wraith had taken him. They had fallen into place so quietly around him when his old friends had betrayed him.

 

We're still a team, he thought, the following morning, but he had never felt Sheppard's absence more keenly. What should have been four was only three. They were stumbling in the dark. It was not enough merely to survive, not this time. It was not even enough to kill his enemies. No, they had a goal now, and every day – every day that McKay marked off in an uncompromising black in his notebook – brought them no closer to achieving it.

 

They had left Atlantis ready to take on the universe, but this was slow death.

 

******

 

After that, Sheppard discovered that he had been right not to imagine that his team was coming for him. Hope, once awakened, became a torment.

 

When footsteps came, he warred between readiness and expectation. Homer brought food, but weren't those footsteps so very like the footsteps of Rodney McKay? George was Teyla, and Hank, who prowled with a long stride, could be Ronon. Sometimes, in his dreams, he was.

 

Once, he fell onto his dinner with both hands, suddenly convinced that there was a file or a knife hidden in it. They couldn't get to him directly, but they'd infiltrated the base and were communicating with him in the only way they could. He strained to hear Morse code in the distant sound of water in the pipes. He listened for messages in the irregular beat of footsteps in the hallway.

 

Dreams came, often not waiting for him to fall asleep. Sometimes his team-mates were still on the run, still searching for him, still injured, growing weaker and weaker. Sometimes they thought he was dead, and were grieving for him, while he endured here, buried alive. Sometimes they found him, but were cut down on the threshold, all three of them together, and he had to live on like this for years afterwards, seeing nothing but the memory of their dying faces.

 

Once, he thought he lived for a hundred years, but when he opened his eyes – the white room of the dream becoming the white room of reality – his food was still moist, and he knew he had lived a century in the space of a few minutes.

 

The marks on the wall rose into the thirties, and continued to climb. At thirty-five, though, he lost count again. He was slow eating, and fell asleep several times, and when he'd almost finished, he couldn't remember if he'd marked the meal before eating, or if he'd been so weak with hunger that he had forgotten.

 

Losing count didn't seem to matter as much as it once had.

 

When the footsteps came, he started to talk to them, calling them "Rodney" or "Ronon" or "Teyla." He was almost entirely certain that it wasn't them, but it never did any harm to try. They never spoke back, though.

 

Once, he woke up to find the door wide open. "Come on," McKay was urging him, beckoning from the door. "Don't just sit there. They'll be back any minute." Sheppard rose from the bed and went with them, and they were grim at first, shooting when they had to, but there were jokes once they were back in the jumper, and jokes again in the infirmary, with the undercurrent of things that could not be said out loud.

 

Waking from that dream was hard, but the next dream was even worse. Then, McKay beckoned him from the door, but Sheppard couldn't move. He tried to rise from the bed, but his body had become as heavy a lump of lead, fused to the bed, incapable of moving. As he strained, desperate to move, Ronon shouted from somewhere out of sight, saying they couldn't stay any longer. McKay ran off with a look of apology, and Sheppard screamed after them, screamed after them, and tore himself free from the bed at last, in time for the door to slam shut in his face and be locked forever.

 

When he awoke from that dream, he immediately passed out again. The next time he awoke, he told himself that the solution was simple: he didn't let himself fall asleep again. But dreams came even when he was fully awake, and it was impossible not to sleep. Although he never slept enough to feel rested, he suspected he was sleeping for well over half of his time. Whole swathes of time were swallowed up in sleep. If it seemed like weeks, it must have been longer.

 

"We're still looking for you," McKay told him. He looked anxious, now.

 

"I can't let myself believe that," Sheppard told him. Hope was the worst thing of all to endure.

 

******

 

When they had lost Sheppard, brown leaves had been cascading down from the tall trees. Now the trees were bare, and the air was cold enough to hurt. Night after night was clear and starless, and the sparse grass was covered with frost.

 

Although he marked off each day, Rodney felt as if he was losing his grip on the passage of time. Seasons went faster here, and the days were shorter, and they were already at the heart of winter. He didn't like to think too much about the prospect of Sheppard still missing by spring.

 

As the leaves fell, the buildings grew clearer. They all knew the city by now, with its old-fashioned fortress-like buildings, and its distant factories, shrouded with smoke. There were far too many life-signs to investigate every one, but they did what they could. Teyla talked, and found nothing. Ronon threatened and interrogated, but found nothing. Days and nights passed, and Rodney felt less like himself with every one of them, but still they found nothing.

 

One night, low behind the trees, the horizon blazed red with flame. "Wraith!" Ronon hissed, but Teyla came back from the city then, and told them. It was the celebration of midwinter, when fires were lit against the dark, and to celebrate the triumph of the returning sun. "Wouldn't the anthropologists like that," Rodney said. He thought of Christmas, though, and childhood bonfires in the dark.

 

After that, his thoughts turned increasingly towards Atlantis. Had the hive ship reached the city? He thought of the scientists, scurrying around their labs. "If only Doctor McKay was here. We'd have a chance if only McKay was here." No, no, he told himself. Radek was more than capable. And chances were, the hive ship had never reached the city at all – had never even known that the city was there.

 

He thought of Katie Brown, the woman he so seldom made time to see, but who was always so sweet and forgiving when he did. He hadn't said goodbye to her; hadn't thought to say goodbye to her; had barely thought of her in weeks. "I don't deserve you," he wanted to say to her. Then he imagined what Sheppard would say if he heard him being so uncharacteristically modest. Then he thought of Katie again, and then he looked at the stars, and he was still there when Teyla came to look for him, calling him in.

 

"I wonder what they're all doing," he wondered out loud, but neither of the other two would play that game, although it was a better game than wondering what was happening to Sheppard.

 

He remembered faces clearly – faces of people whose names he hadn't realised that he knew. He thought about his quarters lying empty, and the work that was lying undone. But it was the people that he thought about most – people, that he didn't care about; people, who were unimportant to him; people, far less important than facts and words.

 

Then, one day, he saw Sam Carter. He was slipping out of the city – and he still hated visits to the city, and spent the whole time sure that a hand would fall on his shoulder, and that he, too, would be dragged away and never return, but he had to do it, didn't he? Returning home – if a jumper could be called home – he saw Carter and a small group of Marines being escorted into the city. He pressed himself against a building, paced up and down, headed for the trees, wandered back. Several hours later, he saw them leave again. They were too far away for him to see her face.

 

The next day, though, someone tried to contact him on the radio. He sat there, watching that blinking light, and didn't move for quite a while.

 

"What if he's back on Atlantis?" he asked the others, when they returned. "What if they've found him? What if he's been back for weeks, and he's living there in luxury while we camp out here like… like beggars? What if…? Oh no! Oh no! What if they've found out for sure that he's dead?"

 

The others said nothing. Afterwards, though, he wondered if Sam had glanced his way as he had quivered in his hiding place. He found himself hoping that she had. And that night, his dreams were all of Atlantis.

 

******

 

He stopped counting meals. Then, in sudden fit of fury when still half lost in a dream, he wiped all the marks off the wall, and then he had nothing at all to count.

 

Then a meal came – he had no idea which meal it was – that contained a razor blade.

 

He looked at it lying there, half-covered with blood, hard and silver and lovely next to the washed-out vegetables. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, but it was still there. "Rodney?" he whispered. It was too close to his dreams. "Ronon? Teyla?"

 

"It wasn't us," McKay told him, hovering at his shoulder. "It's them. It's a test. They want to see what you do with it."

 

"I know that, Rodney." His voice shook, just a little. "Of course I know that."

 

He picked it up, held it delicately between his fingers; wanted to grasp it as tightly as he possibly could, but there was no safe place to hold it. Stumbling to his feet, he attacked the hinges of the door, scraping and slicing. Metal screeched. White paint came off in flakes, and the metal beneath it was untouched. The blade bent slightly in his hand. He felt slashes go deep into his fingers and hands, and blood fell on the metal, replacing the white paint.

 

"The blade will break well before the hinge does," Ronon told him.

 

"Or go blunt," added McKay.

 

He dropped the blade, and managed to make his way to the bed. Leaning his head against the wall, he closed his eyes. At least the pain in his hands kept him awake. At least it stilled the dreams. At least it was something to focus on, something to marshal his strength against. At least it was here and now, not some distant fear of an imagined pain yet to come.

 

Those thoughts were going to places he couldn't let them go. He stood up, and snatched up the blade again. In the bathroom, he washed away the blood, and found that the cuts were less deep than they could have been. The blade must have been blunted already from his work on the hinge. 

 

When he looked in the mirror, the face that looked back at him wore something that could only be called a beard; it had stopped being stubble many meals ago. "Shave it off," McKay told him. "Perhaps they're trying to give you a hint."

 

He brought the razor to his face. The eyes in the mirror looked into his, wondering what he was going to do. If he shaved the beard, he would no longer look like a stranger. He would look like himself again. It was one last tiny thing he could hold onto. He wore their clothes, ate their food, but he looked the way he wanted to look.

 

"So it's all about pride, then, is it?" McKay wondered.

 

"No," Sheppard told him. "Symbols are important. Ronon knows." But Ronon was silent, and offered no opinion.

 

But time was caught up in the hair on his face. Minutes and hours and days and weeks were entwined in every hair. He had no way to count days, and he had stopped counting meals, but the beard told him that time was passing. The beard told him that all of this was real. It anchored him in time. It anchored him in reality. If it went… If he looked the same as he had looked when he had left Atlantis…

 

"Then it's as if none of this happened, and I have to know that it happened, because I feel different. If I don't look different, then it's all a lie."

 

"Which is a good thing, isn't it?" McKay was just a voice. No other faces were visible in the mirror.

 

Sheppard clenched his fist, and smashed it into the mirror. "You don't understand."

 

But he left the blade where it had fallen, and walked back to the bed without touching it again…

 

******

 

They told each other stories, sometimes, in the evenings. Teyla was the one who started it. Rodney scoffed, of course. "Do you think for one moment that fairy tales will make us forget the true awfulness that is our life?" Ronon, however, encouraged her. Whenever she thought she had come to know him, he surprised her.

 

She avoided stories that touched on their own situation. Tales could hold moral lessons, and were often used that way with children and with adults alike, but this was not the time for it. She told no stories of lost loved ones who returned with the spring. She told no stories of fidelity repaid, or of healing that came after a long winter of grief.

 

No, she told childhood tales, and made even Rodney smile – although he tried so hard to disguise it – with the antics of young animals outwitting the wily ossa. "Which I believe you would call a fox," she told Rodney, afterwards. "It is a different creature, but fills the same role in the stories."

 

Ronon told a tale, then, of a young soldier experiencing his first battle. "He had expected it to be glorious, but it just seemed like so much noise. He was afraid."

 

"What's the point of that story?" Rodney demanded. "It's got no ending."

 

Teyla suspected that the story was true, and that Ronon was that soldier, but she knew Ronon well enough to know that there were some things that a friend could not know about him, or could not ask, anyway.

 

Rodney, grudgingly, told them all about a man called Batman, but he was not a good storyteller. His story reminded Teyla of a ball of yarn, with strands going everywhere, getting increasingly more tangled. Not that it mattered. It was good to hear his voice, and good to see his smile. His eyes shone, and she knew that this tale was important to him.

 

Another night, the stories moved to childhood memories. Ronon talked about his first gun –  "Well, you would, wouldn't you?" Rodney said. "You're a walking stereotype." He then told them about his first science prize – "And yes, yes, I see the irony in this. Point taken, and all that." Teyla's childhood was full of the threat of the Wraith and the wisdom of her father. She told them how she had become lost in the fog, when she had gone out without permission, trying to keep up with the older children. "I remember how scared I was," she said, "but I always knew that he would come for me."

 

It was a bad choice of words. None of them said what all of them were thinking, though.

 

The next night, they spoke of more recent memories. "Do you remember…?" and "what about that time when…?" and "and then he said…" The stories were dark with the names of the dead and the disappeared, but there were smiles, too, in remembering them.

 

On the next night, Rodney started to talk about the future.

 

There were no more stories after that.

 

******

 

…until much later, after another meal had come, and another set of footsteps had departed.

 

His hands were hurting. The pain was flashes of light and colour in the unrelenting whiteness. It was something to resist. Ronon had said something like that, once, hadn't he? Something about how a blade needed to be used in battle, because if it sat untouched in the sheath, it grew dull and blunt.

 

He thought of the razor blade, so full of promise in the bathroom.

 

When he heard the footsteps, he hurled himself at the door, and then he was hammering against it with bloody hands, begging, demanding, that they come in right now and started to hurt him. He wanted the pain; he needed the pain. He needed an enemy. He needed a cause to fight.

 

No-one came. When he fell to the floor, exhausted, he managed to gather together to tattered remains of his mind, and to realise that there had probably never been anyone outside, anyway. He was so attuned to sound, now, that he heard sound where no sound was.

 

The razor called to him.

 

He stood up and moved to the bathroom, his head high, and his hands at his sides. He saw himself in the mirror, moving in as if in a dream. He watched himself from outside as he picked up the blade. From somewhere on the ceiling, he watched the body of a stranger called John Sheppard, and saw him return to the bed. He saw him sit almost serenely on the bed; saw him place the blade against the skin of his forearm.

 

He stayed like that for a very long time. The Sheppard who watched had no idea what was going through the mind of the Sheppard who sat on the bed. McKay and the others watched in silent expectation, and sometimes whispered things to each other, but he couldn't hear what they were.

 

At last, the man on the bed moved his lips, speaking in a voice that Sheppard no longer recognised. "No," those cracked lips said. "That's not who I am."

 

He stood up, and moved stiffly towards the door, where he lowered himself to his knees, and flicked the blade through the gap at the bottom of the door. It skittered across the floor, the sound louder than a shout, but then he lay full length on the floor and reached through the gap, straining as hard as he could, and when his fingertips encountered the blade, he flicked it away even further, until he was certain that he would never be able to reach it again.

 

Then the man who was called John Sheppard returned to the bed, and sat there until the next meal came, his eyes wide open, staring into the white.

 

******

 

Ronon never told the others about his dreams. Many things came out to play when he closed his eyes. He saw fragments of his old life, sometimes mixed up with the new. He saw himself running, endlessly on and on, always alone. He saw friends become enemies, but he also saw all the usual nonsensical stuff of dreams.

 

Now he saw Sheppard, too. Several times he woke up sharply in the night, sure that they had found him. It was never easy to get to sleep again after that, after he had rolled over and found himself still in the jumper, and still with only two companions.

 

More often that that, though, he dreamt that they found Sheppard dead. He also dreamt of Weir with sightless eyes, and felt bones crunch beneath his fists as he slaughtered people who had once been closer than family to him. Then he would wake up, and lie there, half way between sleep and waking, and imagine what he would do if he caught those responsible for taking Sheppard from them.

 

He had already done what he could. He had captured a close aide of Lord Dareon, and questioned him until he was satisfied that he knew nothing about Sheppard, and then had questioned him some more. He had found a gunman who guarded the Gate, and pinned him down until he admitted that yes, they did have orders to fire at uninvited guests, but "only to drive them off – maybe wound them a little – so they don't come back. We don't take prisoners."

 

Lord Dareon remained too well guarded. "I wonder why that could be," McKay said harshly. "Could it be…? Oh! I know! It's because we blew up that building! And they know that we're here, enemies in their midst. I can see no reason at all why they should be… edgy." Ronon had glimpsed Dareon at a distance, though, but they needed answers, not a kill. They couldn't storm in, guns blazing, since there was no obvious place to storm.

 

All this he saw again in his dreams, but warped terribly. He killed the whole lot of them, but Dareon died with a smile on his face, because now they would never learn the secret of Sheppard's location. He watched Sheppard drained by the Wraith, as Kolya watched. They burst triumphant into a cell, to find that Sheppard was dead, but when he rolled the body over, its face was McKay's, and when he blinked, it was Teyla's, and then Weir's, and then Tyre's.

 

He killed in revenge, and he killed in justice, but they kept on rising up, and he killed them again, but they still didn't die.

 

The good dreams were the worst, though. Sitting in the mess hall, the four of them together, baiting McKay and watching him splutter. "Thanks for coming for me, you guys," Sheppard says, and Ronon smiles, because not everything is well - the Wraith are still out there, and his old home is gone - but, for now and in this moment, he is content.

 

He woke up sharply. The next time was worse, and clearer. "Let us in!" McKay and Teyla were shouting from outside. "We've got him." And Ronon opened the hatch, and in they came, supporting Sheppard between them, but he looked tired, really, rather than badly hurt, and he smiled his crooked smile, and said, "Thanks, guys. Now let's get the hell out of here."

 

He must have gasped upon waking, that time. Teyla was on watch, just a voice in the darkness. "I have them, too," she said.

 

******

 

At some point, he stopped putting on the fresh clothes. He stopped washing, too. What did it matter what he looked like? Putting on clean clothes was perpetuating the lie that the normal rules still held. Of course they didn't hold. No-one was coming for him. He was never getting out.

 

He still heard the footsteps, but no longer moved in response to them. He ate the food, but often not straight away. A distant part of his mind whispered that he should just stop eating, because then they'd be forced to act, if they didn't want him to die. Sometimes he even tried to carry out that resolve, but in the end, he remembered the razor blade, and found himself eating, after all.

 

His team no longer appeared to him, but before that, they had each had one last visit. Ronon had told him he was pitiful, because he had been reduced to this by enemies who hadn't laid a finger on him. Teyla had said he should have accepted his situation weeks ago, and found a fresh understanding of himself through solitude. McKay didn't want to be near him because he looked a mess, his nails bitten down and jagged, his beard tangled, and his clothes stinking.

 

"But there's no point," he said, as his hand plucked threads from the blanket, again and again. "What's the point?"

