Thank you to everyone who's been reading, and a special thanks to all those who've left reviews. This, sadly, is the final section.
Sheppard lay his outfit out on his desk, checking yet again to be sure he had everything he'd need. He was going back on duty tomorrow and he was actually really freekin' nervous; it had too long since he'd worn the uniform. He patted down a seam, then stepped back to inspect for wrinkles. People might think he didn't care about stuff like that, and maybe normally he didn't so much, but today was different. He was different. Everything was different.
After Carson had figured out what the hell was going on, they'd changed his meds, and his symptoms had slowly abated. He'd tapered off the anti-psychotics, although Carson had then made him wait a full two weeks, medication free, as an evaluation period before the doctor had cleared him for duty. No off world stuff yet, but even this small step was good. It was all good.
Sheppard moved to his closet and removed his boots and a small, black bag. He sat on the floor, pulled his polishing supplies from the bag, and began to work on the boots.
Even now, he was expected to continue daily sessions with Heightmeyer – not quite therapy, more of a, "How's your sanity level today?" meeting, just to make sure that everything was still balanced.
So far, so good on that front. Once they'd realised what was wrong with him, they'd been able to crack that virus – well, maybe it was actually a bacteria, he could never keep that stuff straight – in a matter of days, and Carson had zapped it.
Maybe that was oversimplifying things a bit, because no way did he want to discount the work they went through to figure this thing out. Since treating him, the drugs had also been used on people down on the planet, people who'd been lost, some of them for decades, in a haze of mental illness. All due to something not entirely unlike encephalitis, Carson said, and able to be cured via a combination of human know-how and Ancient tech. Maybe, if they were lucky, Malla and the others –
His hand froze mid-buff. He still couldn't quite believe she'd been a figment of his… whatever, an after-effect of an illness. It had all seemed so real while he was there, and he couldn't imagine that he'd deliberately hurt himself… at least, he didn't think that he could have… He tried to shake the moment off, and kept working. He knew that he'd always wonder. Worse, he suspected that it'd be a while before he wasn't feeling like he was teetering on the edge of something, wondering if he'd slip back.
Better not to think about it, just go on like normal. He snickered, giving his boots a final rub. Normal was a good thing.
His chime went, and he stood and triggered the door. Rodney was there, a large – surprisingly large – bottle in hand.
Sheppard stood there a moment, nonplussed. It wasn't like Rodney normally made social visits.
"Can I come in?"
Sheppard nodded and moved aside, allowing the man to pass.
Rodney waved the bottle, acknowledging the boots, then the uniform with a wave of that arm. "Have time for a drink?"
Sheppard frowned, thinking about Carson's warnings against alcohol so soon in his recovery. "I can't…"
Rodney twisted the bottle so that Sheppard could see it better. "It's iced tea, made from actual Milky Way-type tea bags," he said. "I've been saving them up. Figured your going back on duty deserved a celebration."
Sheppard smiled, appreciating the gesture. "Thank you."
Rodney nodded and sat on the bed while Sheppard moved to the bathroom, returning with two glasses. He joined Rodney on the bed, facing him, and Rodney poured the drinks.
He'd just raised the glass to his lips when his door chime went again, but he merely raised a brow and answered it. Teyla stood there, with Ford just behind her, plate in hand. "John, I…" Teyla started, stopping when her eyes reached Rodney.
She smiled broadly, and Ford said, "Fancy meeting you here."
"Yeah, well," Rodney said, lifting the bottle so they could see it. "Looks like we had the same idea."
Sheppard waved them over. "Join the party; glasses in the bathroom."
As Ford slid the plate onto the desk, Rodney raised his glass in a toast. "To tomorrow - may things go well for you on your first day back."
Sheppard nodded, clicking his glass against Rodney's. "And may my first day back not drive me insane."
Rodney looked at him for a moment, as if trying to check his seriousness, then snickered. "Yeah, yeah," he said. Then he peered at Sheppard. "Hey. Tell me about that place."
