Author's Notes: This is based loosely on the book "Neverwhere", by Neil Gaiman. I'd done a similar treatment of another fandom years ago, and have been looking for an excuse to do this in SGA. The LiteralSGA challenge gave me that excuse!
Teyla's laugh rang out over the group, and Sheppard couldn't help but smile. There she was, weapon strapped across her chest, a weapon more powerful than these people had ever seen, and what were the locals paying attention to? Her smile. Despite the fact that she, and the rest of his team, was, as usual, armed to the teeth, she had a way of putting people at ease that he envied. Of course, it probably helped that the people here seemed genuinely nice. It was a welcome change from most of their most recent missions, during at least half of which he'd either been shot, or been shot at, or had ended up firing his own weapon. It'd got bad enough he was tight and twitchy even off duty, just like he'd been back in Afghanistan. So the two days they'd spent here had been like a breath of fresh air. Not only had they not been shot at, they'd actually, and apparently genuinely, been welcomed.
He'd split the team earlier in the day – he and Rodney looking through old records on the technologies that had once been used on this planet, and Teyla and Ford talking trade opportunities. He hoped they'd had more success than Rodney – not only were the records in a form of the Ancient language that made them difficult to translate, but in the end it seemed they'd been about agricultural tech, rather than anything that could help them either with their efforts against the Wraith or to get back to Earth. Still, the people here were pleasant enough, and nothing had either attacked them or forced them to attack it, so all in all, he called the day a success. And based on the meals they'd been served since they'd been here, he was actually looking forward to this dinner. In fact – he took a deep breath in, and his stomach grumbled – yup, swear to God, the scent wafting toward him smelled just like roast beef. Almost.
The whole mission had been kind of like that – a combination of the familiar with the unfamiliar. Like the fir trees they were passing now – totally like those in the Pacific Northwest. And the tall flowers along the path. They looked kind of like those big orange day lilies his ex-wife used to plant, but their smell was completely different. He took a deep breath in, enjoying the sweet, slightly spicy odors. He reached out a hand and touched one of the blossoms, surprised to find it soft, almost velvety. Then he sneezed.
Ford, walking beside Teyla, shot back, "Bless you."
One of the Advarian guides assigned to their group frowned in his direction. "Are you all right, Major?"
"Sorry, yes," Sheppard replied, smiling slightly.
The guide nodded solemnly and turned to Ford. "And what is the meaning of, 'Bless' in this instance?"
As Ford launched into an explanation of sneezing and its customary responses, Sheppard rubbed the back of his neck, allowing himself to fall slightly behind the rest of the group. He'd had a headache since this morning, and it seemed like something down here might be making it worse.
Actually, now that he was thinking about it, he'd had a headache off-and-on for the past few days, even prior to their arrival here on Adva. It had just been at such a low level that he hadn't really paid it all that much attention. Until now. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. The pain was building to the point of annoyance; and he was down here with neither an analgesic nor an antihistamine. Good job, he thought sarcastically. Maybe Rodney had something – the man was virtually a walking pharmacy.
He was just about to call out when he thought he saw a flicker of movement in his peripheral vision - ahead, near a structure that they were approaching. When he looked straight at it, though, there was nothing, the front of the building well illuminated by the garden lights.
Oh, great, he thought. Visual disturbances. Maybe he was working up to a migraine. He'd had a couple of those recently, and he really, really wasn't looking forward to another one. Carson had told him that if he could take a couple of Ibuprofin when the symptoms started, it might stave off the worst of it. He sighed aloud, and Rodney glanced in his direction. He waved the man back toward him.
"You got any Ibuprofin?" he asked when Rodney reached his side.
"Yeah," Rodney said, patting various pockets. He fished a small white packet from one of them, handing it over to Sheppard. "Are you all right?"
"Just a headache," Sheppard said, opening the pack and swallowing the pills dry. "Thanks." He smiled to show that all was well, then looked ahead of Rodney to the rest of the party. Teyla was just ahead, speaking with the region's leaders; followed by the mess of the planetary counsel, their security, and Ford.