 

The razor blade shone in his dreams, but it was never returned to him. When he dragged himself to the bathroom, the stranger looked down on him, and reminded him that he could smash the glass and get what he needed there. Once, when the gap between meals stretched into an eternity, he found himself striking the mirror again and again, just to silence that stranger and hide from his eyes, but the glass didn't break. Perhaps it wasn't glass at all.

 

He stopped returning the trays. He started counting meals again in a desultory fashion, but stopped after three.

 

Once, he thought he heard someone speaking to him from the hallway, but he turned his head away, and knew that it was only his imagination. The next time the footsteps came, he tried to tell himself that those, too, were not real, but he knew they were. They brought food, but they refused to bring pain.

 

The clean clothes lay untouched in the centre of the room. He washed his hands, and he splashed water onto his face, but he did nothing else.

 

Then came a meal that he didn't eat. He didn't think he'd actively decided not to eat it, but he just… didn't. It was still there when the next one came.

 

Then came the razor blade, returned to him. He picked it up and put it under his pillow, then curled up loosely on the bed. The food dried on the plate, untouched.

 

******

 

Rodney McKay hated to give up. Sure, he often talked loudly about how doomed they were, but that was just his way of goading himself into doing something about it. The more you talked about certain death, the more you were inspired to do something to stop it for being quite so certain. And Rodney was often in an excellent position to do just that, what with his doctorates and his awards and his great brain and his experience and the fact that he had saved the world – no, the galaxy – more times than some people had had hot dinners, and…

 

"But none of that counts for anything, does it?"

 

The others didn't attempt to buoy him up, to keep his spirits up, to offer false comfort.

 

"It's been too long."

 

He had seen a tiny pink flower today, emerging between two skeletal leaves.

 

"We shouldn't have come."

 

"Yes, we should." Teyla said it fiercely.

 

"But why?" he asked her. "We're no nearer to finding him." And we've been too long away from Atlantis, and I never expected to find a home there, but I have, and people that I care about. "It was all a colossal waste of time."

 

"A waste of time?" Ronon growled. "You call it a waste?"

 

He shook his head, spreading his hands uselessly. Not a waste if they had found him, oh no. He'd risk anything to save a friend – and count that another miraculous, impossible thing that the Pegasus Galaxy had done to him. But to search for so long without finding him… To leave Atlantis for so long, and in such a way… And I even doubted Sam, but she was right all along.

 

"I do not believe it was ever entirely about John," Teyla said.

 

Rodney looked at her. Ronon did, too, and he seemed suddenly so much more familiar than he had seemed only weeks before.

 

"We needed to do this," Teyla said.

 

"Why?" Rodney gave a bark of laughter. "So we can learn the bitter taste of ultimate failure? Am I suppose to feel that my character has been developed through adversity? Am I a better person now? Or are you saying we were selfish all along, and only came in order to make ourselves feel better, and not for him at all?"

 

"You're talking as if we're giving up." Ronon was leaning forward, his forearms on his knees.

 

"We have to one day," Rodney said. It was the first time he had as much as thought it.

 

When did you stop? You made a decision, and perhaps it wasn't even the right decision, but it was the decision that you had made. That decision led to other decisions, and days became weeks, and you couldn't stop, because that invalidated all the days that had gone before. If you went home again, you were admitting that yet another friend was lost forever, and that there was nothing you could do about it. If you stopped searching, then you admitted that there were things that even you could not fix.

 

"It was right that we tried," Teyla said.

 

Afterwards, they stood side by side, watching the clouds moving in from the direction of the Gate. Rodney thought of home. It was easier to do that than to think of Sheppard, who was gone.

 

******

 

End of chapter six

 

******

 

Chapter seven: Two halves

 

He knew that he had split into two. One half lay on the bed, his clothes filthy, his hair and beard knotted. The other half floated above that body, looking down.

 

The second half knew about the razor. "Just use it, then. Giving up is just another form of suicide, anyway. It's better to make it quick."

 

The body on the bed raised a heavy head. "I'm not trying to kill myself."

 

"Well, it looks like it from where I'm standing."

 

"No. The razor…" The razor, under the pillow, offering such sharp, sweet pain. "It's so I can fight them. It's so I can… with pain… when I… if I… if I need…"

 

"That isn't who you are." One time before, he had floated on the ceiling and watched as the man called Sheppard held a razor to his skin. Then, he had said nothing. He wasn't entirely sure why he was speaking up now.

 

"It's a weapon," said the man on the bed. "It's my only weapon."

 

The man on the ceiling laughed. "It's their weapon. That's why they gave it back. They want to break you. Everything they've done - the footsteps, the hook, the irregular meals - has been to test you. They want to see how long you last. Maybe they're making notes."

 

The man on the bed laughed, too - a high, shrill sound. He groped under the pillow, and emerged with the razor. "Then if I hurt myself, they'll think I've broken. Experiment'll be over. Done. Then they'll let me go."

 

"Then you will have broken. No pretence about it, but true. And you'll never be free. Because you'll always know. If they let you know, you'll know it was only because you broke. You'll see the scars, and know that they were put there by your own hand."

 

"Does it matter?" But his hands were trembling, and his voice cracked.

 

"Yes," said the man on the ceiling softly, and he drifted close. His hands closed round the other man's hands, but there was nothing to grip, because he is me, and I am you.

 

When he moved, he moved as if he had not done so for a very long time. With a shaking hand, he scooped the dried food into his mouth, and forced himself to chew it. He told himself that strength would soon start flowing through his veins, but the food sat heavy in his stomach, like a stone.

 

"Come on." The man from the ceiling led the other man by the hand, although they were almost the same now, like two images that were supposed to be superimposed, but had been misaligned.

 

"Where?" said the man from the bed, but he already knew. They stripped off his clothes, and they climbed into the bath. When they were clean, they got dressed in fresh clothes, and as he did so, something clicked, and he knew that he was whole again, ceiling and bed united into one.

 

But there was still the razor. He held it to his face, and this time he did what he had lacked the courage to do before. The beard slowly fell away, and sometimes his hand slipped, and blood covered his chin as if he was a teenager again, clumsily shaving for the first time. The accumulated story of days and weeks fell to the floor. And when his chin was smooth again, he realised that he had been wrong, anyway, because he still bore a calendar of time's passing on his face. It was there in the shadows under his eyes, and the sunken thinness of his cheekbones. It was there in the pallor of skin that had not seen the sun, and in the length of his hair.

 

"I am John Sheppard," he told the stranger in the mirror, and the unseen watchers beyond. "I won't let this break me."

 

And, after that, he told himself stories, and concentrated fiercely, nails digging into his palms, until he had finished each one.

 

******

 

They decided to give it two more days.

 

Barely hours after they had come to this decision, someone pulled Teyla to one side in the tavern, and told her about a place.

 

Two hours after that, armed with everything that they had, they set off from the jumper, all three of them together.

 

"What if it's a trap?" Rodney worried.

 

"Then it's a trap." Ronon's voice was level. "But we are ready for it."

 

******

 

Then they stopped bringing him food. He had recounted all six Star Wars movies, but he had never quite stopped listening for footsteps. None came.

 

When the hunger became so bad that he could hardly stand, he went to the door and hammered against it, beating it with the heel of his hand. "Hello! Hello? Anybody?"

 

At the fifth blow, the door swung slowly outwards.

 

He gaped at it, seeing the white painted hallway, as wide as seven trays. He felt cooler air on his cheeks. His heart lurched, and he grabbed the side of the door, as spots danced across his vision, and he felt himself close to panic. How long? his heart hammered. How long has it been unlocked?

 

"Stop that." He tightened his grip on the door frame, then pushed himself free. He took two steps, then stopped.

 

Going back was one of the hardest things he had even done. As he stepped back into the stale air of his prison, his heart was fluttering fast enough to hurt, and he was sure that the door would close again, and that the whole thing was just some fresh torture. He snatched up the razor blade desperately, and plunged back towards the door. It remained open.

 

Outside, he turned right, because that was where the footsteps had usually come from. The hallway was silent. He passed other rooms like his own, but their doors were open, and their insides completely bare.

 

At the end of the hallway there was a flight of stairs. He climbed it, and, heart hammering, tried to door at the top. It opened. On the far side, he found a small hallway, like an airlock between two doors. He opened the door at the end, climbed some more stairs, opened another door, and found himself outside.

 

He managed six steps. He managed twelve, fourteen, nineteen, twenty-three… Above him was silver moonlight, and stars… and, oh! the stars, but he couldn't turn his face upwards to bathe in the night's sky, not yet, because he was still not free, and he wouldn't be free until he was back home on Atlantis, and perhaps he would never be free.

 

There was so much to sense outside. He heard the wind moving in trees, and an animal cried out. The air was richly nuanced, bringing a different sensation every second. He had forgotten what darkness looked like, or how subtle light could be. The ground crunched softly beneath his feet, and when he reached a gate in the low wall that surrounded him, the texture of its wooden surface was miraculous.

 

He opened the gate, then whirled round, bringing the razor up, but no-one was following him. And there, on the brink of a freedom that could still turn out to be a lie, he paused, afraid to take the next step. But he took it, even so. The gate closed behind him with a thud. He walked on, and soon there were buildings around him, and then, walking ahead of him in ones and twos, there were people.

 

He seemed to be incapable of stopping his feet from walking. The people, too, were walking, and soon their paths crossed. He heard a woman croon a compliment to the man on her arm. Someone was gossiping about a colleague. Someone else was hoping for a good bargain at the market the following day.

 

He wanted to shrink in on himself. He wanted to press his hands to his ears and shut them out. He wanted to slash at them with the razor, and reveal them for the hallucinations that they were. Then one of them looked at him, and asked him if he was well, and he turned and fled, almost drowning in the panic engendered by the thought of answering them.

 

And it was then that someone grabbed him. It was then that someone cried out in amazement, and someone else cried out in horror, both at the same time. He fought, but the hand on his arm was too strong, and the razor fell from his hand, and someone was saying, "Sheppard, it's us," and someone else said, "Oh God. What have they done to him?" but he fought still, even with the last of his dwindling strength, because it couldn't be them, it couldn't be them, it couldn't be them…

 

"John." That sounded like Teyla, strong and firm, and he blinked, moonlight raking across his vision, and saw McKay, wearing clothes like the ones he was wearing himself, and not looking at all like the McKay he would have imagined.

 

He stopped fighting, because, really, he had no choice.

 

"Where are they?" Ronon growled. "Where are they?"

 

He thought of all his dreams of violence and revenge. He imagined himself turning around, going back to that place, finding that all of this was a trick, and he was still a prisoner. He closed his eyes, then opened them again. He shook his head. "Not now. Please. I want to go home. Please." But that was too pleading, so he said it again, without the 'please.' "I want to go home."

 

Ronon said something, his voice low and furious. Teyla hissed something firm.

 

"What have they done to you?" McKay said again, his hand moving forward as if to touch Sheppard, then drawing back.

 

It was over. This was it. This was the end. "Nothing," Sheppard said, and he laughed. "Nothing," he said again, and this time it was closer to a sob. The third time, though, he said it a low voice, without emotion. "Nothing."

 

******

 

For the first part of the walk back to the jumper, Rodney could hardly believe that it was real. He kept shooting glances at Sheppard, as it to reassure himself that he was really there.

 

During the second part, he was suddenly convinced that people with guns would start to chase them, because surely there was no way that they could stroll away from this, all four together, all unhurt. That was when he started hissing at Ronon and Teyla not to forget that dark patch there, and to watch that person behind them, right there, and was that movement behind that tree? That was when he pressed a pistol into Sheppard's hand, "because you're a better shot than I am, and I really don't fancy dying right at the end of the final act of this show."

 

For the third part, which took them through trees whose branches hung low, he had a sudden, ridiculous urge to laugh. They had fought for so long, had looked for him for so long… had even come close to mourning him in the end, for God's sake. And here he was, and it had all happened without a fight. They had waited until dark, crept towards the hidden prison… and there was Sheppard, strolling out towards them.

 

And then he was back to the unreality again. If they had had to fight to free him, the whole thing would be easier to believe. He would never be one of those macho soldiers who lived for a fight, but he had been ready. His heart was still racing, and his hands were moist on his P90. His body had still not accepted that it had all ended so quietly.

 

They reached the jumper, and he pressed the button to uncloak it. Sheppard was the first one in, though he paused at the hatch, his hand pressed lightly against the wall, as if he was not entirely sure that it was real. A few steps behind, Ronon and Teyla conferred in low voices, then Ronon set off a jog. After he was gone, Teyla looked at Rodney, her face unreadable, and gestured to him to go in. Once he was inside, and the hatch was closed, Rodney had a sudden moment, close to panic, when he realised that he had no idea what was supposed to happen now.

 

"You should sit down, John," Teyla was saying.

 

Sheppard stood still for a moment, frowning, then sat down rather stiffly at the back of the jumper. Rodney sat down opposite him. He felt flat, he realised. If Sheppard had been terribly injured, there would have been the fierce awfulness of trying to save his life. If they had fought through and saved him in the nick of time, there would have been joy. This just felt… wrong.

 

He let the wrongness spill out in the only way he knew. "What did they do to you?" he demanded.

 

Sheppard blinked, his eyes staying shut for an unnatural length of time, before opening again. "Nothing."

 

"Nothing?" Rodney was still clutching his gun, and his knuckles were white. "All this time, I thought… I mean, they thought… We thought… We were afraid…"

 

"Nothing." Sheppard was plucking at the hem of his shirt. His eyes were strange, too. Although he was looking at Rodney, his gaze was off, as if he was focusing slightly to one side of him. "They didn't touch me. They fed me. I had clean clothes. I had a bathroom. They didn't touch me." His eyes flickered briefly towards Rodney's. "Nothing that should affect me, right?"

 

"A bathroom," Rodney echoed. "How nice. We had a hole in the ground." He knew he was being unforgivable – knew it in the way that Teyla said his name, low and warning – but he couldn't stop. "We've suffered… Do you know how little I've eaten these last four weeks? And all for you, because we thought they were hurting you. Dammit, Sheppard, we thought you were dead, but we didn't stop, as long as there was a chance, a tiny chance, that you were still alive."

 

"Rodney." He thought it was the fourth time Teyla had said his name. Her hand closed on his shoulder.

 

"Four weeks?" Sheppard's lips framed the words, but very little sound came out.

 

"Four weeks. Yes. Or no. No. Four weeks since we left Atlantis. You've been missing for six."

 

But Sheppard was already speaking, the words coming out sharp and urgent. They clashed with the end of what Rodney had been saying. "Six weeks," he said again, when there was silence.

 

Sheppard closed his eyes.

 

Teyla's fingers dug into his shoulder. "What?" Rodney demanded, but he knew – of course he knew. But even with that knowledge, he could feel his heart beginning to return to normal, feel his fingers begin to unclench on the gun. He wondered if he could manage to frame an apology, but as he was wondering, Sheppard opened his eyes.

 

"Was Ronon here?" he asked. His eyes were doing that darting thing again, never quite looking at anyone.

 

"Of course he was," Rodney told him. "He was only there, right in front of you. Oh. Oh no. Oh no no no. You're blind, aren't you? 'They didn't do anything,' you said, but that's just Sheppard-speak for unspeakable torture."

 

"They didn't do anything." His voice was dull. "I'm not blind. Where's Ronon?"

 

"Ronon has gone on foot to the Gate," Teyla said. "He will tell us when the way is clear. We had to… use force to get through when we first arrived."

 

"Oh." Sheppard looked at his hand, curled loosely into a fist. "I wondered why we weren't flying."

 

"But where to go when we do take off?" Rodney said bitterly.

 

"Atlantis." It was just a breath of sound, like a sigh.

 

"If they'll let us back."

 

Sheppard's eyes settled on Rodney's for a little longer this time. "What's this?"

 

"When we left Atlantis," Teyla told him, "we did so without permission."

 

"We're AWOL," Rodney said. "Outlaws. Fugitives from the law."

 

Sheppard did not smile. "Of course they'll let you back." His hand returned to the hem of his shirt. "I want to fly the jumper."

 

Teyla moved towards him. "Are you sure…?"

 

"Yes." His eyes shied from hers. "They didn’t do anything to me. I'm fine. I want to go home now."

 

She turned away from him, and as she turned to face Rodney, he saw the reassuring smile fade away, to be replaced with grim concern.

 

******

 

Everything became simple when he started to fly. The jumper started up when he asked it to, and then there was nothing but that pure, clear stream of communication flowing through his mind. It moved in response to the deepest wishes of his heart, and he was free. There was nowhere that he could not go. He could fly among the stars, or dive beneath the ocean. It was simple, and it was constant. It was unchanged, and it was real.

 

He soared up into the stars. He was standing on his toes on the top of a hill, his arms stretched, leaning into the wind. Light bathed his face like soothing water. He soared like a bird, and everything was simple, everything was unfettered.

 

Sounds came from a distant place. Someone asked a question. "Sheppard's decided to take us on a joy-ride." He knew that the person who said that was called Rodney, but the words were too far away for him to hear them as anything other than sounds.

 

He headed through a bank of clouds, dipping in and out like a stone on the surface of a lake. The moon was silver, beckoning him on. He was a child again, watching planes from the yard, and knowing, with more certainty than he had ever felt about anything, that this was what he wanted to do. He was flying his first flight since his disgrace in Afghanistan, when he realised for the first time that everything would be okay, as long as they never took this away from him.

 

"I'm sure this is all very moving – John Sheppard reunited with his beloved puddle-jumper – but you're going the wrong way."

 

They were only sounds. The white room faded away and became the endless expanse of night. There were no footsteps here. There were no faces with a thousand messages and meanings painted on their flesh. No doors were ever locked here. No question was without an answer. No, there were no questions at all. It just was.

 

"John." That sound, at least, had meaning. "John. Stop." It came again, and he knew that this was Teyla. He felt a touch on the back of his hand, and it dragged him back, shattering the peace. He turned away from the freedom of the night, because he had to. Why were her eyes moist? "I understand," she said, "but Ronon is waiting at the Gate. We need to get back."

