John sat in Tosia's worn, old chair by the crackling fire, trying to stay out of the way of the small group of villagers that were crowded into the small hut, offering their condolences and support to Lasca and Antal. It was strange not to see Tosia in this very place. Of all the fractured memories John had of her, in most of them, she'd been sitting in this chair, by this warm hearth.
Trying his best to be equally unobtrusive, Rodney stood off to the side of John, leaning up against the wall, his arms tightly folded across his chest, his mouth pressed in a hard, angry line. John knew that Rodney was pissed at him. So pissed in fact, that he had scarcely spoken a word to John since he had returned the jumper and carried Tosia's body back to the hut to find everyone waiting for them.
Lasca, surprisingly, hadn't been upset with him. Once she had recovered from the initial shock of her mother's death and once John had explained what happened, Lasca told him how much Tosia had enjoyed her journey from the great city back to this land. How marvelous it had been for her. Lasca then tearfully reassured him that Tosia would not have wanted to leave this life any other way. The reassurances had helped ease the sense of remorse that John couldn't help, but did nothing to ease the terrible sting of loss.
John glanced up when the villagers slowly began to take their leave, talking quietly amongst themselves. Finally, the door shut with a solid thump, and John and Rodney were left alone with Lasca and Antal for the moment.
"Sheppard," Rodney said in a flat, low voice. "Can I talk to you outside a minute?"
John didn't look at his friend, knowing what was coming and knowing he couldn't avoid it. Rodney wasn't going to be quite so forgiving. John watched the bright yellow and orange flames, enjoying the comforting warmth for a moment longer, then nodded and pulled himself to his feet. Rodney strode ahead of him, and without waiting to see if John was following, pulled on his jacket and stepped outside into the cold blustery air. Grabbing his own jacket from the hook and pulling it on, John reluctantly stepped outside after him. Rodney stopped after a few brisk paces and looked up at the sky when snowflakes caught in his thick eyelashes. He jerked his thumb in the direction of the barn and without a word, strode to it.
John followed and closed the doors behind him but they still rattled with the force of the wind. "So are y-you planning on giving me a stern talking to, or am I in for s-something a lot worse?" he joked as he turned to face Rodney.
"Don't tempt me," Rodney said tightly, glaring at him.
"You'll try," John said, raising an eyebrow. "Look, Rodney, I know you're mad as hell a-at me, but can we s-save this for later?"
"No, no we can't!" Rodney shouted, and at once, John realized that Rodney was beyond angry, he was furious. "What the hell were you thinking?! For Christ's sakes, Sheppard!"
Unprepared for the verbal assault and still reeling from the torrent of emotions of the past few hours, John blinked and unconsciously and protectively folded his arms over his chest. He looked away from Rodney's startling fury and down at the hay covered ground.
"Oh, no… wait," Rodney corrected himself without waiting for John's reply or attention. "I forgot that you probably weren't thinking, were you? I still can't believe you did that! You were under strict orders not to fly a jumper! Or, did you conveniently forget that fact? Huh? You both could have—"
"Rodney, despite what doc says," John finally broke in, his own anger beginning to take hold, "I am perfectly c-capable of flying a jumper. I wouldn't have done it otherwise. I'm fine."
"That's just it, Sheppard," Rodney said, glaring at him. "You are not fine. You are so far from being 'fine,' that it's almost pointless to have this conversation with you!"
"In that case," John shot back, "I'll just go back inside where it's a lot warmer." He turned toward the doors. Before he had taken even a few steps, Rodney grabbed John's arm and spun him back around to face him. John stared at Rodney in astonishment and outrage. "What the hell?"
"We are not done here yet!" Rodney shouted, pointing a finger in John's face.
"McKay j-just lay off!" John slapped Rodney's hand away.
"No!" Rodney said, his voice raising an octave. "We are due back home in three hours and tell me… what the hell am I supposed to say to Beckett? To Elizabeth? Huh?"
"You don't have to say anything." John said, narrowing his eyes at Rodney. "I-I'll take full responsibility for m-my own actions."
