A Sure Anchor - part four of four
by Eildon Rhymer (aka rhymer23)
The agony was… No, agony he could have lived with. This was having half his soul ripped out. He only faintly heard himself screaming.
And then Ronon was there, grabbing his shoulder. "What is it, Sheppard? What's wrong?"
John heard the words, but it took him a while before he could force them to be anything other than meaningless syllables. He tried to answer, but the blue sky flooded him, then became a wave, crashing over his head.
"Sheppard!" Ronon shouted. "Is that what's doing this to you? We need to destroy it."
"No." It took everything that he had to produce that word, but Ronon was there, gripping his arm, forcing himself on John's senses, and that made all the difference "Not while I'm… connected. Destroy it… and you… destroy me."
"But it's killing you." Ronon looked furious, helpless.
John had to focus on him: on Ronon, Ronon, Ronon. He had to get Ronon out. He was Ronon's anchor. No, Ronon was his anchor. They had to…
"Just don't do that again," he said faintly, and there was memory in that, too: of being helpless and screaming, more afraid than he had ever been in his life.
Fear was a good thing to remember; the wordless voices didn't want him to be afraid. He stumbled as he stood up, his injured shoulder striking the wall. Pain was good, too. The voices… Ancient device, he thought. The Ancient device didn't want him to feel pain. It told him that pain wasn't important, that fear should melt away, that painful choices and painful memories were things to be forgotten.
"I think it's an Ascension device," he said. "Another damn Ascension device. It switches off everything that ties you to the world - leaves you free for all that transcendental crap."
"You aren't Ascending," Ronon said.
John didn't dare try a smile. The device wanted him to smile - just to smile and smile, while everything was crashing down around him. "I don't think the Ancients envisaged people using it when… shot, or with bad guys blowing the place up around their ears. Besides, I was never good at that stuff."
"You taught McKay."
"Yeah," John agreed, "but not well." He could see the device now: large and blue and beautiful. It wanted him. Ascension should be a thing about choice, not about being dragged kicking and screaming into forgetting everything that was important to you. "God, these Ancients were arrogant sons of bitches."
Yeah," Ronon agreed.
"Of course," John admitted, "it's probably just malfunctioned. Things sometimes do. Maybe it got lonely."
They were stupid words, but each one felt like a link in the anchor chain that allowed him to claw his way out of the blue wave. He walked through its pool of blue light. Ronon gripped him tightly, as if he was refusing to ever let go. "If we can't shoot it," Ronon said, trembling with the need to act, "then--?"
"I'm holding it off," John said. "Just carry on like this. I think I can…" He gripped Ronon's shirt. "I hope I can…"
"Course you can." Ronon sounded as if he believed it utterly. "You know, I thought you guys were weak at first, but you're one of the strongest men I've ever met. Stubborn, too. Sometimes I almost want to hit you."
"You do hit me." The humming was behind them now, still calling to him. He remembered the many pains of sparring with Ronon, but how fiercely alive he felt when doing it. "You do all the time."
"Just 'cause you're lazy and don't practise enough."
"Just 'cause you're lucky enough not to have piles of paperwork, so you've got time to practise new ways to kick my ass."
Ronon laughed. It was a good sound, and was another chain-link closer to the surface of the blue ocean.
They walked for a long time, the passageways sloping ever lower. They had to contend with two more flights of stairs, and by the second one, Ronon was supporting Sheppard fully, as Sheppard's feet moved with the unsteadiness of a child just learning to walk.
"It's not the… device," Sheppard said, as he stood shaking at the bottom of the stairs. "I think I know how to… cope with that now. It's the… blood loss, you know?"
But Sheppard wasn't quite right, despite what he said. He was still talking desperately, speaking about things that he wouldn't normally talk about. Ronon responded in kind. Sometimes you had to resort to extreme measures to save a friend, and talking about things that were true was such a little thing to give.
But this time all he said was, "Are you sure this is the way out?"
"It has to be," Sheppard said. "They wouldn't have built all this if it went nowhere."
In the end, when they reached the door, it came unexpectedly. It was a small door, far from imposing, and it led them out into the darkness of early evening. Ronon hadn't realised that they'd been inside for so long. "Why didn't I know this was here?" he said, as he stepped out and found himself at the base of the rock that the fortress was built on. It was shielded from the plain by trees, but by no means completely hidden.
