A/N: Written for the sgagenficathon to the prompt "I was the boy to brave the dark" (Oysterband) for the genre angst. Many thanks to my terrific beta kristen999. All faults mine. Two things to remember - 1) ANGST and 2) I don't write deathfics.
John added an apple to the pile on his tray and hurried to the mess hall balcony. He was late, and his team had started without him. Ronon's plate was already clean. Rodney was methodically inhaling a stack of pancakes and slapping at Ronon's fingers as the man tried to filch Rodney's last slice of bacon. Teyla calmly sipped her tea, her eyes daring Ronon to reach for the naupa berry muffin on her plate.
Ronon kicked a chair out, and John slid into it. "Morning, kids."
Teyla smiled warmly. "Good morning. How are you?"
"I'm good. You?"
"I am quite well, thank you." Her gaze flicked to Ronon. "I am looking forward to our mission today. I understand that Atsel has a thriving marketplace. I have a few items I need to purchase for a special celebration next month."
John smothered a grin as Ronon sat up straight, looking eager. For a moment, he saw the boy Ronon had been before war and Wraith and running – shining eyes wide with anticipation of presents, desserts, and birthday festivities. John had done the math when they'd first met. Sateda had fallen when Ronon was about twenty which meant he'd joined the military as a young teenager. How many birthday parties could there have been?
"What?" Ronon was frowning at him.
John shook himself. "Nothing." He hadn't realized he was staring. "What celebration would that be, Teyla?"
"The four hundred and twenty-third anniversary of the discovery of tuttleroot on Athos."
How she said stuff like that with a straight face boggled John's mind. He'd learned a long time ago not to have anything in his mouth at times like this. Unfortunately, that lesson had been lost on McKay. Coffee sprayed all over the table as he coughed and spluttered.
John pounded him on the back. "Oh, that celebration. Going to be a busy month, I guess. Arbor Day is coming up, too."
Rodney dabbed at the coffee spray with a napkin while fighting a smile. "Zelenka and I are finishing the jumper hyperdrive installs." He shrugged at John's eyeroll. "Hey, that's a cause for celebration for us."
Ronon slumped in his chair and pouted – honest-to-God stuck out his bottom lip like a two year-old. "I hate all of you."
John bit his lip. Rodney's face turned red, and Teyla's shoulders shook.
"You're not funny," Ronon announced.
Rodney snickered. Teyla giggled. John gave up and chortled.
"I better get really good presents." Ronon crossed his arms and glowered, but the pleased flush that was working its way up his neck destroyed the effect.
John checked his watch. They had a little over an hour before their mission. Leaning back, he contentedly drank his coffee while Teyla halved her muffin with Ronon and Rodney pretended to look the other way when Ronon reached again for the strip of bacon.
Atsel's sprawling marketplace was as thriving as advertised. No one gave John and his team a second glance as they wandered past colorfully tented booths. Giggling children darted around them, and food vendors waved spikes of spicy meat, offering fine quality at good prices. A valley of gently rolling hills and undulating prairie grass held the marketplace snugly at the base of an impressive range of mountains. John rolled down his sleeves and zipped his vest a little higher, squinting against the glare from the overcast sky. Most of the clouds seemed to hover over one of the far peaks. The dark horizon filled his vision, and he shivered slightly.
"I don't guess they have a section for Ancient devices and ZPMs," Rodney muttered.
Ronon examined a pair of boots, checking the toe and heel. "Not sure they have sections."
Every booth offered something different – the nearest ones held candles, jewelry, clothing, and carvings.
"Great," Rodney grumped. "So even if they had something here worth my time, I'd never find it."
Teyla trailed her fingers through the fringe on an assortment of scarves. "Sometimes the search can be as joyous as the find."
"She said try to have fun while you look, McKay." John caught sight of a selection of electronics on the next row over. "Let's start over there."
"John, I have a few things I need to purchase for Torren," Teyla said.
"And I need some…stuff," Ronon added.
John scanned the crowd of harried shoppers and pushy merchants. Nobody was setting off any alarms. "Fine. Meet back here in two hours."
The electronics turned out to be a bust, at least as far as Rodney was concerned. After five minutes of listening to him bitch about inferior design and poor workmanship, John gave up and moved on. A half hour of meandering led them to an old woman with a table of junk. And two Ancient devices. She wouldn't allow Rodney to take them apart without buying them, and he wasn't leaving without them so John leaned against a pole and let the games begin. Rodney had apparently attended the Teyla Emmagan School of Bargaining sometime while John wasn't looking because McKay was tough but surprisingly courteous when necessary. John grinned as Rodney smiled politely when the woman launched into her family's history of retailing. McKay must've really wanted those devices.
John turned when something bounced off his heel. A small boy with a gap-toothed grin ran after a ball that was bounding away in the trampled grass. Since Rodney was still haggling, John stepped outside to watch. A group of children were playing a game that didn't seem to have any rules. Their laughter was infectious, and he found himself grinning as they squealed and chased each other.
Wildflowers in a riot of colors dotted the plains from the edge of the marketplace to a magnificent forest of blue-green and chocolate. The beauty of nature usually filled him with peace, but every time that distant mountain caught his attention, his heart raced. When a prickle danced up his spine, he whirled. A boy with olive skin and dark hair stood behind him; he had the oddest eyes – almost iridescent. The boy glanced away, and John shook his head when the kid turned back and stared at him with brown eyes. Must have imagined it.
"You're not playing with the others?" John asked.
"No. I can't. I'm waiting."
The boy smiled and held out a palm-sized silver pyramid. "Someone to fix my toy."
John chuckled. "You're in luck. My friend in there can fix anything."
"Won't you try?"
"Not really my thing."
Tears welled in the boy's eyes. "Please?"
"Look- What's your name?"
"Look, Beliv. I don't think I can help you. Rodney is more the…" John sighed as the kid's bottom lip quivered. "Fine. Let me see it."
As soon as John touched it, the pyramid blazed with color – dazzling blues, reds, and purples swirled as the device hovered and rotated. Music unlike anything he'd ever heard emanated from it.
Beliv laughed delightedly. "I knew you could do it!" He snatched it from John's hand and moaned when it went dark. "What happened?"
"Sorry, kid. I guess I didn't really fix it. Where did you get it?"
"You don't know the story?"
"I'm not from around here."
"Oh. Well, there's a place on the other side of those mountains. Trega lives there. He has lots of toys like this. He gave me this one and said that he would grant any wish I desired if I could find someone who could make it work." Beliv grinned happily. "I found you."
Fear stabbed at John when he glanced back at the mountains. They looked lifeless, but the shroud of mist that veiled them was thick. Black clouds swirled in the distance, and he was suddenly chilled to the bone. "You went through those mountains by yourself?"