 

"To Atlantis?" he asked, for Atlantis, too, was freedom, of a kind.

 

"Yes, John."

 

He turned back, but the puddle-jumper continued to sing around him, and the night was still without walls and boundaries. He descended through the clouds, following the snapped instructions of the one called McKay. They made him pause, hovering near the ground, and Ronon leapt in. "It's clear," he said. McKay dialled the address, and the wormhole was ahead of them, shining and infinite. Here, too, there were no limits to where he could go.

 

"We should use your IDC," McKay said.

 

Sheppard did what he was told. Numbers, at least, he had never forgotten during his captivity. There was a short silence. He imagined the technician calling out a report to whoever was in command. He tried to imagine what their expression might be, but he had no idea. "Colonel Sheppard?" a voice said at last, through the radio. "Is that really you?"

 

He painted a smile on his face. Then, when the voice repeated itself, he remembered that he was supposed to answer. "In the flesh," he said. "Alive and well."

 

He listened to the echo of those words. "Yes, we do," Teyla said, leaning over him, and he realised that another question had been asked.

 

"The shield is down," said the voice on the radio. Radio voices were simpler. They were just words, wiped clean of inflexion, and without any complications. The people beside him were almost more than he could bear to look at. Teyla and Ronon knew how to be still, but McKay's face and hands were always moving, and every movement was as loud as a shout. He had never noticed before how loud someone could be, even when they were silent. McKay was a cacophony of conflicting voices. A dozen messages shouted in his eyes. A voice shouted in the movement at the corner of his mouth. There were demands and questions in the slightest shifting of his hands.

 

"Welcome home, Colonel Sheppard." Then the radio voice was no longer just a voice, but a smiling figure at the controls. Sheppard stared through him, and guided the jumper into the bay.

 

No-one else moved. He wondered why, frowning, then remembered that they had said something about leaving without permission. All of McKay's silent voices came together and spoke of something that was probably nervousness.

 

The hatch opened, and then there were a hundred other sounds, a thousand, a million. The hatch was a window onto a world of movement. People were hurrying towards it, many of them talking. Beyond that were all the normal sounds of Atlantis, but rolled up together and concentrated into one overwhelming ball of sound.

 

The chair pressed against him, like a white wall at his back. And there was Doctor Keller breaking through the screen that was the open hatch, but it was Carson who had come to him in his cell, not her. "How are you feeling, Colonel?" she asked.

 

He felt himself separate. Part of him was on the ceiling, ready to flow away like mist, and fly through the stars. The man who had pinned himself to the chair in the jumper looked terrible - a core of panic, papered over with a fragile veneer of bravado. "Fine," that man said. "I'm fine. They didn't do anything to me." The veneer grew thicker. Didn't do anything, so I can't be feeling like this. There's no reason not to be normal. Everything should go back to how it was before.

 

"Don't believe him." McKay's many voices had changed yet again. "He's clearly not… not well."

 

"I can tell that he's been half-starved, if nothing else," Keller said. "I'll take care of him, Doctor McKay. Don't worry."

 

That person can't be me, thought the man who floated on the ceiling, because they're talking as if he's not there.

 

"It's more than just starvation." It hurt to look at McKay's face, so expressive, so complex. "Lack of food doesn't make anyone look so… so traumatised."

 

No-one had done anything do him, and that meant that things were normal. "It does with you, McKay," his lips said.

 

And then Colonel Carter was there, too, and she, at least, was someone he didn't know very well. If there were messages on her face, he didn't know how to read them. She was easier to look at than McKay, though, because there was a degree of silence about her, and she didn't expect him to understand her. "John," she said, and he closed his eyes, erasing them all and replacing them with darkness. "Colonel Sheppard." He opened his eyes, and managed half a smile in her direction. Perhaps he said something about reporting for duty.

 

"Are you able to walk to the infirmary?" Keller asked.

 

He swallowed. There were too many people. People in medical uniforms stood near the hatch with a gurney. He saw technicians beyond them. They all came with sounds and movement and meanings. Too much, whimpered that core of him, wrapped in its cracked veneer. He wanted to press his hands to his ears and hide from them, but the thought of them all going away was beyond all bearing. Even a puddle-jumper could be a solitary prison.

 

"Colonel Sheppard," Carter was saying. He wondered how often she had spoken his name. "Were you kept in solitary confinement the whole time?"

 

"I never saw them," he told her, "not once. I thought they were going to hurt me, but…" Then he remembered that these people were real, and not hallucinations, and that meant that there were things – so many things – that he could not say. "They didn't do anything to me." If he repeated it enough, his inside reality would come to match the outside.

 

Carter turned away, and said something to the others, but his mind was drifting, and he didn't hear it. The next time he was able to focus, most of the people had gone. Teyla and Ronon and McKay were still there, but even McKay was still. "Can you walk to the infirmary, or do you want a ride?" Keller asked. Her eyes flickered briefly towards Carter. "You won't see anyone on the way."

 

He remembered how he had slumped on the bed, stinking and unkempt, ignoring food. He remembered the razor on his arm. He had stood up in the end, and told the mirror that he would not be broken. He had shaved himself, dressed himself in clean clothes, and walked out of his prison on his own two legs. "I'll walk," he said.

 

He heard McKay let out a breath. "Do you want someone to walk with you," Keller asked, "as well as me?"

 

Sheppard managed to stand up, though it felt a little as if he was ripping himself from the seat, leaving a bit of himself behind. McKay was trying to be still, but he was still overflowing with messages. Teyla exuded too much concern. "Ronon," he said.

 

Keller nodded. Ronon rose, and together they followed her from the jumper. Behind him, he heard McKay start to speak, but he was cut off before he had managed anything other than in incoherent sound. Everyone who had been in the jumper bay had vanished. Perhaps they had never existed, and had just been a dream.

 

Ronon was silent. His footsteps were firm and steady, and not so very much like Hank's, after all. He walked close enough to Sheppard to catch him if he fell, but not close enough to make any demands. He spoke only once, when they were over half way there. "We never stopped looking. Just so you know." And Sheppard nodded, and after that he was able to keep his eyes on Ronon for five full seconds, before anxiety clutched at his stomach and made him look away.

 

Walking was a little like flying. He could speed up to a run, and never stop until he was on the further pier, between the ocean and the stars. Ronon would run with him, never demanding, just understanding. By putting one foot in front of the other, he was taking himself places. No white walls could contain him. With Ronon here, he had the comfort of not being alone, but the comfort, too, of knowing that there would be no hard questions.

 

But the walk ended, and then he was in another place with hard walls and open spaces. Keller guided him to a bed, and the pillow was nothing like the pillow in his cell, and the blankets were completely different, and the wall was not white, but it was still not his own bed.

 

His steps faltered, and he stood there, clenching and unclenching his hands. Ronon looked at him, just once. She's trying to help you, stupid, Sheppard told himself. She'll tell you nothing's wrong, then you'll be normal again.

 

He lay down. "Do you want the curtains closed?" Keller asked, and he did, because sometimes there was safety in a prison cell.

 

He had no memory of her asking him questions, and no memory of any tests. White walls claimed him, and he knew that all this – the whole escape, the flying, the sounds – was just a dream. Then he awoke to find her snatching her hand away from his arm. "I'm sorry," she said, and the place where she had touched him burned. It was contact, and he yearned for it. It was contact, and it terrified him.

 

"I've never known anyone fall asleep and remain so tense." There was nervousness in the voices of her smile. "Your heart was racing."

 

There was nothing he could say. The person he had once been – the person he knew he had to remain – wanted to make a light reply. The man who had spoken to hallucinations wanted to tell her that, in prison, he had had no choice. His whole life there had been about the expectation of pain, but he had still had to sleep. The man on the bed wanted to beg for help. The man on the ceiling watched, to see which way the thing would go.

 

"I can't see anything much wrong with you except for malnutrition and exhaustion," she said.

 

There, he thought. Normal. Nothing wrong.

 

"You'll need a special diet, and lots of rest."

 

Yes. He nodded. And then back to normal, because they didn't do anything.

 

"I can give you something to help you sleep."

 

But time passed when he slept. Six weeks had passed in the blankness of a white room. He shook his head, but he asked her to open the curtains, just enough for him to see the clock on the far wall.

 

******

 

End of chapter seven

 

******

 

Chapter eight: After

 

"So…" Sam looked up at him, mildness deceptive in her eyes. "Rodney."

 

She was sitting in Elizabeth's office. Rodney hovered in the doorway, one foot in, and one foot out. "Is this going to take long? It's just… Places to go, people to see… A hot shower… Do you know what it's like to spend four weeks washing in ponds and rivers?"

 

She folded her hands. "I have an idea."

 

"And there's my work… Do you know how much damage those idiots could have done in my absence? Uh…" He flapped his hands uselessly. "You're going to tell me I should have thought about that before leaving. Uh… How did it go with the hive ship, by the way? No certain death, I take it, because… well… you're all here."

 

"No certain death." She sounded suddenly very like Elizabeth, or maybe that was only because of where she was sitting. "They went away, probably to counter a Replicator attack elsewhere. We think it was only coincidence that they came so close."

 

"Oh. Ah. That's good. You not being dead, I mean."

 

"Yes. It's good."

 

Silence stretched between them. Rodney remembered how people had smiled at him in the hallways, all the way from the jumper bay to the infirmary, and then, when he was told that he couldn't see Sheppard right now, back to his own room, and then here, summoned to report to Sam. Even people who didn't know him had smiled at him. How they must have missed him! You only appreciated something properly when it was gone, didn't you?

 

"You know we have to talk, Rodney."

 

"Yes. Ah. Yes." He closed the door, and sat down, hands restless on the desk. Only hours before, he had almost been convinced that he had made a mistake in leaving Atlantis. He had been all ready to return to Atlantis with his tail between his legs, because Sam had been right, and he had been wrong, and Sheppard was still missing, and he had failed. But he had been vindicated, hadn't he? If he hadn't defied her, Sheppard would still be languishing in whatever place he had been in that could make a man like him look like that.

 

"Are you aware of quite how difficult a position you put me in, Rodney?" Her voice was still mild, but there was steel beneath it.

 

"But we got Sheppard back." He stood up, pushing the chair back noisily. "And if we're talking about difficult positions, mine wasn't exactly a bed of roses. It wasn't easy for me, but I did it. Noble, actually. Heroic." He remembered the smiles from strangers in the corridors. "Suffering deprivation–"

 

"Rodney." Her voice was a snap of command.

 

"Yes. Ah. Yes." He sat down again.

 

"It wasn't just the diplomatic situation with Dareon, though that was bad enough. In his eyes, you committed a terrorist act against his people, and he knew you were still out there, and, for all he knew, plotting to do more. You landed me with an impossible situation."

 

"But he–"

 

She held up her hand, and he subsided. "No, Rodney, the worst of it was that  you went against my orders, and many people on Atlantis thought you were right. And now you've been proved right, haven't you? You risked everything, and came back with him. I gave up on him. That's how it could seem."

 

"Ah. The smiles." She looked at him sharply, so he had to explain. "People were smiling at me just now. I thought it was because they'd missed me. Of course it wasn't. It was because of him. I saved his life. I'm a hero."

 

"Rodney…"

 

He knew he was racing headlong along a path that he really shouldn't walk, but he couldn't stop himself, he couldn't stop. "I was right, Sam, and you were wrong. After everything you've said… I was right, and you were wrong."

 

"McKay."

 

He stopped; cleared his throat. Sorry, he thought. I'm sorry. But he couldn't say it, not yet.

 

"It's not just about you and me," she said. "It's not about scoring points. I'm their commander. Some of them were already inclined to distrust me because I'm new. Yes, I've got more experience in many ways than any of them, but Atlantis is a family – if I hadn't realised that before, I realised that within days of coming here. And, if Atlantis is a family, I'm… I guess I'm the new step-mother. I need to win their respect – and, Rodney, this isn't selfishness or vanity talking. What if the Wraith attack, and I give an order – an order that can save lives – but the person who hears it hesitates because he remembered when Doctor McKay was right, and I was wrong?"

 

Doctor McKay was right, he heard. He tried to hear the rest of the message, but only yesterday he had been wrestling with despair and ultimate failure. I was right, he thought. I made the right decision. I did.

 

"Although I have made no statement," she went on, "I have quietly encouraged the belief that you were acting on orders all along – orders that had to remain secret because of the diplomatic situation with Dareon. I trust that you will say nothing that contradicts–"

 

"What?" He was out of his chair again. "You want to take the credit–?"

 

"No." For the first time, she looked angry. "I want to ensure the survival of Atlantis. I trust that you want the same."

 

Her anger shocked him into apology. "I'm sorry. Yes. Yes, I do. I… uh…" Didn't think. He remembered the despair of the day before, when he had known that the time had come to give up. He pressed his hands on the surface of the desk, because that was the only way to stop them trembling.

 

"I know." Her eyes were soft again – Sam, not Carter. "You told me you'd changed, and I know that you have. You're not used to caring for people, are you? And, in just a few months, you'd lost several people you cared about, and in most cases you were powerless to do anything about it. I understand why you felt you had to do what you did. I can see how hard it was for you–"

 

"Hard?" His hands fluttered to his face. This reaction was easier. "Have I lost weight? Do I look sick? Oh! Shall I call a doctor?"

 

"You will, of course, need a medical check-up," she said, "and I want you to attend sessions with Doctor Heightmeyer."

 

"But I don't need–"

 

"That's an order, Rodney," she said gently.

 

"Oh." He felt suddenly impossibly tired, and Atlantis had all the strangeness of a home you returned to after too long away. He wanted a shower. He wanted to sleep in his own bed. He wanted none of this to have happened. He wanted Sheppard to be normal again…

 

"What's wrong with Sheppard?" he blurted out.

 

"I can't answer that," she said, "but if you're a good enough friend to go after him, I'm sure you'll be a good enough friend to help him through this." Her eyes bored into his own, daring him to disagree. "It isn't over, Rodney. Don't expect everything to go back to how it used to be."

 

He curled his hand into a fist.  "But we're good, aren't we – you and me? We're good?"

 

She smiled. "I hope we will be."

 

"Good. That's good." He remembered how she had become 'Carter' to him; how he had almost hated her for a while. "If it's any… You know… Actually…" He took a deep breath. "We were going to come home. We'd been out there for four weeks, and we were no closer to finding him. Everywhere we went, you'd been there before us. You really did look for him, didn't you?"

 

"Yes, we did." She nodded.

 

"I know. And we couldn't find him. We'd given up. We only found him because someone told Teyla where he was. And even then, he'd managed to get out by himself. We just bumped into him on the street. And I think… I can't help but think…" Another deep breath. "What if they were playing with us? What if they were waiting for us to give up, and then gave us that tip-off and let him go…? If we'd given up earlier, would they have–?"

 

"I don't know, Rodney." She reached over the desk to squeeze his hand.

 

"We have to go back," he told her.

 

"And if I order you not to?"

 

"Don't. Please. Don't." He almost sobbed it. "We need to find out… We need to punish those… those…"

 

"Yes." Her hand squeezed tighter. "I'm sorry. That was wrong of me. Yes, we'll go back, and if we find out that Dareon was involved in this…" Her voice and her eyes completed the threat.

 

"When?" He stood up, ripping his hand from hers. "Now?"

 

"When Colonel Sheppard is well enough to tell us more," she said, "and when you and Teyla and Ronon are rested. Colonel Sheppard isn't the only person to have gone through an ordeal. " She smiled. "I can't condone what you did, and it can't happen again, but you know something, Rodney? I think that I like the Rodney McKay who did this thing a whole lot more than I would have liked the Rodney McKay who didn't."

 

He left her office with the memory of her parting smile. Strangers smiled in the hallways, but there was no pleasure in that, not any more. He had expected to face her anger, and he had been prepared to fight – heroic, martyred McKay, who had risked his career for a cause that had proved right in the end. Instead, she had given him understanding, and against that, it seemed that he had no defences.

 

******

 

He had slept, in the end, after all. Four hours and five minutes, for the first time. He then watched twenty-three minutes pass on the clock, before he lost track of time again. The next time he saw things clearly, four more hours had passed. He was almost falling asleep again when someone came with breakfast.

 

He listened to the pattern of their footsteps as they walked away, and tried to fix that pattern in his mind, attaching it to the image of their face. One meal, he thought, as he began to eat the plate of food. Then he told himself that it was ridiculous to think that way. He was free now. Everything was normal. That was why he ate everything up, even though the last few mouthfuls almost choked him. That was why he smiled when Doctor Keller came to see him. Her head blocked the clock, and that was bad, but when she stood just so he could see the time on her wrist watch, though the hands were upside-down.

 

"How are you feeling, colonel?"

 

"Fine," he said. Fine.

 

She did the tests that she had to do, and her touch was still fire. He fought the urge to grab her wrist; he fought the urge to slap her away. If she noticed how fast his heart was beating, she said nothing. "I don't see any need to keep you here much longer," she said.

 

"That's good," he said. "Not that there's anything wrong with your hospitality, doc, but…"

 

"I know." She flashed a quick smile, with nervousness capering underneath it like a monster. She was trying to be serene, but her eyes were as noisy as McKay's. "Nothing beats your own room, does it?"

 

His own room – another cell. "No." He smiled. "I bet the girl next door forgot to feed my cat." He ran his finger up and down the blanket. "So, am I back on active duty?"

 

She shook her head. "You need to gain weight first." Her hands fluttered like McKay's, dizzying him with movement, so he had to look away. "You will also need to talk to Doctor Heightmeyer–"

 

"You, too?" McKay strode up behind her. "Sam's making me see her, too. Hey, we can go together."

 

He felt himself retreating towards the ceiling. Part of him saw everything from a very long way away. "I think she'd need a shrink herself if she had to deal with both of us together. Though you by yourself would do that."