"Someone knew." Sheppard nodded at the scorch marks beside the door, and the holes and trenches dug around it, long-since filled in with drifted earth and the weeds of many seasons' growth. Even in the glory days of Sateda, it seemed, people had tried to violate its ruins in search of treasure. The remembered dead were never as perfect in reality as memory tried to make them.
The door closed behind them. Ronon looked at Sheppard to see if there was a sudden change in him, but saw nothing except perhaps a faint exhalation. Of course, he remembered, the device must have started affecting Sheppard before they had reached the fortress. He'd fallen silent right from the start of their climb, so its reach was long.
"D'you think it'll release its hold on you when we go out of range?" Ronon asked him.
Sheppard frowned. "I don't know."
But then, ten minutes later, he returned to the subject, although they had talked about many other things in between. "It might do," he said, "but I… I'm keeping it at bay, and I don't know if dare stop trying. It's like keeping a door locked, when maybe there's no need, but maybe… maybe there is."
"I understand," Ronon said, and perhaps it was the mention of locked doors that made him at last turn around, to see what damage had been wrought on the skyline of the old, familiar fortress. It didn't look much different, but it was almost night now, the fortress just a dark shape against the first stars of an early spring sky. It was still standing, though, and he couldn't see any lights, or any other signs of their attackers.
"Still there?" Sheppard asked.
Ronon nodded. But the fortress still standing was less important, he thought, than Sheppard being okay. From the moment Sheppard had been shot, the here and now had mattered more to Ronon than any past memories. He could live with the fortress falling, but if Sheppard died… Well, he could live with that, because he had survived the loss of so many things, but it would be difficult. People were more important than empty ruins. Friends meant more than the ghosts of an old home.
They carried on walking, still talking about homes and families, about all those things that Sheppard would never normally talk about. Ronon supported him, but Sheppard's steps grew slower and slower. "I don't think I can make it," he said at last. "I don't think it's the device speaking, making me give up. I know my limits. It's ten miles to the Gate, and I can't..."
"I'll carry you," Ronon said.
Sheppard shook his head. "Not for ten miles." His skin was still as cold as ice, and his pulse was faint and fluttering. He had never stopped being seriously injured, even when their more pressing concern had been the effect of the device. Even if the device was now defeated, he could still die.
"You need to go…" Sheppard began, but Ronon grabbed his wrist, hushing him with a raised hand. Voices were coming closer in the darkness.
Ronon tugged Sheppard into the shelter of a raeliac tree. The branches trailed down on them, the leaves brushing their clothes with their familiar scent. Sheppard crouched down, but it was closer to falling. Ronon crouched beside him, gun in hand.
The voices came closer. "No trace of them," he heard someone say. He saw their figures moving beyond the trees - at least ten of them. The next few exchanges he couldn't hear, but then someone said, "We'll come back tomorrow and bring more fire-powder."
Ronon edged forward, but Sheppard grabbed his sleeve. He didn't have to say anything for Ronon to know what he meant: that the men hadn't noticed them, and were going to pass by without seeing them. There was no point fighting them, outnumbered and injured as they were. They might kill a few, but they had no chance.
"It wasn't the device talking," Sheppard whispered, when the men had passed by and disappeared into the night.
"I know," Ronon said harshly. Killing them would have avenged the damage they were doing to Satedan heritage, and might have prevented further damage. But Sheppard needed him. He had to get Sheppard back to Atlantis. "I wasn't going to fight them," he said.
"I thought not," Sheppard said, "but…" His head leant back against the tree trunk. His arm went limp.
Ronon still heard the very faint whisper of fading voices. He'd been tempted to fight them, of course, but never seriously. What he had now was more important than memories of the past. An injured team-mate was more important than empty revenge.
"But I can't leave you," he said. He didn't understand everything that happened, but he knew that Sheppard had come to depend on his presence. Sheppard had clung physically to Ronon's shirt, and had clung to life by grasping hold of Ronon's words, reaching out to them with words of his own.
"I think I can do it by myself now," Sheppard said. "I think it's gone. I think… God, I don't know, Ronon. I don't know if my thoughts are my own any more, but I think… I think you need to get me to Atlantis as soon as possible, and I can't… I can't get there myself."
Ronon squeezed Sheppard's hand, anchoring him with the reality of that touch. "Hold on, Sheppard," he said, and then he ran.