"Of course. I'm not a baby."
"Sorry. My mistake." The kid couldn't be more than ten. "So, what's your wish?"
Beliv's eyes dimmed. "To be reunited… But I don't get my wish unless you go see Trega. You have to do what he asks then I get my wish and you get yours."
"Yes. Trega has great powers. He can do miracles."
"Then what does he need me for?"
"He can't make the toys glow. He needs someone who can."
Sincerity radiated from Beliv. John had no doubt the boy was telling the truth as he knew it, but the idea that this Trega character could perform miracles was ludicrous. Then again, this was Pegasus.
"Have you seen one of Trega's miracles?"
The boy nodded enthusiastically. "He made the toys dance in the air, all at the same time! And one day, Mosa fell, and he put her back together again."
John still doubted the guy had any real powers, but the tech might be worth checking out. He glanced at the mountains again, and a sense of foreboding slammed into him. His heart thudded painfully in his chest. He wiped sweat from his upper lip. "What-"
Beliv was gone.
He spun around, but the boy was nowhere in sight.
He flinched hard then turned, feeling the flush blossom on his cheeks. "Hey, Teyla."
Her forehead creased with worry. "Are you well?"
"Yeah." He waved off the concern. "Just talking to some kid. Kinda creeped me out."
She arched an amused brow. "Perhaps you should stop watching the horror movies you are so fond of."
John chuckled. "Maybe I will. Did you find everything you wanted?"
"Yes." Teyla beamed as she handed him something wrapped in a soft crimson cloth. "I found this for Ronon. Could you keep it for me? Kanaan cannot keep a secret."
"What is it?"
She glanced around then quickly unwrapped it. A black leather sheath held a serrated blade with an intricately carved handle. John pulled the knife and examined it carefully.
"Good balance. Incredible quality."
"Do you recognize the markings on the hilt?"
He traced them with a finger then gaped at her. "Satedan?"
Teyla nodded as she carefully wound the cloth around the knife. "Yes. It says, 'Loyalty, honor, and excellence.'"
"The Satedan Warrior code. Nice." John tucked the gift in his vest. "Anything else?"
"I believe we should consider establishing a booth here. Atlantis could make trades for many necessary items."
"And we could get the latest scoop on what's going on in the galaxy."
She laughed. "And that as well."
"Be sure to bring it up in the debrief then. Woolsey usually defers to your opinion about that stuff."
"That is because Mr. Woolsey is a wise man."
John snorted. "Suck up."
She arched her brows haughtily. "I have no idea what you mean."
The tent flap whipped open and Rodney emerged, grinning like an idiot and carrying an Ancient device under each arm. "You guys ready to go? I want to study these as much as possible before we come back."
"You want to come back?" John asked.
McKay's grin managed to get wider. "She says there's a treasure trove of technology like this around here."
"Really." Beliv and his toy pyramid popped in his mind, but then John spotted Ronon heading their way. "Let's go home."
"I can't believe it!" McKay ranted. "I gave that woman my DS and a week's supply of chocolate, and all I got was a pair of lousy projectors."
John frowned at the screen. He was going to birdie this hole if it killed him. "Hologram projectors, McKay. All is not lost."
"Which would be useful if I could actually make a hologram. But, no! All I can do is project them."
"Ball rimmed the hole. I'm going to have to settle for par."
"Oh, for God's sake. Are you even listening to me?"
"Yes, Rodney. You bargained. You lost. Suck it up and move on. Besides, when you figure out how to make a hologram, you'll be able to take them with you."
John rolled his eyes. "Maybe we'll scare the shit out of the Wraith with them. I don't know. Use your imagination."
The citywide intercom interrupted. "Colonel Sheppard's team to the gateroom. Repeat, Colonel Sheppard's team to the gateroom."
They exchanged glances and pushed away from the lab worktable. When they reached the gateroom, Teyla and Ronon were huddled with Woolsey at Chuck's terminal.
"What's wrong?" John asked.
"Captain Whitfield's team is a half hour overdue," Woolsey explained. "When we dialed in, he said an Ancient facility they had been examining went into lockdown mode. Two team members are trapped inside, and the other two are pinned down by gunfire. I guess the local populace became offended when their Ancestral ruins blared a warning."
John turned to Teyla and Ronon. "Are either of you familiar with this planet?"
"No," Ronon answered.
"Nor am I," said Teyla.
"Gear up. We leave in ten minutes. Chuck, have Major Teldy… No, she's off-world with Lorne's team. Have Kriegel's team join us."
Minutes later, they stepped through the gate. Gunfire popped in the distance. John crouched low, scanning the immediate area as his team and the complement of Marines followed him out. The gate was in the middle of a grove of yellow-barked trees. Pink leaves with silver veins fluttered in the hot summer breeze, and late afternoon sun scorched the faded blue grass.
"Life signs?" he whispered.
"At least a dozen," McKay responded. "About half off to our left where the facility must be based on these energy readings. There's another group straight ahead." He poked at the scanner. "I'm picking up two sub-cu transponders there."
John nodded. "Okay. See what you can do about getting those guys out of the facility. Ronon, go with him and take Sanchez and Newton with you. Teyla – you, Kriegel and Canal are with me."
He clicked his radio twice and waited. When he received a doubleclick reply, he nodded to his people and took off at a jog. John took point while Canal covered their six. About half a klick into woods, he spotted movement. Holding up a fist, John dropped to his knee and pulled his life signs detector. The two sub-cu transponders ahead were ringed by six dots with several more approaching rapidly. They crept forward until the hostiles were in sight. Dressed in dark green uniforms and heavily armed, these weren't just restless natives. They were organized and well trained based on formation and patience.
After another quick check of the LSD, John pulled the pins on a couple of hand grenades and tossed them near the closest combatant. When the grenades exploded, he signaled Kriegel and Canal forward while he and Teyla laid down cover fire. The P-90 roar drowned out the screams of the injured men. John kept his focus on his own people. Kriegel came charging back with someone slung over his shoulder, and Canal was close on his heels, helping a badly limping Corporal Hutchison. Bullets sprayed around them. Flying bark scraped John's face. He flinched away from it and shot wildly behind him as he sprinted after his people. Teyla peeked around a tree and fired at someone on his six.
"Thanks," John panted.
She smiled briefly, her attention focused on the surrounding forest. "It is not over yet."
They stayed low as they ran. Branches whipped at them. Undergrowth tried to trip them. The LSD showed the dots converging toward them.
