Title: The Right Thing to Do
Genre: Gen, Angst, Hurt/Comfort, Friendship, References to the SGC but not a Crossover.
Warnings: Occasional mild language. Mildly graphic injury/illness. No character death, but there are references to characters who died in canon.
Spoilers: There are spoilers for a smattering of episodes from Seasons 1, 2 & 3, but revealing which ones would spoil this story. If you really want to know before you read, see the Spoiler Notes at the end of Part Two.
Word Count: ~12,600
Prompt: Written for the sheppard_hc Flashfic Challenge Two. The prompt was "Lies, deceit or betrayal".
Summary: Colonel Sheppard struggles to come to terms with what he has done, what he believes he has failed to do.
Notes: Thank you to wildcat88 for being such an awesome beta reader.
The Right Thing to Do
Rodney sat hunched over his laptop, his fingers tapping briskly at the keys. He furrowed his brow in concentration as he attempted to quantify and record information that pretty much defied categorization as far as he was concerned.
The sequence of events had occurred twice. Rodney was as certain as he could reasonably be about that, but he wasn't sure if it was significant, something more than random chance. He knew in his gut that it was, but it bothered him to have such an unscientific basis for his current studies. It bothered him a lot. It bothered him enough to keep him awake at night even when he cut down on caffeine. He might not have even pursued this line of inquiry if a third cycle hadn't started and if the third cycle hadn't already shown signs that it was going to be a bad one.
Occasionally, Rodney questioned the wisdom of spending time and energy on a project so far outside his area of expertise. It was not as if he was going to be able to do anything about the current cycle. He possessed neither the knowledge nor the skill to intervene. His field was hard science. He dealt in facts, measurable quantities and equations. This was so unpredictable, so difficult to quantify, and so lacking in hard data. Rodney sighed. Human behavior defied reason.
Pausing to make additional observations, Rodney looked up from the tables and charts filling his screen.
"McKay, you're doing it again," Sheppard drawled, sounding weary.
Rodney widened his eyes and raised his eyebrows in what he hoped was an inquisitive and thoroughly innocent expression. "Doing what?"
"You're staring at me." Sheppard's eyes narrowed as a hint of annoyance crept into his voice.
Irritable, Rodney thought. He placed a checkmark beside the word in one of his observation tables. "I'm not staring at you. I'm just...gazing thoughtfully and you happen to be in the way."
"Well, let me get out of your way then." Sheppard shoved his chair away from the table.
"Aren't you going to eat your snack?"
"It's not that long since we had dinner. I'm not hungry. Not that it's any of your business."
Rodney wisely refrained from commenting that Sheppard hadn't eaten much dinner either. Loss of appetite. Check.
Sheppard tried to suppress a yawn. "It's getting late. I'm gonna turn in now. We have to meet with the village elders early tomorrow morning."
Sheppard sauntered through the archway into the sleeping area of the two room hut which the villagers had provided for them. Rodney heard him quickly prepare for bed and then settle into one of the two creaky, wooden bunks. After a minute, Rodney returned to studying his observation charts.
In hindsight, Rodney realized that the first cycle started shortly before they gated back to Earth after the Wraith siege. Prior to the trip, his friend had grown increasingly moody and distant. His eyes became bloodshot with fatigue and ringed with dark circles. Sheppard's normally relaxed posture was replaced with such a persistent tension that Rodney figured the man's back and neck had to be killing him. He'd seen him pop a few Tylenol when he thought no one was looking. Rodney didn't take too much note of it at the time. The siege on Atlantis had taken its toll on everyone.
Once they reached Cheyenne Mountain, Sheppard disappeared for a few hours. Well, technically he didn't disappear. He obtained permission to leave the base, but no one seemed to know where he went. No one seemed to give it a second thought except Rodney.
Sheppard didn't sleep much on the return trip on the Daedalus. He'd also been moody and unpredictable. One minute he'd be elated about his promotion and bantering with his friends then the next moment he'd be quiet and brooding. But then again, Rodney rationalized, Ford had gone missing during the siege. Sheppard would have taken that very personally.
