Disclaimer: Stargate Atlantis isn't owned by me, nor is any profit made from this fiction. It is purely for entertainment purposes only and no copyright infringement is intended.

This is an episode tag, so spoilers for Phantoms and also some for McKay and Mrs Miller.

Rated T for emotional trauma and some mild language.

Phantoms Tag: Ghosts of the Desert

I rested my head in my hands, no longer able to stand looking at my bedraggled, bleeding, traumatized team. The simple truth was that I'd failed them, just as I'd failed Holland back on Earth. It was a miracle that there weren't more dead. Caldwell would be questioning my ability to command after this one and he'd be right, too. Damn the man. We'd finally gotten to the point where I no longer felt he was a vulture waiting for the kill and now this. There were so many things I could have done differently, so many points where if I'd just stopped and thought...

If I'd listened to Rodney when he first wanted to shut down the Wraith device...

If I'd checked the DHD for traps before dialing, knowing Major Leonard had attacked his own men...

If I'd stayed in the cave instead of chasing after Ronon, leaving Beckett and McKay defenseless with two wounded men on their hands...

Stupid decisions, from start to finish. And what had I really accomplished? More body bags. Maybe they had been right about me, maybe I was a liability to the service, a danger to everyone around me. Rodney's endless litany of you shot me's were certainly pounding that point home.

Failure. Obviously still my worst fear, in spite of everything I'd been through lately. The damn Wraith device had locked me into reliving the nightmare I'd spent four years and come to another galaxy trying to forget. Not that I ever really could, not with the black band on my right wrist. It was more than just support because of the old injury that occasionally made shooting a handgun painful. It was a promise to myself and to Holland to never forget the lessons I'd learned in that arid land. If only I'd gotten to him sooner...

"Colonel? Colonel Sheppard, can you hear me, son?"

A hand gently shook my shoulder, the familiar Scottish brogue calling insistently. Why couldn't they just leave me alone? I couldn't bear to see the haunted look in Carson's eyes, force myself to put up the indestructible leader front for him. Not now. I was too close to breaking myself. I stubbornly kept my head down, forehead planted on one drawn-up knee, which simply wouldn't stop twitching. Annoying thing.

"I'm fine. Get some rest, doc. We all need it."

"Yes, particularly those of us who were shot by certain military types whose hallucinations just had to involve death and destruction!"

If Rodney hadn't already been wounded, I'd have borrowed Ronon's pistol and stunned him by now. Hell, I was already castigating myself for almost killing my friend, what was a stun compared to that? Not that I could blame him in any way, since the whole thing really was my fault. He was trying to deal with it in the only way he knew how, by griping and snarking. Snapping at him to consider how I felt about the whole mess wouldn't have been any help, either, since that would just make him feel guilty for not recognizing the emotional impact on others, not something Rodney was adept at on a good day. Today was definitely not one of those.

I wanted to follow my own advice, but I just felt as if I should be moving, doing something, anything... The sound of that damn jeep just wouldn't go away, and I resisted the urge to glance wildly around, trying to find it. No jeeps in the Pegasus Galaxy, John, so knock it off and concentrate on your team. Afghanistan is a long way away and a long time ago, so shove it back down into that little box, lock it away.

"Just relax and let the drugs work, Rodney. By the time you wake up again, I should have you in a warm infirmary bed on Atlantis."

Carson sounded about ready to collapse himself. Whether that happened before or after he strangled the scientist was up in the air. Which meant, as the only other person without holes in their anatomy, I really needed to pull myself together and do my job. Somebody needed to stay awake and keep watch until the Daedalus arrived. After all, who knew what other fun surprises this planet could have for us if it caught us napping? I wasn't about to let my team down again. Especially Rodney, Carson, and Teyla, the three who'd borne the brunt of this nightmare. Anxiety took hold of me, and my breath caught, certain this whole mess couldn't really be done. Abruptly, I uncurled, my sudden movement knocking a pale, wide-eyed Carson Beckett on his butt. My stiff muscles weren't as motivated as the rest of me, however, and I fell back into my seat next to Teyla with a soft groan.

"John, you are not fine."

Teyla's firm grip on my left arm prevented me from trying to get to my feet even as her equally firm words took a long moment to penetrate the fog in my brain.

"I'm not one of the ones who was shot! All I did was manage to relive some old memories. That's all! End of story!"

To my embarrassment, my outburst only brought more worry to the collective gazes of my friends, now all latched onto me. Even Rodney had levered himself up on his elbows to watch me with slightly drugged blue eyes. I wasn't able to handle this right now, that's why I'd retreated behind the slightly sarcastic tone with Elizabeth on the radio. I had to be there for my team, make sure they got home safely, then I would allow myself to brood. I should have known Rodney wasn't about to let it go.

"Not end of story! Just who did you think I was, anyway? Kolya? 'Cause the last time I witnessed that look in your eyes there were a lot of dead Genii around! You freaked me out, Sheppard, and I think you owe me an explanation instead of pulling your usual imitation of a deaf-mute!"