"We need to hurry," John said. "They're right be-"
A bullet whizzed past his ear and smacked into a nearby tree. He whipped around and fired. Gunfire burst around them. He saw Teyla duck to his right. He turned, shooting as he backpedaled. Fire skewered his left shoulder and spun him so quickly that he was still squeezing the trigger when he hit the ground. Adrenaline kept him going. He rolled, pushed to his knees, whirled and fired. One body fell, then another and another. When his ears stopped ringing, the forest was filled with silence.
Except for a strangled gurgle to his left.
His heart racing, John staggered to his feet and stumbled toward the place he last saw her. He keyed his radio. "Teyla, come in."
Something rustled nearby. He switched his gun back to manual and crept toward it. A black boot stuck out of the underbrush.
Teyla was lying on the ground, her eyes wide with fear. Her fingers twitched, and blood dribbled from the corner of her mouth.
John scrambled to her and ripped open her vest. The three holes in her chest were too small and too close together to be anything other than automatic weapon's fire.
"Oh, my God. Oh, no. Teyla, hang on." He fumbled with his radio. "This is Sheppard. Teyla's been wounded. I need help." He heard the desperation and panic in his voice, but he couldn't stop it. "Hurry!"
Blood gushed from her wounds, the wounds he'd made. He pressed down, trying to stop the bleeding. Her neck arched, her mouth open in a silent scream of pain.
John grabbed her face. "Look at me, Teyla. I need you to look at me. Help's on the way. You have to hang on."
Her mouth moved, her lips forming, "John."
"Don't try to talk. Please, Teyla."
Words formed again as she dug her nails into his right arm. "Torren."
"Teyla, come on. Hang in there. Don't do this to me."
Her eyes grew dull. Her breath stuttered. Her nails raked the inside of his arm as she spasmed.
"Teyla, please, please."
Her head lolled as she exhaled one last time and grew still.
"Teyla?" John shook her gently. "Teyla?" He pulled her into his arms, smoothing the hair from her face and rocking slowly. "God, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he whispered. "Please forgive me."
John didn't look up as footsteps pounded towards them. Blood pooled under her, more blood than a human could lose and still live, turning the pale blue grass a horrid purple. Ronon dropped to his knees next to them, moaning low in his throat.
"What are you doing?" Rodney demanded. "We need to get her home. Jennifer-"
"McKay," Ronon murmured.
Rodney backed up a step. "I, um, I'll get…" He sank down then hung his head and closed his eyes, his breath hitching noisily in his chest. "Shit."
They stayed like that for a while until Newton hesitantly spoke up. "Sir, we need to get Captain Whitfield's team home."
John nodded absently but didn't move. Ronon squeezed his shoulder then gently pulled Teyla from his arms, carrying her like a child with her head near his heart. Rodney helped John to his feet, and they began a slow processional to the gate. John wiped his hands on his pants then glanced down at his right arm. Fiery scratches ran from his inner elbow to his wrist, visible reminders of what he'd done.
Word of Teyla's death had reached Atlantis. When they stepped through the gate, the personnel in the Control Room stood. The gateroom security detail snapped to attention. A medical team must have already whisked the injured Marines away because the silence was deafening. John followed Ronon on automatic as they solemnly made their way to the infirmary. The hallways were lined with expedition members.
John was detached, adrift, like he was watching a movie. Radek bowed his head as they passed. Miko sniffled quietly. Dozens of eyes followed their long trek to the medical suites. Everything inside John screamed in denial. This couldn't be happening. It had to be a trick, a nightmare, a bad joke by a pissed off Ancient. He couldn't – he wouldn't – accept that she was dead. Because that would mean he'd killed her.
The doors slid open, and Ronon hesitated then stepped inside. A couple of med techs were cleaning up the triage area. Keller stood quietly by a gurney. Ronon stopped in the middle of the room and stared at her.
Keller's eyes watered and her lip trembled, but her voice was steady. "Why don't you let us take care of Teyla now?"
Ronon's entire body quivered. "No," he said gruffly. "I'm not… I can't…"
Keller stepped forward and brushed Teyla's hair from her face. "We'll take good care of her, Ronon. I promise. Please, you need to let her go."
Ronon whimpered deep in his throat, but he nodded. He laid Teyla gently on the waiting gurney and squeezed her hand, not letting go until Rodney pulled him away. Keller nodded to Marie who rolled the gurney into the next room. Ronon dropped in a chair and hung his head, his shoulders shaking with silent sobs. Rodney sat next to Ronon, one hand on his back, and stared blindly at the wall.
"Colonel," Keller began, "we've got the others stabilized. Dr. Cole is operating on Sergeant Morehouse. He had a bullet in his thigh. The others have been bandaged up and are resting comfortably."
John should care – he wanted to care – but he didn't. He was numb, inside and out. "Yeah, okay."
"Are you alright?"
He blinked at her. He would never be alright again. "I'm fine," he mumbled as he trailed his fingers over the scratches on his arm.
Keller's eyes narrowed. "Are you sure? Because-"
"Where is she?" Kanaan rushed forward, holding Torren tightly. "Mr. Woolsey radioed and said…" His gaze swept the room, his breath catching as he settled on Ronon. "No." He shook his head and backed up a step. "No, please." He turned to John, tears pooling in his eyes. "Is she…"
"Marie?" Keller called softly. "Can you take Torren so Kanaan and I can speak?"
"Of course, Doctor." Marie smiled at the boy as she gathered him in her arms. "Hi there."
Keller escorted Kanaan into the room where they'd taken Teyla. John glanced down, fascinated with the scarlet rivulets creating patterns on his left arm. Hairs, scars, his watch – small things made the trickles change course. Blood ran over his knuckles and dripped from his fingertips.
Torren whined and squirmed until he was released. He crawled a couple of steps then pushed upright and toddled to Ronon, wrapping his pudgy arms around Ronon's calf and babbling happily.
Ronon sniffed and wiped a hand over his face. "Hey, buddy."
Torren moved between Ronon's knees and patted his face.
"Oh, God." Rodney pushed to his feet and folded his arms tightly across his chest, his breath ragged as he turned away from the little boy.
Ronon swept the boy in a hug and kissed the top of his head. Torren wriggled in his grasp until Ronon stood and walked in slow, measured paces across the room. His eyes –eyes that had seen too much death already yet still had the capacity to be grief-stricken – met John's, and his brow creased. "McKay." He jerked his chin in John's direction.
McKay followed his gaze and frowned. "Sheppard?"
John looked at him then glanced back at his hand in time to see three fat droplets of blood splatter on the floor.
McKay grabbed John's arm and jerked away, his hand soaked in blood. "I thought it was Tey- But it's your blood, isn't it? Did you get shot? Why didn't you say something?"
John stared at him blankly. "I forgot."