Sheppard took a moment to observe the Advarians. So far, they'd been an interesting enough people, totally human, best he could tell; albeit slightly taller than most people he knew back on Earth. Compared to the man she was walking beside, Teyla looked to be at least a good foot and a half shorter. And that man seemed to be about the average height for males here.
Sheppard stopped a moment to roll an errant sleeve up another twist. All of the Atlantis personnel here on Adva had been given ceremonial clothes for this reception. His, a dark grey shirt and black pants, were surprisingly comfortable, if a bit big, obviously having been made to fit Advarians. He looked ahead to where Teyla was speaking with the others. She'd been given a dress that actually, with a lot of cinching and a couple of artful knots, ended up looking really nice on her. Maybe he'd ask her to help him fix up his own outfit later on. Sheppard sneezed again and, lacking another option, stopped and rubbed his nose surreptitiously against his sleeve. Then he took several quick steps to catch Teyla and those ahead of him.
As Sheppard approached, he saw Rodney point an old building out to the guide. The tiny building was actually really beautiful, set back from the path, almost hidden by low hanging branches, its façade covered in a series of sensuous carvings. It was obvious that it hadn't been used in decades: the arched windows were boarded up, and there was only a blank, crumbling opening where the door may once have been. He caught up to the pair, catching the guide in mid-explanation.
"…ghost tunnels connecting from this building," the guide said, laughing slightly. "I've heard rumours of phantom stations underground, the remnants of an old transport system that no longer exists, but can sometimes be seen. Some even say that there are still people down there, spectres that can only occasionally be glimpsed, and then only if you know how to look."
"Sounds like some of the ghost stories we tell back home," Ford said.
As the guide began asking Ford questions, Rodney seemed to purposefully slow his steps. He nodded toward the scanner he'd half-hid in his sleeve, and Sheppard matched pace. "I'd really like to see the inside of that building," Rodney said, nodding in its direction as they began to walk past it.
"You getting something?" Sheppard asked, indicating the device.
"I'm not sure," Rodney said, face drawn in concentration. "Maybe. Or maybe not." He tapped the surface of the device, as if that would somehow help.
"Maybe later," Sheppard replied, rubbing the bridge of his nose again, his headache now a constant, dull pain.
"You okay?" Rodney asked, his concern clear in his eyes.
"Yes," said Sheppard. When he saw Rodney's disbelieving expression, he smiled slightly. "Just waiting for the pills to kick in." Rodney gave him a sharp nod, then moved to catch up with the rest.
Sheppard hung back. While others might think that Rodney had just been intentionally rude, he knew better. The man came across rough, and often was, but since they'd got to actually know each other over the past few months, more and more often Rodney would show sparks of, well… "humanity" was the best Sheppard could come up with in terms of description.
Sheppard saw movement near the building again, so he turned fully in that direction, watching the scene carefully, his eyes panning from one side of the structure to the other. Nothing. Just as he was about to give up, his eyes slid across the door, and he froze. There was a black haired young woman there, Advarian, dressed in old clothing, torn and filthy. Their gazes locked. Her eyes widening in shock, she quickly stepped back through the doorway into the building.
Without even thinking about it, Sheppard took several quick, cautious steps in her direction, one hand to his weapon. As he approached the door, she stepped out again.
"You shouldn't be here," she said, her dark eyes moving past him to take in the group on the path. "You need to go back to your group." She reached out and gave him a gentle push on the chest, surprising the hell out of him.
Sheppard felt a strong hand on his arm, and opened his eyes to see Rodney's worried face. Heart beating madly, Sheppard looked around him in sudden panic – he was back on the path. He looked over toward the building – there was no one there. He heard Rodney say something, but he didn't catch it in his confusion.
Rodney shook his arm. "What's wrong?" he asked, now looking alarmed.
"I was just over there," Sheppard said, pointing to the building.
Rodney looked back toward the building, then to Sheppard. "You've been here the whole time." He looked carefully at Sheppard. "You kind of zoned out there for a minute."
"No, I was…" His eyes roved the path, the building. "I saw…"
"You've been here the whole time," Rodney repeated slowly, a frown creasing his forehead.
Sheppard tried to pull himself together, to figure out what had just happened. He rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"You should go back through the 'gate, have Carson take a look at you."
