Practise to Deceive
by Eildon Rhymer

Something is very wrong on Atlantis, and Sheppard is at the heart of it, walking a very dangerous path.

Note: This is a hard one to summarise without giving away secrets. The first chapter is a bit unrepresentative for various reasons. Most of the rest of the story is told from the viewpoint of Sheppard and his team. The people you see here are outsider viewpoints, rather than original major characters – and they are certainly not Mary-Sues!

This is a Sheppard-centric story, though the rest of the team also play their part. There is angst, and there is also physical whump scattered through the story, although it's not the main focus of the story.

As for spoilers: This is set a few weeks after Tabula Rasa, but before Missing. There are spoilers up to that point.

Anything else I need to say at this point? Oh, yes. This story is already finished – the first draft, at least. It has 17 chapters, and I'll be posting them as frequently as I can, what with the need to edit and rewrite. This ought to settle down to one a day, but it might be more like every other day at first.

Oh, and one more note: In Britain, the verb is "practise" and the noun is "practice." I understand that in America – and increasingly now in Britain – "practice" is used for both noun and verb, so the title to this story probably looks wrong to many readers, but I'm stubbornly sticking with British spellings, both in the title and in the main text.

Now on with the show…

Chapter one: Things fall apart

"Dammit, McKay!" Something smashed into the wall, shattering. "How can you–?"

Colonel Sheppard carried on shouting, but Doctor McKay was louder, shrill and furious. "I can't believe you did that. I put days of work into that and you just went and broke it. You–"

"Shut up, McKay!" Colonel Sheppard all but screamed. "Just shut up. I'm sick of your talking. Just listen to someone else for a change."

"Oh, and by 'someone else' you mean you?" McKay's voice was scathing.

"Yes, because it sure as hell seems that no-one's listening to me right now."

"Well, maybe you should concentrate on coming up with something worth listening to."

Robert Middleton listened in gleeful horror. He had been working late in the lab, concentrating on keeping his head down and not drawing the attention of Doctor McKay. McKay must have forgotten that he was here. Or maybe he knew, but didn't care; in the two months that Robert had been on Atlantis, he had never seen McKay show any embarrassment about shouting in public. Colonel Sheppard, on the other hand… Robert had never spoken to him before, never even been this close to him. The man scared him a little. The tales people told…!

"I've always been a joke to you, haven't I?" Sheppard said. "You're more than happy to let me put my life on the line for you, but as soon as I've got anything to say–"

"Because how many PhDs do you have, Colonel? Three? Four? No! A big fat zero. Oh, now you're going to bring up the Mensa thing," McKay sneered. "Please! That's a joke. A stupid concession to people like you who are good for nothing but explosions and fast planes."

Robert had heard about Colonel Sheppard and his skill at flying. Once, they said, he had taken out two hive ships. He had saved Atlantis from invaders, waging a one-man war on half an army. There's a good brain in there, despite appearances, he remembered someone telling him on his first evening off, when he had sat stiffly over his drink and been bombarded with facts about the key figures on Atlantis. There's no 'them' and 'us' on Atlantis. Some of the soldiers have brains, and some of us scientists… hey, we've even been known to fire a gun.

"I didn't hear you complaining when I –"

"Oh, please!" Robert could imagine the look on McKay's face. "Everyone knows that I'm the heart of Atlantis. The whole place would fall apart without me. But you… You're replaceable. Just a decorative grunt. Any idiot with an ATA gene could do what you do."

"An ATA gene, yes." He heard the sound of feet pacing heavily up and down. "It still bothers you, doesn't it, that you didn't have it naturally. You're jealous."

"Jealous?" McKay spluttered. "Jealous? Why on earth would I want to be like you?"

"Well, this has got to be about something, hasn't it?"

"Oh, yes, and it has to be me? Why do you assume there's something wrong with me?" Robert remained bent over his work, but strained to see as much as he could. McKay, he saw, had closed on Colonel Sheppard, jabbing a finger against his chest. "You were the one who was lying in an infirmary bed just a few weeks ago, without the faintest clue who we all were. I think it scrambled your mind. You've acted more stupid than normal ever since you woke up."