"You forgot about getting shot? How do you forget- Never mind. Nurse!"
John's knees buckled.
"John!" Rodney caught him as he collapsed.
John blinked in surprise. He couldn't feel the blood dripping down his hand, the wound in his shoulder, the clothes on his back, or Rodney's arms holding him up. He was totally numb. He heard Rodney calling his name, but it was far away, distorted. Oblivion reached for him, and he surrendered to it.
"You need any help?" Ronon asked.
John's shoulder screamed its displeasure as he lifted his arm to fasten his tie. "I've got it." He blew out a breath as he looked at his reflection in the infirmary bathroom. Dress blues. He only wore dress blues for one occasion.
Pain was a funny thing. For the first two days, he'd felt nothing, completely dead inside. Keller had repaired the damage to his shoulder and put him in a quiet room away from the normal flow of traffic. He'd slept mostly, unable to summon up enough interest to care about anything. Ronon and Rodney had come by to check on him. He'd studied their eyes carefully, but he couldn't find any accusation or blame there. The only eyes he saw that in were the ones in the mirror.
John fumbled to fasten his cuff over the bandage that covered his arm to his wrist. The scratches had begun to heal so he'd scraped the scabs off of them until they bled again.
He'd dreamed about her last night. She was teaching him how to fight with bantos rods, and her laughter had filled the room. He could still hear the echo in his mind when Ronon had come in with his uniform. Sorrow had hit him like a punch in the gut, and it battered him now, wave after wave after wave.
"John?" Ronon said softly. "We have to go."
"I need my jacket."
"Here." Ronon held his uniform jacket as he shrugged into it. He fumbled with the buttons until Ronon batted his hand away and did it for him. John put on the sling Keller had given him then smoothed the front of his jacket and turned. Ronon was dressed in a dark coat and pants, the same ones he'd worn to Carson's funeral and Elizabeth's memorial service.
John clung to his last ounce of self-control as pain knifed through him, stealing his breath. "Shit, Ronon, I don't know if I can do this."
Ronon gripped his good shoulder tightly as tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. "This is about Teyla, not us."
John clenched his eyes shut and nodded. "You're right." He blew out one shaky breath and then another. "Okay. Let's go."
They made their way to the gateroom where a large gathering waited: Lorne, Woolsey, Radek, McKay, Amelia, Keller, Chuck, Marie, Carson, and dozens of other scientists and medical staff. At least fifty soldiers in dress uniform stood at attention. Halling and several others had come the day before to carry Teyla's body to New Athos. Kanaan and Torren had gone with them. John moved to stand near Rodney, and when Ronon bumped him until he was sandwiched between them, he didn't pull away.
"Dial the gate," Woolsey ordered.
They stepped through to a warm summer afternoon, and John's first thought was how much Teyla would have enjoyed it. A wide path wound through a field of berries and along a river to the settlement.
Jinto was waiting for them. The teenager's face was haggard as he stepped forward and bowed his head. "We thank you for coming to honor Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tagan, leader of Athos. Please follow me."
He led them back to the river and across a sturdy bridge to a small clearing ringed with rocks where the Athosians and representatives from many different worlds were gathered. Teyla lay on a funeral pyre in the center. Kanaan stood nearby, holding Torren, while Halling and the Athosian council stood quietly behind him as a woman in elaborate robes began a haunting song in Ancient. When she finished, Kanaan handed Torren to Halling, took a burning torch from a pike, and stepped up to the pyre. He brushed his fingers over Teyla's cheek and murmured words not meant for others then knelt and lit the wood.
John gritted his teeth as the flames grew. Kanaan took Torren in his arms and held him tightly, his shoulders shaking.
Torren pushed away and twisted, screaming when he saw the pyre. He squirmed and kicked, gasping in great choking sobs as he tried to get away.
Rodney's jaw tightened and Ronon's breath hissed through clenched teeth. Kanaan rubbed Torren's back and pulled the boy's face to his shoulder. John soaked in every sight and every sound, burning the memory of what he'd done into his brain as completely as the fire consumed what was left of one of the greatest women he'd ever known.
Torren wailed. Ronon ducked his head when he couldn't hold the grief in any longer. Rodney gripped Keller's hand so hard his knuckles turned white. Lorne stood at attention and saluted. Radek wiped his eyes. Woolsey bowed his head. John stared straight ahead, watching, not noticing the blood trickling from where his fingernails had bitten into his palms.
When all that was left was ash, the gathering began to disburse. Halling greeted the dignitaries of the various worlds. Kanaan handed a sleeping Torren to one of the women and approached the Lanteans, taking time to thank each one for coming. He reached John, Ronon, and Rodney last.
John cleared his throat. "Kanaan."
"Thank you doesn't seem enough."
Guilt and shame flooded through John. "Please, don't-"
"She loved being on your team. She loved you, all of you." Kanaan smiled weakly at Ronon and Rodney. "You were her family as much as we were."
"She was ours as well," Ronon said.
"I know." Kanaan took a deep breath. "Torren and I are staying here."
Shock washed over John. The thought of them leaving Atlantis had never occurred to him. To lose his last connection to Teyla, to not be able to watch over her son as he'd promised staggered him. "What?"
Kanaan looked apologetic. "Our place is here now."
John gaped at him, speechless as a fresh wave of pain and guilt battered him.
"You don't have to do that." The smug expression Rodney used to hide his deeper emotions had been gone for days. "Please stay," he added sincerely.
"We can't. Halling has been leading us day-to-day, but now that Teyla… Halling is our new leader. The council has an open spot, and he's asked me to fill it. Teyla always said I had leadership potential." His face crumpled, and he dragged a hand over his eyes. "Sorry. Anyway, my place is here now, as is Torren's. We need our people now. Do you understand?"
"No," John whispered.
"Yes," Ronon answered, gripping John's shoulder tightly. "You do what you have to for your family."
"Kanaan." The woman carrying Torren approached. "He woke and asked for you."
"Come here, pethella." Kanaan cuddled him close and turned back to John. "You are welcome in our home anytime, Colonel."
"You are welcome on Atlantis anytime." John forced a smile as Torren frowned at him. "Hey, champ."
Torren rubbed his eyes with a pudgy fist. Kanaan smoothed a hand over the boy's hair. "I'll send someone in a few days for our belongings if that's alright."
"Torren, you want to say goodbye to John?" Kanaan asked.
Torren reached for John and wrapped his arms around his neck, snuggling close with a shaky sigh. John hugged him tightly then handed him to Ronon and walked away, unable to bear Teyla's eyes staring at him from that small face any longer.