"See, that's what you're not getting, John. I'm responsible for your actions right now," Rodney corrected, pointing at himself. "I'm in charge of overseeing this mission, and I left you alone with Tosia thinking that the two of you would be having a nice, little chat about the weather, or what's new in Paranoid Village, instead of sneaking off, stealing a jumper and going for a fucking joy ride!"
"Rodney, back off, dammit!" John shouted, all attempts at retaining control of his emotions completely lost. He clenched his hands into tight fists. "Just back the hell off... or – or—"
"Or what?" Rodney said, placing his hands indignantly on his hips. "You'll kick my ass? You'll run away from dealing with this? Huh?"
Bastard, John thought. Rodney knew exactly which buttons to push. John could now no longer walk away from Rodney and this ridiculous conversation any more than he could turn back time.
Breathing hard, Rodney held John's furious scowl a moment before speaking again. "Do you think we spent all that time looking for you, worrying about you and nursing your skinny catatonic ass back to relative normalcy only for you to nearly kill yourself crashing a jumper?"
"That's what th-this is about?" John said, incredulous. "My safety?" He tore a hand through his hair and nearly laughed."Stop t-treating me like I'm some damned invalid! There's nothing wrong with me anymore!"
"Nothing other than that stubborn do whatever the hell I want and screw the consequences attitude you have going on!" Rodney countered, pacing in a tight, furious circle.
"She just wanted to go for a ride, Rodney," John said, and to his horror, his voice broke on that, sudden tears filling his eyes. "It was m-my idea, but I – I didn't…" He ducked his head, held his breath a moment to suppress any further tears. "Can we... I don't need to h-hear this right now, okay?" he said in a near whisper, and wiped his sleeve over his face, hoping Rodney wouldn't notice.
Rodney stopped pacing to stare at him but John kept his gaze averted. "I bet she loved it, huh?" Rodney said after a long, silent moment, his voice suddenly and surprisingly gentle.
John looked up at his friend. Go higher, John, go faster, Tosia's weak, but joyful voice echoed in his memory.He blinked back the persistent, infuriating tears and nodded. "Yeah... she did."
"Well, of all the stupid, insubordinate stunts that you've pulled over the years, I'll have to admit that was... actually one of your finer moments," Rodney said in sudden, quiet admiration, his blue eyes bright with threatening tears of his own.
Despite the tightness in his chest and his burning eyes, John couldn't help but laugh softly at that. "Was that a c-compliment or an insult?"
John nodded and took a deep breath. "That's w-what I thought."
"You do know that you are so in for it when we get back home, don't you?" Rodney said. "Not that I'm going to be the one to say anything, but Lorne... he has to file a mission report. And you do realize that just because you went seriously looney tunes not so long ago, doesn't mean that Elizabeth won't tear you a new one. And believe me, you don't want to be on the receiving end of one of her more furious rants. And Beckett... never piss off a Scotsman – it's not pretty."
John shrugged, feigning unconcern. "I c-can deal with Elizabeth and Carson."
"Hah, yeah, right." Rodney looked at him, pondering. "I suppose we can always say that you had a temporary relapse and the Ancients in your head told you to do it," he said in what John recognized as a peace offering.
Even still, John's heart skipped a beat, and he shuddered at the possibility that his mind could still so easily retreat back to that terrifying, dark place. No, he wasn't going to think of that. Not when he was barely hanging on by his newly healed fingernails. Not after he'd worked so hard to prove to everyone that he was fully back to himself again.
"Hey, still with me, or are you really going back to la-la land?" Rodney's voice broke through John's thoughts, and had his friend not spoken the words with such concern, John thought that he would probably have lost it again. "I mean," Rodney added, worried, "I was just joking about that. We don't actually want any real relapses."
"I'm still with you," John said, barely keeping the fear from his voice. "I just… I just want e-everything to get back to normal. I just want to – to be normal again."
"Okay," Rodney said in that same, disconcertingly gentle voice that made John feel as though maybe he hadn't come as far along in his recovery as he'd thought. Rodney watched him a moment, then shrugged. "I hate to break to this you, Sheppard, but you've never been normal."
John snorted and Rodney gave him a smug smile and in that moment, everything felt a little better. Almost normal, even, John thought wryly.