Robert remembered the terror of finding himself in a vast city without any idea of who he was. They had warned him that life in the Pegasus Galaxy would be full of dangers, but he had imagined guns – and that was what the military was there for, surely, to protect him – and not the feeling of being alone at the centre of a vast and unfriendly universe, full of eyes that stared at him.

"No." Sheppard smashed McKay's hand away. "You're the one who's acting weird. You can't accept that it wasn't me in the dreams. That's what it is, isn't it? You, and everyone else… You're still blaming me for–"

"That is the most ridiculous thing I've heard, even from you, colonel." McKay stamped over to a laptop and opened it violently. "Not everything in the galaxy revolves around you. Now, go away, and–"

Sheppard gave a harsh bark of laughter, obscuring the rest of McKay's words. "That's rich coming from you, Mr – Oh, I'm sorry, DoctorCentre of the Universe. I'm dying with a bug on my neck, and you have a tantrum about lack of food. You emotionally blackmail me into supporting you when you want to play with Ancient weapons, and you end up destroying most of a solar system–"

"Will you stop going on about that?" McKay shouted. "It was two years ago. I've changed."

"Yeah, well." Sheppard's voice was quieter, almost defeated. "I thought so, too. I won't make that mistake again."

"You know what, Sheppard? I just don't care what you think. Go play with your gun, or whatever people like you do in your spare time, and leave me to get on with my work."

Robert clenched his fist, as if he could catch all the words and keep them there, ready to relay in eager whispers later. He had taken an instant dislike to Doctor McKay. "How does Colonel Sheppard put up with him?" he had asked his new friends. "I bet he'd kick McKay off his team in an instant if the choice was up to him." No, they had told him, it seemed that Sheppard and McKay actually got on well. "They bicker," said someone who claimed to know them well – or, at least, had several times sat at the adjacent table in the mess hall – "but it seems to be friendly." Perhaps McKay was different when he was with his team, Robert had wondered. Perhaps Sheppard's reputation and Dex's sheer scariness kept him cowed, and that was why he lashed out when he was back in his lab. But that wasn't the case, either, or so they had told him. "He's just the same with them as he is with us, but they don't seem to mind. They even seem to be friends."

Well, he thought with relish, he could set them right on that account. Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay clearly hated each other. Further, it was clear now that they had always hated each other, and if they appeared differently in public it was only a show. People showed their true colours when they thought no-one was watching them.

"McKay." He saw Sheppard try again, raking his hand through his hair. "I… No, forget it."

"I already have." Robert could see how tightly McKay was gripping the edge of the desk, his knuckles white.

"No. I…" Sheppard turned his back, both hands raised as if to his face. "Everything's changed. Carter isn't supporting me. Ronon and Teyla… They're different. The team's all wrong... Broken. Atlantis is…" He turned round, his face strangely naked. "Rodney, can't you humour me? Just listen for a moment. Hear me out."

"Oh? Have we jumped into the universe where you say things worth listening to?" McKay looked around, and pinched himself. "No. We're still in this one." He looked up deliberately, speaking with exaggerated slowness. "That's a no, colonel. That's a 'go away.' Shoo!" He turned back to his work, but was clearly unable to resist adding more. "You're saying that the problem is with everyone else. There's you, and there's the rest of the expedition. What's more likely to be wrong: one person, or hundreds?"

Sheppard's hand lashed out, and McKay recoiled with a gasp. He was really going to hit him, Robert thought, almost hugging himself with horrified relish. He almost did.

"Dammit, McKay." Sheppard dragged the hand back, clenching his fists tightly at his side. "I should have expected this. Don't know why I came."

He looked defeated, rather than furious. Robert let out a slow breath. Perhaps I shouldn't be watching this, he thought. If Colonel Sheppard realised that he'd… He eyed the door, wondered if he could slip away unseen. No, he'd pretend to be intent on his work: What was that, colonel? Sorry, I'm dead to the world when I'm concentrating. Hear what?

"Sheppard," he heard. McKay's voice was different now. Robert risked another glance, and saw that Sheppard had paused in the door; that McKay was looking after him, his face twisted with something that looked almost like distress. "I–"

"We're finished, McKay." Sheppard's hand was closed on the door-frame. "We're through."

He left. McKay sat very still, then audibly let out a breath. For a long time after that, he made no movement at all, although his computer was open.

Robert swallowed. He had his story. The triumph, though, had faded, and left him feeling only tawdry.