Sheppard gave Rodney a false smile. "No, I'll be fine."
"What?" Rodney snapped. "Are you kidding? No," he replied in a firm voice. "Something's definitely wrong. You're going back." As Sheppard opened his mouth to reply, Rodney interrupted. "You're sick or something. You don't look so good, you have a headache, and," he dropped his voice to a near whisper, "To be honest, I think you might be seeing things, which, you know…" He waved a finger in circles near his temple. "Not good."
"Rodney," Sheppard got out. "I'm not…"
"If you want me to contact Carson and have him make you go back, I will," Rodney said uncomfortably.
Sheppard, tense enough to be nearly at parade rest, stared at the other man. Realising that he really had no choice, he nodded.
Rodney said, "Let's go tell Teyla."
"Fine," Sheppard said brusquely, following Rodney as they entered the building where the reception was to be held. Rodney was right, he knew he was; didn't mean he had to be happy about it.
Just inside the door, they passed through the swirl and fuss of security, a member of which actually checked Sheppard's hand weapon, although they doubtless had no idea of how it worked. They collected it, as the guide had explained they would, locking it in a cabinet and giving him, of all things, a claim ticket. Sheppard couldn't help but chuckle at that one. At least they ran a tight ship, the Advarians, he thought as he stepped past the final guard, Rodney directly in front of him. As they entered the large, well-appointed foyer, he tapped Rodney on the shoulder. "I'm just going to find the bathroom," he said.
Rodney looked at him vaguely, then nodded.
Sheppard stepped up to the guide they'd been speaking with earlier. "Can you tell me where the bathroom is?" he asked. The guide simply stood there, staring straight ahead of him. Sheppard touched his arm and the man turned to him, surprised.
"Sorry, sir. Can I help you?"
Sheppard spied the room in question over the guide's shoulder and, making his apologies, stepped away and entered. After making use of the facilities, he stood in front of the mirror, staring at his reflection. He did look tired, he thought. He rubbed the back of his neck. The headache was still there, and seeing things? Could be he had a fever, although he didn't feel like he did, and more than that, he was sure that woman had been there, he knew it; or thought he did. He grimaced. He didn't think that he'd been hallucinating. Not that he'd know. He splashed some of the cool water on his face, trying to get hold of himself.
Leaving the room, he peered through the small crowd, then, seeing Rodney talking to Teyla and Ford, stepped to his side. When Rodney didn't acknowledge him, he tapped his arm. "Rodney."
Rodney turned to him. He blinked, as if he was trying to focus. Then a stiff smile came across his face. "I'm sorry, have we met?"
"What?" Sheppard asked, brows flying up to his hairline.
Before Rodney could reply, one of the security guards approached them. "Sir, may I see some identification?" he asked, pulling Sheppard slightly away from the crowd.
Sheppard looked frantically from the guard, to Rodney, then to Ford. They were staring at him like they didn't know him. Another guard stepped to them, and started to lead his team away.
"Wait," he said sharply.
The first guard asked him, "How'd you get past security?"
"I'm supposed to be here, I'm with them" he said, his voice strained. Something was really, really wrong here. He looked to Rodney and saw his friend watching him warily. Raising his voice, he directed his question to Rodney, "Is this some sort of joke?" He watched in amazement as a guard said something to Teyla, and his team turned away.
"Listen," Sheppard said to the guard. "I'm with them." When the guard didn't respond, he continued. "I'm supposed to be here."
The guard squinted at him, as if trying to see him more clearly. Then he blinked, and said, "I'm sorry, sir. Can I help you?"
Sheppard's breath caught in his throat. He watched as the guard turned away, seeming to forget about him entirely. Sheppard backed away, staring around him as he moved. He bumped into someone and turned with a quick, "Sorry," only to see the guide from earlier peering at him intently.
"Sir, this is a private party. Are you supposed to be here?"
"We've met," Sheppard said, his voice shaking slightly.
The guide looked at him sharply. "I think not, sir," he said, then turned and waved to a security guard.
Sheppard closed his eyes for a second, hands clenching into fists. This can't be happening. Whatever "this" was, it could not be happening.