The second trip home, almost a year later, had been worse. Sheppard had been plagued by nightmares more intense and more frequent than usual prior to their departure. After Sheppard's brief leave from Cheyenne Mountain, darkness settled behind his eyes, giving them a smoldering and scary look. He'd become uncharacteristically surly to everyone aboard the Daedalus, but he'd become hardest on himself. Sometime during the trip Sheppard had broken a few bones in his hand while sparring. At least, that was the story. Rodney was sure Sheppard had been alone in the gym at the time of the accident.
Once he had been back on Atlantis for a week or so after each trip, Sheppard shoved the darkness away. It was banished to wherever he hid all the other demons in his life. It was banished until it snuck out to haunt him again.
This time, the darkness had crept out a couple of weeks ahead of schedule. The trip was two weeks away and Sheppard already looked like crap. Looking like crap. Not on the checklist. Scowling, Rodney twisted his mouth in frustration. Sheppard didn't fit neatly into any boxes even at the best of times.
"McKay?" Sheppard interrupted Rodney's reverie. "Shut off your laptop for the night and go to bed. You're keeping me awake."
Insomnia. Check. "How am I doing that?" Rodney challenged.
"Because...you're thinking too much. I can practically hear you thinking in here and it's almost as annoying as having you stare at me all day."
Paranoid, pissed off and irrational. Also not on the list. Rodney sighed as he closed the screen. That was another problem with human data. Observing it could sometimes affect the results.
"Noooooo!" Sheppard's scream ripped Rodney from his sleep. "Get your hands off me!
Momentarily disoriented, Rodney fumbled for a weapon before diving out of his bunk and snapping on a flashlight. His heart stuttered in his chest as he swept the beam around the room and found Sheppard on the floor, scrambling to press himself into a corner. His eyes were wide with fear as his hands grappled with the imaginary assailant at his chest. In his frantic battle, he was gouging his own skin through his T-shirt.
"Sheppard! Sheppard! Wake up! It's only a dream. John!"
It seemed like forever before Rodney's words broke through Sheppard's terror, but eventually the screaming was replaced by ragged gasps as Sheppard tried to suck in air. His hands stopped their frenzied movements and resorted to picking and tugging at the now sweat-soaked shirt.
"It's okay. You're safe. There's no...there's no..." Rodney hesitated to use the word "Wraith" in front of Sheppard at the moment. "There's nothing here. It was just a dream."
As Rodney knelt in front of his friend, Sheppard reached out and clutched desperately at his sleeve. "Wasn't a dream, Rodney." Sheppard shook so hard his teeth chattered when he spoke. "It really happened."
"Yes, yes, I know." Rodney mentally kicked himself for not picking the right words. "But it's over. Okay? It's over."
Sheppard nodded his head slowly as his breathing started settling toward a more normal rate. He pressed his hand against his chest grimacing. "I...I shouldn't be okay."
"Well, you are." Rodney offered the man a hand up then guided him as he stumbled back to bed.
Sheppard dropped onto the bunk and curled up on his side, his hands crossed protectively over his chest. He was still shaking as Rodney pulled up the rough but warm, woven blanket. After a moment's thought, Rodney pulled the blanket off his own bed and placed that over Sheppard, too. He stood watch until the tremors subsided and Sheppard fell back to sleep.
Rodney's legs felt weak and rubbery as he crossed the hut to the entrance. He pulled the door open and stepped outside to breathe in the cool night air. Ronon and Teyla were waiting for him. He knew they would be.
"Nightmares again," Ronon stated flatly.
"Yeah." Rodney replied a little breathlessly, leaning against the outer wall of the hut for support as the adrenaline rush wore off. He craned his neck scanning the area around the huts. "No natives with arrows and spears tonight?"
"They thought they were coming to our defense last night, Rodney," Teyla reminded him gently. "They understand the situation now. They are not strangers to nightmares. Their world has been culled more than once."
Rodney shook his head a little to clear it. "We need the first aid kit. Sheppard scratched his chest."
As he moved to enter the hut, Ronon shot a glace at Rodney. "How did he-"
Rodney blew out a shaky breath. "With his fingernails."
Rodney perched tiredly on his bunk, watching as Ronon gently sat Sheppard up and removed the damp T-shirt while Teyla fetched the first aid supplies from the adjacent lodge. The warrior's rough hands were surprisingly tender as they pulled away the patches of fabric that were sticky with blood, adhering to Sheppard's skin. Sheppard barely stirred.
