Title: The Return

Author: Lorr

Genre/Rating: Drama/Angst

Characters: Sheppard, Weir, Beckett, McKay, Teyla, Ronon

Disclaimer: SGA belongs to MGM and others. I'm just visiting

Spoilers: Common Ground

Note: This is a possible ending for Common Ground, taking place immediately after the episode finishes. Reviews appreciated.

Elizabeth stood at the railing overlooking the Gate Room floor, waiting for the Jumper to come through the event horizon. She'd heard his voice over the comms, and Rodney confirmed John was alright. But, until he was there, in front of her, she wouldn't believe it. She needed to see him before she would believe it was the John Sheppard she knew, not the aged, dying man from the video feed.

The Jumper slid effortlessly through the puddle. As it slowly rotated and began to rise toward the Jumper bay, she saw McKay in the pilot's seat and Teyla sitting next to him. Behind the center console, John smiled and waved at her. Elizabeth smiled back, blinking away the tears of relief that sprang to her eyes. She quickly brushed them away and took a deep breath before turning and walking to the stairs leading down from the bay.

Moments later, John was running down the stairs. He grinned as he approached, but that wavered when he saw her eyes searching his face. There was fear and a little disbelief behind that search. Understanding her need to be sure, he stopped close in front of her, raised an eyebrow and tilted his head a fraction to one side.

"Can you believe it? He looks younger!" McKay butted in before Elizabeth or Sheppard could say anything. He pushed past Teyla, Ronon and a Marine to descend the last few steps.

"Rodney!" Beckett also made his way down to the foot of the stairs. He shook his head as he looked from Sheppard to Elizabeth and back again. "Hard to believe, isn't it?"

"How?" She had been unable to drag her eyes away, but finally glanced at the Doctor.

"I have no idea, but I would love to find out." He shrugged his shoulders then put one hand on the Colonel's back. "Right, lad, to the infirmary."

Sheppard rolled his eyes at Elizabeth. He spoke softly. "And I thought the torture was over."

"I heard that." Beckett shook his head as they left the Ops area, leaving the on-duty personnel there gawking.

Elizabeth held Teyla back a little as McKay and Ronon followed Beckett and Sheppard.

"What happened?" Elizabeth asked as the two of them followed the others.

Teyla shook her head and frowned. "I have never heard of this before. The Wraith said that this kind of thing was reserved only for their closest worshippers and their brothers."

"What happened to him? The Wraith, that is?"

"John insisted on letting him go. We left him on another planet where we knew he would be picked up." Teyla watched Elizabeth out of the corner of her eye as she spoke. "He said they had a deal to help each other escape."

"Excuse me? A deal?" Elizabeth's head was spinning as she tried to think. She watched Sheppard walking in front of her. He glanced over his shoulder and grinned at her.

----------

"Here, get into these. I need to run a few tests." Beckett handed Sheppard a set of scrubs then took the shirt back. Instead, he gave him a hospital robe and pointed to the Colonel's chest. "I need to check that wound."

As Sheppard went behind a screen to change, Beckett turned to Elizabeth, McKay, Teyla and Ronon. "This is going to take a while. You should…"

"No way." McKay shook his head slowly as he sat on a nearby chair. "I want to know what happened. How could he possibly have ended up younger than before?""

Beckett chewed his lip. "Well, you three need to be checked out, anyway. You'll have to go over there."

"What about you?" McKay demanded.

Beckett silently pointed to the other side of the room. Two nurses were setting up examination trays. McKay stood up with a loud groan and walked over to them, followed reluctantly by Teyla and Ronon. Each of them, however, made sure they could see the Colonel when he returned.

Sheppard came out from behind the screen, the loosely tied robe just covering the wound on his chest. He was more subdued now. He knew there were going to be more questions, a couple of which he answered on the Jumper and would have to answer again for Elizabeth.

Beckett noted the discomfort of his patient. He patted the bed. "Lay down."

"Do you want me to leave?" Elizabeth asked. She could see his uneasiness as well.

"No, that's okay." Sheppard said as he settled himself on the bed and loosened the robe. He glanced sideways at Elizabeth as she saw the marks left by the Wraith. She tried, but could not quite hide the horror she felt.