"And I actually wouldn't worry too much about Carson and Elizabeth," Rodney added with another shrug. "You can probably get away with just about anything with them right now."
"Rodney..." John took a deep breath. He hadn't planned to bring this up until later, but now seemed as good a time as any. Bracing himself for another tirade from his friend, he plunged ahead. "I... I want to stay here until tomorrow. F-for the memorial service."
Rodney blinked at him. "What?"
"I promised Tosia that I'd s-see to it that she's buried b-beside Gaereth, and I can't go back on that," he said quietly.
"Oh, for..." Rodney tore a hand through his hair and started pacing again. "That's tomorrow already?"
"Yeah," John said. "I figure I'm in enough shit with everyone as it is, so why not make it worth it and stay a while longer? I think Lasca and Antal would like it if we stayed, too."
Rodney thought a moment, then nodded. "Yes, yes, of course we have to stay." He waved a dismissive hand at John when he blinked at him, surprised at how easy that was. "Don't worry about it. I'll clear it with Lorne."
"Thanks, Rodney," John said, finding himself too grateful to say much more than that.
'Yeah, well," Rodney looked down at his boots and cleared his throat. "I, uh… sorta liked her, too."
They both jumped when the barn doors swung open. Antal poked his head inside to peer worriedly at them. "Are you fighting? Mother thinks you might be fighting," he said, then stepped all the way inside. "And if you are, mother says for me to tell you to stop it and to drag you both back inside if I have to."
Rodney looked at Antal's huge arms and quickly shook his head. "No, no, not fighting. We're just... talking."
Antal gave him a skeptical look. "Well, for a while, you were talking very loud."
"We're okay now, Antal," John said, giving the young man a reassuring smile, then shot Rodney a warning glance. "Right, McKay?"
"Right." Rodney nodded, flashing Antal a false, cheery smile. "Getting along swimmingly," he added as he roughly mussed up John's hair.
John scowled and smacked Rodney on the arm. Ignoring his friend's indignant yelp, John ran a hand through his hair, trying unsuccessfully to smooth it down and looked back to Antal. "I'm ready to go back inside now anyway."
Antal nodded, relieved, his eyes swollen and puffy from tears. John stepped close beside the young man and gently laid a hand on his shoulder as they walked back to the warm house. Antal leaned a little against him accepting the offer of comfort.
John stood a few feet from Tosia's graveside, huddling deeper in his jacket against the early morning cold. Even though it was snowing heavily and the memorial took place in the ruins, the place the villagers all so greatly feared, every single one of them had come. As Lasca and Antal had looked around at all of them, their expressions wavering between bewilderment and thankfulness, John was grateful for the villagers' support. It also spoke volumes of the affection and respect Tosia had commanded of her people.
Kornel had given the simple, but heartfelt eulogy, and then Rodney, with quiet solemnity, spoke a few carefully chosen words of his own. When he spoke of Tosia's extraordinary life, her vast, unfathomable knowledge, experience and most importantly, her generous spirit, the real meaning of what he said was lost on everyone but John. If Tosia could somehow see and hear this, John was glad for her sake, too.
When the service was over, the large crowd slowly disbursed and began heading back to the village, their postures hunched against the blowing snow and sadness. The air was so cold that John's face was numb and he could barely feel his toes, but he wasn't ready to leave yet. He looked over to Lasca kneeling beside the small, rock-covered grave and weeping quietly into her hands. Antal was at her side, his arm around his mother, tears rolling down his gentle face. Rodney stood back, close beside John, but his gaze was fixed on the grave, as well. It was hard to believe that the small cairn was the last of the strong, determined woman they had come to know and care about so much.
Looking down at his near frozen feet and wiggling his numb toes, John glanced back in the direction of the ruins themselves. He scarcely remembered digging so frantically and so desperately in that hard ground, but he remembered all too clearly the urgent need to find his way home. It was strange how his and Tosia's paths had become so interconnected. Not for the first time, John wondered at the inexplicable turn his life had taken ever since he'd sat down in that chair back in the Antarctica. Sometimes, it even seemed as though all the events in his life had occurred for that one defining moment to take place. John didn't like to think that he was controlled by some preordained destiny, but sometimes he couldn't help but wonder. It couldn't all be random coincidence, could it? Maybe some of it was meant to be, and maybe some things just happened because you were in the right place at the right time. And maybe it was best not to think on such things too much. Maybe it was best to just live your life one moment at a time and see where it took you. A motto that had taken him this far and left him relatively intact, so why mess with that?