That got to me, mostly because he was right, even if it did threaten to take down the last pieces of the thick walls I'd been building within my soul for years. Walls that had been meant to keep everyone else out, leaving me alone with the sky where I felt so at home. Until I'd been shot at over the snowy endless expanse of that Antarctic glacier and picked up a one-way ticket to a second chance. It wasn't supposed to work this way. I had come along as a genetic tool, nothing more, but life had turned me upside down. I'd been given responsibility I didn't want, hadn't asked for, and found that I was good at it. The Puddle jumpers gave me a flying experience other pilots could only dream about. No one expected me to fail here. But most importantly, I'd found friends, family, people I had actually allowed through my barriers, taking the risk I'd sworn I wouldn't. Funny that I'd had to travel to another galaxy to really, truly find myself.

Only now I was on the edge of losing it all, because I had nowhere left to run to escape my past. I'd fallen into it, and made the same mistakes again, even if it was at the instigation of some soul-raping device built by aliens. How do you tell a friend that the murder in your eyes as you aimed a gun at their heart and pulled the trigger was a mistake? It was one thing if the other is military. I knew that Ronon wouldn't hold any grudges, especially since he'd been firing at me first, even if my aim was a little better. Rodney, though, wasn't used to this type of violence, and when you came right down to it, the man was surprisingly fragile emotionally. We'd all seen that in the way he reacted to the threat presented by Rod, his seemingly more like-able alternate universe counterpart. As a team, Teyla, Ronon, and I had to do some fairly careful 'McKay management' for days afterward. So just how do I explain this to him?

"I thought you were Taliban, McKay! Okay? If I'd had the slightest idea it was you, I'd have never-"

I couldn't finish the sentence, my head dropping back onto my knees, afraid to see his reaction. All I could see was the form of my friend, probably my best friend, laying in a pool of blood outside that cave. Teyla's pained tone as she'd hesitantly informed me that I had shot the man. I'd frozen, completely unable to process what was happening, until Ronon had roughly told me to find Beckett while he dealt with the wound. I didn't bother to lift it back up at the sputtering coming from the scientist. Surely he had heard the rumors around base of what I had done, Sumner certainly hadn't kept it a secret even if the only other person with access to my full record, Elizabeth, had been careful never to throw it in my face.

"You... You served in Afghanistan? I thought you were stationed at McMurdo!"

Okay, I really needed to educate Rodney on how the American military worked some time. How many years had he consulted with the United States government and he still didn't have a clue?

"I did a tour as a Special Ops pilot in Afghanistan at the beginning of the war, before two tours at McMurdo. I- The situation with Teyla wounded dug up some ugly memories. Just leave it, Rodney, please. I can't-"

A shudder ran through my body as cold went down my spine, setting off a set of shakes that wouldn't stop. Voices, sounds became a distant buzz, as if I were hearing them through water, not that I really cared at the moment.

A deep voice echoed in my head, all I could hear.

Major John Sheppard is reckless, impulsive, and displays an appalling disregard for the chain of command. He not only directly disobeyed the orders of a superior officer, but his actions also resulted in the loss of Air Force property and the complete failure to achieve his stated objective. It is currently being determined by the medical examiner whether his reckless actions directly contributed to the death of Captain Richard Holland. It is my recommendation to the Air Force Judge Advocate General as the Major's commanding officer that he be court martialed and dishonorably discharged from the service of the United States Armed Forces.

I fingered the band around my wrist, wishing again that I could forget. I hadn't contributed to Holland's death, but I hadn't been able to save him, either. I promised myself that day that I would never leave someone behind, but that I would also think, then act, not the other way around. It wasn't enough to just try to get someone home. I had been reckless, and foolish. I wouldn't be again.

A hand on my shoulder, then the prick of a needle. My eyes flew open in panic to meet those of Carson Beckett. Ronon loomed just behind him, no longer laughing, eyes sad.

"No! What did you-? I have to keep watch!"

I could feel the drug flooding through my body, dulling the sharp, ragged edges of my emotions, plunging me toward the rest I craved but told myself I didn't deserve. Did they think I was going to crack and shoot at them again? That I was a danger?

"Rest, Sheppard, I can keep watch." Ronon's deep rumble was as gentle as the big man ever got.

"Its alright, son. We're all safe, even Rodney, so I want you to just relax. Even you're human and I get the feeling this day has been a mite bit harder on you then you'd ever let on, so let us take care of you for once. You don't have to be bleeding to be injured. What you're feelin' right now is a little psychological shock setting in, so I've given you something to help with it."

"Carson's right, its not really that bad. Though I reserve the right to tease the hell out of you over this. Call it payback for all the juicy tidbits my sister gave you. I bet you'll even mock threaten to shoot me again, it'll just take some time. For all of us."

"I know its not in your nature, son, but when we get home, you need to think about talking to someone. Whatever memory that device trapped you in, you've buried it so deeply that when it unlocked, it completely consumed you. Now, just sleep, let your body restore itself before it breaks, and we can deal with the rest later."

The ending of his sentence went unspoken, but hung powerfully in the air as I felt the drugs pulling me under.


Author's Note: There's an old saying that some of the worst wounds don't bleed. I get the feeling that is often the case with John, so I decided to explore it with this episode. First fed on by a Wraith and now having the failure to save his friend thrown in his face? Yikes!