A/N: This is a departure for me in a couple of ways. It is a tag for Phantoms, my first tag ever. And it is angst, where I usually go for the whump. This story is in answer to Tipper's challenge to write a story based on a piece of poetry. I've been re-reading "The Lord of the Rings", and in "The Fellowship of the Ring" there is "Bilbo's Song" (see the end of this story). Although not specifically related to this episode, I do see Sheppard as a man who spends time contemplating his life, his experiences and reactions to them, and worrying that he has done the right thing. That brief flash of him in the montage in Rising, obviously thinking about his decision to join the Atlantis expedition, provided (me, at least) a bit of insight into the character.

As always, many thanks to Ashanome for her beta'ing skills and moral support.

Contemplation
by ga unicorn

Sheppard stood in the darkened infirmary ward and watched as Beckett moved from bed to bed.

"Doc? Are they gonna be okay?" He was repeating himself, had used the same words back on that damned planet. He knew it, but couldn't stop himself.

The doctor jerked, startled, and fumbled the pc tablet he used for patient notes onto an instrument tray. At the clatter, Ronon's eyes opened blearily and the large body tensed under scratchy hospital sheets. Beckett placed a soothing hand on his arm.

"Sorry, lad. It's just me being clumsy. Back to sleep wth you."

Sheppard grimaced as the Satedan relaxed back into sleep. Another strike against him today: waking the patients. He watched as the doctor checked the IV's connected to Lieutenant Kagan, and then entered more notes. The slow shuffle, instead of the usual brisk step; the tired slump of shoulders, so different from the usual rounded posture from hunching over microscopes; the dark circles under exhausted eyes. Exhaustion, and something more. It was clear that Beckett needed to be in his own bed, but he turned instead to make another circuit of the room.

"Doc."

"As I told you the last half-dozen times you asked me, they'll be fine, Colonel," was the weary reply. "Teyla, Ronon and Rodney are all responding to the antibiotic and should be discharged before lunch tomorrow. Kagan will be a few more days, but he'll be back in his quarters by the end of the week. Six to eight weeks and he'll be fit to go off-world again."

Yes, that was the same thing he had been told earlier. He gritted his teeth to keep from asking 'Are you sure?' The question had sneaked out earlier and the devastated look on the doctor's face had torn at him. He had tried to find a way to apologize, to explain that the doubt was not in Beckett's competence. The uncertainty, the hesitance, was all within Sheppard. He didn't think he'd succeeded in reassuring the doctor.

Slowly, reluctantly, he stepped out of his place in the shadows.

"You should head to bed then. You're exhausted."

"I will as soon as I – "

Sheppard took Beckett by the arm and started toward the hallway. "You've checked all of them twice in the last ten minutes. I'm sure you have a nurse all set to look in on them. It's time for you to get some sleep."

Rather than try to get the stumbling, weakly protesting Beckett back to his own quarters, Sheppard led him into his office and got him seated on the cot in the back corner. The doctor immediately tried to get back to his feet.

"I should check – "

Sheppard pressed him back down onto the thin mattress and then crouched so that they were on the same level.

"Carson, it wasn't your fault." It was mine.

Beckett's lips tightened. "Barroso is dead."

"Not your fault. Put the blame where it belongs: with the Wraith, with the Genii. You did the best you could considering your mind was being messed with by that… machine. You kept Kagan alive." He cast about for something that would help the doctor believe this, but knew that Beckett would have to come to it on his own. Sheppard was having difficulty reaching that point himself. His part in this fouled up mission still ate at him. "You gonna talk to Heightmeyer tomorrow?"

When Beckett nodded, he sighed and stood up. He knew the doctor would benefit from unloading on the expedition's shrink. Personally, he'd rather cut off an arm than talk to her about his feelings on this last mission. About the men who had died. "Good, good. Get some sleep. I'll see you in the morning."

He'd made it to the door before the doctor's soft brogue drew him up short.

"And where are you after, then?"

"I'm going to sit with my team."

"You think you're in any better shape than me, Colonel?" Beckett asked, a trace of amusement in his tired voice. "For now the ward is off limits to you. Get some sleep. I'll let you back in at 0700."

Sheppard almost bit his tongue to stop the instinctive protest. His belly knotted and an emotion he refused to identify shivered up his spine.

"Carson, I can sleep on one of the – "

"You'll sleep better in your own quarters," the doctor said firmly. "Good night, Colonel."

The light dimmed in Beckett's office, but Sheppard had no doubt the doctor would leave orders with the medical personnel on duty that he was not to be allowed to 'hover' near his team.

He started walking, his feet taking him where they would. When he found himself walking down a seldom-used corridor in the lower level of the infirmary he sighed in resignation. The door at the end of the hallway opened at his thought. A gust of cool air greeted him as he stepped into the doorway.

