WHOEVER TREASURES FREEDOM
A/N - For several weeks now and at least up till today, Thursday 10/08/09, at around 10 to 9 pm EDT, Syble has incorporated original artwork into her sig, and this can be found on the GW Shep whump thread, until our Syble changes it out as is her wont, and that can, of course, happen any time soon. I went and issued a challenge on said thread for writers to interpret her sig, (for my sins,) and then write a fic around it, hence the SybSig Fic Challenge. I was inspired to write some 8K words in response to said challenge, and if I'm the only entrant, so be it. (Thought I'd better put my money where my mouth is.) Don't get back to me if Syble's next sig is full of cute, fluffy pink bunnies with huge soulful eyes. All I can tell you is that I wrote about her current sig, which is well whumpy. Any future sig is out of my control. All we can hope is that should any cute, fluffy pink bunnies turn up by way of anyone's Shep whumpy sig, they should be either highly venomous, inordinately vicious with nasty, pointy teeth, or our boy should be highly allergic to them, and have a terrible reaction involving 'ginger cake', (don't ask,) green infirmary sheets, and rashes in funky places, followed by lots of team luff, angst and comfort. :P
EDIT: Syble changed her sig! The very next day! Hah! How about that? Oh, well. Ye were warned! *shrugs* (Syble did kindly state that she would leave her sig up at least until a fic was posted. Thanks, Syble!)
Many thanks to Shepsgirl72 for giving it the proverbial once-over. *squishes*
Anyway, on with the tale...
His capture began with a blow dart. First they stripped him of his weapons, then his outer clothing, and ultimately his last vestige of dignity. They hadn't even left him his dog tags. He fought frantically as they strung him up in the center of a cold, dank, dimly lit cell, and repeated some weird mantra in time with every prod or lash. So began the indoctrination. Something about his name. He knew who he was, but they endlessly told him another story, driving the words home with each blow. He was the letter J to them. No more, no less. Once he accepted it, they intended to move onto numbers and then symbols, or so they told him. J, huh? He would scream something equally monosyllabic right back at them, and that usually began with an F.
As he hung there, miserably devoid of all trappings of his former life, they shrieked at him over and over again, telling him his name was merely a letter of the alphabet, and never, ever once an actual word. The shrieks were accompanied by endless sprays of spittle he was physically unable to wipe away, so he bowed his head, letting his hair and shoulders take the onslaught instead of his face. Before long, every endlessly repeated utterance was emphasized with either a jab from a cattle prod, or a lash from a whip. They scourged that knowledge into him, even as they scourged any other knowledge out. Before long, he was a blank slate. To be written upon. He was the letter J.
Out with the old, in with the new, he conceded, though he hadn't quite forgotten who he used to be.
At first he tried playing prime/not prime to distract himself while they tortured him, but as the recollection of letters and numbers started to become painful, he found himself humming instead. Okay, singing wasn't his strong suit, but he generally got by during those karaoke evenings back in -
Where? A is for…
He lost more blood than he ever hoped to witness, feeling it trickle down his back and legs, and watching it pool beneath his feet before soaking slowly into the compacted dirt floor. He stared in morbid fascination as his feet slipped in his own gore, becoming caked in a slick, crimson paste. He finally made a show of contrition. He looked up at them and nodded slowly, and they believed he had succumbed, judging by their smug grins. He accepted his designation for the time being, and hoped to be left alone for a while, as he awaited a rescue that never came. At least he remembered his name. He was Jay. Once they left his cell, it was Jay's turn to grin smugly.
Then they added numbers after his letter. So Jay was suddenly royalty. Huh. How 'bout that. There was nothing to do but hum and daydream, since the more they tried to drive letters and numbers into him, the more those letters and numbers hurt his head. Humming provided some relief, like a burst of soothing white noise. After he had gotten used to his new alphanumerical designation to their satisfaction, they flung a bunch of other symbols his way, shoving paperwork in his face. He refused to look at them at first, but they wanted sequences. He sent them off to… dial something… a gate address? Whuh?