The next two weeks passed in a fog of pain and guilt. Once John was released from the infirmary, he was either practicing range of motion exercises with the physical therapist or forcing himself to look the shrink in the eye as he talked about the mission and Teyla. His nightmares worsened, and every time the scratches Teyla had left on his arm started to heal, he opened them again.
Rodney buried himself in his work, emerging from his lab only when Zelenka threatened to quit and Keller threatened sedation. Ronon disappeared for a few days. He was covered in cuts and bruises when he came back, but the despair in his eyes had softened to acceptance.
"What now?" Ronon asked.
John lay on his bed, tossing a ball towards the ceiling. "What do you mean?"
"You just going to sit in here for the rest of your life?"
"Doc hasn't cleared me for duty yet."
Ronon stared at him for a second then stood. "I'll be right back."
Minutes later, Ronon returned, dragging a squawking McKay by his collar.
"Are you nuts?" McKay jerked away from him and tugged his shirt into place. "I was sleeping."
"You were hiding," Ronon retorted. "Both of you are."
"No, John. I'm doing the talking this time." Ronon stalked across the room then turned and sagged against the wall. "She wouldn't want this."
"What?" McKay demanded.
"This." Ronon waved a hand at them. "Us sitting here like this. We're letting her down."
John sat up and frowned at him. "What are you trying to say?"
"Teyla wanted freedom from the Wraith as much as me. We need to be out there, doing something. We're still a team."
McKay slumped in a chair. "Are we?"
John cringed inwardly at the despondency in Rodney's voice. Had he let them down? Had they needed him, his strength and reassurance, and he'd been so wrapped up in his own remorse and grief that he hadn't noticed?
He scrubbed a hand over his face and looked at them, really looked at them. Rodney's eyes were dull, the lines in his face more pronounced. Ronon didn't stand as straight, hunching his shoulders against the world. John fought the urge to rub the scratches, unwilling to explain to his friends why the marks were still so livid.
"Yes, we are," John announced. "We are still a team. I'll speak to Woolsey about putting us back on rotation."
Rodney sat a little straighter, and a smile ghosted over Ronon's face.
"You guys hungry?" John pushed to his feet. "I think they're having tater tot casserole today."
Two days later, John took his place at the conference table, keeping his eyes carefully averted from the empty seat. Ronon lounged next to him, and Rodney guzzled coffee while he typed on his laptop. Keller handed Woolsey a tablet and murmured a quiet word.
Woolsey nodded and cleared his throat. "Good morning, everyone." He glanced at the empty chair then continued, "We have several items on the agenda today so let's get started. First of all, Doctor Keller tells me that you have been cleared for activity duty, Colonel. I have your request to return to mission ready status. Did you have something in mind?"
John propped his elbows on the table, hiding a wince as his shoulder twinged. "No place particular. McKay?"
"The database doesn't show anything of note on our current list of planets to investigate," Rodney said. "Mostly pre-industrial societies. No Ancient facilities or unusual phenomena that we know of."
Woolsey nodded. "Very well. Select one that you like and send the rest to the mission assignment officer. Next…"
They covered the minutiae of running Atlantis in great detail – supply requisitions, orientation and training schedules, requests from the suggestion box, and new personnel needs.
"Speaking of which," Woolsey's eyes drifted back to the empty chair, "Teyla's loss has been devastating. She was so much more than a valued colleague and friend. We have trade agreements up for renewal on a dozen worlds in the next few weeks. She also had an integral part in the orientation to Pegasus and taught several classes for language and self defense. To be honest, we don't have anyone who can take her place. Ronon has agreed to step in for orientation, but what we really need is a negotiator."
"Is that not something you can do?" Keller asked.
Woolsey shook his head. "My training is in legal practices and politics. Trade negotiation is not something I have any experience with. Plus I'm an outsider. We really need someone who is accepted in Pegasus. Ideas?"
Words flowed around John, but all he could hear was a strangled gurgle and a rattling last breath. He clenched his fist as he fought for control. Sweat trickled through his hair and down his back. He could smell the blood, see the panic in her eyes. He pushed from the table and practically ran to the balcony, sucking in huge gulps of crisp air. He gripped the railing tightly then glanced at his arm, feeling the gouge of Teyla's nails again.
"You okay?" McKay stared at the unending sea as he moved next to him and leaned against the rail.
"Yeah." John hung his head. "No. I've lost people before, Rodney. I don't know why…"
"Yes, you do." McKay turned to face him. "You're blaming yourself. You shouldn't, you know."
"It was my fault," John whispered, forcing the words out, needing to tell someone. "I shot her." He cringed, waiting for shocked splutters that never came.
McKay gazed calmly at him. "I know."
Breath whooshed from John's lungs. "You do?"
"I'm a genius. Of course, I know. I saw the wounds. They were too pinpoint to be anything other than P-90 fire. The guns those guys were using either scattered buckshot like you got hit with or blasted big-assed bullets that would have left a hole the size of my fist."
John turned away as the image flashed in his mind. "I killed her."
"It was an accident." McKay squeezed his shoulder. "No one blames you."
"I blame me." John rubbed the inside of his arm. "Who else knows?"
"Does it matter?"
John whipped around. "Yes!"
Rodney's chin lifted but he didn't break eye contact. "Everyone knows, John. Ronon saw her. So did the entire medical staff. Your men knew the other weapons didn't make those wounds. Kriegel wrote it up as a friendly fire incident."
"Oh, my God." Chest heaving, John backed away from Rodney. "I just- I need…"
"You need to put this behind you."
"What?" John hissed.
Rodney squirmed uncomfortably. "I'm the last person who should be giving advice on handling emotions, but you can't keep going on like this. It's eating you alive, John. We can all see it." He swallowed thickly, his eyes wide with pain. "We can't lose you, too."
Something ripped loose inside of John and tried to drown him. He fought it, shoved it back, refused to let have free reign. He would not lose control.
"I'm trying, Rodney, but I'm not sure I know how to move on."
He turned back to the ocean. McKay was quiet for a minute then patted his shoulder gently and left. John shuddered under the onslaught of memories – meeting Teyla for the first time, plotting practical jokes with her, feeling Torren kick inside of her, rescuing her from Michael, smiling as she laughed, hearing her dying gasp, watching the funeral pyre burn.
Anyone looking at the control room balcony would have seen a man with bowed head rhythmically tracing the scars on his inner right arm.
John was immersed in email. Their first mission had gone off without a hitch, as had the second. But it wasn't the same – three coming and going instead of four. Even when Teyla had been off active duty while pregnant, she'd been in the gateroom, offering advice when they left, anxious for news when they returned. Woolsey hadn't broached the subject of him finding a new team member, and for that John was grateful. He still couldn't believe he needed one.