Thick, heavy homemade boots came into John's line of sight and he glanced up at the owner of them. Anger immediately stole over him and he clenched his gloved fists. Rodney looked up, too, moving to come closer, but John waved him off. Rodney stopped, but stood tensed, watching closely.
"What do you want, Silas?" John said, relieved that it had come out without a stammer. Silas's face was marred with fading technicolor bruises and John wondered what had caused them. The other man studied him, chewing on a soggy looking twig, then shuffled his feet in the deep snow. He looked over to the small grave.
"Tosia..." Silas began, uncertain. He loudly cleared his throat, his features pinched with discomfort, and John was amazed that the man actually seemed contrite. "She and I had our differences, there is no doubt about that," Silas continued, "but she was a fine woman."
"Yes, she was," John agreed in a tight voice.
Silas nodded, pursing his lips, studying John with an appraising, unkind stare. "I was only trying to protect my people. It was nothing personal against you."
John wasn't certain what to say to that. He slanted a narrowed glance at the man. "I don't know, Silas... it f-felt pretty damn personal to me."
"All's I'm saying is I made a mistake and we judged you unfairly," Silas said in a short, gruff tone. "Your tribe has been most generous to all of us." With that, he turned and strode away.
"What the hell was that all about?" Rodney said, suddenly beside John.
"I think he just sort of a-apologized to me," John said.
"What? You're kidding me!" Rodney looked to find Silas, but the man had quickly disappeared amidst the crowd. "Ah, he's probably just scared that Ronon will come back and kick his ass again."
"Ronon did that?" John said, touching his own face to suggest the numerous bruises.
""Yep." Rodney bounced on the toes of his boots. "But you didn't hear it from me."
John smirked. "Remind me to give him a beer when we get home."
Rodney looked at John, hopeful. "Can... can I have a beer, too? I would have kicked his ass for you, but he's a lot bigger than me, and since I was a little busy playing negotiator—"
"Yes, Rodney," John said, rolling his eyes. "You can have one, too. We'll all have a John Sheppard's Return to Sanity Party."
John turned to look at Lasca when he heard Antal quietly and worriedly murmuring words of reassurance to his mother. Lasca was now rocking and hugging herself against the growing cold, helplessly sobbing while Antal awkwardly patted her shoulder. John went over to her, and Antal looked up at him, grateful.
"Hey, Lasca," John said, crouching beside her and placing a hand on her shoulder. "We sh-should probably head back now. It's getting pretty c-cold and the sun will be going down soon."
Lasca nodded and swiped her hands over her face. Without looking at John or moving from the graveside, she said, "I never knew my real mother. She died in childbirth. My father died when I was eight years old, and I had no other family, no one to take care of me. When they buried my father, I remember standing by his grave and wondering what would happen to me. But Tosia... she just came up to me, knelt down beside me and asked if I would like to come live with her. She had plenty of room in her home, and she had always enjoyed it when my father and I came to visit her. She made me feel so welcome, so… loved, that I just nodded, followed her home and I..." Lasca choked back another sob. "I cannot believe she is gone."
John looked down, blinking hard. Sometimes there wasn't anything to say that would makes things any better, so he just slid his arm over Lasca's shoulders and gently coaxed her to stand. Lasca leaned heavily against him. He wrapped his arms around her in a gentle embrace, and she clung to him, shaking with both cold and the force of her tears.
"We're going to be all right, though?" she whispered against his neck. "All of us?"
"Yeah, we are," John said as reassurance for Lasca and himself, even.
After a moment, Lasca pulled back, wiped her face and looked at him, hesitant. "Antal and I..." she began. John nodded, encouraging her to continue. She took a deep breath and blurted, "We have decided that we will go the mainland, after all."
"That's great," John said, giving her a surprised smile.
Lasca took another shuddering breath and turned to look at her son. Rodney had gone over to the younger man, and John smiled a little when he saw that Rodney was teaching Antal how to play rock paper scissors.