They had asked for more sequences, so with a shrug he gave them some. Apparently he had packed a bunch of them off into oblivion. They beat him until he screamed, and beat him some more until he passed out. They would administer that cattle prod for long, agonizing moments under his vulnerable armpits and to his flanks, but worse still, to his groin. It ripped his body and mind to shreds, until he knew only of nerve endings, firing rapidly like a P90 on steroids. Then they whipped him brutally, drawing more blood, and forcing his body to jerk like a landed fish. Once he quit shaking and whimpering, he nodded slowly once more, giving them some acknowledgment, throwing them a bone as he hung there in the gloom, twitching still and dripping blood and sweating profusely, his arms splayed stiffly sideways by taut, chafing ropes.
J he was, then. Just the letter. So be it. He could work with that. With a bunch of dumb numbers after it. He accepted those, too. It gave him a break from torment. He just wished he could stop his mouth from twitching or his eyelids from fluttering. For some reason, it embarrassed him big time not to have control of his face, more so than his bowels.
After all this time, he still knew he was really Jay, a creature of flight, but he refused to voice it, even as he heaved and panted in the aftermath of the latest abuse inflicted upon him, and crapped himself for the nth time. At first the indignity hurt more than the torture, then before long, the discomfort and embarrassment turned to agony, and his ass became endlessly sore. He could only wipe and scratch there at night, and hated to think what might be lodged under his ragged fingernails. He doubted he could ever get clean again. Part of his mind thought 'on' for a warm shower. Hah! As if. He berated himself for such a dumb thought. Like that could ever happen in real life.
Jay. He was Jay. Jay! Jay! Jay! He had to cling onto that. What else was left him? That made him some bird, he concluded, latching on to something solid, and he gave a useless nod of his head. He laughed inwardly. Losing it, Jay! You sorry-assed sonofa -
He longed for the sky, to free his soul from an aching, battered body. Jay frowned and pouted, sweat constantly dripping into his eyes, stinging them. He once flew for real, this he knew. He knew his name was Jay despite what they told him, over and over, relentlessly, with each prod and lash. Oh, God, how long had he hung there? Was hanging around destined to be a third of the rest of his life?
Oh, nonononono, he thought, but for some reason, that expression of negativity stung him worse than any lashing. He was channeling - someone… K? Or just maybe it was Kay, though he couldn't put a face to either the name or designation.
His hair almost reached his shoulders these days, marking the inexorable passage of time. He'd had crazy cowlicks and kick-back, kick-ass hair all his life, even now he was in his early forties, but nothing had ever, ever come close to this. This was wild beyond his regular wild that constantly refused to obey orders, even military orders. Military? Had he been a soldier? He couldn't recall. No dog tags to prove it. Huh. He must've guessed wrong then.
His bangs tickled his nose as they dangled. Just maybe he could ignore the tickle, but that only left him to concentrate on the burning sensation in his ass. He struggled not to sniff up any flyaway strands. It was the least of his worries. And so was the cattle prod and whip. That he could deal with. He would switch off and day dream and hum, taking himself elsewhere. What truly bothered him was the uncertainly of who he was and where he came from. They had tortured that out of him, until all he remembered was his name. At least, he thought it was his name. It was all he had left to hang onto, apart from the goddamn ropes. Having his mind left hanging in thin air was way worse than what was being done to his body.
Jay used to allow his bleary gaze to wander upwards to the grate directly in front of him, hoping to see - who? Judging by the traffic, it was an egress window onto street level. He used to glare in defiance at passersby, refusing to plead with his eyes or even beg for help, but not any more. They lost interest in him after a while, since they couldn't get much of a rise out of him. He had become a fixture. Now even the odd hobo ceased to engage him, though stray dogs intrigued him. Even they left him alone eventually, as he had nothing to offer in the form of entertainment. There was a huge shaggy dog he mentally called Buddy, but maybe it had either died or had been adopted. He hoped for the latter. Maybe the damn thing had found a home. He almost missed Buddy and the hobos peering if not peeing through the grate. Buddy and The Hobos. Sounded like some Country and Western group. Jay snickered to himself, and hummed.
