Disclaimer: Stargate Atlantis and its characters belong to their appropriate proprietors, creators and owners. No copyright infringement is intended. This story was created for entertainment purposes only. No profit has been made from this. Only original characters and storyline belong to the author.
Thanks for all your kind comments! Now, for the final chapter…
Title: Uncommon Alliance
Teyla understood Elizabeth's words as she moved her chair a little closer to the wall, positioning it in an area that offered her more movability. The Athosian had not seen Rogunie since coming back to Atlantis. There was no reason for her to visit the IOA representative, not that she even wanted to. So far Dr Beckett had made the every effort to keep the Colonel and Rogunie at opposite ends of his infirmary. And since the feeding, the IOA representative always had the privacy curtain encircling his bed securely closed.
However, before Weir left, she opened the privacy curtains surrounding Sheppard's bed. Teyla knew that Elizabeth did it to allow other people to keep an eye on Sheppard and Rogunie. While there, Dex arrived.
"Ronon?" Elizabeth greeted the Satedan looking surprised at his sudden arrival. "What are you doing here?"
"He needs a guard," the Satedan stated firmly, obviously having heard about the meeting between Sheppard and Rogunie.
Weir pursed her lips as she considered this. "Okay, Ronon. Just don't do anything rash like shoot an unarmed old man."
"I won't," the Satedan smirked as he shot Weir and Teyla a grin and stationed himself by the wall next to the infirmary window. He looked half bored but both women knew that it was only a front for they noticed that his blaster, although holstered, was within easy reach of his hand.
Elizabeth shot John a farewell look and left him with the two members of his team guarding him.
"Nurse, you may bring Mr Rogunie to visit Colonel Sheppard," Weir informed the young woman waiting by the door before leaving the infirmary.
Teyla had expected Rogunie to be considerably aged after his encounter with the Wraith. However, despite expecting it, it was still something of a shock when she saw him being rolled in a wheelchair by an infirmary nurse. The nurse gave her and Ronon a smile before positioning Rogunie's wheelchair close to Sheppard's bed. She greeted the colonel in a friendly manner then she turned her attention back to Rogunie speaking gently to the elderly and frail looking man.
"I'll be back in about ten minutes, Mr Rogunie. Would that be enough time for you?"
Rogunie nodded but didn't say anything else as the nurse left. The IOA representative turned his head to briefly gaze at Teyla but he did not speak to her. She saw him disregarding her presence as soon as his eyes landed on her. She stared at him in turn, trying hard not to display the inner shock that she currently felt inside her. Since the last time she saw him, the man had aged perhaps by thirty or forty years. Previously, he might have been in his late thirties, but now he appeared to be in his seventies or eighties. His pale blond hair had gone snow white and had thinned out considerably; his skin was now frail with age spots, and there were a lot more wrinkles and lines on his face where previously only a few existed. There was also some rounding of his back making him appear hunched. His hands trembled from sickness common to the elderly and his blue eyes were now pale and dull looking. Gone was his aura of arrogance and silent power.
Rogunie turned away from her to glance at the Satedan standing next to the window. The IOA representative paid more attention Dex; Teyla saw a frown form on his features but he made no comment. The Athosian wondered whether he recalled Ronon holding him up on the wall, threatening to kill him should he harm Sheppard.
Observing Rogunie, Teyla noticed that he appeared uncomfortable to be there. Yet, she sensed that the man wanted to be there, despite his discomfort, for he clearly wanted speak to Sheppard. Finally, she saw him take a nervous swallow and turn towards the man lying on the infirmary bed.
Sheppard, Teyla saw, was currently ignoring Rogunie, staring ahead at the infirmary ceiling. If he was aware of Rogunie's presence, he never showed it.
Finally Rogunie cleared his throat. It was a harsh, gravelly sound; an old sound.
"Colonel Sheppard," he called out the pilot's name. Teyla observed that this time he used the colonel's rank – it was no longer only 'Sheppard' or just plain 'John'. There was respect in his voice when he spoke the name, whereas before there was only scorn. His voice also sounded ancient, worn down with age, like a dried up leaf. It also sounded sad, filled with regret. "I do not know if you can hear me…"
The colonel's head turned towards the sound of his name and Teyla saw his hazel-green eyes focus on Rogunie with a small frown. The elderly man paused slightly when he saw Sheppard's attention on his face. It took him a while before he regained his composure. Teyla heard the sound of heavy breathing emanating from Rogunie as if he was trying to suppress some deep seated emotion. Finally when he spoke again, Teyla heard the pain in Rogunie's voice.
"How did you do it, Sheppard? How did you handle the pain? How to do you continue with the will to survive?" Rogunie asked brokenly. "I read the report again… about what happened to you the first time, when Koyla captured you…. I never truly understood what you went through…. What you experienced…. The agony of the feeding… It sticks in your memory like a thorn…, I never understood… until now…" The last word dripped with bitterness and regret.