Teyla cleaned the raked wounds carefully. It must have stung because Sheppard whimpered in his sleep. Once the scratches were cleaned, Teyla applied ointment and taped gauze over the area with the deepest gouges.
While Ronon worked a fresh T-shirt over Sheppard's head, Teyla sat down beside Rodney. "Are you alright?"
"I'm okay. Sheppard, not so much."
"His experience with the Wraith may trouble him for some time yet."
"I know." Rodney scrubbed his face with his hands. "There's something else though. He's been like this twice before when we had to go back to Earth." He sighed. "I'm really not good with this kind of stuff, although I suppose that doesn't matter anyway since Sheppard never lets anyone help with this kind of stuff anyway."
"He's letting us help now." Ronon lowered Sheppard back onto the pillow and stood up to head back to his hut.
"Of course he is. He's asleep," Rodney protested.
Ronon shrugged as though he thought that was irrelevant.
Teyla gave Rodney's hand a reassuring squeeze, then stood up and slipped quietly out of the hut with Ronon.
Despite Rodney's tiredness, sleep was a long time coming after that. He resorted to taking a mental inventory for his charts. Bad dreams. Check. No, change that to nightmares - really, really bad nightmares. Crap. This isn't working.
If Sheppard remembered what had happened during the night, he gave no indication of it in the morning. Rodney wondered if Sheppard was that good an actor. He wondered all through breakfast. He wondered until he caught a glimpse of the gouges and gauze peeking out from underneath the neckline of Sheppard's shirt. Sheppard hadn't asked about it. Surely he must have noticed.
Rodney played along. He didn't say a word about it, but he wondered if it was the right thing to do.
Rodney decided to try another approach. He dropped by the infirmary to consult Carson.
"You've been following Colonel Sheppard around, making observations on him for a week?" Carson's eyes widened as he gaped at Rodney's tables and charts. "Rodney, you'll be drivin' the poor man batty if you haven't done it already."
"How else am I going to find out what the problem is?" Rodney asked, his voice sounding a little desperate even to his ears.
"Why don't you just let him be?" Carson advised. "Colonel Sheppard has his own way of dealing with these things." He turned away from Rodney and began busying himself with some medical equipment.
Rodney thought for a moment, his eyes narrowing with realization. He moved to wedge himself in between Carson and the equipment. "You know what the problem is, don't you?"
"No, Rodney, I don't." Carson's averted gaze belied his statement.
"But you have an idea," Rodney persisted.
Carson sighed. "Aye, I might have a wee inkling. But maybe it's none of your business."
"We're a team. How could it not be my business?"
Carson shook his head, his lips pursing into an exasperated expression. "Rodney-"
"Never mind. Don't answer that". Rodney waved his hand dismissively, and then hurried from the infirmary. He had another idea.
"So," Rodney began around a mouthful of mashed potatoes. "Do you have any plans for our next visit to Earth?"
"Not really." Sheppard leaned back in his chair with studied casualness. "The SGC has pretty much got my time all mapped out."
Rodney nodded. "I think they've got my first meeting scheduled five minutes after I step through the gate." He paused and frowned worriedly. "I hope they leave us enough time for meals, not that you could call what they serve in the commissary a meal."
"Rodney, we won't starve," Sheppard placated.
They ate in silence for a few moments until Rodney blurted, "Is there anything you would like to...you know...discuss...about our trip back?" He lowered his head, wincing. He had planned on a subtle approach to the issue. He was pretty sure he'd missed the mark on that one.
Rodney risked a quick glance at Sheppard and was relieved to see that he didn't seem perturbed by the question. Instead, he had tipped his head, seeming to ponder his response. "Actually, there was one thing I have been meaning to talk about with you..."
Sheppard suddenly sat up straight, as he pointed a warning finger at Rodney. "Make sure you pack enough socks for the trip because I am not loaning you a pair of my socks ever again."
Rodney jumped, momentarily startled. "I had your socks washed before I returned them," he protested once he recovered. "I've told you a dozen times, you did not get athlete's foot from putting on freshly laundered socks."
Sheppard's eyes darted furtively around the immediate area as though checking to see if anyone had overheard Rodney's mortifying proclamation. He leaned across the table and spoke in a low growl. "Would you keep your voice down about that?"