Weeks or maybe months later, even gazing through the window direct was like looking peripherally. His vision would flip-flop, and the view would swirl, making his stomach churn in tandem. He was often woozy. He learned to keep his head down, not just to avoid a shower of spittle but to avoid losing what little sustenance they offered him with one miserable ladleful of slop slung right into his face from a pail, and the occasional bowl of something marginally more substantial that looked chewed up and spit out. He could only lick off whatever dribbled down while he hung there, but later he would pick off the dried pieces like scabs, and eat them just before his four hours of sleep. It was supposed to be eight hours, but things had a habit of not working out, despite the fact that he told himself stuff happens. Stuff happens? Who had said that? With that, he visualized an eager, ingenuous young man with a bright Colgate smile whose name he could not recall, though it, too, began with the letter A. A younger brother? Maybe he was the brother who became a soldier. Or was he a brother-in-arms?
His arms were outstretched and overextended for a third of the day, not that he could ever flap his metaphorical wings and fly away, so he pretended he was gliding on thermals. Ropes burned and stung his wrists, but the scabs endlessly formed and fell away, until the tension no longer bothered him, just the relentless itching around his callused wrists and elsewhere. His arms were mostly numb until feeling came back with a vengeance every evening, and then he writhed and groaned for half the night. First came pins and needles, then came the agony he couldn't hope to massage away, however hard or relentlessly he kneaded his abused muscles. He would rock himself, and bang his head against the brickwork, seeking oblivion and finding it, then the bitter cycle would begin again at dawn.
Eight hours' virtual crucifixion, eight hours' abuse, eight hours' delegated sleep. He could endure it all until he could find a means to die without ever telling them a damn thing. Except he still didn't know what they really wanted from him. He couldn't plan how to die, as he had neither the means nor even the will, despite all. He tried to instigate several ways out, none of which had worked thus far.
It was pointless holding his breath. He'd tried that one. When they dunked his head in a pail of water for three minutes and the rest, he still couldn't let go. He would soar instead, wired yet out of it. Then he would come to, gasping. Still alive. Bummer. He was more a dodo than a jay. A soon-to-be ex-parrot. If he wasn't nailed to the perch… Jay still chuckled to himself occasionally, earning wary glares or even cackles from his torturers.
Today a new torturer appeared. A woman. Female torturers could be especially nasty, this he knew. After all, he'd been married once. She looked like just his ex. Wow. She had flawless olive skin, long, brown slightly wavy hair - and cold eyes, despite them being brown. She was long legged, slim and stunningly beautiful. For some reason, she didn't join in the fun and games. So, not Larrin then. Chaya maybe? No. But... It couldn't be -
Nancy? No way!
Yes way. He didn't know why she hung back. She looked almost sorrowful, but never intervened even when he screamed. She merely gazed upon him wistfully. Bitch.Yet, he found himself focusing on her, and ignoring them, despite everything they did to him.
Jay hummed to himself as ever. And recalled tunes, and some guy called Johnny or Johnny Boy, whose songs carved deep into his psyche, and the thought of whose name made him reel. He remembered dumb stuff, like the Sesame Street alphabet song, and endless other meaningless lyrics. He remembered Dona Dona, though he really wished he hadn't. Still, it helped to remember lyrics when you were being beaten, and songs you once drunkenly sang with gusto at parties or barbecues with your buddies and even your ex-wife.
Nancy still didn't join him. Instead she sang as they sliced him into stir fry strips, as they demanded more and more symbols of him. Before long, he dedicated all his songs to her. He even wrote an original song for her, through he fervently wished he could reach his guitar that had somehow appeared in the far corner of his cell. He would hum, and she would sing in harmony, keeping his spirits up.
As a little boy, he had hated the dentist's chair, even during regular check-ups, and with that bright light shining in his face, reminding him of the California sun, he would hum 'Summer Breeze', and imagine himself on the beach. Summer Breeze was a hit right when he had his one and only cavity.
Makes me feel fine
Blowing through the jasmine
In my mi-i-ind…
Sweet days… of summer, the jasmine's… in b-bloom, July is dr-dressed up, an' -
July! He had been on a mission in mid-July, and then that dart had struck him in the neck, laying him out cold. The next thing he knew, he was -
On a wagon bound for market
Jay choked up.