 

Keller slipped away. "Can I…?" McKay looked suddenly unsure. "Yesterday you just wanted Ronon."

 

His old self – the man he had once been, not so long ago – pointed out that he should smile, so he did. "Sit down, McKay." He settled down deeper in the pillows. "Don't mind me if I close my eyes."

 

McKay humphed. Nearly an hour passed, but Sheppard was fairly sure that his eyes had been open all the time, after all. He had watched the hand move slowly around the clock. The person who lay on the bed had even spoken a few times, reacting to the things McKay was saying. He had no idea what he had said, though. McKay said so many things, and it was just too much, just too much, and it all blurred into one, into nothing.

 

Heightmeyer came, too, some time after that. He smiled, and told her that he'd make his own way to her office later, because they didn't do anything to me, doc, and everything was back to normal now, wasn't it?

 

Ronon came in once, and Teyla, but not together. McKay was still there. "Haven't you got a home to go to?" Sheppard asked him.

 

"Not really," McKay said, looking as if he'd been startled into honesty. "I've been away for a month. I expect they're used to working without me now. I'm not sure… uh…" His eyes spoke of things too overwhelming to understand.

 

Then someone brought lunch, and he knew from their footsteps that they were not the person who had brought his breakfast. He watched the food emerge through a crack in the curtain, and after that, he asked for the curtain to be opened a little more.

 

He learnt that he could cope with McKay as long as he didn't look directly at him, and as long as he saw him only from the ceiling. McKay had managed to scrounge a meal of his own, and was eating it off a tray on his knee. Making sounds of appreciation, he spoke with his mouth full. "The food's the best thing about being home, you know. I don't know what those furry things were that Ronon kept finding, but… ugh." He grimaced. "This, though, is almost excellent."

 

The colours of the meal seemed unnaturally bright, and the flavours exploded in his mouth, until he felt as if he was drowning. He ate it, though, fluid and flavour pouring into his stomach, tendrils of warmth seeping through his veins, reawakening him. It was horrible, but he felt a little better, after.

 

Colonel Carter came by, and McKay made quick excuses to leave. Carter spoke to him, and he replied. Afterwards, that was all he remembered.

 

Some time after that, he knew that he needed to shower. "I need clothes," he told McKay.

 

"Oh. And you expect me to get them for you? What am I – your servant?" But McKay stood up and started to move away. "Believe me, I draw the line at your underwear drawer."

 

Sheppard headed for the small bay of showers. He took his clothes off, and stood beneath the warm water, feeling it stream over his skin. He washed his hair, and soaped every inch of his body. He imagined the touch of the white room flowing away; imagined its memory being scoured away from his skin. There would be no scent, no smear of dirt, no molecule anywhere upon him that had been there in that prison cell. It was washed away. It was over. It was finished.

 

Someone knocked on the door, and he froze, because he hadn't heard their footsteps over the noise of falling water. He switched the shower off, and reached for a towel, wrapping himself in it thoroughly. He pressed his hand to the door, and tried to hear the sound of person on the other side breathing.

 

"Clothes?" McKay said. "And never say that I don't do anything for you." Sheppard unlocked the door. "Not looking! Not looking!" McKay's hand passed through a bundle of clothes, and Sheppard fought the urge to grab his hand, to hold on to it, because when it was gone, he would have nothing again, just the white walls of the shower cubicle. Stupid, he told himself. I'm back on Atlantis now.

 

He got dressed. McKay had brought him his old uniform – black t-shirt, grey jacket. Despite his protests, he had brought underwear – "we don't talk about this, ever," McKay said afterwards, when he emerged. He remembered what it had felt like to get dressed for the first time in the clothes his captors had provided him. That had felt like yielding, like losing a little of himself. Now he was clothing himself in the old uniform of Lieutenant-Colonel John Sheppard, military commander of Atlantis. He was assuming a mantle, and inside he would be just the same as he looked on the outside.

 

"I thought she'd be furious," McKay said, much later, when they were walking through tunnel-like corridors where sounds swelled and echoed, and people passed with staring faces, many of them cleft with a smile. It took him a while to work out who McKay was talking about, and he wondered suddenly if the shower had been a dream, and Carter had only just left. "Turns out she… Well, you don't want to know about that, do you? There goes selfish McKay, talking about himself." Sheppard listened to the sound of his footsteps. "Why won't you look at me?" McKay blurted out.

 

Sheppard raised his eyebrow. "Can't bear to see your ugly face."

 

"No, really." McKay sounded quite distressed. "I'd never noticed how much you do look at people, not until you… well, until you… uh… don't."

 

He counted ten steps, then another ten. He crossed the white room, the continued on – on and on, and still on, still going. Like a figure in a mirror, his other self walked on the ceiling, wondering how he was going to respond.

 

"It's too much," he found himself saying. "I didn't see anybody for six weeks. I didn't talk to anyone. I didn't know if it was night or day. It was just a white room. And you talk so much, and your hands… and your… your face. So much movement. It's too much." He managed to salvage a smile. "And it's your ugly face, like I said."

 

"Oh." McKay's footsteps stopped. Sheppard drifted to a halt, too, and for a moment there was almost silence – not the silence of the white room, but something that, once upon a time, he might have thought was silence.

 

Nothing happened, he thought. They didn't do anything to me. He looked directly at McKay, seeing his steady eyes, the twitch of muscle that betrayed how hard he was trying to keep his mouth still, his frozen hands half risen towards his chest. Even when McKay started moving again, Sheppard kept on looking at him. He made it to seven before he had to look away.

 

The man on the ceiling let out a breath, and gently drifted down, so that he was whole again, only one of him. He glanced at McKay again, and although his heart ran fast, it was also steady. Someone passed him, coming the other way, and smiled broadly. "It's good to see you back, colonel."

 

Then they were at Heightmeyer's office. "You must be a higher priority than me," McKay said. "I don't get her until this evening."

 

Sheppard managed a smile as he paused at the door. "Those who are about to die…"

 

He entered, closing the door behind him. "Colonel Sheppard," she greeted him. "We're all very glad to see you back."

 

"Yeah," he said. "Glad to be back."

 

He sat down where she indicated. Her room felt small and alien. Although he could see the towers of Atlantis through the windows, it didn't feel like home. The woman in front of him was just another sort of torturer, wanting to rip out secrets and string them up in front of the world. No, he told himself. She's just doing her job. She just wants to help. It did nothing to make him feel more comfortable, though he hid it with a smile, and leant back comfortably, crossing his legs, right ankle on left knee.

 

She started by asking him innocuous questions, and he answered them, but stayed wary. One day the footsteps outside his door would pause, the door would open, and the torture would begin. He hesitated sometimes before answering, looking for words that could safely be said out loud.

 

"Is that one of those trick questions?" he asked her once. "One of those questions that's not about what it seems to be about?"

 

"No tricks," she said. "I'm here to help you."

 

"I don't need help."

 

At least she didn't deny it, didn't call him John, didn’t lie to him.

 

More questions came. Her face seemed washed-out, pale skin fading into pale lips, fading into white, no longer existing at all. McKay and the others had asked him questions in the white room. Like her, they had not really been there, just a construct of his mind, painted on the white walls of his prison.

 

"No. You just get on and do your job." He found himself saying it; found, though, that he had no memory of what question she had asked. He stumbled over continuing. "No point in looking back. No time."

 

"But sometimes the past has a way of catching up with you, unless you deal with it," she said. "Everything we see and do has the potential to change us. That's not weakness, that's just life."

 

"I leave the philosophy to others." He smiled, hand closing round his ankle.

 

 He looked at his watch – not his watch, but any watch would do. He watched the second-hand glide around, and then he was moving with it, drifting in a circle… flying high above the clouds, wheeling through the never-ending freedom of the skies. Somewhere far away, back on the ground in a small white room, her voice continued. He heard his own voice, too, so he knew that he was answering her.

 

The sky shattered into a thousand pieces, and each of the shards drew blood.

 

"Deep breaths," she was saying. She had moved close to him, but not to touch him – thank God, not to touch. "It's all right. It's all right. You're safe here." And that was even worse – that anyone should ever have to say such words to him; that he should ever be in a position to need them. He raked his hands across his face, and felt a faint smear of wetness against his fingers.

 

"Doctor Keller pumped me full of drugs," he managed to say. He even managed a smile. "I'm not myself." She moved fractionally away, and he felt himself able to breathe that little bit deeper. She remained still and serene. "I zoned out," he found himself admitting. "I don't know what I just said to you."

 

"And that scares you?" But he couldn't answer yes, not to that.

 

"I'm here to help you," she said, some time later, after he told her in carefully-chosen words that he had no need of her help. "You told me that you see your job as being to protect everyone in this city." He felt his breathing falter; he had no memory of saying that, either. "My job is the same. Perhaps I don't do it in quite such a literal fashion, but people can be hurt by more than just bullets."

 

"I know." He spread his arm across the top of the seat. "I have every respect for your skills. I've sent people to see you, haven't I?"

 

"You have." She nodded. "Why do you think you're different? You accept that I can help people under your command, so why are you resistant to talking to me yourself? Is it because you think a leader should be immune to such things? Do you think you're too strong to be–?"

 

"It's because they didn't do anything to me!" he shouted.

 

"Oh." Her gaze was still level. "Can you tell me what they didn't do?"

 

He knew that she would ask and ask until he told someone. He would need to put it in a report, because that was part of his job. Keep his brain nice and distant, and write the words down, so it was finished, done – chapter closed; end of story. So he told her about the hook and the drain, about the footsteps, about the razor. He told her how they would walk up and down, up and down, and about the white walls and the constant light. Nothing about the counting, though. Nothing about the hallucinations. Just the facts. Keep it external. What was done, not what he did.

 

"That would count as torture in every civilised nation of the world," she said quietly, when he was finished.

 

"But they didn't…" His voice died away.

 

"The psychological effects of solitary confinement are well attested," she said, "and very real. Even when the reason for the confinement is perceived as just, there can be serious effects after only a few weeks. The circumstances of your confinement were particularly barbaric–"

 

"Been doing your homework, doc?"

 

She did not deny it. "People in solitary confinement often suffer hallucinations. They have heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, and on release, often experience difficulties with social interaction–"

 

"I don't care what 'people' feel," he told her. "I'm not them. I've been through worse. They didn't do anything to me."

 

"Yes, they did."

 

But they hadn't. They didn't. He'd come close to breaking, and he'd had no cause at all. Now he was back, and he had a job to do, and men to lead, and people to protect.

 

"You won't recover from this, colonel, until you accept that what they did to you was very real. You were tortured."

 

He saw too many things in her eyes. He saw the images of McKay, Ronon and Teyla, appearing and disappearing in the white room. He saw blood welling from a razor. He saw a stranger's face in the mirror, wrapped in a beard that was made up from days and weeks. He remembered himself crying. He saw himself broken.

 

"Nothing happened." His voice trembled a little, but not much. "It was difficult, and… and… it won't be easy, not at first, because…" He stilled his hands. "It's overwhelming. You get used to things, don't you, and this is new. But it's not a big deal. I need to get back to normal…" and get on with doing my job. "Everything's going to carry on as normal." Just like it always does. Just like it always has. And there are dreams, sometimes, and memories, but nothing I can't cope with – nothing I haven't coped with before.

 

She was saying something, but it was just empty movement of the lips, with no real meaning.

 

Everything's going to carry on as normal, he vowed.



******

 

"You're going back," Colonel Carter said, when Ronon opened the door to her knock.

 

Ronon sat on the bed, pulled out a knife, and started to sharpen it. It was in no need of sharpening, but he was well aware of all the arts of intimidation. Not that this Carter seemed to be one who was easy to intimidate; that he had already learnt.

 

"When are you planning to go?" she asked.

 

"Tomorrow morning." He had calculated the hours, and that would be night back on the planet.

 

"To get revenge?"

 

He held the knife up, twisting it so it caught the light. Imagination had mostly been scoured out of him by the realities of seven years on the run, but he had enough left to dwell with pleasure on the blood that this blade would shed. "Justice," he said.

 

"Justice. Ah." She walked away from him, turning her back, and he reminded himself that this was a gesture of trust, and not the sign of weakness in an enemy. "I said this to Rodney, and it wasn't fair of me, but I will say it to you, anyway. What if I order you not to go?"

 

"You've seen what they did to him." He jabbed the knife back into the scabbard. Imagination was sparse, but memory was vivid. Sheppard, obviously terrified. Sheppard, his mind barely there at all. Sheppard, starved and exhausted, unable to look at anyone, cringing from any touch. "How can we let that go unpunished?"

 

"I have no intention of letting it go unpunished," she said, "but neither do I want a lynch mob going out in the name of Atlantis."

 

"Wouldn't do it in the name of Atlantis," he told her. "I'd do it in my name. In his name. For him."

 

She turned to face him. "Colonel Sheppard needs his friends right now. He needs them to be here, not off-world, committing murders in his name."

 

Which showed how little she understood, despite her military title. "If I was in Sheppard's position, best thing anyone could do for me would be to punish the guys who did that to me, just so I knew they were dead."

 

"They will be punished," she said again, "but we will do it properly, with a team, and with Colonel Sheppard's input. Ronon, you are not to go out and do this by yourself." She smiled. "No, and not with Teyla, either, or any other group you can put together. We do this properly, and when I say so."

 

He looked at the picture over his bed – victorious warriors, triumphant in the face of all enemies… and now dead. "You can't give me orders."

 

"Actually, I can." Her voice was mild. "You live here, Ronon, and that means that your actions reflect on Atlantis. You chose to leave, and did so with our blessing, and then you came back, and, again, we welcomed you. Then you left again, this time with no warning. If you leave a third time…"

 

He stepped towards her. "Is that a threat?"

 

"Not a threat," she said. "Just the truth. We can't have people living here who dance entirely to their own tune, because that endangers the rest of us."

 

Clenching his fists, he whirled away from her. The picture stared down at him. He needed a new picture, he realised – his new team, to hang beside the picture of his old life. "I don't care," he said. "Sheppard needs–"

 

"No." She was too close behind him. "You want to do it because you need it."

 

He moved past her, heading for the door. "I don't care–"

 

"Ronon." She reached out a hand in his direction, but didn't try to grasp his arm. "We will go back, I promise you that. Trust us. Please."

 

He pushed past her, and left the room, hating her, because he feared that she was right.

 

******

 

End of chapter eight

 

******

 

Chapter nine: Those left behind

 

Teyla had tried John's quarters, tried the infirmary, even tried the training rooms. He was not back on active duty, that much she knew, but she tried his favourite balcony and some of his known off-duty haunts, and there was no sign of him. In the end, she headed towards Rodney's lab, wondering if he was there, but she met Rodney hovering in the hallway not far away.

 

"Have you seen John?" she asked him.

 

"I took him to Doctor Heightmeyer," he said, but Teyla already knew that John had left Kate's office. "After that… I… Have you tried the mess hall? There's cake," he added hopefully, when she was slow to nod.

 

She walked beside him. It was strange, she thought, that she had spent three of their Earth years with Rodney McKay, but had seen more of him in the last month than she had seen in any of that time. They had lived cooped up in a jumper, the three of them together. They had heard each other's dreams. They had seen each other half-asleep in the morning, before fears had been hidden behind the mask of the day. They had shared stories. But none of us were properly ourselves during that month, she thought, and wondered if they would assume their old ways now they were back.

 

No, she thought, a moment later, perhaps we were more completely ourselves than we have ever let ourselves be. They had all been prepared to do anything to search for a friend. Never again would be doubt that Rodney McKay was capable of caring deeply and selflessly for others. It was merely that he had no idea what to do with such feelings, and showed them in strange ways.

 

"Did the science department survive your absence?" she asked him, as they walked.

 

"You know them," he said. "They need me around to give them direction. Without me, they're rudderless, and they make the most ridiculous, stupid mistakes. Even Radek, who, I have to admit, has come on in leaps and bounds since he's been exposed to my influence –"

 

"You have not yet returned to your lab, have you, Rodney?" she said, caught between amusement and understanding.

 

Once, she thought, he might have denied it, but that was before they had spent a month together. "No. No, I haven't."

 

Scared, McKay? John might have said, sometimes goading Rodney into confessing truths that he would not otherwise have said. "I am sure they will be very pleased to see you back," she said, instead.

 

"Well, that's the thing. If they're pleased to see me back, that means that they missed me, and that means that they're going to blame me for leaving. And if they're not pleased to see me back, then… No, no, of course they will be. Can't cope without me, you know."

 

"Rodney." She touched his arm. "We made our choice. We cannot run from the consequences of that choice, but we must never forget that John is back with us now, and that he knows that we never stopped looking."

 

"Yes. Yes. We… Oh, look! There's only three slices left."

 

They had reached the mess hall. While Rodney went to secure his cake, Teyla looked around. Despite her words to Rodney, she was not entirely sure what welcome she would receive. She was an outsider, and always would be – oh, not to John, and not to Rodney, but to some of these people, perhaps many. Would they think better of her because she had spent so long searching for Colonel Sheppard, or would they distrust her all the more, for being so long away?

 

Several people smiled at her, and she gave a cautious smile back. Then she saw John, and everything else was forgotten. "Rodney." She collected him from the line where he was juggling plates of cake, heedless of glares. "Over there." She nodded towards the table on the far side of the room, where John sat, alone, but very much the centre of attention. As she watched, several people greeted him or saluted. Others, further away, were clearly talking about his return.

 

She headed towards him. "May I sit here?" she asked him.

 

"You don't normally ask."

 

She sat down carefully. Rodney appeared a moment later, intent on his plates. He sat down without a word, and started eating. John watched Rodney's hands, she noticed. He had a sandwich and a slice of cake in front of him, untouched.