Sheppard pursed his lips together and his frown deepened but he kept silent. Teyla could see that the pilot was listening, that he was disturbed by what he heard; she thought she detected a flicker of understanding in his eyes. Rogunie suddenly moved to grip trembling hands on Sheppard's wrist. Teyla heard the monitoring heart machine that Sheppard was attached to increase in beat. She stood up abruptly, wanting to stop Rogunie from touching the colonel. Dex too, she saw had moved closer, coming to stand just behind the old man.
"Release him," the Satedan growled.
Much to her surprise, Rogunie ignored the Satedan but continued to speak rapidly, urgently as if he was afraid he might get pulled away before he had a chance to say what he came to say. "I'm sorry Colonel… I understand now, I saw the video logs of the mind device. I saw everything that you've been through… How you fought them, refusing to give in to the Wraith's demands… No matter the pain and the hell that you went through… and I realised something… I realised that you were telling me the truth all along, that you hadn't been lying to me… You are a better man than me, Colonel Sheppard. If it were me, I don't know if I would have been strong enough to defy it or last as long as you did. Not especially after experiencing the first Wraith feeding…"
He paused, his hands now releasing the grip on Sheppard, his voice and his entire body trembling. Both Teyla and Ronon stood where they were feeling stunned. They never expected Rogunie to say the words that he did. They moved back to their original positions, allowing the old man some space between them, as he spoke again.
"I … was wrong…. Colonel Sheppard. I misjudged you… When I met you, I admit it, I wanted to kill you, to prevent you from endangering Atlantis and Earth… but … I was wrong… I'm sorry Colonel, I'm so sorry…"
John blinked and he turned his head away. Rogunie had stopped speaking and the Athosian saw the old man's chin trembling, There was wetness at the edge the IOA representative's eyes. She realised then how broken the IOA representative had become and she felt sorry for him.
"Well… that's all I came to say, Colonel Sheppard…." Rogunie finally cleared his throat and spoke up again. "That I'm … sorry."
As he made a move to depart, Teyla was surprised to see Sheppard's hand reach out to prevent Rogunie from leaving. "H-hey…" the sound of his voice was raspy and coarse. It was a rusty voice, unused in many days, except for when he screamed himself hoarse from waking up from nightmares at nights. But it was still Sheppard's voice and to Teyla's ears the fact that he was making an attempt to speak again was like some much needed rain on a farmer's dry crop.
"It's… o-okay…" he whispered the words softly. Two words and yet, it was filled with the emotion of compassion and forgiveness.
Oh John, even now, you reach out to help others who have treated you unkindly. Teyla thought silently to herself. Yet she understood why he did it, for she too had forgiven Rogunie at hearing his broken words. And yet she also knew that this was John Sheppard - protector of the weak and the defenceless. He risked his life on more than one occasion to save all in Atlantis. He even risked his life for Teyla and her people. And Rogunie still belonged to his people, part of the human race who resided on Earth.
Rogunie slowly turned back to face Sheppard again. He scrutinised the dark haired pilot closely. When he next spoke, there was despair and anguish in his voice, but mixed with it was the tiny sound of hope that perhaps Sheppard would be able to help him out somehow. "I don't understand how you do it…" he spoke in a broken whisper as a thin trail of tears began to leak down the old man's cheeks. "How do you get through it? How do you continue on living?"
Sheppard stared at the weak, elderly and frail man before him. There was a look of pity in his hazel-green eyes. He closed his eyes for a second, swallowed hard and then opened them to stare back at the man called Karl Rogunie. "You … l-live… one day a-at the time… You think of n-nothing else… except to make it to the next day.., and the next day after t-that… because to s-stop living… means you let them win…"
Rogunie was silent for a moment as he considered Sheppard's words, then he nodded to himself and said, "Thank you, Colonel Sheppard." Sheppard's words seemed to bring him some solace. "Thank you for agreeing to see me… to speak to me… I know that you didn't have to, not after how I treated you. But as I said before… you are a greater man than me… a much better man…. I know that now."
Sheppard turned his gaze away at Rogunie's words, pursing his lips and frowning slightly as he looked up at the ceiling again. He looked uncomfortable; Teyla wasn't sure whether it was because he did not wish to be reminded of his interrogation or he was uncomfortable with Rogunie's praise. Perhaps, it was both.
"I'll be leaving Atlantis soon," Rogunie added. "They're sending me back to Earth where I'll probably spend the rest of my days in a geriatric ward."
Sheppard continued to stare at the ceiling. Teyla knew that there was nothing that the pilot could say to that. The elderly man now turned to look at Ronon Dex, "I am ready to leave now, please call the nurse."
Dex did not move. He stared at John. "Sheppard?" the Satedan asked, waiting for the colonel to indicate what he wanted him to do. Teyla knew that the Satedan did it on purpose as respect for Sheppard and defiance against Rogunie. Sheppard turned and looked at Dex, giving the warrior a nod of approval. Rogunie, Teyla observed, gave a bitter smile at the Satedan's reaction.