"There's a calf with a mournful eye, " Nancy sang tunefully. But still she merely stood there.
High above him… there's a - sw-swallow
"Winging swiftly - " Nancy nodded encouragingly.
Through... the... the -
Jay couldn't continue. He once winged swiftly through the sky, of that he was certain. They told him so not in so many words. They tried to tell him he was some kind of crawler, a slug, and that he had better make himself useful or else, but he saw past them. Maybe he served the earth, but he wasn't quite as lowly as they made out. He wasn't that calf, not by a long shot.
He was Jay, not J. A jay and not a swallow. This he knew. Nice try. His name was a word, not a letter. An actual word. It held meaning, and Jay knew he once served the sky.
They recently began tossing in some longer numbers for him to remember, and punished him when he either got them wrong or out of sequence. With that damn cattle prod. He hated the fluorescent glow and whine then that zzit-fizz as the damn thing kicked in, and they even threatened to thrust it high where the sun don't shine, but for some reason they never did. That wasn't how it had been in Afghanistan. Small mercies, huh.
After their fun with the cattle prod, they striped his body relentlessly with that whip, sometimes after administering a pain-enhancing drug into the crook of his left elbow. Those extra intense sessions often left him sobbing into his sparse blanket, neither able to lie on his front nor his back. He'd lie on his stinging, throbbing side instead, tossing and turning for half the summer's night. He made sure he remembered the longest possible strings of numbers after that. They had since dropped the letters, though he didn't know why.
Some nights, he sat up, and thanks the stars he could barely see these days that they hadn't made good on their other threat with the cattle prod, otherwise sitting upright would be a chore. He thanked those elusive stars, too, that this wasn't Afghanistan, though it was pretty damn close. He remembered Afghanistan with bitterness, and though he recalled goatherds and shepherds guiding their flocks over sparse vegetation, he couldn't figure out why that particular memory came back and not others.
Later on, mostly in the dead of night when the guards were either drunk or asleep, he would dab his wounds from the remains of barely potable drinking water with the last scraps of his T shirt. He had quit smashing the walls for entertainment, as they somehow managed to fight back harder than his captives. He used congealed animal fat as a salve, though he desperately wanted to lick the bowl instead of wiping it clean with rags and daubing it on himself. Jay sighed. Nancy sighed with him. Still she stood there, her suddenly slightly warmer brown eyes pleading with him to hang on.
The winds are laughing, Nancy! I can't take this any more!
Nancy's eyes laughed. Still she merely stood there, and stared. Jay stared back. Stalemate. Jay finally told himself to suck it up, to buck up. She wasn't going to make a move to help him. He had to take care of himself. His T shirt had been rent further by his own hand into small bandages, then smaller again as he delegated the rags to the more abused parts of his body. Burn marks on his back and shoulders. Lash marks across his back and chest. Knife marks on his back and thighs. Good thing there were generally less nerve endings in the back, and that he had a high threshold for pain. He couldn't reach his back, so resorted to pressing it against the cold brickwork whenever it had halfway healed, and scraping it against the coarseness of the brickwork for some relief from itching. In between he lay on his front. He wished Nancy would dab his back for him, but all she did was sing, and hold back from him. So, what else was new?
Then one day, much like any other, he realized a thing. This was all his own fault. He'd brought all this on himself. He should have recalled those long sequences of letters and numbers. They had been patient with him, after all. Maybe if he came up with a short sequence of symbols for them, to keep them off his case for a while. That he could manage. He clawed at his injuries during his sleep third of the day, and watched in fascination as scabs fell then flaked as if with the seasons like falling leaves or a flurry of winter snow. He thought of deep red maple leaves, and wondered why he shed them, followed by snowflakes, which drifted around him, mesmerizing him. There was little beyond these and dust motes to entertain him. He had tried blocking out letters and numbers, and he no longer played prime/not prime in his head.