 

She opened her mouth to speak, but someone walked past the table, nodding at John as they passed. He nodded back, but she saw that his lips were moving minutely, as if he was counting. "How are you feeling, John?" she asked him, when they had gone. She hated to feel so awkward around him, but she knew that he bore wounds that were not of the flesh; she had seen that much in the jumper, the day before.

 

"Fine," he said. "I'm good." His eyes rose to Rodney's face, stayed there for a while, then moved away to the heart of the mess hall, where there were the most people. Following the direction of his gaze, she saw a couple flirting. She saw an argument conducted in tight whispers, and the easy laughter of a group of friends. She saw a soldier who had clearly been hurt recently, and a scientist who ate alone, working on a laptop all the while.

 

"Good," Rodney echoed, his mouth full. "Are you eating that?"

 

Sheppard's eyes darted back, and down to his food. He picked up the sandwich, but did not eat it. His hand was trembling, she noticed. Perhaps he saw that, too, for he put the sandwich down abruptly, and hid his hands under the table. "It takes some getting used to," he admitted, "being able to eat whenever and whatever I like, and not having to… wait…"

 

"Whatever you like?" Rodney spluttered. He was onto his second slice now. "The trouble with this place is that people are always telling you that you can't have another helping, Doctor McKay, that you've got to leave some for others, and we won't get any more of that until the Daedalus gets back, so until then it's all strictly rationed. Rationed? So even a… a… a cleaner gets the same amount as me. Food should be allocated according to the importance of the work we do. So I –" He pointed at his chest with a fork. "– should  get twice what he gets." He pointed at some oblivious person across the room. "The brain consumes energy, did you know that?"

 

"Rodney," Teyla hissed, but Sheppard gave a quick smile, almost like his old self, if it was not for the tension beneath it.

 

"To each according to his ability, huh?" he said.

 

"Yes." Rodney held the fork aloft in triumph for a moment, then returned to his cake. "You allowed to eat that, anyway?" he asked, pointing at John's food. "I thought they'd have come up with some sort of nutrition plan, or some such nonsense."

 

"Expect they have," John said. He took a bite of his sandwich, and chewed it, his expression frozen. "I reckon that any food's good, right? I'm half starved."

 

"More than half, by the looks of you."

 

Rodney… This time, she could not say it; it would be too unsubtle to say it out loud. But perhaps it would have been the wrong thing to say, anyway, because John was smiling again. She remembered how he had been after the incident with Kolya and the Wraith. He had preferred the company of Rodney and Ronon, because they were the only ones who acted towards him as if absolutely nothing had happened, sparring with him in their own particular ways, one with weapons, one with words.

 

She watched him finish his sandwich. Between mouthfuls, he spoke several times to Rodney, and Rodney responded. It was light banter about nothing, but she saw how his eyes shied away from looking at Rodney, until he forced them to. When Rodney left to get some more food, she saw how John let out a tight breath, then snapped his gaze around to look at the hall again. "Glad to see you back, sir," someone called, and John raised his hand in acknowledgement. Unnoticed on the table, his other hand was tense and quivering.

 

"Why did you come here?" she could not keep herself from asking. She knew how he had been the day before, and yet here he was, deliberately seeking out the most crowded place in Atlantis, where it was more than certain that people would want to talk to him. He was well respected in the city, and he had been given up for dead, and here he was. Wherever he went, he would be noticed.

 

"You know what they say." He quirked a smile. "Got to get back in the saddle."

 

She was far too conscious of all the eyes of them. She remembered how he had been in the jumper, and hoped fervently that he would not collapse like that again, not in front of all these people, many of them his own men. He was talking normally, and smiling freely, but he was far from well.

 

"Don't look at me like that," he rasped suddenly. "I'm me. Half starved, I know, but still me. They didn't…" His voice faltered, then recovered. "They didn't do anything to me."

 

He had said much the same after Kolya. Yes, he had been tortured, hurt, drained almost to death, but his life had been given back to him, and therefore he was unchanged. End of story. Nothing wrong, and stop asking about it, please, and let's forget the whole thing. Sometimes she thought it had been harder for them – for Elizabeth, in particular – to recover from watching it all, than it had been for him to recover from living it. Now she suddenly wondered if he had just been lying to them all, all along.

 

"John…" She reached to touch him, but he snatched his hand away.

 

"Got to report back to Keller," he said. "I'd better keep in her good books. Never annoy someone who knows how to use needles."

 

He walked away, and yet more people greeted him as he left. "He's gone?" Rodney squeezed back into his chair. "He seems better. Good. The sooner we put this whole sorry affair behind us, the better."

 

She nodded slowly, but could not entirely agree. 

 

******

 

Sheppard ran. When he could no longer run, he walked. When he could no longer walk, he sat down – but it was more of a tumble, really – and leant his head back against the wall. This was on the open floor of the city, where he could feel the wind and sunlight on his face.

 

I can do this, he thought. He gazed up at the blue, then out at the distant place where the ocean met the sky. How vast it was! He had been… six weeks, he remembered. Six weeks locked in a tiny white room. Then he had escaped into the outside, but it had been too much, too soon, and then he had been back inside again, moving from one room to the next, trapped by the prison bars that were people's concern.

 

Even Atlantis was a prison of a sort. But here, outside, he was free. There were no faces. There were no bars.

 

Which was why he could only stay here for such a little while.

 

It was ridiculous to be afraid of other people. It was crazy to flinch from looking at their faces. It was stupid to let himself drift into two, to watch himself with distant detachment, to lose whole minutes and have no idea what he had said. It was horrible to break down in front of others, to see pity in their eyes. Nothing had happened to him. Nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. He slammed his fist into the wall. Nothing. Had. Happened.

 

His fist hurt, but pain brought clarity. He thought about how he had gone to the mess hall, how he had sat there and accepted greetings, even given some back himself, with a wry nod or a joke. He had looked McKay full in the face. His first few smiles had been forced, but by the end, they had almost been genuine. Each greeting had been easier than the last. No, they hadn't been easier, but they hadn't killed him. He had been afraid of such a stupid, ridiculous thing, and he had faced his fears, and here he was.

 

Yes. Hiding from them all again, he thought. He raised his hands, and saw that they were still trembling. The pain in his fist was solid, though, and a distraction.

 

Can't do it all at once, he told himself, and he clenched his fist, heightening that pain, using it to stop part of himself floating away, and no ceiling to stop me now, just the sky, so I'll fly up and up, up into the stars, flying free, and never come back, never return to this shell.

 

"Can't," he said out loud. "It'll take time." A day, perhaps. Maybe two. He'd eat in the mess hall, and look people full in the face. He'd act as he always had acted, and he'd keep a firm grip on himself, and stop himself from drifting away. It was like putting on clothes. If you acted a certain way, you became it.

 

He closed his eyes. I'll go back soon, he thought, but he must have fallen asleep. He awoke pounding at the walls of his prison, tearing at the shroud that was covering his face. He began to start to his feet, but everything lurched dizzily around him, and he fell sideways, then rolled onto his back. The sky stared back at him, huge and unknowable. Stars were eyes, and he saw himself from a vast height – a tiny figure, dwarfed by the vastness of the universe. There were so many living things out there – so many countless billions. They were looking down on him, and there was nothing between him and them, nothing but emptiness between himself and all the worlds.

 

"No," he told himself. "No," as he scooted back to press himself against the wall. "No," as he brought his arms up to his chest, and curled himself into his hands. "No," as his breathing trembled, fast and desperate. "This is not me." He held his breath, and refused to let himself breath again until he knew it would be long and deep. "This is not me." He uncurled his fists, lowered his arms, pressed his hands against the floor. "This is not me."

 

He stood up, supporting himself with a hand on the wall. Nothing had happened, and he refused to let himself fall apart because of nothing. He had faced far worse than this, and survived. Hell, men under his command had faced worse than this,  and shrugged it off without a thought. He had come close to breaking in the prison cell, but he had pulled himself together, and he had walked out by himself, without needing to be rescued. If he could survive that, he could survive this.

 

Nothing happened, he repeated. He forced his trembling hand to stay still. This is not me. Then, with an easy smile pasted on his face, he returned to places where there were people.

 

******

 

Rodney flapped his hand. "Yes, yes. I've heard it all before."

 

Kate Heightmeyer looked at him in that irritating serene way of someone who thought they had all the answers. "Heard what?"

 

"What you're going to say." He nodded smugly. "You're going to tell me that I went after Sheppard because I couldn't bear to be sitting there doing nothing, because I like to be at the heart of things, doing the saving, and because I couldn't save… Well, that. Blah blah, yadda yadda, so on and so forth." He raised his finger. "I'm right, aren't I?"

 

"I wasn't going to say that."

 

"You weren't?" He lowered his hand.

 

She smiled. "We're here for you to talk, Rodney, not me."

 

"Oh." He played back what he had just said, and this time it didn't seem so confident, when you stripped it of the tone of voice, and just heard the words. "How's Sheppard?" he asked, instead. "I know he talked to you. I walked him here. Because he's my friend." He said it like a challenge, daring her to contradict.

 

"I can't tell you that," she said. "Confidentiality –"

 

"Oh, please. We all know you'll tell… Sam –" He faltered fractionally, on the point of saying 'Elizabeth.' "– everything we say."

 

"I report what I need to report," she said, "if it affects someone's ability to do their job. Everything else is confidential. So, no, I can't tell you what Colonel Sheppard told me."

 

"But he's our friend," Rodney blurted out. "We need to know how to act around him, how to help him. He's not himself and I… I don't know what to do about it. He looked better in the mess hall, but he's not, not really. I don't know what happened to him. He says it was nothing, but have you looked at him? It's like with the Wraith. He said that was nothing, but we'd all seen it on the screen in glorious technicolour, every last detail of him withering away. We didn't see it this time, so how can we know?" And still she looked at him, calm and non-judgemental. "I'm not good at handling people, you know," he found himself admitting. "It's easy for someone like Teyla. I want everything to be back to normal, but I know I'll end up saying the wrong thing."

 

"I think," she said slowly, "that the colonel needs people to treat him as normally as possible, so your 'wrong thing' might actually be the right thing, if it's you being you." She smiled briefly, but then the smile faded. "If he tries to tell you that nothing happened… He's not lying. He's telling the truth as he sees it. But it's not true. I can't say more that that, but you must remember that."

 

"Oh. Oh." He frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

 

"But we're here to talk about you," she said firmly. "About why you stole a jumper and went absent without leave for a month. And, yes, Colonel Carter told me truth. I know you went against orders."

 

"To save Sheppard," Rodney retorted. "Why do you people have to make things seem more complicated? Why do you make it all about psychology? We went to save him, because no-one else was doing anything. We found him. We brought him back. End of story."

 

"You believe that?"

 

The sun was going down behind her, haloing her hair with fire. He watched a jumper flying home, and remembered looking at much the same scene weeks before, when they had first come to their decision.

 

And still she sat there, patiently waiting for him. He remembered the doubts he had felt just days before, when weeks had gone by with no success. We were wrong to leave, he had said, then. Well, Sheppard's rescue put the lie to that, didn’t it? Sheppard was safe, and that made it right.

 

But Sheppard wasn't right. And Rodney had barely slept the night before, and Sam hadn't been angry with him, and he still hadn't dared face Radek and the others.

 

"I know what Teyla thinks," he began. "Sam, too. It's like I said. Couldn't cope with losing someone else. Hating to be powerless. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera." He flapped his hand in a circle. "Because Carson died. And then Elizabeth… Ronon left – I took his picture, you know, to remember him by, although it was hideous, but I didn't say goodbye, not properly, and if his people hadn't turned to the dark side, he wouldn't have come back, would he?" His hand was still now. "It's always us who go after him. It's always us… And me… I've saved the city how many times, me with my brain. And we were stuck in that infirmary. We couldn't look for him. We couldn't look for him. I felt… It felt… terrible."

 

"Do you think they're right, then – Teyla and Colonel Carter?"

 

He let out a breath, and closed his eyes for a moment. "Yes."

 

"And do you regret it?" Her voice was quiet, seeping into the darkness.

 

He shook his head. "No. Because we did it for him. Even if we did it for ourselves, too, it was for him as well. Even though we chased dead ends… Even though we just duplicated what they'd already done… We got him back." He smiled. "We got him back."

 

"Yes." Her voice was smiling, too. "Yes, you did."

 

"And even Sam said I did the right thing. She did. I heard her." He stood up, basking in the glory of the setting sun. "Well, it looks like we're finished here." She tried to say something – but what was there left to say? – but, still smiling with satisfaction, he left the room.

 

He went straight from there to his lab, and strode confidently through the door. "Therapy works, Radek," he said, clapping the other man on the back. "Who'd have thought it? Now, let's see what messes you lot have been making while I was away, and set about fixing them."

 

******

 

Ronon dodged, and came up, stick whirling. It impacted solidly, and he heaved it away, dodged again, and leapt, bringing it down in an arc to the right. He was covered with sweat, gasping for breath, and he could already feel the bruises developing across his ribs.

 

"That's enough," Teyla gasped. "Enough."

 

Ronon stalked away, throwing the stick down. He grabbed a towel, wiped off the worst of the moisture, then downed a jug of water.

 

On the far side of the training room, Teyla did the same. Her skin was glistening, and strands of hair were dark and matted against the side of her neck. "You are angry," she said.

 

"Yes." His blood sang, crying out to fight with her again. He slammed the stick into the wall; followed it with his fist.

 

"Why are you angry?" Her voice was mild now, but he had seen the same fury in her eyes during the fight, and he had felt the fury in the blows that had shot in past his defence, and landed on his body. Whatever her voice said now, his flesh was marked with her anger.

 

"Want to make them pay," he snarled. "They need to die for what they did to Sheppard. Carter stopped me. I should have gone anyway. She said there'd be justice." He spat the word like a curse. "It's been three days…" He slammed the stick into the bench. "Should have gone by myself."

 

She sat down on the bench beside him. "Why did you stay?"

 

He couldn't answer that, not yet. Because he'd ignored all their advice and left Atlantis, and look how that had turned out? Because this was the only home he had now, and if he broke the rules too often, he might be forced to leave it… because Weir would never have made him leave, but now there was this Carter…?

 

Because Carter said that he could help Sheppard more by staying than by going? People died when he left them. They got fed on by the Wraith, and tortured, and destroyed, and then they became the thing they had most despised, and revenge didn't make it better at all, did it? It made him feel better for a moment, but it didn't make a difference to them.

 

He wasn't good with people; he had lived too long without them. Women were supposed to understand these things, weren't they? If Carter said he could help Sheppard better by staying, then there was a possibility that it was true. But he was useless here. He should have gone. Then he could return and present Sheppard with proof that those monsters were dead. That's what he'd want, if he was in Sheppard's position.

 

No, if he was in Sheppard's position, he would want – he would need – to strike the killing blow himself, to see the bodies with his own eyes, to lay his suffering to rest by killing the people responsible for it.

 

"Because he needs to be there when I do it," he said. "Selfish to go by myself."

 

She nodded. He looked away. Oh, he hated this! How he hated this! He had no idea how to help someone who had been traumatised. On Sateda, he had rescued people and saved people, but he had never had to deal with what came afterwards. Physical injuries he could treat. He knew that even the strongest soldier could sometimes be overwhelmed by pain, and he would hold them up and help them walk, and never say a word about it afterwards if they cried. He could kill the enemy to keep someone safe, but he had no idea how to help someone fight enemies that lay in their own mind.

 

The night before, he had dreamt of Tyre and the others, drained by the Wraith and restored, drained and restored, over and over and over, until they had become Sheppard, and then they had become himself. If he killed the men who had hurt Sheppard, perhaps he could stop his own dreams, but would that stop Sheppard's?

 

"I don't know how to help him," he admitted.

 

"No." She shook her head. "None of us do. But you are helping him. You were the one he wanted to walk with him to the infirmary that first night." She touched his sleeve. "Not all help comes at the point of a sword."

 

But that was what he knew. That was what he did. A big man, good at fighting, poor with words. That was all most people on Atlantis saw. Sometimes, that was all that the mirror showed him back.

 

He stood up. "Let's go again."

 

She faced him with her stick, swung it round, hit him quickly, and then he was on his back, her stick at his throat. "Who else are you angry with?" she demanded.

 

He raised his head, then let it fall back onto the padded floor. "With Sheppard," he said, "because he robbed us of our rescue." They had searched for weeks, fought for weeks, and it had all ended with a quiet meeting in a city street.

 

"And for being captured in the first place?"

 

He shook his head. "These things happen. Happened to me."

 

"For breaking?"

 

"He didn't break." Sheppard was damaged, not broken. A broken man would have been cowering in his cell, awaiting rescue. A broken man couldn't smile and joke even as his hands were trembling. A broken man… A broken man agreed to serve the Wraith rather than face fresh torture. "Things happen when the enemy has you," he said. "It would change anyone."

 

He thought of the things he had done during his years as a Runner – things that the young soldier on Sateda would never have done. Even the strongest man could be changed forever by torture. He closed his eyes, seeing Tyre and the others, withered by the Wraith. Even the strongest man…

 

"Anger will not help John," Teyla said. She eased her stick away from his throat, and took a step back.

 

Ronon got to his feet, and headed for the bench. Perhaps she was right, but anger was all he had right now. Hatred had kept him alive for seven years. If he took away the anger, what did he have left?

 

******

 

Kate smiled. "You're the only one of your team who ever comes here voluntarily."

 

Teyla looked beyond her, at the towers of the city that had become her home. "I was trained from childhood to be leader," she said, "to put my people's needs first, to be ready to die to protect them, and to kill. A leader can never follow their own heart."

 

Kate said nothing, silently waiting for her to continue.

 

"When my people first left Atlantis, I wanted to go with them, but I stayed, because I told myself that it was the right place for me. I did it for them, not because I wanted to. But this place has become my home. I have friends here who are as close to me as anyone amongst my own people have ever been. Now I sometimes wonder if only duty ties me to my people now, but my heart keeps me here."