"You are fortunate Colonel, what you have here I never had… You have people who care about you. You have people who trust you, who are willing to risk their careers for you," Rogunie observed in a sad and envious tone, emphasizing his points. Teyla saw Sheppard turn to listen more closely to the man's words. "I believe that they will be willing to risk their lives for you if you asked them to." The old man paused, his gaze settling back on Sheppard. "It is something that I never had the fortune of experiencing, because you see, Colonel, I do not have friends or people who care about me. I am alone in this world and I shall die alone in this world. You are fortunate indeed…"
Teyla saw Sheppard flick a look at her and Ronon and there was raw emotion written in his hazel-green eyes. "I know…" he acknowledged the words. "I t-trust my team w-with my life…"
Teyla felt like crying then for she knew that he meant every word of it.
As the nurse arrived to roll Rogunie's wheelchair away, Rogunie looked at Sheppard for one last time before lifting a pale, shaky hand in a wave of farewell. "Good bye Colonel Sheppard. I do not think we will meet again. I thank you for your advice, I shall consider them when I return to Earth."
Sheppard did not reply to that, instead he pursed his lips and stared at the ceiling for a very long time.
After Rogunie left, Teyla waited in silence for a while. Then she approached Sheppard quietly.
"John? Are you all right?" she asked him in concern, lifting a hand to touch him on the left shoulder. She was pleased to note that he didn't flinch at her contact this time. He seemed more accepting of their presence now.
He blinked before whispering out the words, "Y-yeah…"
It was only one word, but it was enough to make Teyla's spirits soar. She was about to move away, but to her surprise, he spoke up again.
"You're real… a-aren't you? All of t-this…, it's real isn't it? It isn't a h-hallucination…"
Teyla felt hot tears brim her eyes. Oh John, did you believe all this time that we were simply hallucinations meant to trick you? That you were still a prisoner of the Wraith? She wanted to enfold the man in her arms to give him a tight embrace, just to let him know that they were real. Instead, she tightened her grip on his shoulder in reassurance. She made sure that she captured his gaze before she spoke again. She made sure that her voice was strong, comforting and clear.
"Yes, John. We are real. You are truly back in Atlantis. We are truly here. You are safe, John; no longer a prisoner of the Wraith. You are home again."
Sheppard closed his eyes and nodded, before his hand moved to wipe at his eyes. Teyla glanced up and saw Ronon looking at her in approval, giving her a grin.
"Teyla's right, Sheppard, we are real," the Satedan added his voice to the matter.
Sheppard looked up and smiled. It was the first real, non-flitting smile she had seen from him since returning to Atlantis. She and Ronon smiled back at him. Slowly, little by little, they were getting the John Sheppard back again.
They waited in companionable silence with Sheppard now. Teyla sensed that after their brief talk that Sheppard was more at peace.
She was sitting silently in meditation when her radio beeped. Listening to the voice on the other side, she replied. "Yes, Rodney, I do believe that John is ready for something to eat."
Sheppard opened his eyes and looked up at her words. She smiled at him and said, "Rodney tells me that he is getting you some chicken soup." She had heard that it was meant to be good for one suffering from an illness. Earlier in the day, she had overheard McKay checking with Dr Beckett whether it would be okay to get such a meal for him. Carson seemed to think it was a good idea.
Sheppard gave her a smile but didn't say anything else.
McKay soon arrived, bearing a tray loaded with fresh fruit salad and a bowl of hot soup. Following closely at his heels was Snacks, its tail wagging furiously in excitement as it tried to hop and reach for the food tray.
The scientist placed the tray on Sheppard's lap saying, "Eat up! Doctor's orders! It's chicken soup, meant to be good for you!"
Sheppard reached out to give Snacks a pat as the little bundle of fur leaped from the floor onto his infirmary bed, chirping madly, almost causing the bowl of soup to overturn and spill everywhere. It was only Dex's fast reflexes that prevented chaos from happening when he reached across and rescued the soup and fruits bowls from taking a tumble on the tray.
"Snacks!" McKay scolded the little critter as he grabbed the little furball and carried it in his arms. "That's meant for Sheppard, not you, you little greedy rascal!"
Sheppard gave a soft chuckle and McKay turned in happy surprise to look at John then. "Oh god! Did I hear that?" He turned to look at the others for confirmation. "Did Sheppard just laugh?"
Teyla laughed too and nodded. "Yes, Rodney. I believe that John is doing well."
McKay beamed. "Huh… good! That's good." He looked at the food tray where Dex had placed the bowls back again and his nose twitched. "Oh, that smells good!" Then without asking permission, he placed Snacks in Teyla's hands, reached down and grabbed the soup bowl and spoon from Sheppard's tray and started to taste the soup for himself.
"H-hey!" Sheppard protested.
McKay almost dropped the spoon at hearing Sheppard speak his first word. "You… you spoke!" he cried out in delight. He turned to look back at the others again. "He did speak, didn't he?"
Teyla laughed, nodding her head, "Yes, Rodney, I believe that he did."
McKay smiled. "I'll say!"
Ronon folded his arms and looked at the scientist. "You might want to return that, McKay."
"What?" McKay asked, looking up confused at the Satedan.
"I believe that the soup is meant for the Colonel?" Teyla replied looking amused.
"Oh… right. I was only testing it to make sure that it was warm enough. You know, not too hot? After all, we won't want the Colonel to burn his tongue now, would we?"