"They... they will not judge Antal, will they?" Lasca said, looking back to John.
"Not if I have anything to say about it," John said scowling, and Lasca gave him a worried look. "I mean... they'll love him," he corrected. "The Athosians have b-been through a lot and they know a good man when they see one. You both will be happy there, I promise."
Lasca nodded, relieved. "I have to admit... I am not nearly as brave as Tosia was..." she said with a self-deprecating laugh. "In truth, I am terrified to leave here, but I know that is what she wanted for us."
John frowned at that and took her hands in his. "Tosia would be very proud of you for doing this… but s-she'd want you t-to make this decision for yourself and Antal, not for her."
Lasca looked at him for a long time, as though summoning strength from him. "I want to, she said after a moment, jutting her chin with determination, "and I want a better life for Antal. Will you... let us know when you have a... another ship ready?"
"Are you kidding?" John said. "You and Antal g-get the special express route, full meal deal." When Lasca frowned in confusion, he added, "that means, we'll take you there personally. Me and Rodney, w-when we go back home tomorrow… i-if you want?"
Lasca smiled and blushed. "I was... hoping you would say that. We will be ready to leave when you are."
As promised, Lasca and Antal were ready to leave the next morning. She and Antal had spent much of the previous night packing and sorting through their few belongings. Rodney and John had laid out their bedrolls by the hearth, playing endless games of poker and staying out of their way, allowing the two the time to say goodbye to their home. Other than Atlantis, John had never lived in one place long enough to grow attached to it, but he understood full well how difficult it was to leave everything you knew behind.
Though it was still early and the sun was just coming up, Lasca and Antal made their way to the village to say goodbye to their remaining friends. John and Rodney went on ahead to meet the jumper by the ruins, both of them carrying a few sacks of their passengers' meager belongings. They only had to wait a few minutes in the cold air and then Lorne arrived almost precisely on schedule. John was both pleased and surprised that Teyla and Ronon had this time accompanied the major. It was almost like getting back to normal – John and his team, off-world again.
While they waited for Lasca and Antal to join them, John wandered away from his teammates and stepped up to the single stone marker. He crouched down to brush away the freshly fallen snow. There were two names on the gravestone now. Just before the memorial, John and Rodney had helped Antal painstakingly carve Tosia's name under Gaereth's. The newly-carved letters were a little crooked, but John didn't think that Tosia or Gaereth, from what he'd heard of him, would mind. He looked down at the grave now blanketed in snow and wished them both peace. He gazed around the desolate landscape one final time, for he knew he would not likely be returning here. A shadow came into his peripheral vision and he turned to see Rodney coming up behind him, holding a bouquet of wildflowers in varying shades of delicate pinks. John looked at him questioningly.
Rodney shot him a warning look. "Don't start."
John shook his head and looked around the bleak landscape. "No... I mean... where did you get those?"
Rodney glanced down at the flowers, shrugging. "I uh... asked Teyla to bring them. They're indigenous to the mainland, but Katie has also been growing them in her nursery on Atlantis. Tosia... well, she uh... told me that she liked the mainland in the springtime the best, and these always bloom in the spring, and... and you're supposed to bring flowers when you visit someone's grave, so just shut up."
Blushing to the tips of his ears, Rodney set the bouquet down in the snow and awkwardly fluffed up the slightly wilted leaves. "I'm probably going to sneeze my head off now, or break out in hives," he muttered under his breath. He swiped his hand under his nose, then trotted back to the jumper, leaving John staring in wordless astonishment at his friend. John looked back at the flowers, at their fragile, transitory beauty, the pink standing out in bright relief against the harsh white and gray backdrop. He shook his head and smiled. Rodney never ceased to surprise him.
Lasca and Antal arrived a short time later and paid their own visit to Tosia's final resting place. Lasca marveled over the flowers, stooping to pick up one blossom that had fallen to the snowy ground. She held it carefully in her hand, as though it were a fragile bird that would take flight at any moment. When they were ready, John led them to the jumper where his team was already waiting. He helped settle their two passengers in the seats behind the pilot and copilot. John then took the copilot's seat without fuss, more for Lasca and Antal's sake than any acquiescence to his ridiculous 'unfit for active duty' status.