He would tell it, though, of course.

The sound of raised voices caused Private Chris Hudson to stop walking. He glanced around quickly. No, there was no-one there, only Doctor McKay walking away, his hand on his ear as if he was talking quietly to someone on the radio. When McKay had gone, Chris edged towards the training room door, and placed his hand on it. Had he really heard…? Could it really have been…?

"You've made it quite clear where your loyalties lie," a voice shouted. Yes, it really was Colonel Sheppard! "We're just people you happen to be staying with. As soon as anyone better comes along, you–"

"That is not fair, John." It was a woman's voice. Teyla, he thought.

"Not fair?" the colonel echoed nastily. "Of course you'd take his side. The two Pegasus natives banding together against the rest of us. Against me."

"Ronon and I have certain–"

"I don't want to hear it." Chris flinched as something struck the wall not far from the door. "I'm your team leader, for God's sake. The least I should be able to expect is some loyalty."

"Loyalty has to be earned." The voice was gruff.

Chris could almost still feel the bruises he had earned from his one and only sparring match with the large Satedan. He had been obliterated. It had rankled, of course, to be obliterated by a native, but it had been awesome, too. The man was incredible! He didn't pretend to be something that he wasn't, either. He was mere brawn, and he knew it. That put him way above someone like Sheppard, who played a part.

"I thought I had earned it," Sheppard said, more quietly.

Silence followed. Chris could imagine Ronon's response, silent but scathing. As if a man like Ronon could respect someone like Sheppard! Sure, everyone spoke highly of him on Atlantis, and bristled like an angry dog if anyone said anything against him, but Chris had his idea of what a commanding officer should be, and Sheppard didn't match it. He was too flippant, which Chris thought probably indicated a desperation to be liked by his men. As far as he could tell, Sheppard was only in command thanks to series of lucky chances and accidents. He was a jumped-up flyboy, fond of grandstanding and showy heroics. He'd disobeyed orders, too, in his time, though doubtless he wouldn't look too kindly on any of his men who disobeyed him. These showy officers always were hypocrites.

"Colonel Sheppard…" Teyla began, at last.

"What'swrong with you guys?" Sheppard shouted. "I trusted you, both of you. I defended you, Teyla, when Bates thought you were betraying us to the Wraith – and he was half right there, wasn't he?"

"So you think I owe you my blind loyalty in return?" Chris had seen Teyla about the base, and had thought how serene she looked. Now she sounded anything but. "Bates was wrong. You defended me, yes. I did not know that I was going to be expected to pay a price for that defence."

"I just want support from team," Sheppard shouted. "Is that too much to ask? Apparently yes. And you, Ronon," he said, over Teyla's attempted reply. "I brought you to Atlantis. If it wasn't for me, you'd still be out there, a Runner, or dead."

"It's like Teyla says." Ronon's voice grew louder, as if he was coming towards the door. Chris backed away for a moment, and missed the next bit. "…is earned," he heard, when he dared move forward again, "not bought."

"Well, I guess you're showing your true colours now," Sheppard spat. "Both of you. I should have known. I saw it with the dreams, with that crystal thing. One bad dream with me in it, and you started avoiding me. None of this ever meant anything, did it."

"John, that is unfair," Teyla said. She had apparently calmed herself since she had last spoken. Chris had no idea how she had done so. Sheppard was such a hypocrite! Chris had only been on Atlantis for a week, and had yet to see Sheppard in action during a crisis, but he knew everything he needed to know about him.

"Not fair?" Sheppard echoed. "Damn straight it's not fair. I can't trust any of you any more. I guess loyalty doesn't count for anything. You've never really been part of us. Both of you, with your secrets… And you, Ronon. You stunned me. Don't think I can't remember."

Chris hardly dared breathe. This was dynamite! Sure, the others had bristled when Chris had criticised Sheppard without evidence, but what soldiers anywhere could resist a good bit of solid dirt on their superior officers? This was his ticket to acceptance. The premier off-world team of the Atlantis expedition, full of people who hated each other! Chris hadn't even been allowed to go off-world yet. Sheppard kept all the good stuff for his team, and he so didn't deserve it.

"Yeah," Ronon said. "I'd do it again. Feel like doing it now."

"Yeah?" Chris heard a faint sound, like a gun being drawn from its holster. "Just try it."