"Sure, McKay," Ronon replied in a disbelieving tone as he reached across, removed the spoon and bowl from McKay's hands and placed them back on Sheppard's food tray.
Sheppard looked amused but didn't say anything else as he took the spoon, dipped it into the hot soup and began to eat.
He could only finish half a bowl before he decided that his stomach couldn't take any more. He was contemplating whether to feed the rest of it to Snacks when there was a soft clearing of throat sound. Looking up, he saw Woolsey peeking his head into the infirmary ward. Colonel Caldwell and Dr Weir were also next to him.
Sheppard frowned slightly, wondering about the purpose of their visit.
"May we have a private word with you, Colonel?" Woolsey said a little nervously. "Dr Beckett told me that you could have visitors."
"I will see you later, John," Teyla said as she got up to leave. Ronon also followed suit.
McKay however remained where he was. He looked longingly at the half finished soup on Sheppard's tray before finally bursting out and asking, "You gonna finish that?"
When Sheppard shook his head, the scientist grinned, grabbed the tray of food and headed out, munching on the remaining meal left there. Sheppard was now left with Snacks for company, enjoying the feel of the Talmera curled up at his side on the infirmary bed. At least he wasn't totally abandoned.
"Colonel Sheppard," Woolsey stepped closer as he greeted him with a smile. "How are you feeling?"
Sheppard didn't feel like talking to Woolsey but he forced out a reply. "F-fine."
He saw Weir's eyes widen in happy surprise at his response and he felt a little guilty, knowing how everyone must have been worried about him.
"John… I'm glad that you are feeling better." Elizabeth said as she approached him. There was relief in her voice but also a burning curiosity. He could see that she wondered what had happened between him and Rogunie.
"Yes, that is good news indeed," Woolsey added, looking pleased himself. "Well, ahem, the reason why we're here is to assure you that as soon as you're well again, you're to continue your role as Atlantis' Head of the Military Contingent. Colonel Caldwell here is happy to step down and return to his role as Commander of the Daedalus."
Caldwell nodded at that. "That I am," he said as he shot a smile at Sheppard. "While we might differ in opinion regarding how to run Atlantis' military contingent, Colonel Sheppard, you've proven yourself capable of the task so far."
Sheppard smiled at the news, feeling pleased to know that he wouldn't be sent back to Earth.
"Mr Woolsey would also like to make a formal apology to you, John, on behalf of the IOA," Weir added, her eyes sparkling with righteous delight.
"Yes," Woolsey cleared his throat and added a little more uncomfortably to this statement. "I heard what Rogunie did to you, Sheppard. All I can say is not only did Rogunie misrepresent himself horribly for the IOA but Colonel Caldwell also found proof that he's working for the Trust. Believe me, this never should have happened, my most sincere apology for your mistreatment, Colonel. You have my word that he will be suitably punished…"
At Woolsey's last sentence, Sheppard spoke up, "I t-think he's already been p-punished enough…"
"Excuse me?" Woolsey sounded confused and surprised. "Do you not want us to prosecute the guy?"
Sheppard shook his head and sighed. "No," he stated softly.
Woolsey frowned. "I see… Mind if I ask why?"
"He came here a young man, he's returning to Earth an old one… There's n-not many years left for him… Do y-you not consider that punishment e-enough?"
Woolsey appeared shocked when faced with the cold facts so starkly. "Well, if you insist…"
"I do," Sheppard stated as he closed his eyes. He was tired; he did not wish to talk anymore. He didn't know when Woolsey and Caldwell left but he assumed that it was shortly after that.
But Elizabeth lingered back. He opened his eyes to see her staring at him, watching his hands as he petted Snacks' sleeping form. The little Talmera was currently curled up asleep on his belly. He loved the feel of the critter's smooth soft fur as he stroked its small body.
"Can I k-keep him?" he finally asked seeing Weir startle.
"Excuse me?" she stated, looking confused.
"Snacks? Can I k-keep him?"
Weir considered his request as she reached out a hand to give Snacks a pat too. "Oh… its fur is so soft…" she muttered softly. Then she turned her gaze back at him, while at the same time giving him a tiny smile. "Only if you make sure he's house trained, John, which means no complaints of Snacks' poo littering the floor and getting on people's shoes or acid spits harming our people."
Shepard found himself grinning from ear to ear. "Got it, Snacks will u-use the toilet and s-spit acid in t-there."
Three weeks later
He found himself being grabbed by his forearm and spun around before a vicious punch caught him on the left temple, knocking him to the ground. For a moment all he saw was stars. Then strong fingers grabbed him by the top of his hair and lifted his head up to gaze into dark eyes of not-Ronon grinning sadistically down at him.
"Give us the gate address, Sheppard, or you're a dead man!"
"No!" he stubbornly refused through clenched teeth, trying hard to roll with the punches and not to let the hits he was taking overwhelm him. He would never betray Atlantis. Neither doppelganger Ronon nor any other member of his false team would make him betray Atlantis.
"That is too bad," a female voice said as not-Teyla reached down and pulled him to his feet while giving false-Ronon a 'my turn' look.