Lorne settled in the pilot's seat and the ship slowly rose in the air. Lasca let out a little squeak of terror, and Antal grinned from ear to ear.
"What do you think, guys?" John grinned, turning to look at them.
Antal gave him a happy thumbs-up, while Lasca only nodded, looking a little green.
The ship quickly reached the edge of the planet's atmosphere, and John braced himself for the shield. He turned back to their passengers again. "Hang on guys, it's a little rough a-at this part, but it's okay. We'll be absolutely fine."
Lasca nodded quickly and reached for Antal's hand, gripping it tightly. The ship headed into the area contained by the shield. John glanced at Lorne who gripped the controls with fierce concentration. The ship continued its path and then the stars were visible and they were in space.
"What the hell...?" John breathed out, at the same time that Rodney darted to the cockpit, leaning against the back of John's seat.
"Where's the shield?" Rodney demanded, staring at the unobstructed stars with wide eyes.
Lorne darted a glance at the two of them and shook his head. "I don't know... It was right here when we came to pick you up."
"Turn it around," John said.
"What?" Rodney and Lorne both said at the same time.
"Turn her around! Go back..." John said, staring at the digital control panel that popped up in front of his eyes even as he thought of it. "Maybe... we missed it somehow."
"Missed it?" Rodney echoed. "How the hell can we miss it? It's pretty damn hard not to notice!"
"I don't know..." John said, just as perplexed. He stood and impatiently waved at Lorne to get out of the pilot's seat. Lorne opened his mouth to protest but John stared at him with such steely determination that the other man immediately backed down. He slid over to John's previously occupied seat and dropped into it. John took control of the helm, turned the ship around in a wide, smooth arc. They passed back into the planet's atmosphere without a hitch. John kept going until they could see the white-blue of the sky.
"The shield's gone..." Rodney breathed out.
John nodded and turned around again. They headed back into space, and once more, their passage was smooth, unimpeded.
"Tosia... she was the last of them..." John said softly, almost to himself. He thought of that night when she'd told him about her past and how the Ascendeds had put the shield in place to both hide and protect the banished ones. Was it possible that because none of them were left, the other Ascendeds no longer saw any reason to keep the shield in place? "Do you think... n-now that she's gone..." John trailed off, uncertain what he wanted to say, and what he even should say in front of Lasca and Antal.
Rodney looked at him, then nodded, understanding without John having to say anything further. "Yeah. I think that's exactly what happened."
"What is it?" Lasca said leaning forward, looking fearfully back and forth between the two of them. "What is the matter?"
"N-nothing..." John quickly reassured her. "It's okay." He exchanged another look with Rodney who nodded and went back to his seat. John kept on flying.
They reached the mainland in less than an hour. John set the ship down close to the Athosian village. In an odd deja vu of the planet they'd just left, a group of children ran up to them, laughing and waving.
The team, along with their bewildered passengers, stepped outside and the similarities ended there. The sun shone warm and bright down on them, and fresh green grass poked up through the dead straw of winter.
Lasca stepped up beside John, looking all around in wonderment. "Oh, it is so beautiful..." She took in a sharp breath. "I wish... I wish that Tosia could have been here to see this, too."
"Yeah, me, too," John said softly, and Lasca blinked back renewed tears. Teyla stepped forward and with a gentle and welcoming smile, took hold of the other woman's arm and began leading her and Antal into the village. The Athosians came from their tents and makeshift homes to warmly greet them and Teyla introduced the two newcomers to everyone. Lorne shrugged and then went to join them.
John instead hung back. Usually he enjoyed visiting with the Athosians as well, but right now, he was still feeling too out of sorts to be very sociable. Besides, there was something that he wanted to do, before he got home and Carson grounded him indefinitely. Something that hadn't become a concrete idea until he'd set foot here. Something he needed to see once more. It took a moment until he noticed that Rodney and Ronon were looking at him questioningly.
"I'm just... gonna take a walk," John said as casually as he could.
"A walk? Now?" Rodney said, perplexed, while Ronon gave John a suspicious look.