"No!" Teyla cried. "Stop it, both of you."

"Both of us?" Sheppard demanded. "Don't lie. You're on his side." His voice grew louder, and Chris had just enough warning to push himself away from the door, and virtually throw himself to the far side of the hallway. He turned his back, remembering what Doctor McKay had been doing, and raised his hand to his ear, as if busy with his radio.

He heard the door opening. "Yeah, run away," Ronon shouted, his voice startlingly loud. "Don't bother coming back."

"Oh, don't worry. I won't," Sheppard shouted. "I don't want to see either of you ever again."

Chris waited, counting silently to ten. When he had finished, he turned round slowly. Sheppard had gone, but the door to the training room was still open. Ronon and Teyla were standing there, looking in the direction that Sheppard had gone. Ronon's fists were clenched, as if he was furious, but Teyla slowly lowered her head, biting her lip.

Chris turned away. Behind him, the door closed with a hiss. God, he thought, this is big. He started to walk to the mess hall. Atlantis was small. You couldn't keep something like this quiet for long. Soon everyone would know. So it won't do any harm if I'm the first to tell them. Let's see them give me the cold shoulder now

Jessica was lying on his back underneath the console when she first heard the sound of raised voices. She froze.

"You don't know anything," she heard. The voice was vaguely familiar, but she could not immediately place it. It was someone she had never heard shouting with such fury, though; that much she was sure of. "You come along, new, and push everyone else aside–"

"Stop right there, colonel." Colonel!

"Are you going to make me? Order me?"

"If I have to, I will."

Jessica found herself moving slowly out from under the jumper's console, hardly daring to breathe. Colonel Sheppard! And the other voice had to be that of Colonel Carter. Although Jessica was twenty-eight, she had to admit that she had a bit of a girlish crush on Colonel Sheppard. Colonel Carter was another matter. A strong woman, playing the men at their own game, and winning. A leader, a soldier, and a great brain. And she had been ten years on SG-1. The things she had done…! The things she had seen…!

"I don't take well to orders, colonel." Colonel Sheppard sneered the title. "It's all there in my report. I expect you read it, you and your little friends at Stargate Command."

"You disobeyed orders to try to save lives," Colonel Carter said. "I can respect that."

"But it looks different when you're the one in command, doesn't it?"

"That is enough, Colonel Sheppard."

"Like hell it is!"

Colonel Sheppard's voice was hoarse, and if he had been shouting for a very long time. Of course, if the rumours were true… A screaming argument with Doctor McKay in the lab. He threw things, the whispers said. Physically attacked him. A rift with Ronon Dex and Teyla Emmagen. Whispers in the mess hall, and thumbs pointing slyly at those who knew. Chris Hudson heard every word of it. News spread through the lower ranks, while the officers and leaders were completely unaware of it.

Jessica had been uneasy at first. Wasn't it their duty to stick together, fighting their secret battle for survival so far from home? Gossiping about the leaders seemed… disloyal. Not at all, she had been told. It was like a family, which fought at home, but united against the outside. "It doesn't matter if they hate each other in private," she was told. "They're good at their jobs, and that's all that matters." "A good commander," someone else had said, "can have feet of clay. It doesn't stop us trusting his judgement in the field."

She raised herself into a crouch, peering over the console of the jumper she had been working on. As luck would have it, they were standing in full view. Colonel Carter looked strong and steady, as befitted the sort of woman she was. Sheppard, on the other hand, was coiled with fury, pacing up and down. When she caught a glimpse of his face, she saw that it was red with anger. He looks deranged, she thought, as the last vestiges of her crush vanished in an instant.

"You don't listen to me!" he screamed. "None of you do. Something's wrong, and I'm the only one who can see it."

Carter reached out placatingly with one hand. "Something's wrong with you, John. You aren't yourself. It's been developing for weeks, with all the stress… Please let Doctor Keller look at you."

"Oh, it's 'please' now, is it?" Sheppard sneered. "You were ordering me just now."

"I will order you if I have to. I can also order –" Carter gestured towards her radio. "– a security team to take you to the infirmary against your will, if you refuse both request and order. If I let this… this irrationality go unchecked, I run the risk that you will become a danger to Atlantis, and I cannot allow that." Sheppard turned his back, and smashed his fist into the side of a jumper. Jessica started, her hand rising to her mouth in horror. "John…" Colonel Carter said.