Today was a day to catch up. Lorne had done an admirable job of filling out reports and requisitions, had kept the military side of things running smoothly during John's recuperation. But it was time for John to start picking up the pieces. Besides, being in his office kept him away from prying eyes.
John flinched at the interruption. McKay could be remarkably quiet when he wanted. "What?"
"Are you coming?"
John looked up and frowned. "Am I coming where?"
Rodney didn't smile much anymore. "Ronon's birthday party."
"Oh, God. I totally forgot." John dropped his head. "When is it?"
"It started half an hour ago." Rodney waved the door closed and sat down. "I'm sure he'll understand-"
"No, no. I'll go. Just because…" John scrubbed his hands over his eyes. "I keep hoping this nightmare is going to end."
"I know. Me too." Rodney sighed deeply. "I got an email from Jeannie yesterday, talking about Madison's ballet recital and Kaleb's classes and the research Sam asked her to help with. It took me a minute to realize life hadn't stopped for everyone." His ears pinked and he cleared his throat. "Anyway, I had Jeannie send a case of those Pop-Tarts Ronon likes."
"Yeah. It can be from both of us if you want."
McKay had a bigger heart than most people gave him credit for. John smiled gratefully. "Thanks, Rodney. I'd appreciate that."
They stood and headed for the transporter. Rodney was filling him in on the research Jeannie was doing when a memory stopped John in his tracks.
"What?" McKay asked.
"I, uh, I…" John took a calming breath. "Teyla bought a birthday present for Ronon, and she asked me to keep it for her. It's still in my quarters. I should go get it."
Rodney looked away, swallowing thickly. "Yeah. We're in Rec Room L Twenty-six."
"I'll be right there."
John hurried to his room, grimacing at the mess. Clothes were strewn all over the floor, he hadn't changed the sheets on his bed in at least a month, and dirty towels lined the path from his closet to the bathroom. He bit his lip as he tried to remember where he'd put her gift. He poked through the piles on his desk, looked behind then inside his refrigerator, and dug through his dresser drawers. He finally spotted the crimson cloth peeking out from under his bed.
He picked it up and headed out, holding it lovingly in his hands as the memory of that day played in his mind – Teyla's excitement in finding the knife, her laughter as she teased Ronon, McKay haggling for holo projectors, kids giggling as they played in the sun, a creepy little boy…
The rec room was filled with people, but the mood was subdued. Ronon stood near a table laden with presents and food, quickly inhaling a piece of cake. He thanked each person who came by, hugged the chef as she refilled the pan of grilled skirsk, and finally smiled when he saw John.
John walked over. "Hey yourself. Happy birthday."
"Thanks. Want some cake?"
"Maybe later. Listen, I have something for you."
"You didn't have-"
"It's from Teyla." John blew out a shaky breath. "She gave it to me that day at the market. She was afraid," he sniffed and cleared his throat, "afraid that Kanaan would spill the beans."
Ronon's eyes grew moist as he accepted the present. He carefully removed the cloth, and his breath hitched as he traced the markings on the hilt. "Oh," he whispered. "Oh, Teyla." Tears trickled down his cheeks when he looked up at John.
His reaction was John's undoing. The dam of emotion he'd shoved deep inside and locked away suddenly burst. He ducked his head and clenched his fists as he fought for control, but it was a losing battle.
Ronon gripped his shoulder tightly. "Go. I'll see you later."
John hurried out the door then ran for the transporter as the sob built in his chest. When he reached his room, he closed the door, and locked it. Rage quickly overcame the anguish inside, and he roared in anger. A vicious swipe of his arm sent everything on his desk crashing to the floor. He tossed his chair across the room and flipped the bed over. Grabbing his skateboard, he slammed it repeatedly into the bathroom mirror until it was as shattered as he was.
The board slipped from his fingers as the fight went out of him. Quiet sobs shook his frame, and he leaned on the sink counter, ignoring the glass grinding into his palms.
Teyla was dead. Dead. He couldn't wrap his mind around it. The Rodney hologram that sent him back in time had told him Teyla had been killed, but it had been words, something that had happened once upon a time that they were going to change. Michael had killed Teyla, and the whole galaxy had fallen apart. Now it was happening again, the irony being that he had killed Teyla and he was falling apart.
How had that Rodney survived the blow after blow he'd suffered? For the first time, John understood the misery that man's life must have been as he worked relentlessly to undo things. If giving up his life would bring Teyla back, John would do it in a heartbeat.
Trega has great powers. He can do miracles.
John's head lifted as the creepy boy from the marketplace came to mind. Was it possible? Common sense told him no, but he'd seen a lot of things in Pegasus that shouldn't have been possible. He was desperate, willing to try anything. If there was one chance in a million this Trega could bring Teyla back, John would take it. He would do anything to get her back, short of selling out Atlantis or sacrificing someone's life other than his own.
He glanced at his hands. The indentations made by the embedded glass matched the grooves on his arm. He pulled out the slivers of glass then washed the cuts thoroughly and dabbed antibiotic ointment on them. Locating his laptop, he typed up emails to Rodney, Ronon, and Woolsey then set them to send in three days. If he wasn't back by then, he wouldn't be coming back, but he didn't want them to think he'd been taken or had jumped off a balcony.
The armory was empty when he arrived. He slid on a tac vest, loaded his favorite .45, and grabbed a couple of extra clips for his P-90. The control room had a skeleton crew operating.
John sauntered up to the tech. "Harper, right?"
The man sat up straight. "Yes, Sir."
"I'm headed off-world for a couple days. Can you dial up New Athos for me?"
"Um," Harper glanced at Woolsey's darkened office, "I don't have any orders for that."
"It's not a mission. I'm going to visit friends."
"I'm giving the order." John let the grief show in his eyes until the man relented.
John hurried down the stairs, nodding at the guards as the gate blossomed to life. He stepped through without looking back.
As soon as John exited the gate on New Athos, he redialed and went through. Dawn was breaking on Atsel. The food vendors were stoking their fires as they prepared for the day while the other merchants were restocking and rearranging. John pulled a few trader coins from his vest and purchased a skewer of meat and a cup of canris juice then settled near the field the children had played in.
He didn't have to wait long.
John glanced down at the small figure next to him. "You're up early."
Beliv shrugged. "I love being in the light. Are you here to see Trega?"
"Yes. Can you show me where he lives?"
"Sure. This way."
The boy led him out of the market area to a narrow trail that disappeared into the forest. The mountains were as forbidding as last time. Fog shrouded them, and the same sense of foreboding as before weighed heavily on him. Everything in him screamed for him to turn around and go home. Which made no sense. He'd abandoned his post and left his friends with no explanation in order to do this.
"Don't be afraid, John Sheppard."