The sky above him was black, not blue. The wordless voices hadn't wanted him to worry about anything any more. They'd wanted him to relax, to give in… But they thought that giving in was a good thing. It was submitting himself to Ascension, to the thing he was supposed to want more than anything.
Was this giving in? Pain blazed throughout his body, and he shivered violently with cold. Breathing came harder and harder, as if a huge weight had settled on his chest.
Something very distant told him not to worry.
"Of course… I'm going… to worry," he forced out. "Dying here?"
It hadn't wanted him to die, but he was badly hurt, and submission meant death. "To Hell with 'stay positive,'" he forced out. "I'm going to worry." Rage, rage against the dying of the light, he thought, and he wondered if a fever was starting, that long-forgotten poetry should come into his mind at a time like this.
It was hard to stay conscious, but he forced himself to. He squirmed against the tree, forcing the pain to stay hot and fierce.
After a while, he started talking to the memory of Ronon. "I'm glad you brought me here, buddy. I understand the point you were trying to make." After nearly four years, Ronon finally knew exactly where his home was.
And John…? John had known it within weeks. And he had no intention of leaving it, not unless his death was the price to pay to save the lives of others.
The stars moved above him, and John carried on talking.
Ronon ran past the party of scavengers, giving them a wide berth in the darkness. His head throbbed, and several times he had to stop and double over, felled by sudden nausea. He tripped several times, but managed not to fall.
Miles passed, and he reached the edge of the city. It was a strange feeling to be running towards something, not away from something. The realisation made him run even faster, but the ruins were hard to negotiate, and he kept having to slow down to clamber over wreckage.
Even though the city was changed, he knew the way instinctively. It was the first time he had visited the ruined city without being overwhelmed by grief. He passed tall towers that usually brought sharp memories, but all he felt now was a surge of relief because those towers were only a few miles from the Ring.
Stones crunched under foot. Plants were growing in the ruins now, and soon mounds would cover things that had once been houses. Flowers grew out of things that had once been dead.
And Ronon carried on running. His breath was heaving in his throat, and his vision was lurching. Then the Ring was ahead of him, and he leant shudderingly on the DHD, and dialled direct to Atlantis. "It's Ronon," he gasped, when they answered him. "Send a jumper. Sheppard's hurt. It's bad."
The next few minutes were confusing. He found himself sitting down on a lump of masonry, watching as the wormhole surged into being, watching as a shining jumper edged through. Medical staff emerged from the hatch and tried to treat him. He slapped them away, telling them to get Sheppard. When they said that he was clearly concussed and needed to go back to Atlantis, he pushed himself to his feet and shouldered them aside. "Sheppard," he growled. "Now."
The jumper covered the distance in mere minutes. Lorne and the doctors raced outside, but Ronon was ahead of them. "One life sign," he heard the co-pilot say, the voice fading into nothingness as he covered the distance. The trees were too dense for the jumper to land close. Ronon reached Sheppard a full minute before anyone else did.
Sheppard was still alive. Ronon remembered nothing after that.
The following morning, Keller and McKay returned from their weekend away. Teyla and Torren arrived back a few hours later. "You fainted," McKay said, grinning. "That's what everyone's saying. You fainted."
"That's what who's saying?" Ronon pretended to be angry, although such things really didn't matter. Sometimes your body betrayed you, and it was nothing to feel ashamed about. Even the strongest warriors sometimes screamed.
"Uh, no-one," McKay said. "It certainly wasn't Lorne telling tales."
"You need to stay here for a few more hours," Keller said, "then I'll release you, as long as you promise not to do anything stupid."
"Won't do anything stupid?" McKay snorted. "This is Conan we're talking about. He'll be swinging Marines around above his head and running marathons before the day's over. Honestly, you and Sheppard are as bad as each other. Trust you two to come back from a weekend camping trip all shot up and exploded."
Ronon moistened his lips. Teyla's hand closed on his. "John will be fine," she said firmly.
"He lost a lot of blood," Keller said, "and it was touch and go for a while." She looked guilty, because she hadn't been there, and was only talking from hearsay. "Movement of his right arm was compromised, but not severely so. There's evidence of infection in the wound from all the dirt, but it's being monitored. He'll be in here a good few days yet, but I see no reason why he won't make a full recovery."
"Which is good," McKay said, the movement of his hands showing that he was more troubled than he was trying to show. "But don't think we're going to let you two go off alone again in the near future."
Teyla's hand tightened on his. "Indeed," she said. "Next time I think we should stick together."