"Don't call me that!" Sheppard shouted. "That's reserved for friends. Though I don't seem to have any of those left round here, do I? Just tell me one thing, colonel: are you all in on it together?"

"I don't know what you mean."

Jessica heard no sound, but both their heads snapped around. A moment later, she saw Doctor McKay. Sheppard just said "Rodney," his face hidden and his voice unreadable. Colonel Carter looked at McKay intensely, with some sort of message in her eyes. Jessica felt suddenly as if she was watching the second act of a play, with no knowledge of what had gone before.

"Go away, McKay." Sheppard advanced on McKay, his voice different again from what it had been a moment before. "This is between Colonel Carter and me. You've already made your feelings clear. I don't need to hear them again."

McKay swallowed, but planted his feet firmly. "But you didn't… I don't think you listened last time. And now–"

Sheppard took a step back, and then another. "You are in it together." His hands fell to his sides, then rose again. He looked smaller than he had before. He turned to Colonel Carter. "Of course, Rodney would always take your side. It's the whole slavish devotion, unrequited lust thing he's got going. How did you get Teyla and Ronon on your side? Teyla I can understand. There's that woman to woman thing. You probably talk about make-up and shopping. But Ronon… What did you offer him?"

"There are no sides," Carter said. "You've been irrational for days. Something's wrong."

"No." Sheppard gave a mirthless laugh. "I'm the only one who's right round here."

"What if it isn't…?" McKay looked desperately at Colonel Carter. "What if he isn't sick? What if he's really changed? We don't know anything about what happened when he was with those so-called Travellers, and he went round killing everyone in their dreams, for God's sake. What if he's been compromised? What if he's… if he's the enemy, and oh God, oh no, he's trying to kill us all by weakening us, and–"

"McKay!" Sheppard screamed. "Shut up!"

Carter spread her hands placatingly. "It is far too early to make that sort of accusation, Rodney."

"You know what?" Sheppard said. "I think you're the compromised ones. No-one's listening to me. Everything I say… Good reasons, good ways to keep Atlantis safe. Ways to get Elizabeth back." McKay, she saw, reacted to that as if he had been struck. "You… No, I'm not fighting it any more. You've made your little alliance. You've judged me as guilty. I'm through with you all. I was proud to call this city my home, but you've turned it into a prison." He moved towards the nearest jumper, and Jessica let out a horrified breath when she realised how easily he could have chosen hers.

"You are not leaving Atlantis without permission." Colonel Carter's voice was like ice.

Sheppard paused at the hatch, and his hand went to the gun strapped at his thigh. "You really don't want to try to stop me."

"Don't!" McKay all but squeaked. He, too, had come armed, Jessica saw. He drew his gun now, and as Carter shouted something indiscernible, he aimed it in Sheppard's direction, and fired. Jessica clapped her hands to her face, and gasped so loudly that she was sure they must have heard her. Bullets smashed into the floor of the jumper bay several feet from where Sheppard was standing. McKay, she saw, had his face screwed up, as if he was firing blind. At length he seemed to run out of energy, or perhaps the fury or madness had flowed out of him with the rain of bullets.

"McKay!" Colonel Carter moved to his side, and her body obscured McKay's face. Jessica saw, though, how the gun slowly slipped from McKay's hand. She saw how the hand that had held it was trembling.

But she missed the moment when Colonel Sheppard entered the jumper. She missed the closing of the hatch. By the time Carter and McKay stirred, the entrance to the Gate Room was already opening up, leaving them standing on the brink. Something seemed to hold them frozen for a moment. As Colonel Sheppard's jumper passed, Jessica caught a quick glimpse of his face, but the two panes of glass distorted it too much to see his expression, making his face melt, as if into tears.

Colonel Carter was speaking into her radio. Below, very faintly, Jessica heard the sound of the wormhole engaging. "Stop him!" she commanded, then her face went very still. "I see," she said.

"What?" McKay's voice was faint.

"He's gone." Her expression was still blank. Her hand fell on McKay's shoulder.

McKay sank to his knees. His hand seemed to fall accidentally on the discarded gun, and linger there for a moment. His eyes went to where Sheppard had last stood, where blood now marked the floor.

end of chapter one