"Fine," Rodney leaned forward matching Sheppard's low tone, "but would you just accept that you got athlete's foot on M3X-282 when they took all your gear and you were forced to wear your lucky socks for five days straight in the detention cell."
"I do not have lucky socks," Sheppard argued.
"Oh, yes, you do." Rodney grinned smugly. "I've see the way you inspect your socks in the morning, looking for that special pair when you think we're heading into dangerous territory."
"No one on my team has ever been killed while I was wearing those socks," Sheppard countered defensively.
"Ha! So you admit it. You do have lucky socks," Rodney exclaimed gleefully.
"I told you to keep your voice down," Sheppard scowled. "And it's really disturbing to think you've paid that much attention to my socks."
"If we're going to talk about disturbing, you know what's really disturbing? After you fell in that swamp on M4Z-768, you preferred to walk for 6 hours in damp clothing rather than borrow a pair of my clean, dry boxers which, I might add, I had never even worn. They were brand new."
"They had SpongeBob on them."
"So, I'd fractured my wrist when I fell," Sheppard stated as though that explained the situation.
"What has that got to do with SpongeBob?" Rodney demanded.
"I wasn't going to wear SpongeBob boxers to the infirmary."
"No. You preferred to be treated for chafing. Much less embarrassing."
"Just...just...just pack enough socks for the trip this time, McKay," Sheppard spluttered. Then he stood up, spun on his heel and strode out of the cafeteria.
Rodney watched Sheppard's rapidly retreating back. How had his attempt to delve into Sheppard's mind wound up in a discussion over athlete's foot and SpongeBob? Unless...unless those were the sorts of things generally on Sheppard's mind. No. Couldn't be. Rodney shook his head then returned to eating his dinner. He'd need another plan. Maybe he'd have a better chance with Sheppard once they were alone at Stargate Command.
Rodney scurried down the long, grey hallway of the SGC and skidded to a halt where the corridors intersected. "Damn," he muttered as he scanned left and right. Sheppard was nowhere to be seen. They'd been in Cheyenne Mountain less than forty-eight hours and Sheppard had already given him the slip. Well, technically he hadn't given him the slip because that would imply he knew Rodney was tracking him and Rodney had been very discreet - at least he thought he had.
I suppose you expect I'm going to wait around to pick up the pieces. You could have tried to be a little bit more proactive this time, you know. Of course, I'm not sure what we would have done about it proactively, but genius here. I'd have figured something out. Rodney realized he must have uttered some of his rant aloud when he began to get strange looks from others as he headed back to his temporary office. Just great, he thought. We'll both end up having to pay a visit to Dr. MacKenzie.
John turned off the country road, pulled into the now familiar parking lot and eased the car toward the nearest available space. Shutting off the ignition, he sat back and closed his eyes for a minute waiting until his heart stopped hammering so painfully in his chest, until he could slow his breathing a fraction and until his hands stilled enough that he could pretend to himself that they weren't shaking.
John climbed slowly out of the car feeling stiff and sore despite having driven less than an hour. He paused, leaning against the vehicle as a wave of lightheadedness and nausea washed over him. He felt sick already and the visit hadn't even started. John pinched the bridge of his nose, unsuccessfully fighting a rapidly building headache
Taking a deep breath to steady himself, John pushed away from the car and walked across the parking lot. He studiously avoided looking at the building. It was bad enough that he had to see it when he closed his eyes at night. He saw it in his dreams - in his nightmares. Sometimes it appeared before him in his waking hours. That frightened him even more than the dreams.
The three-story, red brick building appeared to be a long, rectangular structure, but hidden from view, two wings extended from the back of the building. John resented that. It seemed to be an attempt to hide the extent of the misery that lay within the walls, to pretend it didn't exist.
Without looking, John knew that the crisp white trim on the structure would look just as freshly painted as it always had. On his last visit, he'd been seized with an overwhelming desire to nick the white trim with his car keys, to make a small unobtrusive scratch. It would be his own private protest against the façade of perfection and well-being the architecture touted, his statement that the suffering was not forgotten.
As he neared the entrance way, John averted his head to avoid seeing the flower beds crammed with brightly colored blossoms. In his nightmares, clowns with garishly painted faces stood there clutching bouquets of balloons that sounded like bursts of fire from a P-90 when they popped.
