All John could see was a wall of people surging toward him. The alleyway was too far away, the fence too high. He wasn't getting out anytime soon. The sudden influx of people in the square had swept him one way and his team the other. He thought he caught a glimpse of Ronon over the crowd, but he couldn't be sure.
He keyed his comm. "Get to the gate! I'll catch up to you!"
Any reply was lost in the pounding hooves and terrified screams as the herd stampeded through town. He was jostled, bumped, stepped on, elbowed. No amount of twisting and turning helped. Bodies collided with him, carrying him along in their wake. At least they were headed toward the gate. Hands tugged at his vest. He tripped over something in the street, hit the ground, rolled quickly but not quickly enough. Panicked feet trampled him. Curling into himself, he wrapped his arms over his head, gritting his teeth as his spine absorbed blow after blow. He tried to scramble away, but someone fell on him. Then a boot caught his temple, and everything went black.
"What do you mean you can't find him?"
Ronon fought back the urge to hit something. "What do you think I mean, McKay? I saw him fall, but I couldn't get to him until the street cleared. He isn't there, and I can't find any sign of him."
"Have you tried-"
"I've looked everywhere. He's gone."
McKay's face drained of color. "What do they do with their dead?"
"I looked there, too," Ronon replied quietly. "He's not on this planet."
"He wouldn't just leave without telling us."
"Not willingly," Teyla said.
"Someone took him." A vein popped as McKay clenched his jaw. "Let's see if we can find out where." He stormed away, pulling his tablet from his back.
Ronon jogged to catch up. "Where are you going?"
"To download the last fifty addresses from the DHD."
John stared at the door, willing it to open. All he wanted was a few answers. He'd woken up in a small, dry cell with a threadbare but clean mattress and a bowl of cool water – not the norm for Pegasus. Everything he'd had was gone, scratchy lime green shirt and trousers and tan sandals in their place. He'd taken a moment to number his injuries, fairly pleased to find only bruises and cuts instead of broken bones. That was until he found the small, neat bandage on his upper left arm where his sub-cu transmitter had been.
He stood when a key creaked in the lock. A small woman with spiky red hair entered followed by two burly guards who made Ronon look scrawny. Her gaze flicked over him then settled on his face.
"I am Elera Slaet, Minister of Justice. You have been found guilty of murder. By order-"
"What! What murder?"
"The murder of Cebre Abruf."
"One of our citizens. You have been found guilty-"
"How could I be found guilty? There hasn't been a trial."
"Do you deny you were on Loutif?"
"Loutif?" John bit his lip as he tried to remember what Teyla had called M4H-558. "Loutif. Yeah. Where am I now?"
"Our world is called Paeken. You are in the Guis province of the Kreal protectorate."
"How did I get here?"
"You were brought here by the relatives of the man you killed on Loutif."
"I didn't kill anyone!"
"They reported that you set an explosion that caused a stampede through the market."
"Not on purpose. I was demonstrating the usefulness of C4 when-"
"Purposeful or not, your actions resulted in the death of one of our people. He died when animals tore through the town where he was trading. He was a citizen of Paeken, and you will be judged by Paekenian law, John Sheppard."
"You know who I am?"
She folded her hands in front of her. "Your manner of dress identified you as Lantean. There were photos circulating a few years ago of several of your people. We still have them."
"You won't get any payment for me. The Genii are our allies now." He hoped.
"We wish no payment. You are guilty of killing one of our citizens. You will be punished accordingly."
McKay was the only teammate they could identify from the Genii photos. He couldn't risk identifying Ronon or Teyla. "Just me?"
She arched a brow, looking genuinely curious. "Is there someone else to blame?"
"No." John took a deep breath, his thrumming heart kicking into overdrive. His team was probably safe. "Look, ma'am, I am very sorry about what happened. I never meant to hurt anyone. There has to be some way to work this out."
"There is. The accidental nature of the act requires your punishment be no more than ten years."
She nodded and turned to go.
"Wait! What did the Loutif have to say when you took me?"
"We didn't ask. But even if we had, you killed a Paekenian. You are under our jurisdiction."
"Don't I get, I don't know, a phone call or something?"
"Most prisoners are allowed contact with family and friends. However, the power and might of Atlantis is well-known. I cannot risk an invasion. I'm sorry."
He was so screwed.
Hope died on planet thirty-seven from the DHD list. The MALP pinged happily, registering Sheppard's transmitter. Rodney made record time gearing up and practically tripped over Ronon as he hurdled through the gate.
"Oh, no," Teyla gasped.
Three weeks of searching. For this – a pile of black uniform and a blood encrusted transmitter on an uninhabited world.
Rodney trudged to the DHD and started another download.
John wiped the sweat from his face and leaned on the handle of the hoe. If this was spring on this planet, summer was going to be a bitch. Making restitution in this society included contributing to its betterment so they'd made him a farmer He'd been transported through an impressive city to a work prison in the middle of nowhere to help grow some funky looking plant that was a staple of the Paeken diet.
Rescue was not coming. He'd accepted that on day two. He hadn't spotted his teammates in the prison population, and the inmates whom he'd had a chance to speak with had never heard of Sateda or Athos. It was doubtful Teyla or Ronon knew of this world. He had no idea how many gates they'd taken him through between Loutif and Paeken, but nothing about these people so far had suggested that they were stupid. Rodney wasn't going to be able to find him either.
He had bided his time, memorizing the guards' faces, learning their rotations and idiosyncrasies. Today was the day. No Neck was off duty which left Rocky and Bullwinkle. And it was almost Rocky's lunchtime.
As soon as the guard ducked into his vehicle, John ran. He had no idea where the gate was, but that was a minor problem to be dealt with later. Freedom first. He was at the edge of the field when Bullwinkle shouted. Legs pumping, John raced for the forest. He was almost there when something hit his back. The telltale numbness of a Wraith stunner crept over him.
The ground rose up to meet him.
"There must be something more we can do," Teyla insisted. "We cannot give up now."
Rodney sighed. "I'm open to suggestions."
"Do you have any other contacts?" Ronon asked.
She rubbed tired eyes, feeling hollow. "No. I have contacted every world Athos has traded with since I was a child. No one has seen him. Halling and Kanaan are still searching the worlds Michael used."
"Lorne's team returned from the last world I pulled from the DHD." Rodney shook his head. "Nothing."
"Somebody on one of those worlds knows something." Ronon stood, shoving the lab chair across the room. "I'm going to find out what."
Teyla's breath caught in her throat as his words sunk in. "You are leaving."
"I have to. It's already been two months."
Rodney gaped at him for a moment then stood. "I'm coming with you."
"No, you're not."
"I admit my skill set is different than yours. That's why you need me." Rodney folded his arms over his chest, hurt in his eyes. "Unless you think I can't keep up."
Teyla met Ronon's gaze, silently urging him to be kind.
"Actually, I was thinking that Sheppard would never forgive us if we put him before Atlantis." Ronon place a hand on Rodney's shoulder. "You're the only person he would trust with the city. You need to take care of it until he gets back."
"Well, of course. I, uh…" Rodney swallowed thickly and nodded. "You'll be back though, right?"
"When I find Sheppard, we'll both be back."
Teyla pulled Ronon's head down until it touched hers. "I should-"
"Stay here and take care of Torren. I don't know how long this will take, and he needs you."
"I know. I wish I could come."
"I know you do."
Ronon wrapped her in a hug. "I'll never stop looking."
John stumbled out of solitary confinement, a hand upheld to shield against the sun he hadn't seen in a week. The guard frowned and shoved him toward the chow line. He hurried over, the gnawing inside magnified by the scent of the gruel he had once thought disgusting. He snatched the bowl from the server and huddled near the fence, reminding himself to eat slowly so it didn't all come rushing back up. He licked the bowl clean and returned it to the washing area, casually checking the other bowls for leftovers.
The warden, whom John had dubbed Mr. Rogers, stood at the gate with Spiky, the red head who had sentenced him.
"…cannot do anything with him," the warden's voice carried as it rose in frustration, "What do you suggest?"
"Five escape attempts?"
"We've inflicted every disciplinary means allowed by law to no avail. I know we do not practice capital punishment, but I cannot continue wasting manpower on him."
John kept his attention on the dishes, finding one with a few scraps left inside.
"There is one more thing we might try," she said. "Our scientists have been studying a device we found in the catacombs. Test subjects are needed."
"I doubt he would volunteer."
John licked the crumbs from his fingers and tossed the bowl back then turned to stare at the couple deciding his fate.
"He is a prisoner. He has already volunteered."
John rammed a shoulder into the nearest guard and dashed toward the prison gate. Five steps later, a stun blast washed over him. Paralyzed but still conscious, he could only watch as they loaded him in a transport and drove him into the city. His new home was cold, sterile, and smelled distinctly like a lab. After a bath and a change of clothes, he was escorted to a room with a chair that could have belonged to a dentist except for the odd contraption on the headrest. The guard shoved him in the chair and strapped him in.
"I saw this episode of Farscape," he announced. "You're going to be disappointed with what you find in my brain."
Spiky entered, watching him dispassionately. "We aren't looking for anything. You have proven a difficult prisoner-"
"Well, I try."
"-therefore we are going to re-educate you."
"McKay always says I need to study more."
"Not that kind of education, I'm afraid." She nodded to a tall man in a lab coat. "Do what you can, Doctor."
After she left, the man pulled a clipboard and glanced over it. "You are John Sheppard from Atlantis." He walked behind John. "You are our third test subject with this device. While we have a good understanding of it," he attached cold metal to John's temples, "it may take some trial and error to achieve the desired results."
"What desired results?"
"Your past will be stripped away from you to cleanse you of the deviant behavior that has brought you here. You will be blank, able to build a new life."
"Good luck with that."
"Luck has nothing to do with it. The device reconfigures the chemical synapses in your brain, associating implanted images and pain with certain words. Eventually, you will choose to forget who you are."
"NO!" John twisted, yanking his wrists against the restraints until they bled. "No, please. I like who I am."
The doctor moved to a side table that held a control panel. "Whenever you hear John Sheppard or Atlantis, this will be the response your mind provides."
The man pressed a button, and current shot through John. His heart stuttered. His body convulsed. Agonizing pain ripped a scream from him. Then images flooded his mind, each scene more horrifying, more degrading than the last. Clenched eyes couldn't shut them out. Screaming couldn't block them out. He clawed at the armrests, but he couldn't escape.