"Yes, a walk, guys." John mimed a walking motion with his fingers. "You know… w-walk, meander, take a-a leisurely stroll. Besides, I haven't had one minute alone what with all of you hovering o-over me all the time."
Rodney shook his head and pointed an accusing finger at him. "Nonono... I know you... You're going to take a look at the portal, aren't you?"
John bit back a curse. Was the man freaking psychic now? he thought with frustration. Or more likely, John was probably getting really bad at lying, because everyone seemed to be able to see right through him lately. "N-no..." he said all the same, "I - I was just gonna check out the waves."
"Yeah, right," Rodney said, tilting his head. "How about we just come along with you, anyway."
'Why would you want to go back to the portal, Sheppard?" Ronon asked almost curiously, folding his long arms over his chest.
"I wasn't..." John protested then gave up. "Okay... fine. I j-just want to see it again, that's all." What he didn't tell his friends was that along with all the other scattered memories filling his head, he couldn't stop seeing flashes of the portal itself. Only they were just fractured instances, and he could never see the device clearly. He could remember that terrifying, encapsulating maw of energy he'd been trapped inside for seemingly an eternity. He could remember the instant and overwhelming rush of images and voices in his head. His body could remember all too clearly the terrible, crushing pain, but he couldn't remember what the portal looked like.
But maybe, if he saw it again, in broad daylight with his faculties now reasonably intact, maybe it wouldn't scare him so much anymore. And maybe he'd stop having those damned infuriating flashes of panic every time he thought of the fucking thing, or anything that reminded him of it.
"All right, fine," Rodney said, watching him closely, as though he suspected John of losing it again. "But we all go, or Ronon sits on you until we're ready to go back to Atlantis."
Ronon raised his eyebrows and shrugged as though that was exactly what he intended to do if John tried to make a break for it. John scowled at his friends in frustration. This was something that he wanted to do alone, but he knew it would be pointless to argue with them.
"Okay, fine," he grumbled. "We all go... together. The Three Muskefuckingteers."
John took the lead, stomping ahead of his friends who hung back a little, at least allowing him that much illusion of control. He headed for the small range of rolling hills and the air was so warm that John took off his jacket and pushed up the sleeves of his sweater. He paused in his steps when he recognized the long shelf of rock nestled in between two long sloping hills.
"If you so much as step within ten feet of that thing, I'll shoot you," Rodney threatened behind him.
John shot him a look over his shoulder. "And h-how is that any less harmful to m-my physical well-being?"
"You know what I mean... just... stay a safe distance, all right?"
John nodded, his eyes fixed on the ledge. His heart hammered, his mouth went dry, and his limbs were suddenly as leaden as though he were trapped in that powerful mass of energy all over again. Echoes of the faces and screaming voices filled his head. He realized that he was shaking a little, but he took a few steps closer. He stopped when he felt a large hand tugging on the back of his sweater, holding him back.
"Sheppard..." Ronon's warning voice rumbled behind him and John nodded absently, standing in place, unable to tear his mind from the rocky surface. Something's wrong, he thought. Something's missing...
Rodney continued on though, stepping up close to the rough archway. "I don't believe this," he breathed out, running his fingers along the stone.
"What?" Ronon said, keeping one hand firm on John's back.
"It's gone..." Rodney said, looking back to them.
John blinked and took a deep breath. "The portal's gone?"
"Yes, that's what I mean by 'it's gone'!" Rodney snapped.
John frowned and stepped beside Rodney, Ronon close behind him. John looked at where the control panel used to be, where the portal used to be, but there was nothing, not even a trace of it. No way of telling it had even existed.
"The shield and now the portal..." John whispered, unconsciously glancing up at the sky, then cursed under his breath for being ridiculous. The Ascendeds aren't hovering over you like voyeuristic celestial angels, you idiot... he told himself, or… or are they?
"They took it," Rodney said simply.
"Do you... do you think they've been watching all along?" John couldn't help asking.
Rodney nodded. "Oh, yeah. That's apparently what they do."
John looked back to the rock face. "I don't mind so m-much that they took the damned portal," he said truthfully – and somehow, knowing it was gone was almost better than seeing it again – "b-but they left that planet completely unprotected now. Why would they do that? What d-difference does it make to them? The rest of those villagers not only have to w-worry about freezing and starving to death... now they have to… to worry about the Wraith too?" John shook his head, both perplexed and angry.