 

She took a sip of her coffee – an Earth drink, in an Earth vessel, drunk while talking to a woman from a galaxy far from her own.

 

"When Colonel Sheppard disappeared, I was injured, and unable to join the search. I found this very difficult to bear. I would do anything – anything – to protect my people, whether they are from Athos, or from my new… family." She faltered slightly over the word, but decided to use it, giving it stress. "The three of us decided to go after him. I knew all along that we were not being entirely… rational, but I still went. I would do the same again. I have seen so many people taken, and have been powerless to do anything. For once, I wanted to do what I needed to do, for myself. For once, I would not play the leader."

 

She stood up and walked to the window, and looked out at the ocean. Her people were no longer just across the sea, but they were still on the other side of the Ring. She could be with them in a single turn of the clock, but at the same time, they had never felt so distant.

 

"But I did," she said. "I kept Ronon from killing too many bandits, when all I wanted to do was slaughter them because they might possibly have had John, and then to kill them because they did not. Yesterday, I told Ronon not to feel angry, but I feel that same anger. I feel angry with Ronon because John wanted him that first night, not me. I feel angry with Rodney because he talks the same as he always does, and that makes John smile, when I cannot. I watch John struggling to act as if nothing is wrong, and I want to shout at him to stop pretending. I tell Rodney that everything is going to turn out well, but inside I feel no such certainty."

 

"It is never easy to be a leader –"

 

"But I am not their leader." She turned to face Kate, her back to the window.

 

"You're the only woman on the team," Kate said. "I know that sounds like a sexist thing to say, but it does make a difference, I think."

 

Teyla smiled. "They do resemble little boys at times."

 

Kate waited for her to sit down again. "When someone suffers a trauma," she said, "it is as hard on those who care about them as it is for the person themselves. They often get forgotten. It's only natural for you to feel angry, lost or confused. It's only natural for you to feel torn between so many things. You'll want to help him, but you'll also want to scream at him for not getting better all in one go. You'll feel a bond with your team-mates, because they lived through the same thing as you did, but sometimes you'll hate them, because you'll see the same doubts in their eyes that you feel yourself. Teyla," she said gently. "This is not just about Colonel Sheppard. It never was, and it still isn't."

 

"I know." Teyla let out a breath. "I always knew that, even though the others did not."

 

"Then perhaps, because you knew this, you… held back. You never stopped being aware of the needs of the other two. You said you followed your heart, but you never did, not really, because you saw what you were doing too clearly. You always felt that shadow of selfishness over what you were doing."

 

Teyla closed her eyes.

 

"You weren't being selfish," Kate said quietly. "Accept what you feel. Don't feel guilty about it."

 

Teyla moved to the window again, resting her hand against its cold surface. "I will try." It was all she could promise. "John needs this."

 

"No," Kate said. "You do."

 

******

 

End of chapter nine

 

******

 

Chapter ten: Pain

 

It was five days since he had escaped. Four days, twenty-three hours, to be precise. That was since the jumper had touched down in Atlantis. He didn't know how many minutes, because he hadn't had a watch then. He tried not to be bothered by that.

 

That was going by Earth time. The pattern of day and night was different on this new planet – different from Earth, and different from the old planet. He had dug out a calendar from somewhere – one with winter scenes in Canada, a Christmas gift from McKay – and kept it on the floor beside his bed. A tiny red cross marked the day he had returned to Atlantis. Sometimes he turned back two pages, and looked at the date he had been captured, and at the six rows of empty squares that denoted his captivity.

 

Empty squares. Blank paper. White room.

 

Nothing.

 

Heightmeyer kept trying to tell him that the truth wasn't true. "It wasn't nothing. They tortured you, colonel," she said. He had been ready for torture – psyched up, prepared both mentally and physically – but they hadn't touched him. No reason why he couldn't return to normal. No reason… He let out a breath. He was growing tired of repeating the same things over and over, trying to make them true. He clung to certain lines like a mantra, but they wouldn't be true, dammit, they wouldn't be true.

 

Sometimes they were almost true. He ate every day in the mess hall, and never looked away from any conversation he would not have looked away from before. He briefed Carter quite dispassionately about what had happened, and managed not to lose a single word. He listened to McKay prattle on about everything under the sun, and he teased him back in kind, and the words that they spoke were no different from anything they would have spoken before; it was just that the layer beneath the words was changed.

 

But some things were the same. Four days, twenty-three hours and an unknown number of minutes after he returned to Atlantis, he was running through the empty parts of the city, trying to keep up with Ronon.

 

"Are you supposed to doing this?" Ronon had asked him, before they started.

 

Sheppard had looked down at his too-thin body. "Probably not. Going to do it, though."

 

Ronon had looked at him for a long second, then nodded. That had been… - he glanced at his watch – twenty-eight minutes ago. There had been no more words since then. Ronon led the way, as he always did. "Don't go easy on me," Sheppard had been all ready to say, but Ronon didn't.

 

He was almost able to lose himself in running. Running was like flying; it was freedom. No white walls stopped him. No-one compelled him, and he could stop any time he liked. There were just his feet, falling one in front of the other, rhythmical, pounding…

 

And then pain, too, creeping in gradually, insinuating itself beneath his skin. His chest and throat hurt with the effort of breathing. His legs and his back became solid masses of pain. His feet hurt. His head ached, and dizziness stabbed like a knife between his eyes.

 

Ronon stopped running, and flopped forward, his hands on his knees. "Time for a rest."

 

Sheppard clutched at the railing, and managed to stay standing. His chest was heaving so much that he couldn't speak. It was stupid to run so far when he was out of condition, when he was still underweight, still on medication. His stomach twisted with the need for food, and he knew that his muscles would be agonisingly stiff the following morning.

 

"I'm not done yet," he told Ronon, and set off again, this time leading him.

 

******

 

The following day, he could hardly move, but that was just the pain of stiff muscles, and he knew he had to push himself past it.

 

After breakfast, he sought out McKay in his lab. "I'm bored," he told him, looking at the silver back of his laptop, where there was the faintest ghost of his own reflection. "They won't clear me for duty yet. So here I am – one ATA gene, ready for your disposal. Use me however you like."

 

McKay grumbled. The other scientists kept shooting little looks at Sheppard, then pretended to be intent on his work when he turned towards them. He clenched his fist behind his back, letting the nails dig into his palm. He took half a step backwards, then another.

 

McKay offered him scraps of his lunch, eaten on the run. That startled him, for he hadn't noticed that much time pass. Sometimes he counted every second in an hour, but time sometimes still ran away from him, with whole half days disappearing completely. It still scared him.

 

But he ate what McKay offered, and listened while McKay harangued him about something or other. "That's where you're wrong," he told him at one point, making McKay's fork freeze mid-air.

 

"Wrong?" McKay spluttered, but Sheppard could no longer remember what had prompted him to say what he had said, so he could not justify it.

 

After that, McKay tossed some Ancient device at him and told him to "make that thing work, if you really want to make yourself useful, and not clutter this place up like a puppy-dog under foot."

 

Sometimes McKay was the easiest to be with, and sometimes it was Ronon. Both of them acted as if nothing had changed. The flow of McKay's words still sometimes overwhelmed him, but sometimes Ronon's silence caused him to drift away and lose time. Words were an anchor, too. Silence could be danger.

 

He took the device, and willed it to come on. A tiny spark shot across his palm, sending a stab of pain up his arm. He sat very still. The pain came again.

 

"Well?" McKay asked impatiently. "What is it?"

 

It was small enough to fit in his palm, and he closed his fingers around it. "I don't know."

 

The pain grew sharper.

 

"No-one else could get it to work." McKay looked a little rueful. "You and your super-powered gene."

 

"Yeah." Sheppard closed his other hand around it, cupping it between them. The pain shot up both arms, and sank like a hook into the back of his neck. "It tickles a bit. That's all."

 

******

 

Half way through the sixth day, still stiff, he asked Teyla to spar with him. "Should you be doing this?" she said, echoing Ronon's question.

 

"Yes," he said, shortly.

 

He picked up the sticks, but he was out of condition. He could lose himself in running, but in a fight, you had to be altogether yourself, aware of every nuance of every movement.

 

He lost. She apologised every time, and he smiled, and said that it hadn't hurt a bit. His whole body throbbed by the time she lowered the sticks and refused to fight any more.

 

"I'm good," he told her. "I'll get you next time."

 

"No." She shook her head. "No, you will not. I will not be party to this any more."

 

******

 

"Why are you deliberately seeking out pain?" Heightmeyer asked him, the following morning.

 

He froze, his finger half way through tracing flight paths on the chair beside him. "I'm not."

 

"I have eyes," she said.

 

And they were eyes that he still found hard to look at. Everyone else he could face, but she wanted him to be something that he was not. She wanted him to break down and admit that he had a problem. Well, yes, he did  have a problem, but he was dealing with it.

 

"You're deliberately trying to get hurt," she said.

 

It was true, of course, but it was only little things. He'd thrown the razor away, hadn't he? He'd refused to hurt himself in any way that really mattered. All he'd done was run until he was ready to drop, accept a few bruises in a fight, and cling on for too long to something that dispensed mild pain. Pain brought clarity. It stopped him drifting away; it focused all his thoughts. He was stronger when he was in pain.

 

"They didn't hurt you," her mild voice said. "Not physically. Would it have been easier for you if they had?"

 

He looked beyond her, at the sky they would not let him fly in. Physical pain was simple; it was easy. You wore it outside, and it was like a badge. It gave you a licence to act differently from normal. It justified feeling broken.

 

He had not meant to speak, but he knew, really, that she was trying to help him. "I was ready to face it. I was expecting it."

 

"The physical presence of an enemy gives you something to fight against," she said. "Is physical pain the same?"

 

It was something to fight, yes. By triumphing over it, he could be strong. Everyone needed a focus. Without it, you were just drifting without an engine, floating in the sea.

 

"Or perhaps you think you deserve the pain."

 

"No." His head snapped up. "What should I deserve pain?"

 

"I'm not saying that you do," she said, "just asking you if you think you do."

 

"That's the sort of damn fool stupid thing that…"

 

He stopped; breathed in, and out. He'd almost broken, hadn't he, when faced with six weeks of softness and nothing. He shouldn't have come that close – shouldn't have. Should never had let himself get captured in the first place. Should have tried the door before. It was six weeks, but he wasn't the only one finding it difficult. McKay seemed normal, but sometimes there was an urgent desperation to his voice. Ronon seethed with anger. Teyla tried to exude calm, but was troubled underneath. They'd left Atlantis, for God's sake, and slept rough for a month, trying to find him.

 

And he'd given up on them – and why hadn't they found him earlier? Why hadn't they rescued him? He'd escaped by himself, and they were just strolling along the street, and… But they'd been prepared to give up everything for him, and here he was, thinking such things about them.

 

"No," he said firmly, spreading his hand on the chair, and curling the ends of his fingers into the fabric. "I'm not proud of what I did. I'm not proud of how I felt, or how I feel, but I don't think I deserve pain. Don't twist everything into indicating guilt."

 

"I won't." She smiled at him.

 

He didn't try to return the smile; wasn't entirely sure he could have done so, even if he'd tried. "It must helps me focus, okay, and there's nothing unusual about that. I'm not cutting myself, or anything. It's nothing. It doesn't matter. It'll stop."

 

******

 

He fell asleep after dinner, not meaning to, and woke up from a dream in which he had begged them to come and torture him, to please hurt me, please, just don't ignore me, don't leave me like this, with nothing.

 

He couldn't see his watch. The walls of his room closed in on him, and the door was closed. There was a window, but it just showed towers and pinpricks of light, and beyond that, only darkness.

 

Footsteps walked past his door.

 

He sat on the edge of his bed, shaking. He raised a trembling hand to his face, then let it fall again. The steps faded. The steps faded. He fought the urge to go to the door and feel for food. He flashed to an image of a razor against pale skin.

 

I can't go on like this, he thought.

 

He walked to the door; pressed his hand against it, and then his brow. The footsteps did not return.

 

"Nothing happened," he said out loud – that tired old mantra. "I shouldn't be feeling…"

 

Oh no. Oh, God, no. Oh no. He couldn't do this. He woke every hour from dreams. He tried to paper over the cracks, and sometimes it worked, but then when he was alone, he felt like this. Pain had helped, but then Heightmeyer had pulled him up on it, and after that, even that escape was tainted.

 

Is it because you deserve pain?

 

No. No. Of course not. No. He wasn't that far gone, not yet. He just needed… Oh, God, he had no idea what he needed. To feel normal. Yes, that, but how? To forget that all this happened – to push it away, just like everything else.

 

Sometimes he wanted to be alone, and the thought of people terrified him. But then, sometimes, when he was alone, he was suddenly convinced that he'd never see anyone ever again. He was locked away in this tiny room. The footsteps in the hallway were the only sounds he would ever hear. Time would disappear into a blur of nothingness, and he would never see anyone, never hear anyone, never touch anyone…

 

"Are you there?" he whispered into the door. "Is anybody there?"

 

He felt almost sick with nervousness as he tried the lock, but when the door opened, he felt little relief. The hallway was empty. He turned right and started to walk, and there was still no-one there. He passed a balcony, passed an intersection… Still no-one.

 

They've gone, he thought. "Don't be stupid," he told himself. "There's a big city for people to get lost in, and most of them will be in bed by now, anyway."

 

But I need to see them, he thought. Not alone. Not alone.

 

He thought about the mess hall. Not there, his mind whimpered. Too much. Too many.

 

He thought about McKay, but there would be questions, and far too many words. Instead, his feet made their way towards Ronon's room. Just to pass it, he thought. To see if I can hear him. To see if he's there.

 

He paused at Ronon's door. He wanted to move on, but couldn't quite bring himself to do so. The door opened, and he felt nothing – no embarrassment, no relief. "Sheppard." Ronon was dressed, and held an unsheathed knife in his hand. "Thought I heard someone."

 

Sheppard had hardly ever gone into Ronon's room. Ronon nodded at him now, giving him permission. Ronon sat down on the floor, and resumed the sharpening of his knife. Another nod, and Sheppard found himself sitting on the edge of Ronon's bed, beneath a picture of triumph.

 

Perhaps it was because he was so tired, that he asked it. Perhaps it was because he was still half in the grip of the dream. "How did you manage," he asked, "being alone all that time?"

 

Ronon raised the blade and studied it, then put it down. "Had something to fight," he said. "I started every day determined to stay alive, and to kill Wraith." He picked up the knife again. "They thought they were hunting me, but I turned it around. I was hunting them."

 

Sheppard let out a breath.

 

"It was different with you," Ronon said. "They took away all your weapons and took away anything you could fight. I'd have gone crazy inside of a week."

 

"You think I'm crazy?"

 

Ronon shook his head, but didn't answer. Instead, he said, "Could have gone crazy myself, looking for you. We just kept coming up short, against failure. That's why we had to leave Atlantis to look for you. People like you and me, we need something to fight. It kills us when we can't see an enemy."

 

He thought of Afghanistan, and how he had fought against orders, when there was no enemy to fight. He thought about the awfulness of that white room, with footsteps walking past endlessly, but never presenting him with the simplicity of pain.

 

But, "McKay, too," was all he said. "He doesn't look like a fighter, but he can't bear to be useless."

 

"McKay, too," Ronon said, "and Teyla. Perhaps all of us. Perhaps that's why we're here, because we're only really alive when we have a cause to fight."

 

"Maybe," Sheppard said. He felt his eyelids growing heavy.

 

"When I first got here," Ronon said quietly, "I used to sleep on the floor. I couldn't get used to a bed. I used to come back to my room, sometimes, when the noise got too loud. But sometimes I'd get up in the night and sleep outside, just so I could hear people."

 

Sheppard knew better than to look at Ronon. He looked away, but then his body must have taken over, because the next thing he knew, it was morning.

 

"Doesn't matter," Ronon said, before he could apologise. "Like I said, I'm used to sleeping on the floor."

 

Sheppard stretched. He felt better, he realised, and for the first time in days, he couldn't remember his dreams.

 

"I know what will make you feel even better." Ronon was sitting up, propped up on one elbow, and his eyes were glistening and intense.

 

He thought he knew what it was.

 

"They took away your ability to fight," Ronon said. "Take it back. They're still out there. Carter's just waiting for you to give the word."

 

******

 

End of chapter ten

 

******

 

Chapter eleven: The return

 

"You okay with this?" Carter asked.

 

Sheppard nodded, concentrating on the buckles of his vest. He suspected that Keller and Heightmeyer had recommended that he stay behind; he still wasn't cleared for active duty, after all. Carter had made the required token protests, but seemed to understand. There were some things that a man just had to do himself.

 

"Nothing I can't face," he added brightly. He bit back the rest of it. They didn't do anything to me. Heightmeyer didn't like him saying that. Perhaps, just perhaps, she was right.

 

They took away your ability to fight.

 

"On one condition," he said. "I get to drive."

Ronon stood close by, bristling with weapons. He wasn't wearing any more weapons than he normally wore, but somehow there seemed to be more of them. I'm gonna kick some ass, his stance shouted. But he had been quiet, almost gentle in the morning, when Sheppard had woken up. He knew that Ronon would never ever mention the fact that Sheppard had fallen asleep on his bed, and if he had heard the evidence of bad dreams in the night, on that, too, he would be silent.

 

"This is a shooting thing, right?" McKay said nervously from behind. "We're not doing the diplomacy thing?"

 

"We tried diplomacy," Carter said. "This morning I sent a message to Dareon asking him politely to account for what had happened in his own city. He continues to deny all knowledge, and pretty much accused us of faking the whole thing in order to justify our war-like actions."

 

"Faking?" McKay spluttered. "Faking?" Sheppard kept his eyes cast down.

 

"War-like actions," Ronon echoed, twirling his gun. "That'll be right."

 

"This could be seen as a act of war," Teyla said.