Suddenly everything stopped. John sagged, pulling in one shuddering breath after another.
"What is your name?" the man asked.
John, his mind supplied. He yelped as the visions flashed and the pain jabbed. He forced them away and glared.
The scientist smiled thinly. "Stage one is complete."
John steeled himself. He couldn't break. If he did, he'd be lost forever.
Ronon slammed the tankard on the table. Three months and no leads. John Sheppard had simply vanished. He'd checked with everyone he'd ever known – Solen, Kell's men on Belsa, Larrin. Revisits to every planet they'd had a mission to yielded nothing. He'd started on McKay's list of worlds, questioning, bullying, threatening.
Pouring himself another glass of ale, he kept watch over the shifty-eyed men in the corner. Slavers, the locals said. Maybe they knew something.
John's world consisted of a hallway and two rooms: his cell – a small windowless box of concrete and metal – and the lab with the chair. He paced his cell slowly, methodically, ignoring the spiking pain in his head and the images that tormented him. He was slipping away; he could feel it. The gaps in his memory were getting bigger, the pain stronger. Soon he wouldn't be able to fight it.
"My name is John Patrick Sheppard. My birthday is January 5, 1968. My serial number is…is…damn. Who cares what it is. I am the military commander of…" he grunted as his brain tried to leak out his ears, "Atlantis." He dropped to his knees, gagging, as the images took over.
"Not real," he gasped. "Not real."
He crawled to his bunk and pulled himself on it, curling into a fetal position until his stuttering heart started to beat normally again.
"My team…um, my team is Dr. Rodney…um, Rodney... Rodney and Teyla and Ronon."
Tears trickled down his face as the tremors began. He clutched at the memories, but they slid through his fingers like mist.
When the door opened and the guards came, all he could do was scream.
Patience was not one of Ronon's virtues, but he had learned the value of it during his years as a runner. To wait until a Wraith was in the perfect position. To know exactly when to jump or fire or run for his life. But this – seeking without finding, asking and never getting an answer – was a new form of torture. In the four months since Sheppard disappeared, he hadn't uncovered a single lead. The slavers hadn't taken Sheppard; of that, he was certain. Pushing the memory away, he returned his attention to the people flowing by the open door of the tavern. Kelore had said she would be here. He'd waited three days, his blood running hotter as each minute passed.
Ronon slid away from the bar and slipped into the crowd, following the dark haired woman who had been one of the coalition's trial judges. When she paused to admire the freshly picked nuary, he moved ahead and ducked into an alley. As she passed, he wrapped an arm around her waist and clamped a hand over her mouth, pulling her into the shadows so quickly no one else noticed. She struggled, kicking and flailing, but she was no match for him. He dragged her further in and pinned her to a wall.
"Where is he?"
Shiana's eyes finally focused on him, going wide in recognition. He pressed his full weight against her, jerking her arms over her head.
"I'm not going to ask again. Where is he?"
Calming, she glared until he removed his hand from her mouth. "You will pay for this."
"Tell me where he is, and I won't kill you."
She spat in his face.
Ronon tightened his grip on her wrists until she gasped. "Tell me."
"Why do you help the ones who have brought such destruction to our galaxy?"
Patience, Ronon, he could hear Teyla say. If an explanation would help him find Sheppard, he would give it. "The Wraith bring destruction. The Lanteans bring hope."
"My people are dead because of them."
"And mine are dead because of the Wraith." He heaved a frustrated sigh. "I've lived on Atlantis for four years now. The people there aren't perfect, but they are fighting an enemy that isn't theirs. They could have left us like the Ancestors did, but they chose to stay."
"You are blind to their faults."
"No, I accept their faults. They can be arrogant and self-serving at times. Were your people any different?"
Shiana turned her face away, blinking back tears. "My people didn't make choices that affected an entire galaxy."
"You are now. Your coalition is doing that every day. Atlantis agreed to join you. What message are you sending by turning on one of your members?"
Her head dipped as she deflated. "We haven't turned on Atlantis."
"Then where is Sheppard?"
She met his eyes. "I don't know. We are not responsible for his disappearance."
Ronon growled, leaning against her and squeezing her wrists until cried out. She never broke eye contact. Releasing her, he strode away from another dead end.
He huddled in the corner, head clutched in his palms. Day had not brought an end to the pain the nightmares produced. It never did. The door squeaked as it opened, and he whimpered, knowing what was coming.
"No, please don't."
The two guards ignored his pleas, yanking him to his feet and dragging him to the room with the chair. He struggled as he did every day. The guard on his left punched him. Stunned, he blinked away the encroaching darkness as he submitted to the restraints. He jerked when the cold metal adhered to his temples, stiffening in anticipation.
His heart slammed in his chest, his breath coming in shallow pants. God, please, no.
"What is your name?"
An image flashed in his mind, an impatient man snapping his fingers and speaking words he couldn't understand.
Pain ripped through him, shattering the image.
"Where are you from?"
A picture of a crystal sea formed but was quickly replaced with horrifying visions of violence and death.
"I don't know!" he sobbed. "Please, just make it stop."
"Tell me who you are."
He pushed the pain, the visions, the images and memories to a small dark corner of his mind and locked them away.
"I don't know who I am," he whispered. "Please don't hurt me anymore."
"Stage four is complete."
Ronon sat in the cave where it had all begun for him. When he closed his eyes, he could see Sheppard and Teyla tied up, unconscious on the floor while he rummaged through their belongings. He had failed that day. He had promised Sheppard that he would help them get Ford back if they took the tracking device out. The tracking device was gone but so was Ford.
And now Sheppard was, too. Ronon had to face it. Six months of searching had been for nothing. He had been in contact with Atlantis during his search, trading information, getting supplies. Torren was walking now. Teyla had asked him to come to a small celebration in honor of the boy, and he couldn't say no, but he didn't know how to face her and McKay either.
He'd failed again.
He hadn't expected to find Sheppard on this world, but he had run out of options. As illogical as it sounded, the guy in that movie Sheppard liked said that when a job went wrong to go back to the beginning so he thought maybe...
Ronon climbed to his feet, gave the cave a final glance, and headed to the gate, not looking back. The Mreqil market was in session. He had enough coin left to buy Torren a gift. Then he'd go home.
"Taliz! Get over here!"
He cringed at the slurred command. Galed was drunk again. Not good, especially not this early in the day. Well over six feet and built like a linebacker – which meant something but he didn't know what – Galed was mean as a general rule, but when he was drunk, he was vicious. The past two months had been insanely busy – up early to clean the bar from the night before, washing, restocking, repairing then cooking and serving the patrons of whichever market they were working. Today they were on Mreqil. Yesterday had been Riglumin. Tomorrow… Who knew?
Galed had insisted on calling him Taliz. The name didn't fit him really, but since he had no idea what his actual name was, he didn't complain. Which turned out to be a good thing when he became acquainted with Galed's temper. Most of the bruises were on his back and chest, hidden from the customers, but Galed wasn't always so careful when he was drunk.
He hurried to the bar where Galed was sloshing ale toward a mostly clean glass. "You needed me?"
Galed squinted at him. "There you are. Have you cleaned all the tables?"
"Yes. The dishes are washed and the liquor has been restocked."
Galed snorted into his glass and drained it. "What about the bread?"
It was the wrong thing to say. He knew it as soon as the words came out of his mouth. Galed backhanded him. A metallic taste filled his mouth as his whole body slammed into the bar.
"What bread?" Galed roared. "The bread I told you to buy."
The man had said no such thing, but he didn't argue, not needing his arm broken again since the last break wasn't fully healed. He flinched as Galed stepped toward him, fist drawn back.
"I'm sorry. I forgot. I'll go right now."
He rushed out the door before Galed could take another swing at him. As terrible as the man was, Galed had been the only one willing to hire him. He'd woken up in the middle of a field on a planet called Brali according to Galed. The man and his crew moved from place to place, renting space as they went to sell their particular brands of drink. No one in the nearby village had been willing to take a chance on a bruised and scarred man with no memory of his past. He accepted Galed's offer of employment.
The nightmares had started that night.
He'd woken the entire crew with his screams and had retched until he passed out. He offered to leave, but Galed simply handed him a bucket and told him to make sure the floor was spotless before morning. He'd cleaned as best he could and left the bucket near the door, intending to dump it the next morning. Galed woke first.
The kick to the ribs had jerked him to wakefulness. He rolled instinctively, sweeping a leg and planting an elbow in Galed's face. He grabbed a broom, broke it in half and defended himself by twirling the sticks to batter Galed's hands away. The man had gaped at him and asked where he'd learned to fight.
A scene flashed – a small woman with copper hair in a room bathed in amber. Pain slammed into him, driving him to his knees. Visions filled his head – images so horrifying all he could do was claw at his eyes and scream. He was powerless to stop them, his body uncontrollable, contorting, vulnerable. Galed beat him unconscious.
He'd never tried to fight back again.
The dreams still came occasionally – ethereal images that vanished like the mist but stung like a thousand knives. The pain had stolen his breath, stabbed his heart. The visions were worse, unspeakable images that didn't feel like memories. The scars on his temples and wrists bore testament to the punishment that had been inflicted on his body. Maybe the visions were a punishment for his mind.
Three faces continued to haunt him: the woman with copper hair and two men. They confused him, smiling one moment and firing weapons the next, but they never scared him. When he tried to focus on them, to remember them, he was drawn to a place in his mind that was filled with impenetrable blackness and excruciating pain. A place he didn't want to go. But sometimes, after the beatings ended, he wondered who the faces belonged to and if that life could be any worse than this one.
He hurried through the early morning market in search of fresh bread. The place teemed with visitors from more worlds than he could count based on their language and dress. The air was crisp, the sky clear. Birds soared overhead, calling him to join them. He couldn't explain why he was drawn to the sky. It happened on every world. A part of him wanted to be up there, dancing with the clouds. It was ridiculous, of course. Only the Wraith could fly.
When he turned the corner, his heart stopped. One of the faces from his dreams was standing at a table, haggling with the vendor over a small wooden toy. The man was tall with long ropes of hair and dressed in leather, a vicious weapon slung low on his hips.