"Which place?" Sheppard replied.
"Where you'd go, when…" Rodney swirled a finger near his temple.
Teyla, settled cross-legged on the floor, looked up and said, "Perhaps John does not wish to go into the details."
"No, it's…" Sheppard said, eyes following Ford as he returned to the room and sat beside Teyla on the floor.
As Rodney passed them the bottle, Sheppard took a sip from his own glass, focusing on the tea's bite while he considered how to say what he wanted to without it coming across too crazy. "It felt real," he said in the end.
"In what way?" Teyla asked.
"As real as this," Sheppard said, indicating the room around them. "I was thinking it was kind of like an alternate place, like an entire city existing alongside the real city, but invisible or forgotten or something." His eyes moved to Rodney and he gave him a tight smile. "You know, some place like Boston, an old city, old enough to have a past, to have layers; to have ghosts. Some people can see those ghosts – old buildings, now gone; people that existed… places… gone, but in a way, still there." Not sure that Rodney understood, he continued. "Like when you say I disappeared. I was there, but it was as if I'd become a ghost. You couldn't see me, or, well, you could see me if I, like, stood right in front of you and shouted, but you didn't know who the hell I was. The only people who could really see me were…" he let that trail off into a shrug, not really wanting to talk about Malla and the rest of it.
Ford leaned forward. "Don't think this question is weird, okay?" When Sheppard nodded, Ford lowered his voice. "Do you think it was real?"
Sheppard frowned, swirling the liquid in his glass, staring down at it to buy himself some time to think. Because when he did let himself think about it, and really remember, he…No, no, best not to go down that route. Not wanting to mention his own doubts, he replied, "Carson said…"
"I know what Carson thinks," Ford said, interrupting him. Sheppard's head shot up and their gazes locked. "What do you think?"
Sheppard took a slow, careful breath; he could feel his heart hammering in his chest. "I'm…not sure. It was so real. But it can't be." He looked to Rodney and Teyla for…something, agreement, maybe.
Instead, in a quiet voice, Teyla asked, "What about the attack?"
Almost frantically, Sheppard said, "I still can't believe I…" He shook his head, calming himself purposefully. "I don't believe I did that to myself. That's not me."
"I mean, the illness may have caused a chemical imbalance and all that, sure," Ford said. "I'm just…I mean, weirder things have happened out here, right?"
Teyla cocked her head. "Maybe that imbalance allowed you to see into this…other place; to go there, in a way. Just because we couldn't see it, that doesn't mean it wasn't real."
All this time, he'd been trying to convince himself that that other place had been a hallucination. All this time, he'd thought that everyone saw him as crazy, but now…
Ford peered up from where he sat on the floor. "You okay? I didn't mean to mess you up or anything."
Sheppard nodded, unable to speak. He'd been working with Heightmeyer and trying so hard to see that all of it had been in his head, but what if it wasn't? What if it really wasn't? He stared down at his glass. Maybe he wasn't crazy, he thought. Maybe everything that he'd almost convinced himself was an illusion, had actually been real. He noticed that his hand was shaking slightly. He felt a touch on his arm and looked up to see Teyla standing beside him, a concerned expression in her eyes.
"Sorry," Ford said. "I didn't mean to freak you out."
Sheppard nodded without looking at him, and stared down at his glass. No. He couldn't go there. He couldn't start thinking that place was real, because he wasn't sure what believing that would mean. He needed to stay anchored here, because if he didn't –
"Wait," Rodney asked suddenly. "Why Boston?"
Sheppard's head shot up and he stared at Rodney, confused.
"The place," Rodney said. "You said it was like an 'alternate Boston.' Alternate, sure I get, but I mean, why not someplace like New York, or Tokyo, or Las Vegas, or LA, for goodness sakes? Aren't you from California?"