The automatic door slid open with a pneumatic hiss when John approached. The door, he thought, was like a trap, poised to ensnare the unsuspecting visitor lured by the exterior. He stumbled and gasped as a sudden sharp pain shot through his chest. It wasn't real. It was as unreal as the nightmare in which the door had morphed into the maw of a snarling Wraith. It was as unreal as the pain that had torn him from his sleep, screaming and clutching his chest as Rodney rushed into his room chasing away the terror yet again.
Rodney. With an unexpected rush of emotion, John suddenly missed his friend and teammate. He regretted not bringing Rodney with him. Then he berated himself for being so cowardly about facing what was his alone to face.
"Good afternoon," the receptionist greeted pleasantly.
"I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard." He forced the words out. "I'm here to see-"
"Yes, I remember," the woman smiled. "Please sign in here." She slid a log book and pen across the desk.
John signed the book quickly, trying to convince himself the unreadable scrawl was due to haste rather than the shakiness in his hand.
John's footsteps seemed to echo too loudly as he headed through the corridors. He walked rapidly, trying to avoid seeing any of the residents. He hated himself for ignoring them as though their existence was no longer of any consequence – used, discarded and forgotten. The veterans deserved better from him, but his legs were feeling weak enough as it was. If he looked at them this time, looked at them knowing that he-
Shit. The lightheaded feeling and nausea were kicking in again as John's headache progressed from throbbing to pounding. He stopped before rounding a corner, stuffing his hand into his pockets and leaning against the wall for a minute, trying to pull himself together. He had to do this. He owed this much, and more.
"Are you alright?" A nurse touched his arm lightly.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine," John answered a little hoarsely. He licked his dry lips. "Could I...umm...I could use a glass of water."
"Certainly." The woman headed to the nursing station.
Survivor's guilt. Dr. Heightmeyer had said it might be more difficult this time because he was suffering from survivor's guilt...as if he didn't feel guilty enough already. Knowing that he'd acted correctly the first time didn't make a difference. Knowing that he'd been doing the right thing the second time, the time when he failed to-
"Here you go." The nurse handed John a glass of cool water. He held it to the side of his face for a moment, relishing the coolness.
A concerned look crossed the nurse's face. "Would you like to sit down for a minute?"
"No. I'm okay." John took a few gulps of water.
"Is this your first time visiting someone here?" the nurse inquired. "It can be difficult-"
"I've been here before." John drained the glass. I should have been living here myself.
"Thanks." John handed back the glass, forcing a small smile.
Steeling himself for what lay ahead, John straightened up and continued down the hall. The small amount of relief the water had brought was lost as it churned uncomfortably in his stomach.
John stood in the doorway of one of the resident's rooms, watching as another nurse settled the man in the wheelchair. Even from there, John could see the palsied shaking coursing through the old man's thin frame. Not an old man, John reminded himself.
"Colonel Everett, your visitor is here." The nurse turned the man's chair away from the window. She left the room quietly while Everett's rheumy eyes regarded John for a long moment.
John stepped into the room. "Good afternoon, Colonel. I'm-"
"I know who you are. Don't mistake me for an old fool." Despite the vocal tremors, the sharp, hard edge in Everett's reply was unmistakable."
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."
"I thought I told you to cut the "sorry" crap the last time you were here. In fact, I distinctly remember telling you not to come here again. I suppose what they say is true. You're really not very good at following orders, are you?"
John hung his head slightly and twisted his mouth regretfully. "No, sir."
"I'm not going to be around much longer, so do me the service of listening to me this one last time. I'm not a priest. I can't absolve you of your guilt. If you can't get it through your head that you did the right thing for Colonel Sumner, you're a fool."
"Yes, sir. I just wish-"
"You wish what? Wish you had been there for me, too? When I said that, did you honestly think I was selfish enough to want you there, fighting my battles instead of defending the entire city?"
"No, sir." John's voice was almost a whisper.
"Yet you insist on taking it that way. Are you arrogant enough to think you'd have done a better job than my marines when we encountered the Wraith?"
"Then what the hell is your problem? Are you screwed up enough that you can't live with your own decisions even when you know they're right?"
John felt as though he'd been punched in the gut. For a moment, he couldn't suck any air into his lungs.
