Chapter Twenty Three - Mourning After
Their homecoming was the talk of Atlantis.
Sheppard had stepped through the wormhole last, arriving on the other side to blink in wonder at the city around him. The whole, undamaged city, and the faces looking nervously at the returning team. His three team mates stood beside him, in equal states of shock, their silence prompting a waiting Beckett to rush over, medical team in tow.
The Scot had been slightly bemused to suddenly find himself on the receiving end of an enthusiastic hug, Ford almost crushing the older man before pulling away.
"Son, what on earth…"
"It's great to see you," Aiden said, an enormous grin plastered across his face.
"Really," McKay said, fervently, prompting a startled eyebrow raise from the physician.
"It's, ah, nice to see you to." He glanced behind him towards Weir, who was coming down the steps, a ruffled looking Zelenka in tow. "Are you all…"
"Uninjured," Teyla replied. She was looking around the 'gate room with an expression of wonderment, and a good level of uncertainty.
Sheppard shared her feelings, fighting his instinct, the voice at the back of his mind warning him, don't get attached, don't get involved. It's not real.
Then suddenly Elizabeth was standing in front of him, a concerned frown on her face. "Major?" She touched his arm gently and he jerked back as though he'd been stung.
"Sorry." He drew a hand across his face. "It's been a long day."
To his left, McKay had approached Zelenka and, awkwardly, had grabbed the surprised Czech and pulled him into a powerful handshake, pumping the poor man's arm until Radek turned a strange shade of pink. It was only when Rodney realized he was being watched that he broke off, with a spluttered cough, turning away from the shell-shocked Zelenka to study his boots.
Sheppard was aware of Elizabeth watching all of this, her concern warring with confusion. Finally she turned back to him, her eyes wide.
"Why do I get the feeling that this is going to make for a very long debriefing?"
By silent, mutual agreement, the team had kept many of the details sketchy, and Elizabeth wisely hadn't pressed the issue. Even so, the blanks Sheppard had of his teammates' experiences were now filled with a myriad of hideous images he was struggling to forget.
It was hard enough knowing that the personal demons brought up by the game had been shared and experienced by others. Reliving the intimacy made all four uncomfortable, and McKay was the first to bolt from the room, Ford and Teyla soon after. That had been eight hours ago and Sheppard hadn't seen them since.
He'd spent the first hour in the training room, pummeling a foam torso until his clothes were soaked with sweat and every muscle ached. It had done nothing to erase the images from his mind and as he walked back to his room, Sheppard was haunted by the faces of men and women he had seen killed. Real or not, he still felt burdened by guilt over their deaths.
The shower was hot, the water pounding into his shoulders and back. Sheppard stretched out, his hands placed against the wall, his head bowed, standing there until his fingers wrinkled and steam had fogged every surface.
Then he'd dried off, rubbing his hair roughly with a towel before crashing onto his bed and staring at Johnny Cash until the walls started to close in on him.
The car crash. Ford's face in the place of Eric's. In the hospital, refusing to relive his mother's death. In the desert, Ford and Teyla under enemy fire, McKay shot down into the dust. The Wraith in Atlantis.
He kept expecting to hear alarms, to hear a repeat of Elizabeth's voice calling out warnings across the city. To hear the rumble of Atlantis falling under the strike of darts, of the rattle of machine guns, of screams. He closed his eyes and smelt blood and smoke. Then opened them and stare back at the impassive face of Johnny, and up at the ceiling, his body refusing to sleep, to rest. He was terrified of what he might wake up to, if he slept.
Images swam around his head. Carson trapped in the infirmary, a Wraith's hand on his chest. Ford and Teyla fighting to protect the evacuees, and falling - although they hadn't given the details, and he hadn't asked. McKay, sounding desperate and scared and determined, alone in the city after Adams and O'Brien had died. Elizabeth crumpling to the floor, white hair and papery skin and eyes that stared at him and through him and…
Sheppard threw his pillow at the wall and pushed himself onto his feet roughly, buttoning his shirt before fleeing his room in frustration.