"Ah," Sheppard said, realising that Rodney was trying to bring the conversation back to safer ground. Or, somewhat safer ground, anyway. "Hmm…I'm not sure. At the time, remember, not all my synapses were firing in the right directions." He smiled slightly. "It's the connection I made." He shrugged. "I suppose there was something about Boston that reminded me – have you been there?"
"Boston?" Rodney nodded. "Did my PhD at Northeastern."
"The place has a feel to it - like London, a sense of history, of secret places; but smaller, more intimate than London. The place I went, it had that kind of feel." He laughed at the look on Rodney's face. The man obviously didn't know what he meant. Hell, he wasn't sure of what he meant, just that the feel was right – a big city above, old enough to have lost and abandoned places below. Something like that.
Teyla smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I'm glad you're back."
Sheppard laughed. "So am I."
Sheppard walked quickly, padd in hand, lost in thought. He passed several crewmen in the crowded hall, then felt a tug at his arm. Looking in that direction, he saw Rodney there, seeming concerned.
"You okay?" Rodney asked, sotto voice, pulling him to the side of the corridor.
Sheppard, surprised, answered, "Yes."
"Who are you talking to?" Rodney asked.
Sheppard, at first confused, smiled when he realised to what Rodney had been referring. "No one. I was reviewing the duty roster in my head, and must have been talking to myself."
"You sure?" Rodney asked, still looking worried.
"Yes, sorry," Sheppard said lightly. Seeing the look in his friend's eyes, he softened his tone. "Really, I'm fine."
"Okay," Rodney said, obviously unconvinced.
Sheppard grabbed Rodney's arm, and said, "I did want to say thank you, though."
"For being there while I was…" Sheppard waved his hand in the air vaguely and shrugged. Then he smiled. "And for believing in me, at least enough to…" Lost for words, he shrugged again. "Anyway, thank you."
"You're welcome," Rodney said, all seriousness.
Sheppard was just about to continue on when Rodney held up one finger. "Hold on," he said, grimacing while he dug through his pockets, looking for something. He nodded when he found it, and sliding something small from his pocket, held it out toward Sheppard. "I wasn't sure if you might need this. We found it in your clothing."
Sheppard stared at the small object that Rodney was holding. "When?" he said numbly.
"When you came back from the planet." When Sheppard didn't reach for the item, Rodney asked, "It is yours, right?"
"Yeah," Sheppard said, holding out his hand. Rodney deposited the object into his palm.
Sheppard stared down at it, almost afraid to look any closer. But he shouldn't be afraid. All that back on the planet – being with Malla, her writing on the claim ticket, telling him it was a way for him to go back there, if he needed to – that'd all been in his head. So he shouldn't be seeing that unfamiliar scrawl on the tiny piece of paper, shouldn't recognise the symbols written there in Malla's hand. But he did.
"What is it?" Rodney asked.
"Nothing," Sheppard answered hesitantly. He looked up, met Rodney's eyes, and manufactured a smile. "Nothing I need," he said definitively. He crumpled up the claim ticket and, holding it out from his body, turned on his heel and strode to the nearest balcony.
Opening the door and walking out onto it, he stepped right to the edge and, holding his hand up to the breeze, let the wind take the ticket.
He felt a hand on his arm, but he didn't look away from the ticket until it hit the water below him. As it was swamped by a wave, disappearing into the trough, he felt the tension leaving his neck and shoulders, and finally let out a breath.
"Sheppard, you're not having a 'Boston' moment, are you?"
"No, Rodney," he said, finally facing his friend. He gave him a tight smile. "Just exorcising some memories."
Rodney peered at him carefully, his gaze blatantly evaluating. After a moment, he nodded. "But you'll tell me if you ever…" Rodney dropped his voice, hands flying up nervously. "Um, 'go to Boston', as it were."
"Yes, absolutely," Sheppard replied, matching his friend's tone. And this time when he smiled, it was genuine. "You'll be the first to know."
The bit of song Sheppard sings in an early chapter is "Mirror in the Bathroom", by the Beat, or the English Beat as they were known in some places.