As the guard approached, Sheppard brushed past the man and headed for the door. By the time he reached the steps, he was practically running, looking for a place where he could take a second and get his bearings. Sprinting across the grass, he saw the building where the woman had been, and darted inside.
He leaned back against the cool, damp wall, and stared into the darkened interior, trying to catch his breath as his eyes adjusted. He heard something in the darkness, to his right, and turned in that direction. She was there, framed by the light coming in from the doorway. He pushed away from the wall, his hand automatically moving toward his weapon before he remembered that it wasn't there.
"I'm sorry," she said. She took a step towards him. "When I realised that you could see me, I thought…" She paused, and frowned. "I figured I'd best wait, just in case."
"Who are you?" he asked, moving from fear to anger. "What's going on?"
"You're no one to them," she said sadly.
"What do you…?" He blinked frantically, breath catching, chest tight. "What?"
She took another step forward, and he held up a hand, holding her off.
"It happens, sometimes, when people can see," she said, keeping her distance.
"See what?" Sheppard asked.
The woman's lip quirked upwards, but that's as far as the smile went. "See me, or others like me," she said. "That's why I tried to, earlier…" She shook her head. "I was hoping, but it was already too late."
Sheppard took a breath. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You're no one to them," she repeated emphatically. "And we don't have time to discuss this. We really should –"
"I'm not going anywhere," Sheppard said firmly, arms crossed.
"It's not safe," the woman said, eyes roaming to the door before they settled on him again. "We need to go."
"You said we're no one to them, so what's it matter if –?"
"You don't get it," she bit out. "It's not them."
"All right," Sheppard rubbed his forehead in frustration. "But I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what the hell happened back there."
"Fine, fine!" she threw up her hands and began pacing the small space. "I don't know why it happens, or how, or why you," she said, twisting the last word and pointing at him in punctuation. She spoke quickly, obviously wanting to spend as little time on this, or here, as possible. "All of a sudden, people you knew, even your family - they'll see you in the street and walk right past you." She laughed, but it wasn't a joyful sound. "If you grab them, force them, then they'll see you, but it doesn't matter, because they don't know you. It's like you've become a ghost."
"But…" What she'd said could not be real. It could not be. And yet, it was exactly what had happened to him at the reception. People hadn't even seen him; and those that had seen him hadn't known him. Not even his team. Not even his friends. He inhaled a shaky breath.
She stopped walking. "I'm sorry," she said again, seeming to mean it.
He shook his head. "How?" he asked, his voice trailing away as his anger dissipated.
"I'm not sure how it works."
"This is not possible," he said, looking around the dark space. "I don't belong here."
"I know," she said, seeming to agree with him. "None of us did, when it happened to us."
"What about – " He pierced her with his gaze. "You know about the Stargate, right?" She nodded, dark hair tumbling forward, and he went on. "What if I went back home, would…?" He let the rest trail off when he saw the look on her face.
"The 'gate wouldn't even work for you," she said quietly.
Sheppard nodded slowly, remembering the scene in the building, the guide, and Rodney. Despite himself, he believed what she was saying. He turned away from her.
Her footsteps came close, and he heard her soft whisper from behind him. "I'm sorry."
He felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Come on," she said. "I know a place where you can stay for the night."
Sheppard followed the woman – Malla, her name was – as she led him to the back of the building and through a low opening in the wall. He bent to enter, then stood in a small space at the top of a series of utilitarian stone steps. She switched on a small light and began her descent, her light bouncing from the smooth grey walls, and he followed her down, his footfalls echoing in the tight space.
Reaching the bottom, he stepped through an archway, shivering against the sudden damp and cold. He stood there and took in his surroundings in the dim light coming in through the overhead windows. He let out a soft gasp when he realised the size of the place.
"Amazing, isn't it?" she said. "And people don't even realise it's here."
Sheppard shook his head in amazement. The space was enormous, at least the size of Grand Central in New York. The cavernous room was fairly dark, the long, narrow windows along the walls letting in what little of the moonlight they could. How could he have not seen this building from above? It must be mostly underground; or maybe it was like him, and couldn't be seen, or wasn't.
Malla's torch illuminated the area just around them, bouncing off the nearest walls, fading into the ceiling high above. He could see that the walls were dripping with phosphorescent, water and other substances leaching out of the seams between the masonry blocks and setting up a faint glow.