 

Carter appeared to be considering it, although of course she would have considered it before giving the order to depart. "It could," she said, "but we're not talking Wraith or Replicators. They're one city, and they don't know where we come from. At the worst, we're looking at another Genii." She let out a breath. "And they hurt one of our own. We can't let that go unpunished." A look seemed to pass between her and Teyla, but Sheppard had no idea what it meant.

 

The last of the supplies were loaded. "All present, sir," someone said. Sheppard nodded, and Carter did, too.

 

"Time to go." Sheppard moved up to the front of the jumper.

 

The MALP had shown that they were beginning to rebuild the wall that kept vehicles from leaving the Gate. The area around the Gate was also heavily guarded. "If we open the hatch to drop C4, like last time, they'll shoot us to pieces," McKay had said. "A drone, then," Sheppard had replied. A large explosion, with a warning beforehand telling the guards to stay away. They were not declaring war on the whole planet, only trying to find the people who had done this to him… who had imprisoned him.

 

The jumper responded to his commands – one glorious thing in Atlantis that was entirely unchanged. The noise around him fell away. Someone opened the Gate. Someone spoke to them over the radio. Then blueness enfolded him, and he was on the other side. "They're firing," McKay said. "Come on! As if revolvers are going to damage a puddlejumper." Carter spoke over the radio, broadcasting her voice to the surroundings. "I'll count to twenty, and I strongly advise you to get out of the way. Believe me, your guns can't stop us."

 

Then she counted, and he listened to the numbers; heard them in seconds, in minutes, in footsteps. On twenty, he told the drone to fire, and watched the wall explode into fire and masonry.

 

His hand clenched quietly into a fist. They took away your ability to fight. Well, he'd just taken it right back. Everything was going to be fine after this.

 

******

 

Teyla was the one who knew the city best. As they flew over, slow and cloaked, all the places below her held memories. There was the street corner where she had stopped walking one evening, and just stood there, overwhelmed with the impossibility of their task. There was the wall that had hidden her when Dareon and his guards had walked past unexpectedly one night. There was the tavern where she had received the whispered information that had led them to John.

 

It had all been real. From above, these places were spread out on the ground like a map, but each one held real memories of real moments from her life. Everything she had felt there was real, and every moment that you lived shaped the person that you became. Accept what you feel, Kate had told her. Don't feel guilty about it.

 

"There," she said, pointing her finger. "That's where we found him. My informant had told us to go –"

 

"I went through a gate," John said. His voice was quiet and level. "It was in a wall – a low wall. It was a courtyard. The rooms were underground. After the gate, I walked along straight. Then I met you."

 

"There's a courtyard there." Rodney pointed. "Just right for landing a jumper."

 

"How convenient." John's smile was taut. He lowered the jumper until it came to rest in the courtyard.

 

The Marines were ready with their weapons, but Ronon was on his feet even before they were. He stood behind John's chair, but John just sat there and did not move. Are you sure you can do this? Teyla wanted to ask, but knew that she must not.

 

At least this felt right. The last time she had left Atlantis in a jumper, she had been plagued with doubt – knowing that she had to leave for her own peace of mind, but aware of the wrongs they were committing by taking that action. Now she was on the brink of bringing justice to those who had hurt someone she cared about. And hurt us, too, she added, because every one of them had been scarred by those six long weeks. All her urges pointed to the same end. And John needs this, too.

 

"Remember this is not a revenge mission," Colonel Carter said, her eyes on Ronon. "We are here to find answers – proof, if there is proof, that Dareon was involved, or proof of his innocence."

 

Teyla saw the dichotomy in the other woman's eyes. They hurt one of our own, Carter had said, and Teyla had known beyond all doubt that Carter felt the same urges that she did, but was bound, like her, but the responsibilities of command. Had Carter been in Teyla's position seven weeks before, she, too, might have risked everything to go after her team-mate. In charge of Atlantis, she had to think about higher things, but that did nothing to change what her heart wanted.

 

We are all divided, Teyla thought, but sometimes, on missions such as these, they came together.

 

Then the hatch opened, and the mission began.

 

******

 

"Door's locked," McKay said.

 

Ronon fired at the lock. "Not now."

 

They began to go down the stairs. Sheppard was not far behind Ronon, but Ronon couldn't spare him much thought. A distant part of his mind recognised that this whole thing was probably very hard on Sheppard – revisiting a place where you had been hurt was never good – but all his focus that mattered was directed towards his surroundings, alert for any enemy.

 

"There's no-one on the scanners," McKay said, "uh… apart from us, that is."

 

"Didn't see them on the scanners by the Gate." Ronon didn't look round. These devices were all very well, and he would use any advantage that he was given, but he preferred to depend on what his own eyes and ears told him, and the pricking of his own instincts.

 

"No," McKay admitted, in a hoarse whisper. "We never found out why. They're kind of early twentieth century in their technology, though they're stuck somewhere in the seventeenth century with their fashion sense and design. Could they have come up with something that blocks…?"

 

"Shut up, McKay."

 

"Ah. Yes. Being quiet."

 

There were stairs, a door, and more stairs. Then there was a hallway with rooms off it on either side. Ronon took the left, and Teyla went right. There was no-one. Ronon rounded each door in turn. No-one.

 

When Sheppard stopped following him, he was aware of it instantly, but he couldn't turn round. "That's it." Sheppard's voice was very quiet. "It was there."

 

Ronon had already seen that room. It was small, like the others, with walls of glaring white. Sheppard had been locked up in there? Sheppard had spent six weeks all alone in there? Fury threatened to drown him. "Come out!" he bellowed, because the time for stealth was over. "Come out!"

 

"There was a camera." It was that small not-Sheppard voice, tiny against the echo of Ronon's shout.

 

"You were in there?" McKay's voice was louder, higher than normal.

 

"John…" That was Teyla.

 

"No," Sheppard rasped. "No."

 

Ronon saw Tyre and the others, destroyed by the Wraith. He saw Sheppard on the screen, behind Kolya's grinning face. He saw Melena, dying as he watched, and he saw the ruins of villages, killed by the Wraith because they could not get him. He thought of those days in the infirmary, unable to walk, unable to go after Sheppard, and those long weeks of failure and dreams.

 

"Come out!" he bellowed.

 

He saw a tiny glimmer of movement at the end of the corridor – someone peeping through the crack at the edge of the door, cowering, too cowardly to come out. Ronon hurled himself down the corridor, and blasted the door open. The person tried to run, but he was faster, far faster. "Don't kill him!" someone shouted from behind him, so he hurled himself on them, tearing them down to the ground, then smashed them twice in the face. "Give me one good reason not to kill you," he snarled.

 

The man had grey eyes, and greying hair. He was not Dareon. "Because then your friend will never find out why this was done to him."

 

Ronon struck him again. "Don't care about why."

 

The man's mouth had filled with blood. "He does."

 

******

 

"So tell us," Sam said.

 

Rodney twisted his hands together and hovered at the back, useless, again. He still couldn't forget the sight of Sheppard's prison, small and gleaming white. To be in there, alone…! No computers, no books, nothing to do, nothing to strive towards. He hadn't felt the reality of it before. It would have driven me insane.

 

"We did it because we could," the grey-haired man said, hanging in Ronon's grip. "No other reason than that. We broke him because we could."

 

Ronon smashed him across the face. "It was a game?" Rodney just felt sick.

 

"He lasted longer than the others." The man said it was if he was granting a gift.

 

"I cannot believe that it all just a game," Teyla said.

 

"You don't want to believe that," the man corrected. "We watched you search for him, then told you what you needed to know, when the time had come."

 

Teyla surged forward with murder in her eyes. Rodney had never wanted to hurt anyone more badly in his life. Everything, just a game! Six weeks of their life… And more, because they would never forget this, never entirely get over it, and it would be added to the rich catalogue of scars that was their past in the Pegasus galaxy. He had left Atlantis; he had despaired; he had been useless… and all for a game, all for a game.

 

"Lie to yourself if you wish," the man said. "Shore yourself up with a castle of lies. It was a test. We wanted to test the mettle of any new visitor to our land. We picked the one who showed himself most willing to fight to defend the others, and robbed him of his chance to fight. Anyone can be brave in battle, but to see a man as he truly is, you rob him of everything that makes him himself. Believe that it was a test of the rest of you, too, if that lie comforts you. To what lengths were you prepared to go for your friend? When would you give up? How long could hope survive when given nothing to fuel it?"

 

Yes, Rodney thought. It was a test, and they'd passed. It was a test, and they'd stayed loyal, they'd not given up, they'd done well – a hundred percent; A plus; a medal and rapturous applause. They'd passed. Of course they'd passed. It couldn't have all been for nothing. It couldn't have just been a game.

 

"I believe that is the truth, not a lie." Teyla spat out the words.

 

"Can I kill you now?" Ronon's voice was chilling.

 

Sheppard was the only one who said nothing at all. He had said nothing at all, ever since this thing had started.

 

Rodney turned.

 

******

 

It was here. It had been here. It was still here.

 

He put his foot over the threshold – just edged it forward, not even stepped properly – and the walls closed on him. The blankets were runkled in the shape of a body, as if they were waiting for him, as if he had never left. The smell enfolded him. The hook looked down on him, and he floated upwards, up onto the ceiling, and watched the shell of a man get drowned by the white walls that had slammed down on the universe. He watched that figure sink to the ground. He watched that figure start to tremble. He watched that figure bring its knees up to its chest, and hug them close.

 

Voices came from far away. "No reason," someone was saying. "We broke him just because we could."

 

A big man had told him that he could find something to fight here, but you couldn't fight nothing, could you? You couldn't recover when there was no reason for your suffering – no reason at all.

 

The voices carried on, but he no longer heard them.

 

"My God, Sheppard." The shell of a man blinked. It was Rodney. That meant it was a hallucination, because there was no-one ever in these white walls but himself. Rodney. McKay. But a hand touched his shoulder, then shied back, awkward as only McKay could be.

 

"It was here," he told McKay. "I was here. I'm still here. I'll always be here."

 

"I don't know what to say." The hand touched his shoulder again. "I'm not good at this."

 

He began to float ever so cautiously down from the ceiling. This had to be real. A hallucination would have more answers. And that meant that he was sitting here having a nervous breakdown in front of everyone. Because of nothing. No pain. No hurt. No reason.

 

"We went through all that, and it was just a game…" McKay knelt down beside him. "You went through this… I'm not good at this… at people, you know. Saying the right words. You said they didn't do anything to you, and of course I knew it wasn't true – I've got eyes – but you said it, and much as I hate to admit you, you're usually right about things. So I didn't know… But now I've seen it… God, Sheppard. It would have killed me."

 

"Wasn't too bad," he managed to say.

 

"It would have killed me," McKay said, with surprising force. "I… I need to be active. I need to be solving things. That's why I came after you, because I had to be doing something, you know? To take all that away from you, and for a game…"

 

Something shifted as McKay spoke. The part of him that had drifted away from his body turned and looked at the room, seeing it as McKay might see it. He saw the white walls and the lack of windows. He saw the hook and the drain, deliberately planted there to torment him with possibilities. He remembered the footsteps that had walked up and down, deliberately torturing him with expectations.

 

"They did do something to me." He whispered it at first, but then he pushed himself to his feet. "They did do something to me."

 

He pushed past McKay, and headed down the corridor. He pushed past Carter, past Teyla, and stopped only when he reached Ronon. "You robbed me of anything I could fight," he told the blood-stained man who drooped in Ronon's grip. "Guess I've got something now."

 

"He's yours," Ronon said.

 

Sheppard drew his pistol. "Which one are you?" he demanded. The man just blinked. "Walk!" Sheppard shouted. "Ronon, let him go. Walk!" Ronon released the man, but kept him covered with his weapon. "Walk," Sheppard said, more quietly this time, and the man did, but his step gave nothing away. "Where are the others?" Sheppard demanded.

 

"Gone," the man said.

 

"But you're not going anywhere," McKay said, then seemed to lose his nerve when the man turned to look at him. "Uh… I mean… that was a statement of fact. Not a threat."

 

"I can find it out." Ronon had a long knife in his hand.

 

But Sheppard could already hear the ticking passage of time. Oh, God, he just wanted to be whole again. "I'm going to kill you," he promised. "Ronon, hold him."

 

Ronon twisted the man's hands behind his back. Sheppard saw that his pistol was trembling, and thrust it back in the holster. He closed his hands around the man's throat, and started to squeeze. He was taking action. With every second that passed, he was laying something to rest. He was staring into the eyes of a tormentor who had hidden from him. He was fighting. He was taking control. He remembered all the times he had clenched his fists on nothing, and now there was flesh beneath his hands, now there was an enemy…

 

White walls. Grey eyes. A blood-stained mouth, open and pleading. People shouting, calling his name. Ronon looking at him steadily, with total understanding. McKay saying "Oh no! Oh no!"

 

Hands. A fight. He should be growing with this, unfurling. They robbed you of your ability to fight. Well, he was getting it back now. "You did to something to me," he gasped. Punishment would prove that. This man's death would mean that he could never doubt it again. He'd never kill an innocent man, so if he killed this man, then...

 

Never kill…

 

He released his grip. The man drooped in Ronon's arms, gasping for breath.

 

******

 

Sheppard was barely aware of what happened after that.

 

Lord Dareon came bursting in, he knew that, although he had never met the man before. He came in full of outrage at this attack on his soil. When Colonel Carter presented him with evidence of what had been happening, he protested his innocence. "I didn't know. I can only assure you that I had no knowledge of what was being done here."

 

Was it true? It didn't seem to matter. He saw the same weariness in McKay's face, in Ronon's, in Teyla's. They drew together, and let Carter handle it.

 

"You should have killed him," Ronon said, some time later.

 

"Could have," Sheppard said. "Chose not to." He looked at Ronon. "You could have."

 

Ronon seemed to think about it for a while. "He was yours," he said. "Didn't want to steal the choice from you. You made up your mind." His expression suggested that he couldn't understand Sheppard's choice, even as he would abide by it. "End of story."

 

Apparently the man was going to be handed over to Dareon to be judged by the local justice system, and Dareon had assured them that the judgement would be harsh. McKay was convinced that Dareon was in on it, and that evil would go unpunished. "We have no proof of Dareon's involvement," Teyla pointed out. The Marines had searched the offices before Dareon had arrived, but had found no paperwork to suggest anything at all. If they had kept any films of him in that prison cell, there was no evidence of it. Sheppard wasn't sure how he felt about that.

 

After that, Sheppard found himself sitting in the jumper all by himself, while people did things outside, their footsteps going up and down, up and down. He remembered the feel of the man's neck beneath his hands. I took back the ability to fight, he told himself. They did do something to me. It's okay to find this difficult.

 

McKay found him first, then Ronon, then Teyla. "I don't seem to want to be part of it any more," McKay said. "It's strange. I'm letting them get on with things out there – talks, and all that. Working out if we can still be allies with these people – and I don't think we will, you know. Sam's no fool. She might not want to call Dareon a liar to his face, but there'll always be that doubt, and she's got integrity. We'll leave here in peace, but after the trial – if there is a trial - we'll never come back again and never see them again."

 

"We did what we came here to do," Ronon said. "Can't do everything. It's best not to be bothered by the things you can't change." He looked at Sheppard. "It's not easy. Sometimes it half kills you, trying."

 

"We did what we could," Teyla said. "We did what we needed to do, for ourselves, and for each other." Sheppard was suddenly sure that she was talking about far more than just this day.

 

"Yeah. That's the important thing," Sheppard said. He had no idea, afterwards, quite what he meant, or what he was replying to. But the three of them were with him, and that meant something. They had gone through their own hells, but they had come for him. They would help him with any battles that needed to be fought, and even when he had none.

 

"Glad you're here, guys," he said, and then it was time to go home.

 

******

 

End of chapter eleven

 

******

 

Chapter twelve: Tomorrow

 

"I hate to say it, but you were right."

 

Heightmeyer looked at him with her level gaze.

 

"They did do something real to me. It did affect me. It would have affected anyone. At least now I have a face to put to the enemy. There was no good reason for what they did – they'd have done it anyway, whatever I did."

 

"Does that bother you," she asked, "there being no reason?"

 

He thought about that. "No." He shook his head. "Not as much as it should do. There isn't always a reason for things. Not everything has a cause. Sometimes people hurt people just because they're bad guys, and like pain. Sometimes they torture you for a game, like they did with Ronon – hunting him for sport. It happens."

 

"It happened to you."

 

"Yes." He let out a breath. "It happened to me."

 

It was two days since they had returned to Atlantis. He was still not entirely comfortable with people. He was still unusually sensitive to the sound of footsteps. He still depended on being able to see his watch, and sometimes drifted away and lost minutes. He still slept badly. He still liked to exercise, sometimes, until it hurt. But he recognised what he was doing – recognised it, knew that there was a good reason for it, and knew that the symptoms were getting fractionally better each day, and that they would continue to get better.

 

"Is this what you people call a breakthrough?" he asked. "I thought it would be… messier."

 

He had images of himself reaching breaking point, finally collapsing and admitting that he couldn’t go on. He supposed he'd had a tiny bit of a breakdown on the threshold of that room, in front of McKay, but that didn't feel big enough, somehow. There had been no climax. If that had been hitting rock bottom, then it didn't feel anything like it was supposed to.

 

"Things work differently for different people," she said. "Every situation is different."

 

He looked out at the sky. Not long now, he told himself. It wouldn't be instantaneous, but soon he would be back on duty, back there where he belonged – flying, taking action, doing his job, saving the world.

 

"But it wasn't gradual, either," he said. "Ronon said something. That helped. Going there helped, because it showed me that it really happened. Seeing that man… Seeing that man…"

 

"You didn't kill him."

 

"No." He shook his head. "I could have. It wouldn't have made a difference. It wouldn't have changed anything about what had happened to me. I made that choice. Me."