His dream had come to life before his eyes. His heart started again, hammering painfully against his ribs. Sweat trickled along his hairline and down his back. Should he speak to the man? What if those visions really were memories? Had this man been one who had hurt him? His gut told him no. He could trust this man; he had trusted this man with his life. At least he thought so.
The man smiled wolfishly at the merchant and exchanged money for the toy then paused, lifting his head and turning slowly.
He watched the man scan the crowd as he hid behind a tent flap. Finally, the big man turned in the opposite direction and walked away.
He had to know. He slipped out of the tent and followed the man to the next row of booths. The man was rummaging through metal devices, studying and discarding each one. Taking a deep breath, he stepped up to the man and hesitantly touched his arm.
"Do you know me?"
Ronon stared slack-jawed for a moment. John Sheppard, in the flesh. Leaner, bruised, more lines on his face, but definitely Sheppard. Without thinking, he wrapped Sheppard in a hug, pounding his back and pretending like tears weren't leaking from the corners of his eyes.
Then the words sunk in.
He pulled away, holding a quaking Sheppard at arm's length. "What?"
Sheppard backed away, wide-eyed, chest heaving. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"
Ronon was stunned. Sheppard looked frightened out of his mind, barely standing on trembling legs, blood oozing down his face from a fresh cut. "Wait!" He held out a hand. "Where are you going? I've been searching everywhere for you. Sheppard…"
Sheppard's eyes bulged in horror, and he screamed, both hands clutching his head as he dropped to his knees.
"What's wrong? John?"
Sheppard slumped to the ground, convulsing, his face gray. Ronon knelt next to him, hands on his shoulders as he twitched. When Sheppard grew still, Ronon scooped him up and ran, pushing aside the gawking bystanders as he raced for the gate. Dialing quickly, he input his IDC and hovered at the event horizon until Chuck gave the go-ahead.
Ronon stepped through, pausing long enough to nod at McKay in the control room, and headed straight for the infirmary.
Rodney sat down quickly, the sight of Sheppard lying limply in Ronon's arms ripping all the oxygen from his lungs. He wasn't sure when he'd given up hope, hadn't actually realized he had until now. He couldn't believe John was alive. Was he? Maybe Ronon had brought back a body to be buried.
He pushed to his feet and ran blindly for the transporter, ignoring the stinging in his eyes and the strange vice around his chest. When he reached the infirmary section, he dashed down the hall as if Wraith were on his tail and plowed into Ronon.
"Where is he? What happened? Is he dead?"
Ronon's fingers bit into his arms. "Slow down, McKay. Where's Teyla?"
"Teyla? Oh, damn, I, uh…" He clicked his earpiece. "Teyla, this is Rodney. Ronon's home. We're in the infirmary. Yeah, okay." He looked at Ronon. "Well?"
"Is she coming?"
"Is. He. Dead?"
"No, Rodney. He's not dead."
His knees buckled; only Ronon's grip kept him from falling. Ronon guided him to a chair then slumped down next to him. Rodney's heart pounded so hard he couldn't catch his breath. Leaning forward, he propped his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands as the world spun around him. Sheppard, alive.
"Oh, no. No."
Rodney whipped his head up at Teyla's broken gasp. Ronon was on his feet in a second, hugging her tightly.
"He's alive, Teyla."
Ronon led her to their chairs and squeezed her between himself and Rodney. Her breath came in hiccups as she laced her fingers through Rodney's and slid her arm around Ronon's.
"How did you find him?" she asked.
Ronon barked a bitter laugh. "I didn't. He found me."
"What?" Rodney gaped at him. "Why didn't he come home?"
"There's something wrong with him. He asked me if I knew him. He looked…confused."
"I don't understand," Teyla said.
"I don't either," Ronon replied. "I never saw him so he must have recognized me, but then he looked scared of me."
Rodney's brows shot up. "Scared? Sheppard?"
"It was weird. He completely freaked out when I called him by name. Started screaming and beating his head."
Teyla drew back in horror. "Who has done this to him?"
"I don't know," Ronon admitted. "He was alone. As soon as the doctors say he's all right, I'm going to go back and find out."
Rodney broke off when something crashed in the exam room. An agonized scream followed, one that didn't end. He didn't need Ronon's, "Sheppard!" to know something bad was happening. They raced in to find Jennifer and a couple of nurses trying to hold Sheppard down. Rodney stumbled to a halt at the sight. Sheppard was flailing wildly, clawing at his eyes until rivulets of red ran down his face, screaming… Screaming in a way Rodney had never heard – broken, sobbing, pleading.
"Help him!" Rodney shouted.
"I'm trying." Jennifer yelped as one of Sheppard's hands smacked her in the eye. "Marie! Can you-"
"Move!" demanded Ronon. "I got him."
When they released Sheppard, he scrambled away blindly, grabbing his head and yelling incoherently.
Ronon knelt and wrapped his arms around Sheppard, pulling him against his chest. "Relax, Sheppard. No one's-"
The screaming intensified, and Sheppard fought harder. Ronon continued to call his name, trying to calm him, but as far as Rodney could tell, it only made him worse. Suddenly Sheppard's eyes rolled back in his head and he began convulsing. Ronon clenched his eyes shut and held tight. When Sheppard went limp, Ronon lifted him like a child and gently deposited him on the infirmary bed. Teyla helped the nurse upright the cart that had been knocked over and gather the spilled equipment.
"What the hell happened?" Rodney asked.
Jennifer ordered a recheck of Sheppard's vitals then pulled the team aside. "He woke up during the exam. He…he…I don't know how else to describe it – he shrank away from me like he thought I was going to hurt him. Then he asked where he was. When I told him, he…just went nuts."
"God, what did they do to him?" Rodney glanced over her shoulder at the unconscious man, fighting the urge to walk over and touch him just to know he was really there. "Seriously, besides, well," he waved a hand, "that, how is he?"
Jennifer grimaced, nodding at the nurses as they passed with vials of blood and various specimen samples. "His right arm has a spiral break that hasn't healed properly. We're going to have to reset it. When the swelling goes down, that cut on his face will need a couple of stitches. He has quite a collection of fist-shaped bruises on his back and chest." She moved to Sheppard's side and pushed his hair from his forehead. "And these scars on his temples are new. A rather distinctive pattern I haven't seen before. We've got a lot of testing to do. I can't give him sedatives or anything until we screen his blood, and I want to get him under the scanner to check for internal damage and any other anomalies."
A low moan drew their attention. John's eyes fluttered open, going wide in panic when he spotted them. He froze, his entire body trembling, his breath coming in shallow pants, cringing when Jennifer reached for him. Rodney's stomach turned.
Jennifer smiled and spoke softly, "It's alright, Colonel. No one is going to hurt you. How do you feel?"
Sheppard winced, his gaze flicking around the room.
Jennifer turned to the team. "Why don't you guys wait outside? I need to finish my exam."
Rodney wanted to argue, but the fear on Sheppard's face sucked the words from his brain. Nodding mutely, he fled the room.
Teyla brushed the hair from John's forehead and smoothed the furrow in his brow with her thumb. He shifted in his sleep, mumbling words she couldn't understand, then settled with a sigh. She pulled her chair close and sat, holding his fingers in hers, stroking the back of his hand. His skin was warm, the fine hairs on his arms silky. He was leaner than he had been, and had a few new lines and scars, but he was home and that was all she cared about.
She had never lost hope of his return, but the wait had been torturous for them all. Rodney had buried himself in his work. Major Lorne had shouldered the responsibility of Atlantis well, but the colonel who had replaced John was cold and strict. Morale in Atlantis had plummeted to the lowest Teyla had ever experienced, but the gloom lifted the moment Ronon walked through the gate with John. A steady stream of well-wishers had come through the infirmary in the last few hours. Dr. Keller had turned them away, but Teyla had seen the message board that each person had signed.
John's hand spasmed in hers. He twitched, moaned, shivered.
Teyla stood, tightening her grip on his hand. "Shhhh…"
His face contorted in agony, and he writhed, the moan growing into a scream. She caught him when he lurched upright, his breath ragged in her ear. She stroked his hair gently and murmured softly like she did when Torren had nightmares. He trembled in her arms, pressing his forehead to her shoulder. Slowly his breathing returned to normal, and he relaxed.
Pulling away shyly, he blinked in confusion when he finally looked at her. "I know you."
"Yes, you do."
"What's your name?"
"I am Teyla."
"Yes, very good friends."
He stared hard at her then dropped his gaze and whispered, "What's my name?"
"Your name is John-"
His scream drowned out the rest of her words. His eyes grew wide with horror, and he tore at his hair and began to rock back and forth.
Teyla fumbled for the call button then reached for him. "It is alright. No one will harm you."
He thrashed wildly, knocking her to the floor. "Make it stop!" he begged. "Please!"
Teyla scrambled to her feet and grasped his face. "Tell me what is happening, and I will try."
His howl of pain cut off suddenly as the convulsions began. Medical personnel swarmed around them, and hands gently pulled her away and ushered her from the room. She stumbled into Ronon's arms and buried her face in his chest, releasing six months of anguish and fear.
"Teyla? What…" Rodney turned ashen as the other room went silent. "What happened?"
She dashed at the tears. "He had a nightmare, but he seemed fine. He looked at me, said he knew me. Then he…he reacted like he did earlier, screaming and tearing at his hair."
Rodney's brow creased. "Do you have any idea why?"
"What were you talking about?" Ronon asked.
"He asked my name. After I told him, he asked what his was. All I said was John, and he… he…"
"He went crazy when I called him Sheppard," Ronon said.
"Jennifer said he started freaking out when she said told him where he was," Rodney added.
Teyla frowned at the familiarity of the description. "Could it be a conditioned response?" At their questioning looks, she explained, "It is one of the methods Michael used to control Kanaan and the others. He manipulated them to react to certain stimuli – words, scents, sounds. Their bodies were taught to respond to the triggers-"
She broke off as Jennifer emerged from John's room massaging the deeply etched crease in her brow.
"He's unconscious. Someone want to tell me what happened?" She shook her head as Teyla explained. "Whatever's causing these convulsions has to be stopped."
"Perhaps a conditioned response?" Teyla asked.
Jennifer's expression grew thoughtful. "It's a possibility."