He was heading back to the training room, despite his body's protests, when a growl from his stomach changed his mind. It was late, some time in the early hours of the following morning, when the only ones still awake were those on guard over the Stargate. The mess hall would be empty - he could grab a snack, a sandwich, some of that non-specified poultry meat Stackhouse's team had traded for.
There was a light on.
He paused at the doorway before entering. McKay, Teyla and Ford sat around a table in the far corner of the room, and looked up when he entered. McKay had a plate piled high with what looked like left over casserole, and was poking at it with a fork. Both Teyla and Ford had settled for soup, a thick, spicy Athosian specialty. Sheppard could smell it from several meters away, prompting another protesting grumble from his stomach.
"Major." Teyla looked relieved to see him, as much as Sheppard felt on seeing her. "Were you looking for us?"
"No," he said, then reconsidered the question, and decided he probably was, after all. "Maybe," he conceded, then nodded at the bowls. "Smells good."
"The doc' finished off the stew," Ford offered, "but there's some more soup in a pot round the back. It's probably still warm."
Sheppard nodded, moving down the central aisle towards the serving area. He found the pot easily and filled a bowl, helping himself to a wedge of bread sat on a shelf above. Bringing the meal around to the table, he sat down beside Teyla and grabbed the spoon McKay offered to him.
"So," he said, pausing before starting to eat, "I guess I'm not the only one who couldn't sleep."
There was a short pause as the three looked away from each other.
"Not really," Aiden admitted, reluctantly.
"I tried meditating," Teyla confessed, "but I could not concentrate." She hesitated. "I still find myself doubting this reality."
"I was working," McKay said, sounding slightly peeved, "but Radek told me that I was unnerving him, and ordered me not to come back until I stopped being nice to him." He sniffed. "Ordered me!"
"I don't believe it," Sheppard said, dryly.
The scientist glared at him. "For the record, I wasn't being nice."
"Didn't think you could be," Ford said, grinning.
McKay huffed, forking a large lump of meat and devouring it whilst shooting a dark look at Aiden.
"There's always Heightmeyer," Sheppard ventured, gauging the reactions of his team carefully. Kate's name had been raised by Weir, and had garnered little response at the debriefing.
"I would prefer to deal with this without her help," Teyla admitted.
"Yeah." Aiden stirred his soup uneasily. "Talking about it to someone who wasn't there - I think it might make it more real, not less."
"What happened in there wasn't easy," he pressed, cautiously.
McKay lifted his head and met his gaze, shrewdly. "So are you going to pay her a visit?"
Teyla had finished her soup and now laced her fingers around the outside of the bowl. "What we experienced…" she paused. "Waking from the game, believing we had returned to Atlantis, only for the game to begin again…" She petered out into silence.
"I don't regret what we did."
Sheppard glanced at Ford, raising an eyebrow.
The lieutenant shrugged. "The Ancients. I keep thinking about what it must have been like - all those years, going through all that, and never escaping it."
"She was insane," Teyla said, quietly.
There was a long pause. No one needed to ask of whom she was speaking.
"There were times it seemed like a good option," McKay mumbled, beneath his breath.
Teyla glanced at the scientist concernedly, then looked away.
They hadn't told Weir of the Ancients. McKay had breezed over the unstable nature of the power core, said that their intrusion into the game had led to a failure in the life support systems. She hadn't questioned them, but Sheppard suspected she knew. Elizabeth seemed to display a sixth sense when it came to her leading team, and the way she had so easily accepted McKay's decision to lock the outpost address from the 'gate network spoke volumes.
It was after that, that she had suggested Heightmeyer.
"If the Wraith attack Atlantis…" Ford paused.
"It will be different," Teyla told him, matter-of-factly.
"As if there wasn't enough to worry about," McKay muttered, "we have to experience the thing just so a damn computer can get its kicks."
"And the rest," Aiden said, softly.