Everett plowed on. "You couldn't save me. Deal with it. I did. You're the military leader of Atlantis. You can't afford the luxury of wallowing in guilt. If you want to do something for me, follow orders for once. Get out of here. Don't come back."
Blinking as he tried to clear his graying vision, John finally drew in a deep, ragged breath. The muscles in his jaws twitched as he ground his jaw shut. His eyes narrowed with anger as his head lifted and met Everett's steely gaze. "Fine," John spat out. "I can do that." Then he whirled around and strode out of the room.
John headed for the exit. The corridors, rooms and residents blurred into shapeless masses as he rushed past. He didn't break his stride for a second as he crossed the reception area.
"Sir, would you please sign out-"
John staggered as he passed through the automatic doors, forcing him to pause and steady himself. That was when the nausea he'd been fighting finally caught up with him. He doubled over and threw up on the brilliant flowers that taunted him in his dreams, their blooms bending and withering under the onslaught of his stomach acid.
He didn't wait until his stomach had fully settled before moving on. He willed himself to clamp down on the next wave of sickness as he made his way quickly across the lot to the car and yanked the door open.
The tires screeched when John gunned the car out of the parking lot. The stench of burning rubber filled the air. It made his eyes water, his stomach roil and his head ache intolerably, but he didn't stop.
Everett listened with satisfaction to the footsteps fading rapidly down the hall. Something had happened since he'd last seen Sheppard – something bad. He'd seen Sheppard's haunted look. He'd seen it in men before. He hoped he hadn't been too tough on the man. His last remark might have hit home a little harder than he had bargained on. Still, he knew his words had the intended effect when he saw the flash of anger in Sheppard's eyes.
"I don't know why you are always so mean to that nice young man," the nurse chided gently as she reentered Colonel Everett's room. He's your only visitor. Everett heard her unspoken words.
The nurse wheeled Everett around again to face out the window as he craned his neck for a view of Sheppard. He breathed a sigh of relief when he caught a glimpse of the man striding fiercely across the far end of the parking lot. He's angry now. He'll survive better with anger than with guilt and he'll deal with this better thinking I'm a miserable bastard than a pathetic old man.
Everett continued to stare out the window watching the smoke flare up from the tires as the car took off. He sighed as the car disappeared out of sight. He'd never see Sheppard again. He was sure of that. I'm still a soldier. I can still do what has to be done. It was the right thing to do. The thought brought him some comfort.
John drove as fast as he dared considering the road seemed to tilt and waver before his eyes. He drove down the winding road until the hospital was no longer even a speck in the distance. He drove until he couldn't fight his rebelling stomach any longer. Pulling over to the side of the road, John slammed his foot on the brake, scrambled across the car to the passenger side, shoved open the door, and finished the puking he'd started back at the flower beds.
He hadn't bought Everett's attitude for one minute, but he hoped he'd been able to convince the man that he had. He hoped Everett believed his words had sparked the transformation of guilt into anger, that his actions still meant something. John thought his small deception seemed such a wholly inadequate gesture of atonement for what he had failed to do. Knowing that Everett was still trying to do something for him, to save him in some way, made John feel that much worse.
When what seemed like an endless bout of dry-heaving finally subsided, John sat back into the passenger seat and slammed the car door shut. He curled up slightly, trying to lessen the cramping in his gut. Every ragged breath seemed to make his abused stomach muscles hurt more. He eased his aching head back against the seat. He didn't have so much as a Tylenol with him. The taste in his mouth was god-awful and his throat burned as though it were on fire. It made him wish he'd brought water with him, too. Despite the warmth of the day, John started to shiver as perspiration cooled off and dried against his skin, but there were no spare blankets in the back of the car to keep him warm. He would have changed his soiled shirt but he had no spare clothing with him either. If he'd been in a jumper, if his team were here...
For the second time that day John regretted not having brought Rodney along with him. He couldn't even call his teammate for help now because he didn't own a cell phone anymore. He was going to have to make his own way home. No, not home. The SGC. Home was a really, really long way away. John ground the heels of his hands against his eyes, trying to relieve the burning sensation. He told himself the tears that ran down his face were caused by vomiting.
As exhaustion overtook him, John drifted off to sleep. His last thought before he fell asleep was that he got what he deserved. He got what he deserved...for living.
Continue to Chapter Two...