"I don't understand," Ronon said. "Hearing his name is making him crazy?"
"With Kanaan, every time he heard the word 'obey,' he went still, as if he had been shut off. Halling said that Jinto collapsed each day when he smelled morning tea." Teyla sighed. "Dr. Sanders spent months determining what each person's trigger was. Some had more than one."
Jennifer pressed the heels of her hands to her bloodshot eyes. "Let me get Sanders down here." She stepped away and spoke quietly into her comm.
"Months?" Rodney hissed. "Sheppard can't keep going through that for months."
Ronon folded his arms tightly across his chest. "Gotta be something we can do. How did Sanders figure out what the triggers were?"
"Trial and error," Teyla replied. "We made a list of possible words, sounds, scents, and sights, added those we knew others had responded to, and went through each one, watching for a reaction."
Rodney looked stricken. "I don't know if I can watch Sheppard go through that over and over again."
"It is difficult," Teyla admitted, "but it is the only way to help him."
"Sanders is on his way," Jennifer announced.
A few minutes that felt like an eternity passed. Tension rolled off Ronon in waves while Rodney paced in a tight circle. Teyla tried to center herself, to find calm in the midst of the storm, but the turmoil inside wouldn't be tamed. Finally the doors slid open, and the quiet, gentle man who had done so much for her people entered.
"Dr. Keller, Teyla," he smiled broadly then extended his hand. "I'm Dr. Ken Sanders. You must be Dr. McKay and Ronon."
Rodney shook his hand. "Yes, yes, now we all know each other. Can you fix Sheppard?"
Dr. Sanders grew somber. "I don't know yet. Do you have his test results?" he asked Jennifer.
She led them to a monitor and called up the results. "Other than the scars on his temples, his injuries are minor – bruises, cuts, scrapes, a broken arm. Nothing more than what you'd find in a bar fight. His blood work is normal."
"No drugs at all?" Rodney asked. "What's causing the seizures?"
"I don't know why he's having seizures. His preliminary brain scans are normal. We are still working on the more detailed ones. I can tell you that his DNA hasn't been manipulated, and he's not a replicator or a clone or a hybrid."
Dr. Sanders studied the monitor. "And these scars?"
"We don't know," Jennifer said. "No one here has seen anything like it, and we've come up empty on database searches."
"I'd like to see his chart."
Jennifer handed him a tablet and scrolled through, pointing out specific instances and observations. Dr. Sanders listened, occasionally comparing the chart to the monitor.
"Well?" Rodney demanded. "Can you help him or not?"
"I need to examine him first," Dr. Sanders answered.
"This way," Jennifer said.
John was awake when they entered, trembling so hard the bed's handrails rattled. He looked up then back down immediately. "Please don't hurt me anymore."
Teyla's heart constricted, but she smiled gently, placed her hands on the sides of his face and raised his head, holding still until his gaze lifted to hers "We will not harm you. Do you know who I am?"
He flinched, squeezing his eyes shut then opening them slowly, his brow furrowed. "I- I, um…" His eyes dropped to the bed. "No," he whispered.
She glanced back. "Dr. Sanders-"
He moved next to John. "Hello. I'm a doctor. I'd like to look at the scars on your temples if that would be alright with you?"
John stiffened, his breath catching, but he nodded.
Dr. Sanders gently pushed John's hair back and scrutinized the marks. "Do they hurt?"
"No." John shuddered when Dr. Sanders touched the scars, his eyes darting to Teyla's.
She smiled encouragingly. "You are safe here."
"What happened to me?" John asked, his gaze dropping again.
Dr. Sanders stepped back. "Go ahead, Teyla. You've established a rapport. You know what to do."
"Very well." She sat and waited until John met her eyes. "You were separated from us several months ago. We searched every place we could, but we didn't know where you were or what had happened until you found him," she gestured at Ronon, "yesterday. We do not know who hurt you or why, but it is possible they have planted suggestions in your mind which cause you great pain when certain triggers are activated."
John's gaze was steady as he listened. He absorbed her words with a small nod then asked, "What are the triggers?"
"We do not know. Would you allow me to introduce the people in this room?"
"I need you to understand what might happen. If something I say is a trigger, the pain will return."
He nodded slowly. "I understand."
"Good. My name in Teyla Emmagan, and we have been friends for over five years." When John didn't react, she continued. "I am from Athos. This is Ronon Dex from Sateda, and Dr. Rodney McKay from Earth." She smiled brightly when John's mouth quirked slightly. "We are your team."
"My team?" He seemed to be testing out the word.
"Yes. We…work together. Rodney is a scientist, and Ronon is-"
"A soldier." John shrugged. "He looks like one. Except for the hair."
"You're one to talk," Rodney muttered.
"Rodney," Teyla admonished before returning her attention to John. "This is Dr. Jennifer Keller from Earth. She is your physician. And this is Dr. Kenneth Sanders, also from Earth. He is a psychiatrist."
"A shrink?" John asked. "Am I crazy?"
"No, you aren't," Dr. Sanders assured him. "I am here to help figure out what's happened to you."
"Oh." John studied each face, his brows drawn in concentration, then shook his head. "I don't remember."
"Do you recognize anything?" Teyla asked.
"Your face. And theirs." John nodded toward Rodney and Ronon. "I see you in my dreams."
Teyla felt sick. Those horrid nightmares he had were about them? She reached for his hand then stopped as he jerked away from her.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
"You have nothing to be sorry for," Teyla said. "We believe your name may be a trigger. What should we call you for now?"
"How about Colonel?" Rodney suggested.
Teyla winced, waiting for the screams and seizures, but John merely blinked at them. "What?"
"Colonel. It's your rank," Rodney explained. "Well, technically you're a lieutenant colonel, but that takes too long to say every single time we see you-"
"McKay!" Ronon snapped.
"What? Jennifer called him Colonel earlier and nothing happened."
"I'm a colonel?" John asked. "A soldier?"
"Yeah, well, a pilot," Rodney replied. "You're the military commander…here."
Rodney looked at Teyla then turned to Jennifer. "Um…"
John's eyes narrowed, focusing on something behind Teyla. She followed his gaze and stared in horror at the patch on Rodney's shoulder that proudly proclaimed Atlantis.
"Oh, no," she whispered.
John gasped, his eyes widening then rolling back in his head as the convulsions began. Jennifer shouted for help, and Dr. Sanders pushed them from the room as medical personnel raced in.
"That was definitely a conditioned response." Dr. Sanders' face tightened. "I've never seen one that bad."
"A response to what?" Ronon asked.
Teyla pulled the patch from Rodney's arm and handed it to him.
"Oh, God," Rodney breathed. "I didn't even think…" He raked his hands through his hair. "Everything about this place screams Atlantis – the uniforms, the architecture, the technology, even the damn ocean."
"Not everything," Teyla said. "Have you seen Mr. Woolsey's quarters?"
Rodney blinked at her. "Um, no. Why would I… Wait, yeah, I saw them once. From a distance. Why?"
"He has filled it with items from Earth – shelving, floor coverings, curtains, artwork. Unless you looked out the window, you would not know you were in Atlantis," Teyla explained.
Ronon nodded. "So we find him a room and decorate it like it was Earth."
"One of the VIP suites," Rodney suggested. "They look more like apartments than regular quarters."
"We must remove the logos from any equipment we use," Teyla said. "And no uniforms."
"I look stupid in Earth clothes," Ronon protested.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "She was talking to me, Conan. You don't wear a uniform."
"How's this going to work?" Ronon asked. "Won't seeing us remind him of Atlantis?"
"It has not thus far," Teyla reminded them. "I do not believe the word John associates with us is Atlantis so seeing us should not trigger him."
"What word do you think it is?" Rodney asked worriedly.
"Family," Ronon answered. "Do I have to call him Colonel?"
"Do you have another suggestion?" Teyla asked.
"No. Just feels weird."
"You'll get over it," Rodney said. "Family. Really?"
Teyla squeezed his arm. "Really."
The suite was way too big for one person. He circled through it again, trailing a hand over the tomes lined precisely on the cherry wood shelves then rubbing his fingertips together. Not a spec of dust. Not the belongings of someone who'd been missing for months. The doctor, the blond lady – Carter, Keller, something – had told him they were moving him to another room, that they needed to sedate him to do so.
He'd agreed, if only to get some undisturbed sleep. The nightmares were worse here, wherever here was. Most of the past couple of days was a blur, but he knew it had been bad. His throat was raw from screaming, and his entire body ached. He'd woken in this room feeling thick and clumsy and rested. The big man from his dreams had been sitting by the bed. Just sitting. Nothing to read. No music. It was unnerving, but somehow right. The man, Ronon, had said it was nighttime, but there was food available if he was hungry. And he was. So Ronon had gone, reminding him not to leave. He had no intention of leaving. Where would he go?
He… Who was he? Certainly not Taliz, and he felt like an idiot calling himself Colonel.
A set of candles flickered on a table, their scent familiar, comforting. The windows were covered with a heavy black film that he'd been asked not to remove. Apparently the shrink thought looking outside might set off a trigger. The man was probably right. How screwed up was that?
He wheeled when the door slid open, backing into a dark corner when he saw the hulking silhouette in the doorway.
"Easy. It's just me, buddy." Ronon stepped inside, carrying a tray heaped with fruits, sandwiches, and water bottles.
"It means friend."
"I know what it means. Is that what you call me?"
"Sometimes. You want me to call you Colonel?"
That felt wrong. "No. Buddy's fine." He eased forward to sit on the overstuffed leather sofa, willing his heart to stop thundering in his chest. "Whatcha got?"
"One of everything I could find." Ronon set the tray on the table and dropped next to him. "Got turkey. Your favorite."
"Really?" Buddy opened the sandwich Ronon handed him and took a bite. "Oh, wow. That's good."
Ronon smirked at him. "Told you."
He demolished the first sandwich and reached for a second then froze. "Can I have another?"
Ronon's face twitched, and Buddy steeled himself for the beating that had to be coming. But instead the big man stalked angrily across the room, blowing out one deep breath after another.
"Sh- You don't have to ask," Ronon said quietly. "This is your home."
Buddy waited, but Ronon didn't say anything else, just sat down and finished eating his sandwich. The man was obviously furious, but Buddy began to suspect the anger was directed at something besides him. He dug through the pile of sandwiches until he found one that smelled like the last. "I live here?"