Knowing that another attack was imminent, he managed to twist his body swiftly away to avoid the first jab of her fighting stick aimed at his midriff, but failed to evade taking a hit from the Teyla's staff as it expertly twirled, whacking him hard at his right side. Holding onto his throbbing side, he groaned, trying to stay out of her range and knowing that he had just cracked a rib. Narrowing his gaze and chewing on his lip, Sheppard forced the pain to the back of his mind as he slowly breathed out and waited for not-Teyla to let down her guard. When the opportunity presented itself, he made his move, feigning a move to the left instead of the right. As she swung the stick where she expected him to be, he dashed towards the opposite side, his body rolling defensively in motion as his hand reached out and grabbed the weapon, jerking it out from her hand. He didn't wait for her to recover as he straightened, twirled the stick around and launched it forward, a move that Teyla had once taught him. It was bitter irony that he found himself using such a technique on evil-Teyla now. With it, he succeeded in striking back with the staff by giving not-Teyla a glancing blow on her left shoulder, feeling a tiny sense of satisfaction flood through him at the small victory.
Yet before he could enjoy his brief triumph, something hard slammed cruelly into his kidneys. Gasping in pain, he half turned, realising his mistake that he had forgotten about Ronon! He fell to his knees, only to feel his arms pinned painfully behind his back as he was restrained in an iron-like grip. Not-Teyla now approached him with a look of pure malice on her face. She smiled down at him and before Sheppard could register what was happening, a knife sank itself brutally into his side, digging deep and twisting into his gut. Sheppard's eyes widened in shock as pain exploded inside of him, making him yell out, twisting his body, trying to escape from the fatal wound. The Athosian laughed as she mouthed the words "You deserve this, John. You should have given us what we wanted..."
"And now for the finale…." A new voice spoke up. Sheppard looked up to see not-Rodney approaching him with a look of glee in his eyes as he pointed a 9mm at him.
You are not my team! You're not realHe voiced the words in his mind as he prepared himself for the inevitable. It was always the same, his team would either kill him or beat him to the point of unconsciousness, or he would watch them die while he was chained to the wall, or held back by wraith, helpless to do anything to stop it… This time he knew that it was McKay who would kill him…
He never heard the shot but heard a deep, familiar voice and felt a large hand shaking on his shoulder instead.
"Sheppard, wake up! You're dreaming!"
"No!" he jerked awake with start. Without thinking, he swung out a fist to hit whoever who was shaking him. But before his hand could connect with flesh, a firm hand caught hold of his fist, stalling his attack.
"Sheppard! Snap out of it. It's Ronon!"
"Ronon?! No! You're n-not Ronon!" he tried to struggle against the firm hands that were restraining him now.
"Yes I am! I'm not going to hurt you! You have my word, Sheppard." The voice sounded adamant and resolute. The hands were not hitting him back or attacking him but instead firmly holding him down, ceasing his struggles.
"Ronon….?" he asked again, this time opening his eyes to see the Satedan's large form staring at him with determination and concern written in the warrior's gaze.
"Ronon? Is that r-really you?"
A dream! A freakin' nightmare! That was all…, calm down, John, calm down! He tried to still his racing heart and ease down his rapid breathing. Dammit! That was a bad one. It had been a quite some time since he encountered such a nightmare that left him shaking in its after effects. In the early days, they occurred more often, but as time passed, they seemed to reduce in intensity. The last time he had such a bad one, he had watched his team die…
He felt Ronon slowly release his arms, letting him go.
"You okay now?" Dex asked softly. There was slight doubt in the big guy's voice.
Sheppard nodded, "Yeah… s-sorry, just a …"
"I know," Ronon cut in before he could complete his sentence. "I hate nightmares. It's the only thing that you can't control. During the day, it's easier to manage but at night, when you dream… it's never easy."
Sheppard looked up surprised at the Satedan's words. The former runner had never spoken so much before especially about things that scared him.
"Sounds… like you've had y-your fair share of those."
Dex locked his gaze at him, warrior to warrior. "My entire world was destroyed, Sheppard. I was captured, turned into a runner by the Wraith. What do you think?"
Sheppard realised what Ronon was trying to tell him. The Satedan understood what he was going through, they had both been victims of the wraith, he was not alone. To know that, felt strangely comforting.
He nodded and sighed, running a hand over his sweat covered unruly hair. He remembered now that his team were taking turns watching over him. One of them would always stay with him when he retired for the night, making sure that he was all right. Beckett had only allowed him to be released from the infirmary and return to his quarters if he agreed to this arrangement.
Preferring the privacy of his quarters than the infirmary, he had agreed. He hated feeling vulnerable, out of control, like he was losing it. Worse, still, he hated having people witness him lose it. But at the same time, he was glad that his team was there to wake him up when the nightmares got really bad. He had good nights and he had bad nights, and unfortunately, tonight was a bad night. He knew that his team wanted to help him not because they pitied him but because they cared enough to want to. He didn't think he would be able to handle their pity. Yet, he still felt guilty that one of his team lost sleep as a result of him. But they didn't seem to mind and personally, he was secretly glad that they were close at hand to wake him up, to ground him to the reality that he wasn't a prisoner of the Wraith or to any Wraith implants anymore. He knew that his team was real and that fact alone made all the difference. He appreciated the help that they were giving him, more than they knew.