His hand thrust into his pocket and wrapped around a tangle of rubber and metal.

They had set up this room to act as a morgue. It had overflowed after the siege that first year with Earthlings, Athosians and not a few Wraith. Now seven body bags waited patiently on tables for their silent contents to be prepared for a last farewell.

Sheppard's hand clenched on the dog tags, the rubber-framed metal plates pressing painfully into his palm. His head bowed slowly.

Leonard and his entire team. Barroso. Kanoa.

He hadn't killed them himself, but he hadn't saved them either. He had stood by impotently as Leonard blew himself up. And he had shot Ronon, then McKay.

He rubbed at the tense muscles knotted on the back of his neck as he retreated from the doorway. Darkened doorways passed unnoticed as he walked. He needed to clear his head, stop re-hashing the events on that planet, stop second-guessing himself. The whole disastrous mission had played repeatedly in his mind as they awaited rescue and continued once they were on the Daedalus.

Caldwell had requested a debriefing. Sheppard had tried to be dispassionate during the re-telling, but Caldwell had succeeded much better than he. When he was finished he had waited for the Colonel's usual cutting evaluation of his performance. The Daedalus' commander had been remarkably reticent, merely nodding and saying he would add Sheppard's comments to the report filed with the SGC. For once Sheppard had not been able to read the other man's expression. Thankfully the trip back to Atlantis had been brief.

After seeing the dead properly settled in a small room next to the Daedalus' hanger bay, he had headed to the infirmary. He had spent the time with his teammates as well as keeping an eye on Kagan. He listened as McKay told everyone who came within earshot how Sheppard had shot him. Ronon was more sanguine about it and Teyla had been her usual calming presence. He had seen her eyeing both him and Beckett, and had avoided her attempts to speak to him. He needed time alone to sort out his thoughts and feelings.

He paused outside of McKay's lab, peering into the dimly lit space, listening to the quiet background hum of the equipment. It was amazing how quiet the space was when the irascible scientist was not in residence. When McKay was there, even alone and not speaking, the atmosphere felt charged by his hyperactive personality.

A small smile quirked at his lips as he started walking again. Undoubtedly McKay would make an appearance in those rooms by tomorrow afternoon, despite Beckett's orders to the contrary.

He wandered through the 'gate room, nodding to the marines on guard and climbed the stairs to the jumper bay. He thought briefly about taking a jumper and escaping into the sky. Always before – always – he had been able to find peace in the solitude of flying. But he barely paused as he passed through the bay back into the corridors of Atlantis.

Intellectually he believed what he had told Carson. In his own mind, of his own volition, he would never have shot Ronon or McKay. And yet he had. It was his hand, his finger that had squeezed the trigger.

A picture of McKay, panicked, his hands raised pleadingly, flashed in front of Sheppard's eyes. A harsh sigh escaped him. It would be a long time before that vision stopped haunting him.

He stopped at Teyla's training room. The doors whisked open at his touch and the spicy scent of the candles she burned wafted out. A few doors further along a very different, sweaty odor gusted from the gym where Ronon taught his version of hand-to-hand combat to the military and the few scientists brave enough to step onto the mats.

He could still hear Ronon's wordless bellow as he fired on what he believed to be Wraith. And Sheppard returned the fire, aiming for a Taliban guerilla, with the sound of Holland – no, Teyla – pleading with him to stop, to think about what he was doing. He rubbed the side of his head. Yeah, it was going to take some time to get over this one.

When he found himself outside of his quarters he hesitated, then shrugged and went in. A shower couldn't hurt and then he'd try to sleep.

Someone had brought his TAC vest and P-90 and left them on his desk. He popped the catches on his holster as he walked past and dropped it on top of the pile. He'd deal with it in the morning.

After sixty minutes of staring up at the dark ceiling he ordered the lights back on and sat up. War and Peace was on his nightstand, but… no. He couldn't deal with all that Russian angst right now. Guitar? No. Skateboard? No. And 'no' to lying in bed like a lump.

Getting out of bed, he padded barefoot across the room. He grabbed the box containing his gun cleaning supplies and sat at his desk. The vest first. He went through it methodically, checking all the supplies and equipment. The extra clips for the P-90 and 9mm were pulled out and unloaded. Dirt and other debris from the forest floor had gotten into the pockets and inside the clips. He rolled the bullets on a cloth treated to catch dust until he was satisfied they were clean. The clips were wiped down before being reloaded and tucked back into the pockets under the arms of his vest. He spread the vest out on his bed, lining up, to give it a chance to air out.

The 9mm came next. He ejected the clip then pulled back the slide, catching the round when it ejected. His hands broke down the pistol with a few quick, efficient motions. Each part was cleaned and oiled. Within ten minutes it was reassembled, loaded, safety on and returned to its holster.