He waved a hand. "Here. I live here? It doesn't look like I would've thought."
"Um…" Ronon rubbed his forehead. "Well, this isn't your room, but this city is your home. We thought your room might, uh-"
"Be a trigger. Yeah." Buddy sighed. "How are they going to fix me?"
Ronon shrugged. "I'm not really the guy to ask. The others will be here tomorrow. They'll know."
"Oh. Okay. So, um, do you live here, too?"
"I do now."
"But you didn't before?"
"I'm from Sateda. Wraith destroyed it. You know who the Wraith are?"
"Yeah. One of the places Galed – he was the bar owner who found me – anyway, a world where Galed set up shop was culled."
"While you were there?"
Buddy nodded. "We hid in some caves."
Ronon's face grew dark. "This Galed, he hurt you?"
"Sometimes." His face reddened. "I fought him once, but something set off one of the triggers. It didn't end well. I just- it hurt so bad…"
"You survived. That's all that matters."
Buddy glanced at Ronon's hardened features, wondering whether the man was telling the truth. Was surviving really all that mattered? Had he done enough, fought hard enough? Would he ever find himself again? "What now?"
Ronon grinned and stood. "Now, you sleep."
"What about you?"
"I'll be right here."
For the first time he could remember, the nightmares didn't come.
A strange clacking sound that was somehow both irritating and soothing woke him the next day.
"Trying to sleep here, McKay." He didn't know where the words came from and cringed in horror when something fumbled and crashed.
"Dammit! What the hell… Oh, hey, you're awake."
Buddy rolled over to see the stocky man who was always arguing in his dreams. "Um…yeah. Sorry about that. You're…McKay?"
"Dr. Rodney McKay. Two PhDs, just so you know."
"Where'd the other guy go?"
"Ronon? Jennifer, um, Dr. Keller told him to eat, sleep, and shower. Not necessarily in that order." McKay grinned. "You hungry?"
Buddy raked a hand through his hair as his stomach growled. "Is it mealtime? Sorry. I didn't know. Um, if you'll show me where everything is, I'll make…" He trailed off as McKay's jaw tightened. "I'd like to earn my keep around here."
McKay sighed. "You don't have to cook, Colonel. We already have people who do that."
"Oh, right. Military leader. Maybe I could-"
"Listen, the others will be here in about an hour to talk about treatment and stuff. Why don't I get some breakfast while you take a shower?"
"That works, too," he murmured at McKay's retreating back.
The shower was an experience. After he figured out how to turn it on – and pushed away the memory that tried to surface – he let the cascading water pour over his head and shoulders, washing away the fear and muscle aches. He finally climbed out when McKay shouted that breakfast was ready. The blue shirt and jeans were a bit loose, but they felt familiar when he pulled them on and padded into the den.
McKay blinked rapidly and looked away. "I brought-" he cleared his throat a few times, "I brought scrambled eggs and bacon."
"Yeah, fine, never better."
"Oh, sorry. I thought-"
"It's just really good to see you looking like, you know, you."
Buddy accepted a plate and sat down. "Are these my clothes?"
"Well, they certainly aren't mine," McKay retorted. "You're taller, and…well…" He flapped a hand.
When McKay's hand went up, all Buddy saw was Galed. He dropped his plate as he flinched and turned his face away, one arm raised to cover his head. The dead silence seemed to last forever. He screwed up his courage and glanced at McKay. The man looked horrified – eyes wide, face bone white, chest heaving as he stared at Buddy. The white flushed immediately to scarlet, and his hands shook as he set his plate on the table and walked away.
"I'm sorry," Buddy apologized as he knelt to clean up the mess. "I don't know why I did that."
"Stop," McKay commanded quietly. "Stop doing that and sit down."
Buddy placed the pieces of plate on the table and wiped his hands then sat on the sofa and watched McKay pace in circles.
"Look, Colonel, I'll be the first to admit that I suck at this sort of thing. I'm probably going to say this badly so I'm only going to say it… No, no, I'm going to say it as many times as it takes for you to understand. You have nothing to fear from us, least of all from me. We're friends, as strange as that may sound. Good friends, and I can count on one hand the number of people I can say that about."
McKay sat next to him and looked him straight in the eye. "I know your memory's messed up, but the real you is in there, the one who plays chess and video golf, the one who can spend hours arguing with me about Batman and still speak to me later. You saved Teyla and her son from a horrible death, you rescued Ronon from the Wraith, and you blew past two hive ships to try to help me when I was dying. You risk your life every day for the people here, and they would die for you. We all would." McKay sighed heavily. "You don't have to be afraid. We won't let anyone hurt you. We're going to find who did this to you, and God help them when we do." He turned away and picked up his plate. "Here. Help me eat this before it gets cold."
Buddy picked up his fork and clutched it tightly to stop the tremors. "Thanks, McKay."
"Rodney. You can call me Rodney. And you're welcome."
"Rodney." Buddy snagged a slice of bacon, chewing slowly as he allowed the emotion to settle. "So, who's Batman?"
Rodney's face brightened. "Only the greatest superhero ever."
They finished eating and cleaned up the broken glass and bits of egg while Rodney proclaimed all of Batman's attributes. He was describing the capabilities of the Batmobile when the door chimed.
"I thought we agreed…" Rodney grumbled as he got to his feet, stopping when the door opened.
"Sorry," a small man with frizzy hair and glasses said, "I forgot."
"What is it, Radek?"
The man leaned around Rodney. "I am here to see the colonel." He grinned at Buddy. "May I enter?"
Buddy shrugged. "Sure."
"Thank you. I am Radek Zelenka. I work with him." Radek rolled his eyes toward Rodney. "I brought you something." He handed Buddy a box. "It is from my home country."
Buddy lifted the lid. A heavy glass bowl with intricate design lay inside. "Thanks."
"It is crystal. Perhaps you would like to put this in it?" Radek gave him a huge yellow bag that rattled.
He tore it open and grinned. "Cool!"
"Peanut M&Ms! Where did you get those?" Rodney demanded.
"I have been saving them for a special occasion. One such as this."
Buddy's pulse raced as the two men argued. What had he done?
Finally, Radek said, "I must get back to work. Have a pleasant day, Colonel. Rodney."
When the doors slid shut, Buddy offered the bag to Rodney. "You can have them. I don't want to cause trouble for your employee."
Rodney's eyes grew sad. "No, they're yours. I don't- I was teasing Zelenka. You-" He swallowed thickly. "You eat them."
The candies clattered as Buddy poured them in the bowl. "Which color tastes the best?"
"They don't taste different."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course, I'm sure. The coating on the outside has food coloring in it. That's all."
Buddy chose a yellow then a red. "I don't know…"
"Oh, for God's sake," Rodney muttered, grabbing a handful. "I'm telling you," he stuffed one in his mouth, "there isn't any difference."
A chuckle from the doorway interrupted the sniping. "Good to know some things don't change."
"Carson!" Rodney exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
A kind-faced man entered. "I heard the colonel was home." He extended his hand. "Carson Beckett."
Buddy shook his hand. "Hi. I'm-"
"I know who you are, son. It's good to see you."
"Carson's a doctor," Rodney said. "Of medicine, not real science like me."
"Pay no attention to him. His people skills were removed at birth," Carson said, but there was fondness in his voice.
"Did we meet before?" Buddy asked. "My memory…"
"No, lad. I just arrived. My work is mostly on other planets these days." Carson sighed. "It's a long story."
Another knock at the door ended the conversation. Soon the room was overflowing – Rodney, Carson, Ronon, Teyla, Dr. Keller, the shrink, and a bald man named Woolsey.
Once everyone was settled in the den, the shrink began. "I'm Dr. Sanders. We met yesterday." When Buddy nodded, he continued. "We've been discussing treatment options, and we have several ideas. Based on previous experience, we would like to start with a combination of drugs, therapy, and meditation. Would that be okay?"
Buddy shifted under so many pairs of eyes staring at him. He didn't know what answer they wanted, what they expected of him. His heart thudded in his chest, and he jumped when fingers curled around his.
"Colonel?" Teyla leaned toward him. "We will do whatever you are comfortable with. This is your choice."
"My- Okay. Um," he focused on her eyes, "what do you think?"
"I cannot choose for you. However, what Dr. Sanders is proposing has been successful in the past."
"Will it make me, me again?" When she glanced at Dr. Sanders, he followed her gaze. "Will it?" he asked the shrink.
"I don't want to scare you, but I don't want to give you false hope, either," Dr. Sanders said. "Every person is different, and we aren't sure what happened to you. I think with time and patience, we can break the triggers. The rest will be up to you."
Buddy looked at the faces around him then forced himself to meet their eyes and was amazed. No hate, no anger, no irritation or superiority or apathy. Instead he found hope, affection, encouragement, love. For him. At that moment, he would have done anything they asked.
"When do we start?"
"My legs won't do that," Buddy protested.
Teyla laughed lightly. "You do not have to sit exactly like this. Merely in a way you find comfortable."
He squirmed until his legs were loose then put his hands on his knees. "Now what?"
"Can you feel when one of the triggers is activating?"
"Yes." It was an understatement. His heart seized, his muscles locked up, and his nerves lit on fire. Then it got really bad.
"Some people have had success battling the effects with breathing exercises and meditation. We will start slowly. Close your eyes. Breathe in deeply through your nose. Feel your lungs expand fully. Hold the breath. Listen to your heart beat. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Good. Now, again."
They repeated the process again and again until Buddy felt the tension melt away. He let his mind drift, focusing on taking each breath. An image flashed – another woman with soft brown hair and sad eyes who taught him to meditate, reached for him, called his name…
"Colonel, I need you to breathe. Breathe!"
Buddy's eyes flew open. Teyla leaned over him, panic and fear marring her features. She was gripping his shoulders tightly enough to bruise.
"What-" Oh, damn. His voice was hoarse. "A trigger?"
She rocked back on her heels and helped him sit up. "Yes. Do you remember anything?"
The other woman's face dissolved like a vapor. "No, sorry. What now?"
"We try again. Do not let your mind wander this time." Teyla ran her hands under her eyes then through her hair. "Now, breathe in deeply."
Buddy complied, staying far away from the dark place in his mind where memory and pain resided.