Sheppard had a flash of hospital green and the smell of disinfectant. Nurse's heels clacking on tiles and murmured, empty condolences…
A sharp rap on his soup bowl interrupted his thoughts and drew him back into his surroundings abruptly. McKay withdrew his spoon.
"If you don't eat that soon it's going to go cold."
Sheppard hesitated before answering, taking a moment to recognize his friend's efforts. "Who are you," he challenged, "my mother?"
"Hardly," McKay sniffed. "I just don't like seeing good food go to waste."
Ford gave the scientist a skeptical look. "You can't still be hungry, doc?"
"Well there's no food allowed in the labs, and who knows how long I went without eating on the outpost."
"Six hours," Teyla told him. "As I believe you know."
Sheppard grinned, and was surprised to find it felt genuine. He drove his spoon into the soup, marking his territory and pulling it away from McKay's reach. "Get your own," he told him.
McKay scowled, and continued eating his own meal.
Silence lingered, threatening to turn uncomfortable. Sheppard stared at his soup, rolling a piece of bread between his fingers.
"It'll get easier," he said, impulsively.
Nobody answered him, until Teyla finally looked up from her meal and spoke.
"I believe it already has."
She smiled at him, and he returned it warmly.
"It's just weird," Aiden admitted, awkwardly. "Feels like we were in there for forever. I guess, we just have to get used to being back."
"And forget whatever we saw," McKay muttered.
Sheppard looked at him, frowning. "Deal with it," he corrected.
The scientist looked at him doubtfully, and shrugged. "Whatever."
"Since Weir's given us a couple of days off," he said, casually, "I was thinking we could take a jumper to the mainland, maybe check out that beach grove Stackhouse discovered on the last run."
Ford grinned. "Sounds good, sir."
She inclined her head slightly. "I would enjoy spending more time away from Atlantis."
McKay already had his mouth open to protest. "Major, the amount of work I have…"
"McKay," he drawled, carefully, "I think it might be an idea us to get away from the city."
The scientist seemed to struggle for several seconds, but eventually seemed to understand, nodding slowly. "Alright," he agreed. "Since Radek's banned me from my own lab. But I'll need to get some sunscreen. I burn easily."
"And I'm not swimming. Salt water makes my skin all dry and flaky - I have problems with eczema and Carson just won't…"
"On second thoughts," Sheppard interrupted, "maybe you should stay behind."
McKay folded his arms across his chest crossly. "You invited me."
"Glad we're agreed."
Rodney pulled a face, and sat back, indulging in a wide yawn. "I think I could sleep for a week."
"After eating all that I'm not surprised." He felt his own mouth constrict impulsively and he covered his mouth with his hand.
Teyla eyed him critically. "Perhaps we should all get some rest."
Sheppard shrugged, shifting a little deeper into his seat and loosening his shoulders. He watched his team, shrouded by the dim lights of the commissary, and felt himself relax in a way that, an hour ago, he hadn't thought possible. The city hummed happily around him, a whisper at the back of his mind he found soothing, a constant reminder of this reality.
Opposite him, McKay shoveled another forkful of casserole into his mouth, whilst reaching for his glass with his free hand. Ford pulled a face at the scientist's eating habits and pushed his own bowl away in a deliberate demonstration of disgust - which was purposefully ignored by McKay. Teyla raised her eyebrows and gave both of them a look which spoke clearly, children.
Sheppard grinned, and reached for the bread. He was tired, he was hungry, and he was surrounded by his team. Tomorrow there would be sun, and sand, and the possibility of surfing. It wasn't much, but at that moment it seemed like everything.
Anything else, like he'd told McKay, he was dealing with. And it was already easier.
A/N: Yeah, so I stole the chapter title from Brimstone. But look! It's finished! And at times it was like pulling teeth... sigh I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks to everybody who has reviewed, apologies if I haven't thanked you in person - you're all fantastic and I really appreciate the comments! Now, what shall I do to fill the time until The Hive?