John stopped and stared at the boy. "How did you know my name?"
Beliv's eyes glittered and slowly shifted from brown to iridescent. "I have been waiting for you for a long time."
The boy morphed into a man about John's age. "Yes."
"It's easier to gain trust as a child."
John's anger, always close to the surface these days, bubbled over. "Well, consider it lost," he snapped. "Who the hell do you think you are?"
Trega's shoulders slumped, his face growing older. "Someone who needs your help."
"Why didn't you just ask? Why play games?"
"Then uncomplicate it."
Trega sighed. "Many years ago, my people discovered a device on this world. I was tasked with discovering its purpose. I tried everything I knew, but nothing worked. The device remained dark. Then one such as yourself touched it. The device lit and its mysteries were opened to me. The Ancestors had been studying ascension. Do you know what that is?"
"Yes, I'm familiar with the concept."
"Of course. The device was built to remove negative thoughts and feelings in order to accelerate the process. I was thrilled. As a scientist, I thirsted for knowledge. To achieve ascension would be to know, to understand, so much more than I ever thought possible."
"You tried it out, didn't you." John shook his head. Damn Ancients.
"Yes. A great light filled the room, and I felt every evil thing in me fade away. It was glorious. I had never felt so free, so alive."
"But…" John prompted.
"The evil wasn't gone, just separate."
"A living entity of its own. Dark, sadistic, filled with hate. Fear gripped me. I ran. He took over the settlement, forcing out any who would not serve him. He made the young man who had activated the device turn it off."
"And you need me to turn it back on."
John frowned at him. "Why?"
Trega hunched as he shuffled along the path. "We are bound to each other, unable to escape this planet or this life. I am ready to rest. My people are gone, long turned to dust, but I cannot join them as long as we are separate."
"So activating the device will put you back together?"
"No. Activating the device will merely turn it on. I'll have to program it to reverse."
"You know how to do that?"
"I have had many years to think on it."
John caught his arm. "And if I help you, if I activate this device, you can help me?"
Trega's eyes shimmered as he stared into John's. "You have so many things you wish changed. I cannot grant them all. Which one is most important?"
"Teyla. Can you bring Teyla back?"
Trega continued to search his eyes, and the memories filled John's mind. Laughter, teasing, gunfire, a strangled gurgle and a dying rasp.
"Stop!" John jerked away. "Please, can you help me or not?"
"Yes. But be warned. He thrives on negative thoughts and feelings. They are what have kept him so strong for all this time. He will be able to sense your guilt and self-loathing, and he will use them against you. Hide them."
"Don't worry," John assured him. "I've been doing that for a long time."
The trek through the mountain pass was long but not particularly arduous. John let Trega talk, hoping to glean something of use. Mostly the man reminisced about the life he'd known, friends and family long dead, dreams that had withered because he'd tried to take a short-cut. As they climbed, the fog grew thicker, the light dimmer. John's heart slammed in his chest as unexplained terror shot through him. Trega stooped; his steps slowed until he finally bent in half, hands on his knees as he gasped for air.
"No," Trega whispered. "I can go no further."
John wiped clammy palms on his pants. "I don't understand what's happening."
"He knows we're here. He can sense me."
"Sense you?" John laughed nervously. "Like the Force?"
"I don't know what that means."
"Never mind. What else can he sense?"
"Just me. We're connected."
"Then why do I feel so, um, so…"
"You are sensing him." Trega clutched his sleeve. "It will only get worse as you get closer. If you cannot do this-"
"I can do it." John gripped his P-90 until his knuckles turned white. "I have to."
"Then continue on this path. Once you crest the next ridge you will see the settlement. The device was in my workshop which was on the main square, but it may have been moved."
John patted the vest pocket that held his scanner. "I can find it. Does he look like you?"
Trega shook his head. "He has no form."
"Then how do I fight him?"
"You don't." Trega stood straight on shaking legs. "You cannot fight him. All you can do is to not let him get the best of you. And he will try. He will attack you in ways you can't imagine."
John struggled to get his breathing under control. "Okay. So just get in, find the device, and turn it on. Got it." He blinked away sweat and took a few steps then stopped when Trega called his name.
"He will not be alone. His followers will try to stop you. Don't let them."
Teyla's full-throated laughter filled his ears. "Don't worry," he whispered.
John trudged up the path, keeping his eyes on the mountaintop and his mind on his mission. He'd always had the ability to push his emotions away until his focus was razor sharp, but as he edged closer to his goal, the world blurred around him. By the time he reached the ridge, his blood roared and his clothes were drenched in sweat while his mouth was bone dry. His body shook so hard his teeth chattered.
The settlement lay below. A normal village by Pegasus standards – small homes and shops. But it was almost completely obscured in darkness even though it was at least mid-day. Only candlelight and campfires gave any illumination.
Trega had been right; John could feel the other…what? Being? Creature? Trega's alter-ego? Whatever it was, it made John's skin crawl. His soul shrank from it. His stomach churned. Malevolence pressed in on him, whispered promises of degradation and abasement. He staggered under the onslaught, clenching his eyes shut as he struggled to regain control.
Then he stopped trying to fight it, letting the feelings of hate and rage consume him, fuel him for the battle ahead. He checked his ammunition, turned off the safeties, and set his P-90 to automatic. John crept toward the village and darted into a side street.
At first, he was ignored. The people were too busy screeching at each other over perceived insults and unfair business dealings. One man had a woman cornered, pawing at her clothing. Three teenagers were beating the hell out of a small boy while adults went by without a passing glance. Hollow eyes and pinched faces surrounded John.
"Give it back!" a girl shouted.
"It's mine," another yelled in response.
Each girl had a sleeve of a grimy dress, tugging it until it ripped. Rage twisted their faces as they dropped it and clawed at each other. A third girl waited until they were rolling on the ground then snuck over, snatching the tattered dress and darting away. The two fighting never noticed.
John kept to the shadows and alleys. He pulled the scanner from his pocket and set it to search for Ancient power signatures like McKay had taught him. It glowed happily, pointing John to a windowless building near the center of the town. He was almost there when the confrontation began.
"Who are you?"
John's hand tightened on his P-90 as he turned. "Nobody."
A burly man, his face stretched in a permanent leer, eyed John slowly. "I've never seen weapons like that. I want them."
A crowd began to gather, their eyes filled with malice and greed. John backed toward the steps of the building with his weapon at his shoulder.
"I said I want them," the man snarled. "Give them to me."
"I don't want to hurt you," John replied, "but I will if I have to."
A chill ran down John's spine. A few of the people shrieked and cowered in fear. Others' eyes rolled back in their heads, and they swayed in ecstasy. Still others roared in anger and rushed John.