"Good afternoon, Colonel. How are you feeling today?"
Buddy shrugged. "About the same, I guess."
Dr. Sanders smiled. "Remember, for this to work, I need you to be specific."
"Oh, right. Um, well, I feel fine. Physically, I mean. Food's good, temperature's right. The doc, uh, Keller, said my arm is healing and most of the bruises are gone."
"And your sleep?"
Buddy glanced away. "Not so good. The nightmares won't go away."
"I know. How are you mentally and emotionally?"
"I'm a little frustrated." Buddy scrubbed a hand over his neck. "Everybody knows all this stuff, and I can't remember anything. I freak out when I try. Today, I…"
"I hurt Carson this morning." His face burned with shame. "We were talking and then I was on the floor and he had a broken nose."
"It wasn't your fault."
"Then whose was it?" He jumped to his feet and paced angrily. "We've been at this a week and nothing! I can't leave this room; I can't do my job; I can't even be around most people because I might go off. This isn't working!"
Dr. Sanders sat quietly, watching, until Buddy dropped into his seat. "Last week, you wouldn't have raised your voice or expressed any anger. You are improving."
"I want to be normal again. Isn't there anything else we can try? Besides more drugs. They don't help."
"There is one thing. I'm not sure it will work, but I'm willing to try if you are."
"What is it?"
"Hypnosis," Dr. Sanders answered. "You aren't typically the kind of person who would respond well to it."
"You mean The Colonel isn't." Buddy rubbed his eyes tiredly. "I'm not him. At least not right now."
"Very well. Let's give it a try. Would it be alright if someone else was here? I would like a second person present just in case."
"Who would you like?"
Buddy thought for a moment. "Ronon."
"Because you trust him?"
"Because he's big enough to stop me from hurting you. And because I trust him."
Ronon arrived minutes later, and after a few explanations, they began. The world around Buddy faded slowly, his eyelids shut, his entire body relaxed. All that existed was Dr. Sanders' voice.
"Colonel, you are safe. You are surrounded by friends, and nothing can hurt you. Do you understand?"
"Good. Now, I want you to imagine you are walking down a long hallway. There are doors on both sides and each one is marked with a date. Can you see them?"
"I want you to open the one from yesterday and tell me what you see."
The door opened and Buddy looked in. "I see Teyla."
"What is she doing?"
"Laughing. Torren smeared pudding in my hair."
"Okay. Let's try another one. Find last week."
Buddy opened the door and moaned as pain danced down his spine.
"You are safe, Colonel. You are outside the door and nothing can hurt you."
Safe. Safe. Safe. The pain receded to a dull throb.
"What do you see?"
Buddy took a deep breath and looked in. "Faces. I don't know them. They're shouting for help. Someone's hurt. He's screaming."
"Close the door and back up another week."
The pungent scent of animal dung made his eyes water. "Gromma."
"We're on Gromma, setting up. Big trade day starts when the suns cross."
"Go back two weeks."
Buddy opened the door and quickly closed it again, his face turning red. "Galed found a companion for the night."
"Go back a month."
The door open, and he staggered back in horror. "NO! NO! Oh, please, God, stop!"
"You're safe, Colonel! Close the door."
Something was holding him fast. "I can't! Can't move. Make it stop!"
"Ronon… Try now, Colonel. Close the door."
Buddy slammed the door shut and sank to the floor, wrapping his arms around his knees and burying his face.
"Take deep breaths, Colonel. Remember, you are safe. Nothing in that room can hurt you. Can you tell me what you saw?"
"Black…hideous… They were ripping them apart. The screaming… I can't…"
"You don't have to. Relax. I want you to look down the hall. Can you see other doors?"
Buddy squinted into the distance. The hallway blurred, swam, rippled. "It's hard to see, but I think there are more doors."
"That's fine. You did very well. Now, stand up and walk back the way you came. When you see the door marked today, I want you to open it and walk in."
Holding on to the wall for support, Buddy staggered to his feet and made his way down the hall and opened the door.
His eyes flew open to find Dr. Sanders smiling gently at him. Ronon sat nearby, clenching and unclenching his fists.
"How do you feel, Colonel?"
"Tired. I failed, didn't I?"
"On the contrary, you succeeded. Your memory is still there, but the block against it is very strong."
Buddy slammed his fists on his knees. "So, what do we do now?"
"We keep trying."
Teyla studied each face at the conference table. "Are you saying he cannot be healed?"
"No, not at all," Jennifer answered. "We think it is possible, with other methods."
"We have had daily sessions for two weeks now. You know that by that time I had broken all of the triggers for Kanaan." Dr. Sanders' eyes filled with sorrow. "I haven't made the slightest bit of progress with Colonel Sheppard."
"You said each person would respond differently," Teyla replied.
"That's true, but we should be seeing some improvement by now. The drugs have had no effect, and therapy has progressed as far as it can. He's told me everything he can remember from the moment he woke up on Brali, but nothing before then."
"It's not his fault." Rodney snapped.
"Of course it isn't."
"What is the prognosis?" Mr. Woolsey asked.
"Carson?" Jennifer prompted.
Carson turned on the video displays. "The first image is John's brain scan from the last post-mission check before he disappeared. The second was taken the day Ronon brought him home. This area," he circled a bright red spot on the second, "is significantly different than here." He pointed to the same area on the first which was orange. "The Ancient scanner gives us much clearer definition of what is happening in the brain. These lines," he traced several curvy green lines, "are the chemical synapses that store memory."
Teyla compared the lines on the two diagrams. "They have changed."
"Exactly. Somehow the synapses in his brain have been rerouted. Put simply, they have been tied to the pain center. He physically cannot remember without being in incredible pain."
"Why is the color different?" Rodney asked.
Carson sighed. "There is still so much about the brain we don't understand. The color signifies activity. My best guess is that he is constantly forcing the memories away."
Rodney hung his head. "Of course he is. Even as much as we've tried to hide it, this is Atlantis. With that damn gene, he can sense the technology. I should have thought of that."
Teyla walked to the displays. "Why are these lines so tangled?"
"I don't know," Carson confessed.
"They may be false memories," Dr. Sanders suggested. "We saw similar knots in the scans of some of the hybrids."
"I do have one spot of good news." Carson turned on a third display. "This scan was taken yesterday."
Teyla studied it carefully then glanced back at the first. "This line has been restored," she said.
"Yes," Carson said. "One of the synapses has been repaired."
"How?" Rodney asked.
"We don't know. Perhaps a combination of being here with us, being called Colonel, maybe even being around the Ancient tech."
Rodney frowned at the display. "So he has part of his memory back?"
"Not exactly," Carson replied. "I think we merely have a very small crack in what's blocking his memory."
Teyla traced the thick line through the blue spot. "What does that mean?"
"It means we need to try a new approach," Dr. Sanders answered.
Mr. Woolsey straightened his folders with a tap. "What are your recommendations?"
Dr. Sanders glanced at Jennifer who nodded. "We want to use that repaired synapse to reintroduce his name."
"Will that not cause him great pain?" Teyla asked.
"Probably, but I'm not sure we have any other options. Once the new pathway is established, his name shouldn't activate the trigger anymore."
Rodney frowned. "How does that fix Sheppard's memory?"
"It doesn't," Carson answered. "A conditioned response is just that – John doesn't access his memories because he associates it with pain. We can work around the pain, but he has to decide to remember."
"Are there any dangers?" Mr. Woolsey asked.
"Other than him losing his identity forever? Not really," Dr. Sanders replied. "The chance of a psychotic break is remote. Do not confuse chemical synapses with a chemical imbalance. His brain chemistry is fine. Colonel Sheppard is not unstable."
Mr. Woolsey nodded. "Very well. If Colonel Sheppard is willing to try, do your best."
Ronon slouched on the sofa and stretched his legs, smiling to himself as Sheppard twitched in sync with the sword fight. He did the same thing when he watched sports, like he could help by moving with them. When the fight ended and the talking started again, Sheppard sat back with a frown.
"Any more sword fights coming?"
"One, I think."
"You're sure I like this move?"
Ronon rolled his eyes. "Yes, I'm sure. You watch it a lot."
Sheppard didn't look convinced. "The sword fights are good, but why would that Buttercup chick ever agree to marry Humperdinck?"
"I don't know. I always assumed it was some Earth culture thing I didn't get."
"Hmm… I like a movie called The Princess Bride. Not what I expected."
"Well, you like other movies, too, but you quote this one all the time. Of course, maybe you do that to irritate McKay."
"Where is Rodney? He's usually the morning shift. Not that I mind you being here or anything."
Ronon debated on how much to share then decided Sheppard deserved the truth. "There was a meeting this morning with the doctors."
"Why wasn't I invited?"
"They didn't want to upset you."
Sheppard's face clouded. "You mean they didn't want to risk setting off a trigger. Dammit!" He jumped to his feet and paced a few steps, jamming his fingers through his hair. "I am so tired of people walking on eggshells around me. There has to be a way to fix this."
"My name isn't Buddy! It's…" Sheppard collapsed in a chair and buried his head in his hands. "I can't do this anymore, Ronon. You guys are stuck…here… I used to think this room was too big, but it's crushing me. I can't stand looking at the same four walls day in and day out. You've put your lives on hold for me, and that isn't fair. You've-"
"You don't get it, do you?" Ronon leaned forward until Sheppard looked up. "None of that matters. Not to us."
"Because…" Sheppard shrugged. "Because it should. If I were me, the real me, what would you be doing right now?"
"Kicking your ass in the gym."
The corner of Sheppard's mouth quirked up. "Really? Well, maybe this isn't so bad then."
Ronon chuckled when the movie's next sword fight caught Sheppard's attention. He didn't blame the man for being frustrated. He would've already ripped the place apart if he'd been stuck in this room for almost a month. Sheppard acted and sounded more like himself these days, and sometimes Ronon forgot that he wasn't. Then one of those really bad nightmares would hit, and Sheppard would wake up screaming and clawing and wouldn't look anyone in the eye for hours. The hypnosis sessions were worse, reducing his best friend to a quivering wreck in a matter of minutes. Teyla and McKay had offered to come instead, but Ronon had refused. He didn't want anyone else to see John like that. The man would be embarrassed enough as it was when his memory returned, and Ronon was determined to protect as much of his dignity as he could.