"Yeah, well, according to Tosia, the Ascendeds, as a rule, aren't terribly concerned with what happens to humans," Rodney said with a helpless shrug. "They were probably more concerned with the Wraith getting hold of a former Ascended being than those people getting culled. That's probably the only reason they put up that shield in the first place."
John scowled at that, at the same time, hoping the Ascendeds weren't really so callous. He carefully brushed his fingers over the side of the rock where that control panel used to be.
"Hey! Don't do that!" Rodney shouted in alarm and yanked John's hand away. "God, you're worse than a two-year-old. There may be something left over, and you would be just the one to activate it."
John shot Rodney a frustrated look, but still, he stepped back a safe distance, unsure what to make of any of this. He had no words to articulate how he felt about this.
"Come on," Ronon said, jerking his chin in the direction of the Athosian village. "Let's go back. I don't know anything about these Ascendeds or Ancients, but to me, it looks like they just wanted to get rid of all traces of their presence here and on that planet, so let's just leave it at that."
Though it wasn't as simple as that, at the same time, John thought he could live with it. Like Ronon said, all physical traces of what had happened were gone, and it really was over. As they headed back for the village, this time, Ronon took the lead. And when they came nearer, John noticed Lasca talking animatedly with a group of Athosian women, as freely as though she already belonged there. He spotted Antal and recognized some of the villagers from the planet milling about, as well. John thought they looked happy, content even. Antal noticed him at the same time, and bounded over.
"There's an ocean here, John!" he enthused. "Tosia told me all about oceans but I never thought I'd get to see one."
John met Antal's wide grin with a smirk of his own. "It's pretty cool, isn't it?"
Antal blinked at him, then nodded. "It does look a little cold, but I imagine it's a lot warmer than the lake back home."
John couldn't help laughing at that. "I bet it is," he agreed then looked at Rodney and Ronon. "Okay, this time… I really do want t-to go check out the beach."
Rodney nodded. "Sure, whatever," he said shrugging casually, as though he hadn't been John's constant, irritating and protective shadow for over a week now. Ronon simply waved his hand at John in a 'go away' gesture, both of them understanding that the request was now a simple need for a little space.
John tipped his head in wordless thanks and gave them both a cheery, bye-bye wave. He began to head in the direction of the shimmering pale sea off in the short distance. He looked back at Antal, motioning for the young man to follow, which he did, breaking out in another happy smile.
"You know... I haven't dusted off m-my surfboard in a long time." John told Antal, then glanced up, squinting at the bright sunshine. "The weather's just about right, and I'm p-probably going to be grounded from duty for the rest of my life, so w-what do you say I come back here in a c-couple of days and we check out those waves?"
Antal cheerfully agreed, even though he probably had no idea what John was talking about. As they walked, John took a few deep breaths, and the air smelled like spring. The sun was warm on his face, and it felt good after being cold for so long. The sky was a clear, cloudless blue and almost as perfect as that long ago day back in California. He stopped walking when they reached the edge of the rocky beach, the waves lapping at his boots. He shielded his eyes from the sun and gazed out at the expanse of glimmering sea. He thought of how close he had come to never seeing this again.
With a loud whoop, Antal suddenly rushed into the water, going in nearly up to his waist, splashing and hopping around like a joyful puppy. John grinned and watched him a moment, then sprinted in after him. Antal laughed and splashed him, getting John right in the face. John shouted in protest, crouched down to scoop up some water in his hands and hurled it at Antal. The young man ducked against the spray, giggling. He flopped backwards with a spectacular splash, nearly soaking John to the skin then floated on his back, happily riding the waves.
John waded in a little deeper and the waves pushed against him, coaxing him along. The water was still icy cold from the vestiges of winter, but it didn't matter. Nothing else mattered but this moment. The sea, the warm sun shining down on him and the waves rushing all around him.
It was almost as good as flying.
--- finis ---
Thank you all so much for taking the time to read and for the incredible reviews. This has been such fun, and until the next story, I bid you all a fond adieu.