Despite everything that had happened, Ronon smiled. Home was more than just a place, of course. Home was people. Home was these people.
John drifted up through deep layers of the ocean. Ronon was beside him when he opened his eyes.
"It's about time," Ronon said. "It's been three days. Are you lucid this time?"
John tried to speak, but no sound came out. He had sharp, jagged memories of fever dreams, and of waking to nightmare visions of… no, he couldn't remember what, just that they were bad.
"Relax. Everything's okay," Ronon said, and John stopped breathing. There's nothing to worry about, the voices had said. Ronon smiled apologetically. "Sorry. Guess I shouldn't say that. It's just that sleep's what you need right now."
John let out a slow breath. He remembered when the most important thing, the only thing, had been to hold on to Ronon with everything that he had. Something was trying to pull him down under into sleep. Was it the natural weakness of his body, or was the device still working on him?
His eyes slid shut, and he dragged them open again.
"You should go to sleep," Ronon said quietly. "It's okay to stop fighting this time." Then, with no sense of shame, he touched John's arm. "I'm not going anywhere."
It was enough. John slept.
Ronon's head was entirely healed. Off duty on doctors' orders, he had spent a lot of time exploring Atlantis, seeing places with new eyes. It was strange, he thought, how for months he had thought of this as home, but he hadn't truly felt it, not until now.
Sheppard was slower to recover than the doctors had expected. In spite of their best medicines, the fever had raged more fiercely than Keller had thought it would. But Sheppard got better ever day, and so Ronon didn't tell her about the device. Sometimes wounds took longer to heal than you would expect. It didn't have to mean that Sheppard was still affected by the device, still lying down and refusing to fight when death came to take him.
Over the last few days, Sheppard had been withdrawn when Ronon had gone to see him. He made his way to the infirmary now, and found Sheppard's bed empty. "He wanted some fresh air," Keller called over to him; no need, of course, for her to ask why Ronon was here. "You'll find him down the hallway on the big balcony."
It was early evening, the sun just beginning to sink and turn orange. Sheppard was leaning with his good arm on the railing; the other was still held in a sling. "It's good to be outside," Sheppard said. "I hate being cooped up in bed."
Ronon slotted in beside him. The breeze was light, stirring his hair. "Sheppard…" he began, but Sheppard turned to him, interrupting him.
"I said things," he said, "when we were… down there. I made you say things, too. You were quick to understand what I needed. That thing… It…" He ran his hand across his face. "Anyway, talking helped. You got that. You…" The hand returned to the railing, gripping it. "What I mean is, I'm sorry. I'm sorry you had to do that."
"Don't be," Ronon said.
Sheppard turned a little away from him. "I remember most of it, I think. You didn't want to hear any of that."
He was embarrassed, of course. A man like Sheppard always would be. Sheppard was the sort of man who couldn't even bring himself to say a proper goodbye, even when he thought he was leaving friends behind forever. "It doesn't matter," Ronon said.
Sheppard's hand tightened. "I don't think it would have worked with McKay. You know McKay - talking's his natural state. I think it would have… washed over me more."
Did Sheppard feel guilty for the things Ronon had said, or ashamed about the things he had confessed about his family and his fears? "It doesn't matter," Ronon said. "When you fight alongside someone, you get to know them. You don't need to put things in words. Most things you said, I already knew." And Teyla knew, and probably McKay. Sheppard hid far less than he thought he did, his feelings evident in his eyes and the set of his mouth. "Just as you already knew the things I said. It's no big deal that I actually said them."
Sheppard was quiet for a very long time. Ronon looked out at the light across the ocean, and suddenly remembered when he had been about to leave Atlantis, when Sheppard had sat at his table in the mess hall, and had said so little, even as he had conveyed so much. Words were nothing, really.
"So if you know already…" Sheppard said at last.
"You're afraid," Ronon told him. "You didn't notice the device take you over at first. You're scared it might happen again. You're afraid that's really part of you - weak-willed, giving up…" He looked Sheppard full in the face. "It isn't, you know."
Sheppard said nothing. They were no longer in the fortress, and the time for confession was over.
"Everyone wants an end to the pain sometimes," Ronon said, "but you overcame it. You fought your way free of it. We didn't destroy it or switch it off. You broke free."
Sheppard looked away again. "Thanks to you."