"Sheppard?" he heard the Satedan call his name again, the concern rising.
"I'm… okay," he stated hurriedly, as he realised that he had been sitting up staring at nothing for some time.
He needed to get up; he needed a breath of fresh air, out in the open, not cooped up here, stuck in a room, with four walls surrounding him. He swung shaky legs to the side of the bed. He realised that the clothes he was in was damp, that his entire body was covered in sweat. Ronon, who had been through this before, went to the clothes cabinet nearby and tossed Sheppard a clean t-shirt.
He managed a brief, grateful grin before saying, "Can you toss me a p-pair of running pants as well?"
A clean pair of pants came sailing his way.
So armed with a set of clean clothes, he stood up and padded off to the bathroom where he washed his face and brushed his teeth. He washed the stale taste out from his mouth and saw to his private needs. Then he removed his sweat filled t-shirt and replaced it with a clean one. The running pants went over his boxer shorts.
Having changed, he looked back at his reflection in the mirror and noticed a man staring at him who was looked a little too pale and tired. There a haunted look in his hazel-green eyes.
"Where are you going?" he heard the Satedan ask curiously as he walked out from his quarters, all geared up and ready to head out the door.
"Need a breath of fresh air, Ronon. I'm going for a walk or more correctly, a j-jog." At least he wasn't stuttering so badly now, only on odd occasion.
"At one thirty in the morning?" Dex asked, sounding a little amused.
Sheppard shrugged and managed a grin. "Why not? You don't have to follow me, Ronon. Stay here if you w-want. Catch some zzz's. Have a break."
He didn't wait to see what the Satedan decided. But when he left his quarters, he knew that he had a silent shadow following him through the slumbering corridors of Atlantis. Dex was allowing him space to recover from his nightmare.
He pursed his lips and picked up a running pace, glad for the privacy that was offered. If it was McKay, Sheppard didn't think the scientist would understand or be able to keep up with him. Out of everyone else, the Satedan warrior had the uncanny perception to understand his current mood and need to be alone. As a result, Sheppard didn't mind that he was followed. It was good to be able to run again. He let his feet guide him wherever they wished to go without thinking where they led. After running for about thirty minutes or so, he began to feel tired. He still had to work on building up his strength and stamina.
Panting loudly now, he looked around and found himself in the more isolated part of Atlantis. His favourite hangout, the east pier wasn't far away. He often came there when he needed to be alone or to sort out his thoughts. So far, since returning to Atlantis, he hadn't had the opportunity to visit it.
The need for fresh air and to see the stars shinning above him drew him onwards. He needed to feel the open sky about him, to remind him of freedom and flying, to help him forget about his time imprisoned and being tortured by Wraith and hallucinations of his doppelganger team. When he finally reached his destination, his secret hide-away, he turned around and saw Ronon halting, staying behind in the shadowed corridor. Once again, Dex was careful not to invade into his private space, giving him time to be alone. Sheppard felt grateful for the offer. He smiled when he saw the Satedan leaning back in the shadows and parking his tall form there. Sheppard wondered at his good fortune of having such good people to guard his back. He remembered Rogunie's words concerning his team. The man was correct, he was fortunate indeed to have such friends as these.
He turned around and looked about him. Bright stars hung overhead and the sea waters sparkled and danced far below. A gentle breeze caressed his sweat covered body as he leaned his hands across Atlantis' railings and felt the welcome throb of the Ancient City greeting him. Sheppard smiled as he stood there, soaking up the atmosphere of his surroundings, breathing the cool night air in, letting the wonder of nature wash away all the dark feelings in him.
He did not know how long he stood there, perhaps an hour, perhaps two. When he next glanced up at the sky, he noticed that the position of the stars above had moved considerably. He knew then that some time must have passed. He suddenly became aware that of the cold, that he was shivering, that he was aching all over from standing still for so long. He wished now that he had thought to bring along a blanket or at least a jacket with him. He looked up at the stars again and sighed. Despite his time outside, he was not ready to return to his enclosed quarters; he still needed this moment, this sense of freedom, to be out in the elements that offered him some solace and peace.
He closed his eyes and leaned one last time on Atlantis' railing, shivering but at the same time not waiting to leave. The thought of having four walls surrounding him felt too stifling. He had seen too many enclosed walls to last a life time. Yet the cold was getting to him. He looked at his watch to note that it was now three thirty in the morning. No wonder he was feeling cold! He was contemplating leaving to seek warmth and human company when he felt something soft and furry rubbing itself on his pants' leg. There was an inquiring chirp and he saw Snacks looking up at him. A moment later, he felt a warm blanket being placed gently across his back. Turning around, Sheppard saw Teyla smiling up at him as she tugged the warm blanket snugly around his shoulders.