Malla started walking towards a dark, arched opening in a nearby wall. "We shouldn't stay here," she shot back over her shoulder. "It's not always safe."
Sheppard strode to her side. "Why?"
"Monsters," she replied in an eerie tone, her voice echoing in the empty room. Then, seeing his face, she became serious, saying, "Most down here are good people, but there are some who aren't, and some who aren't well. It's better not to be alone." With that, she stepped into the tunnel.
He entered behind her, his foot immediately splashing into a puddle on the floor, soaking his boot. He could hear dripping, smell the overwhelming damp as he entered the space, and the temperature plunged. He shivered and tucked his hands up under the sleeves of his tunic. The clothing they'd given him for the banquet obviously wasn't designed for such a damp, cold environment.
"Where are we going?" he asked, stopping a brief moment and shaking his wet foot.
Malla kept moving, but turned to face him, walking backwards. "To a place that's safe, where there are others like us." She gave him a wry smile. "We tend to find each other, and it's better, we can –" She stopped. "We band together, help each other, defend ourselves if we have to."
She turned, and they both began walking again. She led him up another staircase, this one metal and slick with moisture. At the top, she opened a dark, heavy door, and there was a sudden rush of warmth, light and voices. They stepped up onto what must have once been a transit platform, the tile walls now covered in graffiti. There was a small fire blazing in the middle of the space, a dozen or so Advarians gathered around it, all dressed similarly to Malla, their clothing showing signs of long wear.
As they entered, the voices stopped. Sheppard felt eyes on him as Malla said, "He's okay. I found him upstairs." Then, voice flat, she stated, "He's new."
Several in the crowd nodded, and one man stepped forward, handing him a mug with a quietly murmured, "Here you go."
Sheppard nodded, accepting the offering and cradling the warm cup between his cold hands. Setting caution aside, he took a sip of the drink, trying to bring some of its warmth inside his chilled body. It wasn't bad, kind of weak, maybe some sort of soup, he thought.
Malla, beside him, said, "I'll introduce you around in the morning, get you set up now."
Knowing that she probably wanted to talk about him with the others, he agreed. She led him to the back of the room, where small spaces had been formed with fabric, cardboard, and plastic sheeting, creating tiny warrens with some semblance of privacy. She showed him to one small space, pulling back a sheet to show that it had already been laid out with linen, none too clean. "We might have some food tomorrow," she said with a shrug.
He frowned at her. "Why don't you just take it?" At her expectantly raised brow, he went on. "I mean, if they don't see you anyway, why don't you take what you need?"
The edge of her lip quirked upwards. "Doesn't quite work that way. We could take it, but it wouldn't…" She sighed. "Its like with the 'gate. Doesn't work for us. Food's the same way. Can't just take it. It has to come here, just like you came here."
Not feeling any the wiser, Sheppard stared at her.
She tugged the sheet. "Anyway, this is yours for as long as you'd like it."
"Thanks," he replied, at a loss.
Quickly, she pointed out the facilities, then moved off. He settled himself on top of the fabric that was to be his bed, which surprisingly smelled better than it looked, and drew the curtain, cutting off the stares of the others from across the room. He needed some time alone, to think through everything that had happened tonight.
He noticed a tiny shard tucked into the back corner of the shelter – a mirror, or something quite like it. He flopped onto his stomach and, reaching out, pulled the mirror closer. Staring into the glass, he moved it around until he could see most of his face: same dark hair, same hazel eyes - same John Sheppard. Tucking the mirror back into its nook, he finished the drink, then rolled onto his back. He pulled several of the rags and coverings across him, shivering slightly. Despite the fire out front, the room was still damp, the fire too small and far away, and the blankets in the shelter weren't quite enough for warmth.
Tomorrow, he'd figure this out. Tomorrow, he'd find a way home. But tonight? Tonight he was too overwhelmed and tired to think. He stared up at the grimy fabric that made up his roof, and allowed his mind to drift, his eyes tracing patterns across the fabric as he thought about what had happened to him, and how he might get his life back.
Please comment and let me know what you think of this so far. Thank you!