The Doctor tilted a light to examine the wound. He peered at it for a full minute then straightened to look at Sheppard's face. "It's raw, but not bleeding. This looks like it has already partially healed. The Wraith fed three times, didn't he?"

The Colonel shook his head once. "Four."

A chorus of 'what' sounded from across the room. McKay pushed aside his nurse and began to walk over.

Beckett swung around to face Rodney. "That's enough. You three can finish your exams then you can leave."

"I'm sorry, Carson. You're right, of course." Elizabeth nodded. She squeezed Sheppard's forearm. "Come to my office when you're finished?"

Sheppard nodded. "Sure."

----------

Four hours later, he looked up at Elizabeth's office from the Gate Room floor. Beckett had contained his curiosity throughout the prodding and poking. The Doctor confined his questions to medical ones, appropriate for the tests he performed. He was thorough, though. Sheppard thought he knew every test, scan and piece of equipment at the Doctor's disposal, but Beckett had obviously acquired a couple of new toys.

Beckett finally said he could go. He made his way to his quarters to get shower and gather his thoughts. He didn't understand what had happened, so how the hell was he going to explain it to them.

Sheppard pulled the bandage off and looked down at the feeding marks on his chest in the mirror. He could see what caught Beckett's attention. It was not easy to see unless you knew what to look for, but there was evidence of four separate marks. They overlapped, but were visible. He stepped into the shower and thanked the Ancients for the great water pressure and unending hot water. Leaning against the wall, he allowed it to drum on his back.

He was not a religious man by any measure, but as the Wraith had fed, Sheppard felt his soul was being ripped from him, piece by piece. He'd been close to death before, even died and been brought back, but nothing compared to this. He knew which mark belonged to each feeding. They burned in the streaming water. He felt himself slipping into the memory and did not try to stop the quiet sobs that wracked his body.

After what seemed like hours, Sheppard heaved a last shuddering sigh and turned the water off. He checked his watch and swore under his breath. Within three minutes, he was out the door and running down the corridor.

----------

As he approached Elizabeth's office, Sheppard heard Rodney complaining loudly.

"Where is he? Carson, I thought you said you released him more than half an hour ago."

"Col. Sheppard said he was going to his quarters for a few minutes. He's probably cleaning up and composing himself." Beckett responded.

"What? Why would he have to compose himself? That Wraith left him in better shape than he was before!"

"Rodney!" Elizabeth, Teyla and Carson all spoke a t once.

Sheppard entered the office to meet a scrutiny he had rarely experienced. He crossed the room to sit in the only empty chair, one of those against the far wall. He wondered if the spot was arranged. Beckett was in the chair on one side of him and Ronon stood leaning against the wall on the other side.

"Well, what took you so long?" McKay, sitting in a chair opposite Elizabeth's desk, crossed his arms and stared at Sheppard. When the Colonel didn't immediately answer, he went on. "You said the Wraith fed on you four times. Kolya transmitted only three. What happened?"

"Rodney." Elizabeth glared at him then turned back to Sheppard. "Carson says the tests are normal so far. How are you feeling?"

"Fine." He looked at McKay. "I was asleep when the Genii found us in the forest. He woke up first. He'd been shot several times, so I guess he needed more strength to fight them and knew I wouldn't be any help. Breaking out pretty much exhausted me."

"He didn't kill you." Beckett stated flatly.

"No, but he nearly did. If he'd kept feeding for another two or three seconds, I'd be dead." Sheppard licked his lips. "He had unbelievable control."

"How did he give life back to…?" McKay pressed when Sheppard fell silent once more.

"Rodney!" Teyla elbowed him.

"I don't know what he did. I thought he was going to finish it. I wanted him to. Instead, he…fed me."

"But, how?" McKay persisted to the exasperation, and secret gratitude, of the others. They were just as anxious to know.

"I don't know, Rodney." Sheppard raised both hands. "One minute I was dying and the next Ronon was pulling the Wraith off me."

"Was it painful?" Beckett asked, trying to understand the process.

"Yeah, almost as much as when he was feeding off me." Sheppard's hand came up to touch his chest, but he stopped and crossed his arms instead.

"But, you look younger than you did yesterday. How could he do that?" McKay was not in the mood to be put off. He looked at Beckett. "Why did he do it?"