She currently had a blanket slung around her own slim shoulders. He heard voices further beyond where Dex had been standing guard and he saw McKay, also wrapped in a blanket, handing a spare blanket to the Satedan. There was a flutter of wings and Snacks flew up to the railing that he was leaning on. The Talmera's injured wing had healed reasonably fast and Snacks was now airborne again; a fact that Sheppard knew the little critter was very pleased about. So far, Snacks had been alternating sleeping one night in Sheppard's quarters and the other in McKay's. This night McKay had access to the little Talmera.
"Ronon called us. He said that you might need some company and perhaps a camp-out while looking at the stars." Teyla explained. "He also thought that you might be rather cold."
"Smart Ronon," Sheppard replied, wondering how the Satedan could read him so well. "I'm ... freezing."
Teyla nodded while McKay approached them.
"Yes, so we see. But being a genius, I've brought us some hot chocolate to warm us up in this rather chilly morning," McKay added as he patted a stuffed backpack that he carried with him. He set it down and Teyla helped the scientist remove a large picnic blanket, laying it on the ground before them. A huge thermo flask and four tin coffee mugs followed suit.
"And in case we're feeling hungry or want a snack… No, I wasn't speaking to you, Snacks," Rodney said as he pushed the little Talmera's nose out of the way, as it tried to wiggle into the backpack. "I also brought along some recently microwaved blueberry muffins!"
Snacks chirped happily away in excitement as if they were meant of him.
"Hah! I knew you would like those, my little furry friend, but they're not meant for you, only for us humans!" McKay stated smugly as he tossed it a small piece of powerbar instead.
Within a few minutes, Sheppard found himself seated on a large picnic blanket, holding a mug of hot chocolate, sipping its delicious contents, while he held a warm blueberry muffin in the other hand. The thick warm blanket around him felt like heaven and a small smile curved his lips as he watched McKay trying to teach Snacks to play Fetch and failing miserably. The scientist was currently tossing a small colourful ball (the size of a small golf ball) at the Talmera. Every time he did so, Snacks would dive out of the way, wait until the ball bounced at least once, before wagging its tail furiously and snagging it with its front paws, only to fly off somewhere to return back to McKay empty handed looked as pleased as Punch. Sheppard was sure that Snacks had several stashes of hidey-holes hidden at various parts in Atlantis. He didn't dare think what he would find in them.
"You're supposed to bring back the ball, you little thief, not hide it!" McKay ranted loudly. "Let's try this one more time, okay?" he stated in exasperation as he tossed another ball at Snacks. Sheppard noticed that Rodney had a stash of small balls in his backpack and he wondered where the scientist got them.
McKay saw him looking and said, "Katie Brown got them for me."
The scientist threw the small ball again and once more the cycle would repeat itself. Snacks would return back to them minus another colourful ball, its tail wagging madly while it chirped with pride. Finally, giving up on training Snacks to 'fetch-the-ball', McKay looked at Dex and gave a cheeky grin.
"Snacks, go get Ronon!" he called out suddenly.
Sheppard lifted his head, wondering what that command was all about. Snacks gave out a happy chirp, lifted its wings and flew like a diving eagle towards the suspicious Satedan. Before Ronon could defend his half-eaten muffin, the little Talmera had plucked it out from the Satedan's fingers like an expert bird of prey and was flying away with its blueberry prize.
Sheppard and Teyla burst out laughing and they laughed even more, when an angry Dex leaned over and swiped the half eaten muffin off from Rodney's hand to stuff it down his mouth in two large bites while shooting a 'take-that!' glare back at McKay.
"But…" McKay protested in shock, "... that was my muffin!"
"That should teach you not to teach Snacks such tricks, Rodney," Teyla said to the scientist, chuckling.
Sheppard smiled, broke his own muffin into half and tossed the remaining bit to McKay saying "Catch!". He wasn't that hungry anyway, so he didn't mind sharing. However, just as he threw it, Snacks came zooming past again and caught it between its mouth before McKay could get his share.
"Hey! I didn't teach you that trick!" McKay yelled at the little Talmera in shocked horror. "Come back here, you little thief! That muffin's mine! You already got Ronon's share!"
More laughter broke out from the rest of the team.
Laughing felt good. It had been a long time since he and his team had laughed together. There was the famous saying, "Laughter is the best medicine" and Sheppard felt that it was true to how he felt now. He felt safe and nothing could be better than sitting there, sipping hot chocolate with those whom he cared about.
After a while, he leaned his head back to the ground, feeling warm, cosy and a little drowsy. The hot chocolate felt good in his belly as he stared up at the twinkling stars above. The thick warm blanket that Teyla had brought for him was keeping out most of cold. He made sure that his movements didn't leave any open gaps in his blanket to allow any chill air in. Nearby, he heard the deep breathing of Dex indicating that the Satedan had fallen asleep.
Lifting his head, he saw Ronon lying on his side covered with a blanket; his arm bend under his head using it like a pillow as the warrior slumbered. Teyla, he saw, was leaning her back against Rodney's back. She was also wrapped warmly in a blanket, sitting up with her knees tugged and bent close together. She hugged the chocolate mug in both hands, occasionally taking a sip from it. Her eyes had a faraway look as she stared up at the stars and Sheppard wondered whether she was thinking about her people. After a while he saw her gaze settle on him.