"Humperdinck really doesn't die in the end?" Sheppard asked.
"Well, that sucks."
Ronon agreed. The bad guys should always get what they deserved. One day, someone was going to pay for what they did to Sheppard, even if it took Ronon the rest of his life to find them.
"Oh, my God. Tell me you are not watching that movie again."
Sheppard's flinch was almost imperceptible, but the muscles in his neck loosened visibly when he turned to the doorway.
"Hey, Rodney. This is a great movie. You don't like it?"
Ronon was impressed at how straight Sheppard kept his face. So much like the old Sheppard it hurt.
McKay heaved a dramatic sigh and stared daggers at Ronon. "You couldn't have found anything else?"
"Could have. Didn't."
"Um, Sh- Colonel," McKay began, "Teyla and the doctors will be here in a minute. They want to talk to you about another treatment. Is that okay?"
Sheppard slumped. "Yeah, whatever."
McKay shot a concerned glance at Ronon. "You sure? Because we don't want-"
"It's fine, Rodney."
"If you're sure…"
"What do I have to lose? Besides my mind?" Sheppard chuckled bitterly.
"I said it's fine, McKay," Sheppard snapped. Then his shoulders sagged. "I'm sorry, Rodney. I'm just…"
"Yeah," McKay said quietly. "Me too."
When the doctors arrived and explained what they wanted to do, Sheppard readily agreed. They shut off the movie and locked the door. Keller and Carson set some medicines and equipment within easy reach, and Sanders arranged the chairs.
"Do you wish for us to leave, Colonel?" Teyla asked.
Fear flashed on Sheppard's face, and his knuckles turned white as he gripped the arms of his chair. "No," he whispered. "I think I'm gonna need all the help I can get."
Teyla took the seat next to Sheppard and slid her hand over his. "We will be right here. Just remember to breathe."
McKay sat on the other side of Sheppard, and Ronon took his place behind them. When Sanders began, Sheppard quickly relaxed and responded to questions with that dream-state voice that creeped Ronon out.
"Alright, Colonel, you are in a library filled from floor to ceiling with books. Can you see it?"
"Each book has a name on it. I want you to find the one labeled Teyla. Open it and tell me what you see."
"Pretty lady with copper hair."
"Good. Put it back and find the one labeled Rodney."
Sheppard snorted. "His name is Meredith."
McKay jerked in surprise. "How did he know that? Who told?"
"How do you know his name is Meredith?" Sanders asked.
"Says so right here," Sheppard answered.
"What else does it say?"
"He has a sister named Jeannie, a niece named Madison, and a cat he gave away to a neighbor. He's arrogant and egotistical-"
"-but he's braver than he knows."
"Are you sure you're doing this right?" McKay asked Sanders.
"Okay, Colonel. Put it back, and find the one labeled Colonel."
Sheppard's shoulders hunched to his ears. "He's dead."
"He is?" Sanders turned wide eyes to Keller. "What else does it say?"
"I killed him."
Sanders gaped for a minute. "Really? How?"
"Shot him through the heart."
"Oh, God," McKay gasped. "He's talking about Sumner."
"Colonel, put that one back, and find the one labeled Lieutenant Colonel," Sanders corrected.
The tension eased from Sheppard's shoulders for a second then returned. "It's blank."
Sanders nodded. "That's okay. Check the spine of the book. Do you see anything on it to indicate where it should be filed?"
Sheppard moaned as he went rigid. "Yes," he whispered.
"Colonel, listen very carefully. You are not alone. You are surrounded by your friends. Do you understand?"
Ronon settled a hand on Sheppard's shoulder while Teyla wrapped both her hands around his and McKay gripped his arm.
Sheppard's breathing hitched, but his head bobbed. "Yes."
"I need you to look around the library and find the section your book belongs in."
Sheppard whimpered, and his entire body trembled, but he nodded again. "Okay."
"Can you see it?" Sanders asked.
"It's dark, so dark." Sheppard's breath came in ragged gasps. "Someone's screaming. They're all screaming."
"Focus, Colonel. Find the section."
"No, please. Make it stop."
"Find the section. The screaming will stop when you find the section."
"Oh, God." Sheppard twisted in the chair. "No more. Please, no more."
"You can do it," McKay whispered. "Don't give up."
"Please try," Teyla murmured.
Ronon leaned forward and pressed his head to Sheppard's. "Come on, buddy."
Sheppard choked on a sob. "I- I see it."
"Walk straight to it," Sanders ordered. "Don't look around."
"Okay," Sheppard rasped.
"What is in the section?"
"More books. Lots of them."
"Good. Pick one and tell me what's written on the outside."
Sanders' smile grew wide. "David what?"
"I- I can't tell. It's blurry."
"Can you still hear the screaming?"
Sheppard's head jerked. "Yes."
"Can you sense your friends with you?"
"Do you trust them?"
Sheppard didn't hesitate. "Yes."
Ronon squeezed Sheppard's shoulder firmly.
"What does the book say?"
Sheppard lurched forward with a cry, both hands flying toward his face. Ronon looped his arm around Sheppard's chest, pulled him back and held tight. Teyla hugged him and pressed her face to his neck. McKay gently tugged his wrists down.
"Colonel, your friends will protect you. Don't be afraid."
"Stop!" Sheppard begged. "Please stop. Don't hurt them anymore."
"Colonel, don't look around," Sanders said. "Look at the book."
"Yes, you can. Concentrate, Colonel. Focus only on the book."
"Fight, buddy," Ronon encouraged him. "You're not a quitter."
Sheppard moaned, breath rattling in his chest. "Okay."
"Nothing can hurt you, Colonel. Tell me the name on the book."
"David…" Sheppard began to pant again. "Sheppard," he whispered.
"Good. Put the book back and choose another. What does it say?"
"Excellent. Pick up your book, Colonel. What does it say?"
"Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard."
He was surrounded. Bodies pressed in on all sides. She stood tall in the midst of them, defiant. He struggled against the hands holding him back.
Suddenly fear filled her face. "Go! That's an order."
He fought harder, but the hands wouldn't let him go. Her eyes begged him to save her.
She dissolved before his eyes.
The bodies around him began to morph. Hair grew long and white. Skin paled to gray. He scrambled but couldn't get free.
"Hello, John Sheppard," one hissed.
A hand slammed into his chest. He arched against it, screaming in pain.
He bolted upright, gasping for breath as the scream echoed in the room. Gagging, he staggered to the bathroom and dropped to his knees, clinging to the edge of the cabinet as he dry-heaved. Once he got his body under control again, he pulled himself to his feet, splashed water on his face, and gulped down a few sips. He looked at the reflection in the mirror and panicked. Who the hell was that?
He stumbled into the other room, glancing around wildly. A small bed. A poster of a man. A musical instrument with strings. A board with wheels. Everything familiar. Nothing he recognized.
A small piece of paper next to the bed caught his attention.
You are Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. This is your room. Call me when you wake up.
PS – Use the radio.
The little memory that he had flooded back like it did every morning, at least for the past several days. His name was John. He lived in Atlantis. He was safe. Rodney, Ronon and Teyla were his friends.
John sank onto the bed and waited until he could breathe then picked up the radio. "Um, hello?"
"What the hell… Hang on. No, no, no. I told you not to touch that. Was ebay having a sale on PhDs? Just…whatever. Sheppard? You there?"
"Yeah. Listen, I'm tied up at the moment. No, not literally. Well, almost. Anyway, let me give Teyla a call. She'll be there in a few minutes, okay?"
John set the radio down and turned around slowly. His room was fairly presentable. He straightened the sheets on the bed and tossed a couple of shirts into a pile in the corner. A cool breeze on the back of his legs reminded him that he needed to get dressed. He tugged a t-shirt over his head and slid on a pair of jeans and was hunting for socks when his door chimed.
"I cannot," Teyla replied. "The door is locked."
"Oh, um. Hang on." John frowned in concentration until Rodney's instructions popped in his head. He waved at the crystal array and grinned happily when the door slid open. "Hey, Teyla."
"Good morning, John. How are you feeling?"
"I'm fine. How are you?"
"Hungry," she admitted with a laugh. "Torren was ill last night, and I missed dinner."
"Is he okay?"
"He has a cold according to Jennifer. He will be fine. He is sleeping at the moment."
"If you need to be with him…"
Teyla smiled. "Kanaan is caring for him today. Would you like to get breakfast?"
John glanced at the corridor. "In the mess hall?"
"Yes, if you feel up to it. Otherwise I can get something and bring it here."
He blew out a shaky breath. "No. I want to go to the mess hall."
"Very well." She put a hand out when he stepped toward the door. "You may want to put on your shoes."
"Oh, right." He stuffed his feet in sneakers, laced them quickly, and stood. "Okay."
John followed Teyla through the hallway to a transporter, his heart pounding in excitement as she poked at the map and his body tingled. He loved transporting. Rodney had told him he would love flying jumpers and going through the gate more, but he wasn't sure he believed it. How could anything be cooler than transporting?
Most of the breakfast rush had passed according to Teyla so the hall wasn't crowded. He grabbed a tray, chose several delicious-looking foods, and followed her to a balcony table. The breeze carried a hint of rain, and he spotted dark clouds on the horizon. The sun shone brightly over them, however, and he dug in, content to listen to Teyla chatter about the latest news from New Athos.
A face flashed in his mind – a small boy with curious eyes and a Wraith mask. The boy was talking to the woman he'd failed to save in his dream. He clenched his eyes shut, willing the memory away.
"John?" Teyla peered at him with concern. "Are you feeling well?"
He nodded then shook his head. "Who is Elizabeth?"
Teyla grew very still. "Why?"
"I dreamed about her. Did I kill her?"
"No, you did not."
"But she's dead, isn't she?"
"What makes you say that?"
"It hurts, here," he tapped his chest, "when I dream about her."
Teyla sighed sadly. "The Elizabeth you knew no longer exists."
"It is a long and complicated story. One that you already know."
"Yes, John, you do. You were there for all of it."
"I don't remember."
"You do not or you will not?"
He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"The memories are there, John. You know they are. I can see you fight them. Why?"