 

"Fighting isn't always about doing something," she said. "Sometimes it's about making a choice."

 

"Yeah." It sounded strange, but he thought he knew what she meant. In the white room, he had been robbed of anything to go up against. They had made him powerless. Power wasn't just about striking out, about fighting, about getting revenge. Sometimes power was about choosing to walk away.

 

"I've never had much time for shrinks," he told her. "No offence intended, doc. I respected the work you people do. I was happy for you to talk to other people. But me… No. Me and shrinks don’t go together."

 

"I won't ask if this has changed your mind." She smiled.

 

"You tried your best," he said. "Hell, some of it was helpful. But I won't be coming back. No –" He held up his hand. "I know I'm not fixed. I'm not stupid. But this isn't for me – pouring out my soul to someone who's paid to hear it. I've come this far. I'll do the rest in my own way."

 

"I really can't–"

 

"I won't be alone." He stood up; moved to the window. "I've got friends. It helps me more being with them than talking with you." He turned to face her. "Ronon, now. He said something I needed to hear, right when I needed to hear it. Didn't make a fuss about it, just said it. McKay… You know what Rodney's like. He didn't have a clue what to say, but he tried, and that helped me, because it showed that no-one has all the answers; we're just doing the best we can. And Teyla… She went through something. They all went through something, but they came for me. Not many guys have that – friends who are prepared to live for a month with McKay just to get them back."

 

She opened her mouth to speak, but he held up his hand. "This session's supposed to be about me doing the talking, and this is the last time I'm going to talk about this, so…" He took a deep breath. "We all went through the same thing, in a way. They were injured, so couldn't help look for me. They were robbed of something to fight, just like I was. We understand each other, doc. You don't. I know you're trained to emphasise, but you haven't lived this. They have. We have."

 

"I do know about powerlessness," she said.

 

"Maybe," he conceded. "Take Ronon, now. They wiped out his whole world, and hunted him like an animal. Sometimes I'm amazed the guy can even function. He fights what he can, and the rest he accepts. He wanted to kill that man, but he left the choice to me. He accepted it. You have to, sometimes, or you'll lose your mind."

 

He looked at her sitting there, light falling slant-wise on her face, her skin pale against her hair. Not much more than a week before, she had seemed barely human, her skin fading into the white walls of his prison. Now she was just Kate Heightmeyer, who did her job well, but was not, in the end, the person he needed.

 

"Look, I'll let them send me back to you if I start getting worse," he said. "I'll be a good boy. But I want to do this my way. Things work differently for different people, you say. I'm not one for talking about things, but I work them out in my own way. They'll let me do that; you won't."

 

"It wasn't be easy." Her hands were folded in her lap. "Some days will be worse than others. There are setbacks in any recovery."

 

"I know that." But they'll help me through, he added. "Please let me try."

 

Very slowly, she nodded.

 

******

 

They sat in the mess hall, the four of them together. "Wish I could join you," John said.

 

Rodney grimaced. "It's going to be boring. Babysitting scientists–"

 

"You're a scientist," John said. "We baby-sit you."

 

"Baby scientists," Rodney said with distaste. "Wet behind the ears. Cowering at the sound of a bullet."

 

"Like you did," John pointed out, "not so long ago."

 

Rodney held up his finger. "'Not so long ago' being the operative words. I've grown. Changed. Everyone says so."

 

"You will be back on duty soon," Teyla reassured John.

 

It was over a week since they had revisited the scene of John's captivity. It was strange, Teyla thought, how much had changed that day, despite the fact that so little had happened. There had been no killings, and no real fighting. It was not the sort of ending she had expected, but for some reason everything had suddenly seemed clear.

 

It had become real, she thought, the moment they had seen the place where John had been held. Nothing else had seemed quite so important after that.

 

Yes, she thought. We were right to go after him. Ronon had never doubted it, she thought. Rodney had seemed certain, but had begun to waver at the end. Only Teyla, who had known all along that they were working from their own deep needs, had agonised over their actions. So many events had robbed them of their ability to take action. If they had sat back and done nothing when John had disappeared, they would have been broken. Guilt and inactivity would have destroyed them. They had needed to do it, and they were stronger as a result.

 

"Mind if I join you?" Colonel Carter had come up behind her while she had been lost in thought.

 

John nodded towards the empty chair, the others perhaps unconsciously leaving the choice to him.

 

"It's been a long week," Carter said. "It's not what I expected when I took on the job."

 

"Best get used to it," Rodney said with relish.

 

John smiled. "You aint seen nothing yet."

 

Perhaps it was a peace offering, of sorts. All three of them had doubted Colonel Carter. If Elizabeth had still been in command, perhaps they would not have felt the need to do what they had done. Everything was new and changing. They had doubted Carter's commitment to her people… but wrongly, Teyla knew now. Like Teyla herself, Carter was torn between what she wanted to do, and what her position compelled her to do. It was hard to stay human in the face of that.

 

They talked about this and that for a while. "Well, duty calls." Carter put down her empty cup.

 

"Up and at 'em," Rodney said. "Time for us to go, too."

 

Yes, Teyla thought, as they left the table together; yes, as she turned round to see John with one hand raised in an ironic half wave. We will get through this.

 

******

 

Sheppard watched them go. Returning his plate, he left the room, and headed for the nearest balcony. He no longer felt much fear in a crowded room, but sometimes he still craved solitude. Sometimes he could even relax in it when he got it.

 

The sun was at its height, bathing the ocean with white gold. The wind was cool on his face, bringing the scent of sea to his nostrils. Above him was the sky. I'll be flying there in a few weeks, he vowed. I'll be back where I belong.

 

Heightmeyer was right; it was not always easy. Sometimes he woke up terrified from dreams. The second time this had happened, he had headed for McKay's room, and the two of them had ended up in one of the rec rooms, arguing fiercely about Batman. That made it better. So, too, did the way that Ronon allowed him to run himself into exhaustion, and never said a word about it. So, too, did the way that Teyla let him spar with her, and had once stood quietly beside him on this very balcony for over an hour, saying nothing, just being there.

 

They hurt me, he thought, but I took the power back. They hadn't given him pain to fight. They hadn't given him faces that he could hate. But they had landed him with this, and he could fight it. Every day he did fight it. Because you didn't come to the Pegasus galaxy unless you thrived on struggle. You didn't last here a week unless you worked best under pressure.

 

A war could have been the making of them. Take away anything they could fight, and they had almost been broken – his team, as well as himself.

 

"But we got through it," he said out loud to the sunlight. "We will get through it."

 

A bird plunged down to the wave-tips, and soared upwards, riding the currents. Sheppard watched it, and yearned after it, but there was no intensity to the feeling, not any more. He would be flying soon.

 

He was already free.

 

******

 

"What if someone shoots at us?" Rodney fiddled with the fastenings on his vest. "What if… what if something goes wrong?" What if we have to split up again? What if it all happens all over again?

 

The others did not offer him any comfort.

 

"You're supposed to say 'it won't'," he pointed out reproachfully.

 

"But it might." Sheppard was looking straight ahead of him, glasses shielding his eyes from the bright spring sunlight.

 

"Oh. And that's supposed to help?"

 

Sheppard looked far less nervous than Rodney felt. It was their first mission together as a team. Rodney had been up half the night, busying himself in the labs, shouting at anyone who wandered by. It was ridiculous, he knew, but he couldn't shake the fear that it would all happen all over again. People died. They vanished. You waited for them and did everything that you could, but they still disappeared, whisked away in the final few yards before they reached the Gate. For years he had hardly cared about other people, but apparently that had changed. When people disappeared, his own life fell apart. It was horrible, and he didn't want it to happen again.

 

"I can't make false promises," Sheppard said after a while, pausing next to a white-flowered tree. "I wish I could." He looked away. Still hidden by his glasses, he said, "Didn't sleep too well last night myself."

 

The grass swayed lazily in the breeze. There was a faint scent of distant flowers, and even the sky was like something from a children's story book. There was a ruined cottage not far away, its honey-coloured walls tumbling naturally into the flower-specked undergrowth. But it took little imagination to see the rain. It took little imagination to see brown leaves and tall trees, and enemies that lurked unseen, and snatched your life away for two whole months and more.

 

"If someone attacks us," Rodney said, "we're sticking together."

 

Sheppard shook his head; plucked up a blade of grass and twisted it between his fingers. But it was Ronon who spoke. "Can't be ruled by fear," he said. "Sometimes things happen."

 

"Sometimes things happen," Sheppard repeated. He tossed the grass away. "Anything can happen; that's the job we do. If a situation arises, we'll do what seems right at the time. If that means we split up, we split up. If I'm… taken, and I tell you to go through the Gate… I have to mean it, and you have to do it. We're here to do a job–"

 

"Then the job sucks." Rodney kicked at a clump of flowers, suddenly, ridiculously, irrationally furious. The thought of going through all this again… The weeks without Sheppard had scoured him, leaving him changed, doubting himself, questioning everything, useless. He had come to terms with that, he thought, but to do it again… To do it again…

 

"Yes," Sheppard said, "the job sucks. But it's the job we do. If we can't take the consequences, then we should go home." He looked up at the sky, and said it again, more quietly. "We should go home."

 

"But we're not going to," Ronon said.

 

"No." Sheppard gave a smile that seemed to Rodney to be more honest than most of his smiles. "We'll do what we have to do, and that's a sort of battle, too, really, just doing it." He looked at Rodney, and titled his head, the smile changing. "There's a blob of sun cream on your nose."

 

"What?" Rodney clapped his hand to his nose, and examined it. It was smeary with grease, but clean. "God, Sheppard, are you five?"

 

Sheppard shrugged innocently, but as they started to walk again, Rodney could see that he was nervous, after all. It was there in signs that he would not have been able to see, only months before, and years before that, would not have cared about.

 

He moved subtly closer to Sheppard, and saw that the other two had done the same.

 

******

 

Ronon felled the two men who flanked them. McKay was ducking down behind the DHD, desperately trying to dial with one hand. Teyla was bleeding from a graze across her cheek.

 

"Where is he?" McKay was saying, over and over, his voice high. "Where is he?"

 

Ronon prowled in a circle, keeping the surroundings covered with his weapon. Tall trees with trailing tendrils hung low all around the Gate, dropping heavy pollen. The attack had come out of nowhere, and they had been scattered, no chance even to think of a plan, forced by the terrain to split up. "Make for the Gate," Sheppard had commanded over the radio.

 

"It's happening again. It's happening again. It's happening again." McKay's hand was poised over the last symbol.

 

"No, it isn't," Ronon vowed, "not this time."

 

Red flowers shivered, and Ronon saw a smear of brown. He fired, and another attacker fell, his weapon cold in his hand. Birds with bright feathers squawked above him, and flew away, setting the tendrils swaying.

 

It was the first time he had killed since before they had found Sheppard. The anger had gone, though – vanished in the moment that Sheppard had chosen not to kill the man who had tormented him. That choice had been Sheppard's to make. Sometimes, Ronon thought, the most worthy fight of all was the struggle to put things behind you, and accept what you couldn't change. They had made their choice to go after Sheppard, and perhaps they had been right, and perhaps they had been wrong, but that choice had been made. Sheppard had made his choice not to seek revenge, and that part of their life was over. It marked them, yes, but what mattered was now. What mattered was the future.

 

"Sorry about that," Sheppard's voice came over the radio. "Argument with a river." Ronon heard the sound of Sheppard's gun firing, coming simultaneously over the radio and somewhere to his right. "Got him." Then, "I'm almost there."

 

"We're waiting for you this time," McKay said. He had finally found the courage to stand upright at the DHD, although his shoulders were still slightly hunched. "Don't argue. I can be stubborn when I'm crossed."

 

The heavy tendrils parted, and Ronon swung his weapon around, but it was Sheppard, wet and bedraggled, but apparently unharmed.

 

"Wouldn't try to stop you," Sheppard said quietly, just before they walked through the Gate side by side, all four of them together. When he reached the other side, he continued, as if only a single pace and not countless million miles separated his words from what had gone before. "Not this time."

 

******

 

The stars had never seemed brighter. One moon was down, and the other was sinking into the sea, flooding it with silver.

 

Sheppard stood alone on the balcony. There had been three missions without incident; the fourth had almost ended in disaster. For a moment, separated from the others and surrounded by attackers, he had felt close to panic. Then he had raised his P90, and the calmness of old training had fallen upon him. He would do his job; that was what he was here for. He would take whatever consequences there were, and he would deal with them.

 

His tormentors – and he knew now that they were tormentors, that they had hurt him – had still not been punished. Colonel Carter was pushing for a trial, but Lord Dareon was delaying things, and relations were getting more strained by the day. Somehow, it didn't seem to matter that much. His own healing came down to how he coped with the hand that he had been dealt. It didn't depend on revenge. It didn't even depend on knowing why such a thing had been done to him.

 

It happened. Deal with it. He saw the same truth sometimes in Ronon's eyes, and he sparred with particular ferocity, or ran himself into a state of exhaustion. He saw it in Teyla's eyes, when she visited the small community that was all that was left of her people, on a planet that had never been their home. Sometimes, occasionally, he even saw it in McKay's, though McKay still preferred to challenge fate, and then to agonise over might-have-beens.

 

"There you are." McKay joined him now. Ronon slotted in on his right, his forearms leaning on the railing. Teyla stood back in the shadows, one hand resting lightly beside Ronon's.

 

"Here I am," Sheppard echoed.

 

If healing was defined as returning to exactly how you had been before, then he would never be healed. He suspected he would always be over-sensitive to footsteps, and edgy in total silence. Perhaps he would always have to brace himself a little before entering a crowd. But he preferred to see healing differently. Healing was finding a way of going forward, despite the scars. Everything you did marked you. Sometimes it was physical scars, and sometimes it was a different way of seeing. Things happened, and you dealt with them. That didn't mean that you couldn't be changed by them.

 

"I'm going down with a cold," McKay said, sniffing dramatically. "Or… Oh! I know! It was that pollen." He sniffed again. "Why is it always me?"

 

"At least we're going to die heroically," Sheppard observed. "We'll have to put on your grave stone: 'Killed by flowers.'"

 

"Or lemons," Ronon added. "I ate one yesterday. Lemon meringue, they called it. I liked it."

 

"Oh, is it pick on the genius scientist day?" McKay asked. "Did I miss the memo?"

 

"Every day is pick on the genius scientist day, McKay."

 

McKay snorted sulkily, but after that they were all silent for a while, standing at the railing, some looking at the ocean, and some of the sky, and all of them, perhaps, seeing different things.

 

"That's where we used to be," McKay said at last, pointing at a loose pattern of skies. "Somewhere around there, anyway."

 

"But where will be going tomorrow?" Sheppard wondered. McKay managed to stab a guess at that, too.

 

Sheppard looked at that distant silver star, let out a slow breath, and smiled.

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

A ridiculously overlong note:

 

In a way, this story dates back around eleven years. Back then, I was writing in The X-Files fandom, contendedly whumping Mulder in the way that I now whump Sheppard. After I'd read (and written) a lot of "Mulder is captured and badly hurt" stories, I started wondering about a scenario in which he was captured and not hurt at all, but was driven mad by the threat of hurt. Imagined monsters are always more scary than any monster we see on screen.

 

Well, I wrote that story (and called it Gilded Cage), but I always felt afterwards that I'd wasted the potential of the idea. It was short one-shot, for one thing, and it ended bleakly and dishonestly, with Mulder rescued, but so lost in a dream world that he was unable to recognise his rescuers. (I call this ending "dishonest" since, in reality, he would probably recover in the end, but I didn't give readers any hint that this would happen, just left them with the sad ending.) However, I never forgot the scenario, and when I got into this fandom, and started reading stories in which Sheppard was captured and horribly hurt, it returned in full force. I very soon had Sheppard's entire storyline clear in my mind.

 

However, I was adamant that I wanted the rest of the team to have a proper storyline, too, with proper character arcs. Sometimes, in stories in which one character is captured, the other characters' scenes read like mere filler, and very tempting to skip. Back when I started working on the idea, when I was still catching up on season 3, I couldn't find a way to give the other characters the sort of plot I wanted for them.

 

Then I saw Reunion, and suddenly I knew. We have a brand new leader, an unknown quantity to two of our team. We've lost Elizabeth and Carson, and even our nice close-knit team has been under threat, with Ronon's near departure. Suddenly there was so much more to play with. This story wouldn't have worked in the same at any other point in the show's timeline, I think.

 

I did quite a bit of research on this story, about the psychological effects of solitary confinement (that was bizarre bedtime reading, I can tell you.) Fanfic often puts its heroes through an enormous amount of suffering, and has them recover with barely a psychological scar, but even the strongest of men do get psychologically scarred by solitary confinement, especially when you add in the element of threat and imminent danger, as here. I think Sheppard coped fairly well, actually. Better than poor Mulder did, anyway.

 

The main worry I have about this is over Sheppard's recovery at the end. Recovery is a long, slow process. Clearly I couldn't show it in immense detail, or we'd have two hundred pages of very similar scenes. My usual solution is to write up to a turning point, and end with the characters – and readers - confident that they will recover, but not actually showing the recovery in detail. This story seemed to demand a bit more, so I gave it what is probably my first ever epilogue, of the "several weeks later" type. I hope it doesn't seem like an unnaturally quick recovery. Quite a lot of weeks have passed off camera, and there is more recovery still to come.

 

Anyway… Thank you very much for reading, and especial thanks to those who've reviewed. I'm now off to decide which of the three or four vague ideas I have floating in my head will become my next multi-part story – though I have a half-written Secret Santa response to finish first. First, though, I'm off to relax on the couch, read a book, and step back from the rather claustrophobic world of editing this story, which has very much dominated my week. Despite the intensity, I've really enjoyed writing and posting this one. I hope you all enjoyed reading it.

 

Feedback is always wonderful! You can email me here, or leave a comment on LJ, or fanfiction.net

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