He fired wildly over their heads then turned and ran inside the building, slamming and locking the thick door behind him. Fists beat at the door as the people screamed vile curses at him, but the heavy lock held. John leaned against the door and slid to the floor when his legs gave out. His chest heaved as he tried to get enough breath to stand, but he couldn't. Images pounded his mind – memories he'd shoved away. His mother dying. The horrible fight with his father that had ended their relationship. Watching Mitch and Dex die. Failing to save Holland. Shooting Sumner. Losing Gaul and Abrams and Ford and Carson and Elizabeth. Waking the Wraith. Creating Michael. Finding the Replicators. Thousands dead because of him.
John rolled on his hands and knees and retched as the images flashed. Ronon leaving. Rodney dying. Todd. Wallace.
His arms quivered and his pulse thrummed.
Teyla missing. Dying. A strangled gurgle. A rasping last breath.
"No," he moaned.
He will attack you in ways you can't imagine.
John lifted his head as Trega's words came back to him. He climbed to his feet and staggered as a wave of lust washed over him. His mouth went dry as new images assaulted him. He scrubbed at his eyes and kicked open the door to one of the rooms. Every evil thing he'd ever seen or thought clawed at him. The second room was empty as was the third. Fear smothered him.
A device of Ancient design was behind door number four.
John collapsed as a thousand knives sliced through him. This being might not have a form, but it was in the room. John could feel it. He hung his head, sucked in a deep breath, and focused on every good memory he had. The pride in his father's eyes when he graduated with honors. His first solo flight. The first time Ronon said "home" and meant Atlantis. Holding Torren. Rodney waking up after brain surgery. Teyla – laughing, singing, smiling.
He crawled forward. His hand was inches from the device when a powerful force slammed into him, knocking him back. Hate, rage, envy, depravity, evil crushed him to the floor. He squirmed out under its weight, crying out in desperation, but his body was worn out. He couldn't draw in enough oxygen. His vision grayed.
"John," Trega whispered. "Get up."
The weight lifted. John gulped in a lungful of air and rolled. Trega stood on trembling legs in the doorway, his face a grimace of pain as he was buffeted by an unseen force. John dragged himself to the table holding the device and pulled himself up far enough to touch it. His skin tingled as the device turned on.
His muscles seized as the weight returned. He writhed as emotions assaulted him, his nails digging furrows in the wooden floor. His life was ebbing away. "Promise," he gasped. "Promise to save her."
"I promise," Trega said from nearby.
John felt the charge in the air when the device began to work. An eerie shriek filled the room, and John was suddenly free. He scrambled away and turned as Trega convulsed and slumped to the floor.
He stumbled to Trega's side, gaping in horror as the man aged before his eyes. "No!" John screamed. "Please! You promised to save her. Please!"
Trega gripped John's wrist. "Thank you," he breathed. Then his eyes closed and his chest stilled.
John howled in despair and grasped Trega's shirt. "You bastard! You promised." He let go and sat back on his heels. "You promised."
The room shimmered and sparkled with light. John covered his eyes as the brightness became blinding. When it faded, he blinked in confusion. Instead of gloomy wooden walls, he was surrounded by pale blue grass littered with silver-veined pink leaves and yellow bark.
The body in front of him was Teyla.
"No," John moaned.
Teyla gasped and her eyes flew open. "John?" She sat up, looking bewildered. "What has happened?"
John gaped for a second then pulled her into a hug, pressing his face into her shoulder and breathing in her scent. His body shook as her arms tightened around him.
"Promise kept," a voice whispered. Or maybe it was the wind.
"John? What-" Teyla pulled away and stared at him then at her hands. "Blood." She wiped at her uniform. "It is not mine." She looked at him in horror. "You are hurt."
John grinned crazily at her. "Yep. Shot in the shoulder."
"Can you stand?"
He laughed, hysteria close to the surface. "Right now, I could fly."
Teyla pulled him to his feet and wrapped an arm around his waist. "We will settle for walking." She clicked her radio as they moved slowly toward the gate. "Ronon, this is Teyla. What is your status?"
"McKay got the facility open. We're on our way to the gate. Where are you?"
"On our way. John has been injured but we will be there soon."
John leaned heavily on Teyla, his adrenaline gone. Any ounce of energy he had left evaporated quickly as the emotional beating he'd taken in the last month exacted its toll. Or had it? Had it really happened?
"Why was I lying on the ground?"
Her question jarred him. "What?"
"I remember firing at the men chasing us. Then nothing until I woke up with you staring down at me. I have no injuries. I am not in any pain. What happened to me?"
"I don't know," John answered honestly. "As long as you're all right, nothing else matters."
John stood in the corner of the rec room, letting the joy of the birthday party wash over him like a soothing balm. Keller had patched up his shoulder – again, and how weird was that? – and rehab had been smooth. The first couple of missions out had been uneventful, and John was desperately trying to not act like Linus holding tightly to his blanket.
He'd asked a few subtle questions, but if Ronon or Rodney remembered anything, they weren't admitting it. Time had simply started over again, and John had been tossed back into it. He glanced down at his arm, tracing the scars that ran from his elbow to his wrist.
Teyla handed Ronon her gift. His eyes grew round as he opened it. Ronon looked up at her in awe and murmured something for her ears only. She leaned forward and pressed her forehead to his. When she pulled away, she grinned mischievously and said something that made Ronon blush. She laughed, a sound that made John's heart swell. Ronon guffawed in response, and Rodney rolled his eyes but couldn't hide a grin.
When his heart lurched in his chest, John slipped from the room and headed to the nearest balcony, breathing in the crisp evening air. Waves broke gently against the pier a few stories below, and the ocean reflected Atlantis' lights and two of the moons. The sea breeze ruffled his hair and reminded him of lazy summer days at his grandma's.
"John?" Teyla's soft voice wrapped around his soul. "Are you well?"
"Yeah, just admiring the night."
She remained quiet until he faced her. "You have been…different since you were wounded."
He rolled his shoulder and winced at the twinge. "The doc says I'm a hundred percent."
"Perhaps your shoulder is, but you are not. Will you tell me what's wrong?"
John held her gaze, hearing a strangled gurgle and a dying rasp. "There's nothing to tell."
"You can choose to not tell me, but please do me the courtesy of not lying."
"Teyla…" John turned away, raking his fingers through his hair. "I- I can't. I can't explain what happened. I don't know- I don't understand…" He rubbed the marks on his arm. "I can't."
She touched her fingers to his chin, turning him to face her again. "Very well." She pulled his head to hers. "I will be here for you if you change your mind. I will always be here for you."
"I know," John whispered. "I'll make sure of it."