"I- They-" John's head throbbed as the memories fought to be released. "I'm scared of what I'll find there." He stopped, searching for the words to describe it. "It's a dark, ugly area in my head. Everything is wrapped up there, and I can't sort it out. The parts that do come out – in my dreams – are, well, I'm not sure I want to remember."
Teyla stood and picked up her tray. "Come with me."
He gathered the remnants of his meal and followed. They dumped their trash and transported to another section. She led him to a room with muted colors and stained glass.
"Yes, and more," Teyla answered. "This is where I meditate."
"Sit," she instructed.
Sighing, he plopped on the floor and got as comfortable as he could. They practiced a few breathing exercises. Her voice was calm and soothing, and he slowly relaxed.
"Do not fear your memories, John. Your past has made you into the man you are – a good man, one who gives selflessly, who protects those around him."
He scrubbed his hands on his knees, trying to control the rising panic. How could she be so sure?
"Imagine yourself in a green field. The sounds of nature are around you. Relax. Focus on your heart, your lungs. Feel the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the breeze. Breathe."
His muscles turned to jelly. His breathing slowed to normal, and his heart beat in a steady rhythm.
"Open your mind. Let one memory in. You are in control of which one. Choose a happy memory."
He was in control. He could do this. One memory. Just one. He opened the dark place in his mind, flinching at the pain and guilt.
"Breathe, John. Deep steady breaths."
He glared at the darkness, forcing it back until he could see a tiny, fragile thread. He clutched the thread and slowly let the memory in. He took a ragged breath and smiled.
"Will you share it with me?" Teyla asked.
"McKay and I are in a corridor racing remote cars. You're there. You're laughing, really laughing. You have Torren in your arms. I don't know where Ronon… Ronon's in the infirmary because Michael- Oh, God. Michael." His heart hammered in his chest as the images flew at him. "Oh, my God. All those people."
"Do not think about Michael. Tell me about the corridor. What are we doing?"
"We…we're having a good time. We're having fun. We had fun."
"Yes, we did," Teyla whispered.
John's eyes flew open when her hands touched his face.
She leaned in and pressed her forehead to his. "You saved me from Michael. You saved Torren from him. That is a debt I can never repay."
"I don't know. You're doing a pretty good job right now."
"We need you, John. We need you to remember who you are."
"Because there are more Michaels out there?"
"No. Because there is only one of you."
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" John asked.
McKay handed him another beer. "This was what you did for me when my memory was failing."
"And it made you better?"
"Nope. It made me drunk."
John's face scrunched in confusion. "So how is this supposed to help me?"
McKay popped the tab and took a drink. "I don't recall saying it would."
"What? You said you needed to get away for a while."
"I meant from the memories."
"Getting drunk will definitely help with that."
John rolled his eyes. "I don't want to get drunk. I've spent every day for the past week reconstructing my memory. I wanted a break."
"We're having one. Fresh air, sunshine. Too bad Sam isn't here."
"Sam?" John frowned in concentration. "You mean Colonel Carter?"
"No, Sam the whale. From Old Lantea."
"The one that almost killed us."
McKay snorted in derision. "He saved my life. Twice in fact."
John scratched his ear. "I seem to recall him making us deaf."
"Aw," McKay waved a hand. "That was just temporary."
"Lucky for us. Otherwise…" He trailed off as more of that day returned.
He rubbed his temples. "So much has changed since then. Carson, Elizabeth…" He swallowed thickly. "I left her, Rodney. I left her with the Replicators."
"And I made her a Replicator." McKay sighed heavily. "Look, I know you blame yourself, but don't. You did what she wanted. Atlantis was more important to her than her own life. You honored her request and saved the city."
"And the second time? When I let her walk through that gate into space?"
"God, John. We all did. And it's the same answer. To protect Atlantis. She did what she thought was necessary."
John chugged his beer and slammed the can on the pier. "Maybe getting drunk is the right idea."
"No, it's not." McKay stood and offered a hand. "Come with me."
"Just come on."
He let McKay pull him up then followed him to a transporter. They arrived in a hallway where recessed lighting illumined the walls. Pictures covered the surface as far as he could see.
"What is this?"
"I should have thought of this earlier," McKay said. "Elizabeth started this when we found this section during our first year here. We've had to redo it several times thanks to floods and rough landings." He cut his eyes at John then started walking. "This is the Hallway of Remembrance. The pictures on this wall are the people we've lost in the past five years."
John studied the photos, struggling to put a name with each face. Sumner. Grodin. Abrams. Dumais. Gall. His heart constricted. Ford. Carson. Elizabeth. Heightmeyer. So many others. Names of planets and peoples that he'd failed. Hundreds. Thousands.
He couldn't lift his eyes. "And the rest?" he whispered.
"They're the ones we saved."
John gasped as he stared down the hallway. Thousands of faces stared back. "What?"
"These people we saved from a culling. This group over here from some kind of plague. We rebuilt this village after a forest fire, and these two after a hurricane. We rescued this guy here from a prison island. These are the Athosians. You know Ronon. That group there…I can't remember what we did, but they send the best dessert stuff every year in thanks."
"What are these marks?" John traced his fingers over deep grooves in the wall. "There must be thousands of them."
"The Wraith we've killed. Ronon keeps that up."
John couldn't decide between being elated and horrified. "That many?"
"We've tried to find ways to live in peace. None that have been successful yet. It's a matter of survival."
"You sound more like a soldier than a scientist."
"Now, that's just insulting."
John grinned at him. "What are friends for?"
"I'm not falling for that again," John insisted. "That is not a traditional Satedan sport."
"Chicken," Ronon taunted.
"You have got to stop hanging around the Marines. Next thing I know, you'll have a buzz cut."
John wiped his face with a towel and reset his stance. "I'm never going to be as good as you."
Ronon feinted then turned and punched. John blocked, wrapped an arm around Ronon, and found himself flying through the air. He sucked in a breath, trying desperately to refill his empty lungs. Ronon smirked and offered a hand up.
John accepted then braced his hands on his knees. "You…suck."
"No, you suck. I'm really good at this."
Ronon grinned and slapped him on the back. "You ready for round three?"
"Not a chance." John gulped from his water bottle and took a seat.
"You can't quit now."
"Sure I can. I'm the team leader, remember?"
"Not yet. Keller hasn't cleared you for full duty."
"My next check up is tomorrow. She will then."
Ronon waggled his eyebrows. "Not if I tell her how out of shape you are."
"I am not out of shape. I just prefer to do my fighting a different way."
"You mean you're lazy."
John laughed. "Absolutely. I never claimed to be anything else."
They left the gym, taking the long way back to quarters. John relished the sights and sounds around him – crew passing with smiles and nods, Atlantis humming at the edge of his mind, the whispers of conversation and echoes of laughter. His memory had mostly righted itself after three more weeks of daily sessions with Sanders and Teyla. Sometimes the order of events was hazy, and he still woke with a scream lodged in his throat from the occasional nightmare, but all in all, he was John Sheppard again. For better and for worse. He chose to not dwell on things he'd said and done when his team had first brought him home. They had seen him at his worst and they still cared so who was he to be embarrassed over a few freak outs?
He'd hacked into McKay's files and read the logs about the time while he was gone. He was pretty sure Rodney knew he'd done it, but the man had never said anything. The colonel who'd replaced him had been recalled by the SGC at Woolsey's request. Lorne had never looked happier. Dr. Sanders allowed him to talk or not. John mostly talked, appreciating an unbiased sounding board as he worked through his memories. He had a lot of junk, but a lot of good stuff, too. Good friends.
"You okay?" Ronon asked.
John nodded. "Ronon, six months… I-"
"Don't." Ronon blocked his path. "I only did what you've done for me, more than once."
"No," Ronon insisted. "This is what we do. We're a team. We're…"
"What do you mean you aren't going to tell us?" McKay's lips pressed into a thin line. "We are not going to let this go."
John sighed as he gazed into the burning eyes of his teammates. It hadn't been an easy decision, but it was the right one.
"Sheppard," Ronon growled. "They deserve-"
"Stop." John held up a hand. "I know what you think, big guy. I know what all of you think. Hell, I've thought it. But those people didn't know what they were doing. Not really. They were trying to mete out justice for one of their own, just like we would do."
"John, they almost destroyed you," Teyla said. "Surely we cannot allow them to do so again."
"No, we can't. I sent Lorne with jumpers and two squadrons of Marines. They have very specific orders. To find that machine and destroy it. Nothing more. No one gets hurt."
Ronon slammed his fists on the table, the sound echoing through the empty mess hall. "That's not enough!"
"It's going to have to be," John said. "Because that's all there is."
"Are you sure?" Rodney asked. "We've got the technology-"
"And that's why we can't. We have a lot of power which means we have a lot of responsibility and we can't go beating up other planets like the neighborhood bully. We were careless. On Loutif where we started the stampede. A man died. We can't keep doing things like that."
Ronon turned away to stare at the sky. McKay's gaze dropped to the table. Teyla smiled and squeezed John's hand. The minutes ticked by in silence until Rodney glanced up with a crooked grin.
"I guess I can live with it if you can."
"Ronon?" John asked. "You with me?"
Ronon grudgingly faced him. "Still don't like it."
"You don't have to like it; you just have to accept it."
The tension seeped out of Ronon and he slouched in his chair. "Fine. What's next?"
John grinned. "Popcorn and a movie?"
Teyla brightened. "Popcorn? Do you have caramel?"
"A whole tub of it," John said.
"We are not watching The Princess Bride again," Rodney proclaimed. "Ever."
"Oh, come on, McKay. I love that movie."
Ronon sat up. "What about-"
"No Star Wars either. You can recite it by now."
"I like Mad Max," Teyla announced.
McKay looked horrified. "Seriously?"
John soaked in the chatter, savoring every word, reveling in the familiarity. Ronon and Teyla always offered up the same movies, and Rodney always squawked. It was what they did, and it worked. Sometimes they came to a consensus, and they would throw popcorn at each other and quote along with the movie until McKay threatened to reprogram the locks to their quarters and auction all their belongings on the Atlantis intranet. Other nights, the debate transformed into a discussion and hours later they would yawn, wave goodnight and head their separate ways.
Either way, the evenings were happy memories, and John held tightly to them, refusing to ever take them for granted again.
Written for a fic exchange with kriadydragon/stealth dragon. Many thanks to kristen999 for the beta. All faults mine.