Sheppard had performed these same tasks so often that they had become automatic. No thought was needed. It was soothing when he had too many thoughts, too many memories, battering at his mind.

He draped the holster over the back of his chair and reached for the P-90 where he had laid it on the floor earlier. The smell hit him immediately. He didn't know how he had managed to miss it earlier. Burned gunpowder.

Propping the submachine gun on the cloth spread on his desk, he forced himself to examine the weapon. He tried to remove the clip, but his hands were shaking so hard he gave it up.

Memories of this last, FUBAR'd mission assaulted him. McKay's panic. Ronon's angry shout. Teyla's pleading. He shoved them away. Yes, his finger had squeezed the trigger. But it had not – really – been his choice.

A small, bitter laugh escaped him. Yeah, he just needed to keep telling himself that. A few thousand more times ought to do the trick.

He turned back to the P-90 and forced himself to pick it up. Pop the clip. Empty. The last one had hit McKay's vest, skidded along his ribcage. A growl of anger erupted from Sheppard's throat. He worked the slide and then started breaking down the weapon.

When he pushed away from the desk the P-90 was cleaned and loaded. And his hands had stopped shaking.

He propped his elbows on his knees and scrubbed a hand over his tired face. After a few minutes he got up and went into the bathroom to scrub the lubricant off his hands. And his face. When he finished it was too late to try sleeping again and too early to go back to the infirmary.

He changed into his running clothes and left his quarters. It was raining outside, so he stuck to the corridors of Atlantis. He covered all the places he had visited earlier in the night and more. He ran down corridors so long you couldn't see where they ended. After the rain had died down to a mist he went outside and circled the end of the northeast pier.

When the sun rose Sheppard was sitting on the floor of the balcony closest to the infirmary. He leaned his shoulders back against the wall and sipped from his water bottle, admiring the variegated colors as the dawn broke on the horizon.

When he glanced at his watch for the twentieth time and saw that it was 0630 he decided it was late enough. He got up and left the balcony. He'd try the "look like you belong" strategy first. If that didn't work, then he'd go with Plan B – which was either charm or pleading, depending on whom he encountered.

He peeked into Beckett's office on the way past and was glad to see the man was still asleep, one arm dangling off the narrow cot. Hopefully enough sleep and a few sessions with Heightmeyer, as well as the support of his friends, would help him find peace with himself.

Sheppard managed to slip into the ward with only a raised eyebrow from the physician's assistant he passed in the doorway. The lights were still lowered in the room, but individual bed lights had been turned on over Teyla's and Ronon's beds. Both early risers, they were already sitting up with breakfast trays.

"Hi, guys. Feeling better?"

"Much," Teyla confirmed. "And Lieutenant Kagan is doing much better this morning. His temperature is down. Gretchen," she nodded to the door to indicate the departed PA, "has said that we shall be allowed to return to our rooms as soon as Carson checks on us.

"Hope it's soon," Ronon said, shoveling another forkful of eggs into his mouth. "I'm starving. They never give you enough food in here."

"The mess hall barely has enough food," Sheppard grinned. He wandered over to check on Kagan, the smile sliding from his face. God, the kid was young. The memory of finding a deathly pale Kagan cradled in Carson's arms, the devastated look on the doctor's face and the fear that he had lost another man, surged up. He let it wash over him, pulling in a deep breath and then blowing it out slowly.

He had read the autobiographies of military commanders who talked about this feeling: the worry of sending troops into harm's way, the anxiety. The hard, gut-wrenching pain when they knew that some would not come back. He had always admired these men, marveling at their ability to bear this burden of command again and again. His admiration had increased a thousand fold since that burden had fallen on him. He had never expected to have a command of his own and had no illusions of matching the accomplishments of these men. But since it had fallen to him, as hard as it was, he hoped that he never stopped experiencing these emotions. It was a small price to pay.

He grabbed the single visitor chair in the room and pulled it over to his team. Slouching down in the molded plastic, he propped his feet on the end of McKay's bed, drawing a grumbled complaint from the still sleeping scientist. He crossed his arms and dropped his chin on his chest. A yawn threatened to crack his jaw as he settled down.

Ronon wadded up the paper napkin from the breakfast tray and lobbed it, bouncing it off of McKay's forehead and provoking another mumbled squawk. Teyla made obligatory tsk-ing noises, but could not suppress her own smile as she shook her head in disapproval.

McKay woke slowly. Sleepy blue eyes gazed randomly around the room until they landed on Sheppard when they sharpened immediately with irritation.

"I can't believe you shot me."

Sheppard smiled slowly even as his eyes were closing.

"Tell me about it, Rodney."

the end

Bilbo's Song, by JRR Tolkien

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall never see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.