"Are you all right, John?" she asked, giving him a gentle smile. At that question, McKay stopped playing with Snacks to watch Sheppard. The scientist, he saw, was also wrapped up snugly in a blanket.
His gaze wandered back to the stars overhead. For the first time in a long time, he felt at peace with himself. He knew that the nightmares he experienced intermittently would not disappear overnight, but at the same time, he knew that he was going to be all right because he was lucky enough to have a close-knit team who cared about one another. They would never abandon him. They had proven it to him as much. He felt secure in this knowledge and it felt good.
"Yeah," he finally replied as he turned his head back again look at his two team mates. Friends. Family. That was what they were, Rodney, Teyla and Ronon.
"Yeah, I'm going to be all right."
As he said those words he knew that it was the truth. The road ahead of him was still paved with difficulty for he still had to deal and come to terms with everything he had experienced, but at the end of the day, he knew that with support from his team, he would be all right again. All it took was time, and currently, he had all the time in the world to be all right. He was no longer dying, he was alive, and most important of all, he hadn't allow Daffy the Wraith to destroy him.
Snacks came towards him to snuggle close by his face and neck. Sheppard smiled as he released some warm blanket space so that the little critter could hop in and share in the warmth. As Snacks wiggled about, his smile widened, loving the soft feel of the furry little critter close by his cheek. He moved his hand to caress the little Talmera under the ears and neck where he knew it loved to be petted. Snacks gave him a little tail wag and snuggled closer, looking ready to curl up and go to sleep now, yawning widely. Sheppard followed suit with a yawn of his own. He was getting sleepy too. He knew that the nightmares wouldn't disappear overnight; that they would still be there to torment him on certain nights. However, right now, from what remained of this night at least, he knew that he had found some solace, some peace. That would have to do.
He cast one last look at the starry night above him as he cuddled Snacks close to his chest and cheek. He saw a shooting star and smiled. He was still starring at the stars when his eyelids drooped and he fell asleep.
Sheppard knew he was dreaming as he walked once again in a golden wheat field. This time it was night and the stars shone brightly overhead. The Wraith as usual was waiting for him at the centre of it.
"Ah Sheppard, it is good to see you again. I felt your pain shortly after you returned to your people. I feared that the data I gave your companion was too late to save you." Lf'wyne paused as it studied him closely. Then a growing smile appeared on its features. "But I see that I need not worry, for you are well now."
"Yes, I am well," Sheppard replied, returning the smile.
The Wraith nodded, "I wanted to be sure for myself…" There was a faraway look in its eyes and then a grin formed. "I hope, my brother, that the next time we meet, it would not be in prison again."
Sheppard chuckled in agreement. "Me too…. Anywhere else but there." But his laughter quickly died down when he realised who and what they were. The question had to be asked again. After all, he had to know…
"So… The next time we meet, all bets are off?"
The Wraith gave him a sombre look as it considered the merit of the question. "Perhaps, Sheppard. It would depend on the circumstances. If you came with specific intentions to harm my people then I would have to fight you, Sheppard. I would like to think that it would not come to that."
Sheppard nodded in grim understanding.
"Let's hope not, for I would fight you if your people came to feed on mine," he replied. He found that he really didn't want to meet the Wraith again other than in friendly terms. They had saved each others lives and risked death together - surely that had to count for something.
The Wraith smiled. "As do I. But for now, I bid you farewell, Sheppard. As a human, you have proven yourself worthy of the Gift of Life, a true brother."
Sheppard returned the smile. "As a Wraith, you have proven yourself a good friend." He paused and said his next words clearly. "Too bad you're not human."
The Wraith shook his head and chuckled. "Ah, Sheppard, it is I who regret that you are not Wraith. Let us pray to whatever gods that we believe in, that we will not meet as enemies in the battlefield." The Wraith looked up at the night sky before adding, "But for now, whenever you see the stars, Sheppard, remember that I would be out there somewhere in the skies."
"I'll do that," Sheppard replied, recalling that he was actually asleep under the open canopy of stars with the rest of his team, safely back in Atlantis.
He didn't know if he would ever meet this Wraith again face to face. But for now, they were friends and for now, that was all that mattered.
Phew! We made it to the end! Thanks so much to all who have been following this story and especially those who left reviews, commented and answered questions. They made a big difference and I truly appreciated you folks taking the time to pen your thoughts. Although I already had a plot and an ending in mind, some reviews actually gave me ideas, extending subplots and allowed me to push the boundaries of the tale. :) This is definitely one of my larger fics written. (It was both a labour of love and sometimes, a head-banging experience, esp when the muses misbehaved!) I can't believe I've spent so many months working on this.
I have other story ideas, but I don't think I'll be tackling another novel-sized tale for a loooong while, maybe one-offs or shorter fics (if I have the time… we'll have to see, as RL beckons - and I've been ignoring it long enough!). Thanks again to all who have read and especially those who took the trouble to leave reviews. Know that all comments are like a little drop of sunshine in this writer's log; they will be gathered up and treasured, with thoughts of well wishes sent back your way!