Ronon shrugged. There was no shame at all in admitting that two could fight an enemy better than one could. Ronon had only fought alone because he'd been given no choice. What he had now was better, far better.
"It sucks having the ATA gene sometimes," Sheppard said, with an attempt at a laugh that didn't fool Ronon for one moment. "The galaxy's littered with things the Ancients left behind that want to come out and bite you."
"Yeah, but you bit back." Ronon patted Sheppard on the uninjured shoulder. Sheppard flinched slightly, perhaps remembering how he had clung to Ronon as if his life had depended on it.
"I haven't told anyone," Sheppard said. "What happens in secret Ancient bunkers stays in secret Ancient bunkers, huh?" He tried to smile, but the smile faded. "I probably ought to. There might be more… things like that. McKay'll probably want to study it. We need to find a way to switch it off first, though. Can't have all the ATA gene carriers in Atlantis rolling over onto their backs and giving up."
"Sheppard," Ronon said sharply. "Buddy. Listen. There's nothing to be ashamed of. You fought it off, and I… lent you my sword arm. It doesn't matter what form that help takes. It's what team-mates do, and that's why I wanted to go there with you: because we're team."
Sheppard said nothing, his shoulders stiff and his hand still. Ronon didn't normally say much, not because he was ashamed to, but because words weren't usually necessary. Sheppard had different problems with words, of course, but it wasn't Ronon's place to change him.
"You were attacked," he said, "and you used the weapons you needed to break free. I helped in the way you needed me to. It's as simple as that."
Sheppard let out a breath. "I guess I haven't got many secrets left."
"You never had," Ronon told him, "because that's what team's about." He put his arm around Sheppard, squeezing him briefly in a one-armed hug. He felt Sheppard stiffen, but only slightly; let him go before he could pull away.
"You're right," Sheppard said. "It's just…"
He didn't finish, and he didn't need to. Ronon had always understood Sheppard far more than Sheppard had realised.
And in the end, their relationship wasn't one of words, just as Ronon had discovered a home on Atlantis by slow, quiet moves, without long speeches. "You think Keller will notice if you escape to the mess hall?" Ronon said. "McKay and Teyla are already there."
Sheppard smiled gratefully. "Won't know until we try."
And nothing more would be said about it, Ronon thought, because that was the sort of person Sheppard was. But it had taken Ronon's experience with the enzyme for him to realise just what a home he had on Atlantis, with his team and his friends. Bad things that you survived had a habit of changing you, sometimes for the better. It took weeks, though, and sometimes months. McKay was still fragile from his loss of intelligence, and it would be a while before Sheppard would be able to forget that he had been robbed of his strength of will, and forced to talk about fears and feelings that he preferred to keep locked inside.
But he had his home on Atlantis, and he had his team, and such things meant everything. And perhaps Sheppard realised it, too, because at the end of their meal, just as Keller came to drag him back, he looked at the three of them, and said, "How about a road trip next time we're on leave? You know, revisit the old haunts on Earth?"
"A road trip?" McKay spluttered. "You've been watching too many movies."
"I would like that very much," Teyla said.
Ronon said nothing, because it was no longer a time when words were needed. He nodded, though, and gave a quick smile.
"Well," Sheppard said with a sigh. "Looks like my time's up." He stood up, began to walk towards Keller, then stopped. This time the contact was initiated by Sheppard - just a hand on Ronon's shoulder, briefly squeezing tight. "Thanks, buddy," Sheppard said quietly. "For all of it."
"You're welcome," Ronon said. This time his smile was broader, and Sheppard smiled back without reserve.
Note: As I said at the start, this story came out of two prompts that Kristen999 was kind enough to provide when my muse was struggling for ideas. One was for a story in which Ronon was stuck somewhere with Sheppard, whose ATA gene was causing him problems. The second was for a story in which Ronon gave Sheppard a hug. While I mostly wrote the first prompt, the second prompt played a very important in the genesis of the story, since it was the inspiration for the whole theme of Ronon having to anchor Sheppard to life both physically and with words. I had hoped to get Ronon hugging Sheppard in the final scene, too, but Sheppard didn't co-operate.
Another inspiration was The Shrine. I'd seen several people saying that they wanted to see a story in which Sheppard suffered something similar to what Rodney suffered in that episode. This isn't that story, but it has elements of it.
The title comes from a saying that "a faithful companion is a sure anchor."
Thanks for reading, and especially big thanks to anyone who's commented along the way.