"I guess it was because I convinced him we could escape." Sheppard frowned at the floor, his thoughts going in a different direction. "I always thought of the Wraith as mindless feeding machines before, kind of like sharks."

"Sharks?" Ronon asked.

McKay replied before Sheppard could. "Sharks are huge, vicious fish on Earth. They know only one thing, how to kill."

"Well, that sounds like the Wraith." Ronon shrugged.

"He said there was a lot I didn't know about the Wraith. Talking to him in the cells kind of makes me believe there is a lot more to them than we know." Sheppard was not looking at anyone. He was aware that their reaction to that statement would elicit alarm, just as it has done in himself. "He was happy to see the stars."

"Are you crazy?" McKay had no trouble voicing his concern for Sheppard's sanity. "The Wraith are sharks. Cannibals, too. You remember that one on the planet near the space weapon on the other side of this system, don't you? He fed on his crew."

"There are different…classes, for want of a better word, of Wraith, Rodney. That one was a soldier, a grunt. Besides, that ship had been trapped there for thousands of years. This Wraith is a commander, more…educated." He realized they were all staring at him. "I'm just saying that before, I thought of them as two dimensional killing machines, nothing more. They aren't. That may be part of the reason why the Ancients underestimated them."

They sat in silence for several seconds.

McKay suddenly frowned. "Maybe, but how did he do it? Give you hack your life, I mean."

Sheppard exhaled heavily. "Rodney, I don't know."

----------

Sheppard gratefully lay on his bed. He was tired. It was emotional and mental weariness more than physical. The questions and speculation had gone on for well over an hour. Beckett offered a sleep aid, which he promptly refused. He did accept a couple of pain relievers for a headache, though. He escaped as soon as he could, not noticing the concern in the eyes of his friends as he left them.

He hoped blocking out the day's events would not prove to be difficult, but sleep came more easily and quickly than expected. In mere minutes, the world and the day slipped away in the darkness. Sheppard's breathing soon slowed into its normal rhythm.

----------

It was mid-morning, but the mist made seeing anything beyond a dozen feet away hard, no, impossible. Sheppard didn't like being here, but intel had been that the ruins strewn for almost half a mile round the Gate might indicate the location of a ZPM. McKay and a couple of specialists were busy arguing about the significance of the Ancient symbols on one particular crumbling wall.

Sheppard chuckled as he glanced at the life signs detector and moved around the ruins. Two of the Marines with the team today also carried the sensors, so he was confident they were able to keep tabs on the entire area. A dark, massive piece of ruin formed out of the mist as he continued his patrol. It was another wall, but larger than all of the others so far. He paused to look it over and wondered if McKay had seen it yet. Sheppard had limited knowledge of Ancient, but some of the writings appeared to be important.

He thought he would tell McKay about it when the now heated argument subsided, and moved to skirt around the wall, scanning the symbols on it as he walked. Then, a soft rustling noise caught his attention. He glanced at the sensor and saw no-one near him. Frowning, Sheppard turned to check it out.

He was slammed back against the ruin by a Wraith, its hand on his chest. Sheppard could do nothing as the searing agony paralyzed him. He looked at the face of the being that was taking his life. It was him.

"You said all bets were off." The Wraith hissed in his ear.

Sheppard found his voice and screamed.

He sat bolt upright, the scream dying on his lips. He was shaking and a sheen of cold sweat covered his body. His breathing came in ragged gulps as he looked around. He was in his quarters, in bed. Light from the City and the stars coming through the curtains bathed the room in a soft glow. He curled his legs up and leaned on outstretched arms, trying to control the shaking and slow the rapid, painful breaths. The lights came up just long enough for him to see he was quite alone.

"Way to go, John." He muttered as he glanced at the clock on his desk. He'd been in bed only fifteen minutes.

Finally, he pushed himself off the bed and opened the curtain to look outside. The whiteness of the bandage on his chest was bright enough to see. He pulled it off and looked at the telltale wound. It was black in the dim light.

Nightmares were not unexpected. There were many things in his past that brought the vicious little reminders of life's events sneaking into his nights. He knew it had been a hopeless wish that this would not join the others. He knew he was in for many nightmares before they would subside.

Sheppard closed the curtain and lay back on the bed. It was a long time before he closed his eyes again.