It was the autumn of his time with them, but winter loomed. He'd been with them for what seemed like some six months, judging by the change from mid-summer, when he had been separated from... his team? - his team! - and captured. At least, he remembered a transition from intense humid heat to dry warmth to damp, penetrating cold, and all without clothing beyond his ragged boxers and his torn T. The weather was beginning to grow crisp, and he knew he'd need warm clothing if he wanted to survive a winter here. This place was going to freeze his ass and then some.
They demanded something new of him, precise symbols which didn't send their men through a stargate but when they came back short of more of their men, they struck his left arm twice with an iron bar, breaking his humerus and wrist. The pain lanced up his arm, across his shoulders, up his neck and down his back. Jay puked up and choked on his last meal, then heaved the lot over himself. When he later found himself considering picking it off and re-eating it once it had crusted on him, he cried out in shame as much as pain.
These... people had crippled him mentally and physically.
He finally appealed for a pen and paper just to give himself a break, to get his wind back, and after much deliberation and internal wrestling, scribbled out a tic-tac-toe grid, with accompanying explanation. That earned him a thrashing greater than when he sketched out a bunch of sudoku grids. Sketching out a crossword puzzle sent them into a frenzy, and in retribution they stripped him of any last vestige of raiment as they called it, aka his filthy, shredded boxers, which had seen better days and were sliding off him anyways, and beat him, leaving him hanging by his right arm to take the weight off his mangled left. He didn't bother explaining chess to them, as he doubted they could even manage to grasp checkers or even dominos. He would have shown them how to play hangman, but didn't want to give them any ideas.
They were after a specific address, then. They had been toying with him, pussyfooting, to get that one address all along. Jay toyed back. If he retained nothing else of his former life, he knew this much - he would never give them the address they wanted. He would send them time and time again on some wild goose chase to go dial something, enjoying the relative respite, then suffer all the more for it after they came back empty handed, or lost a few more men to the vacuum of space.
As he hung there by his one good arm for the designated hanging third of the day, battered and broken yet healing, his left arm hanging limp at his side, he remembered someone from way back when who went by the letter designation Dubya. Dubya was once someone important. The memory caused Jay to frown. Dubya. President of the United States? The current president's name began with the letter O. Omega? Close, but no cigar. The term 'omega' meant something to him. It meant him. Jeez. Omega. Not good. But, that was his lot in life just now, after all. Jay was an omega. A was for alpha. He was once alpha. Another memory to suppress. The shame was ever present.
Jay sent the next batch of cannonfodder to a planet infested by creatures whose designation began with a dubya.
Just maybe he could leave the cell some day. Or so they promised. If he behaved. If he remembered all his letters and numbers and symbols, like a good little slug, and finally came up with a few useful ones of his own. He tried to remember his numbers, really he did, but when it came to giving them more useful sequences of symbols, he kept his mouth shut, and mentally inscribed them on a whiteboard with a black erasable marker instead, as they beat his naked body with straps. Oh, how they tried to get him to state some letters or numbers or symbols he knew in some combination they craved. Coercion took on a whole new meaning, leaving him reeling and spent and sore from head to ass to toe. All he had to do was hand over some pattern of symbols. No big deal, they cried.
But it was.
Gate symbols. Not just some regular gate symbol. They wanted…something.
I spy with my little eye something beginning with A, he thought grimly, but he forgot what it was.
They had been tricking him into thinking that first letters and then numbers were important, when all along they really wanted one specific combination of symbols. They had just been working up to it, breaking him down, breaking those letters and numbers down, only to build up towards gate symbols, build him up from brain-dead, a blank slate. Their strategy backfired on them. He not only wouldn't remember some useful gate address or two, he couldn't. And as pathetic as he now was, he knew they realized it too.
With that thought in mind, he pretended he was out of it. It worked. They believed him. He believed it himself even. It was no longer such a stretch. He'd been beaten stupid. He had never once left that cell, and most likely never would. Jay braced himself daily after that for the inevitable. He longed for death. Or did he? He really didn't know for sure.
His arm was healing. It was bent out shape and immobile, with two breaks in it, but at least it didn't hurt so bad any more. It mostly just ached and throbbed these days. Other than that, it was a day like any other. A beating, hanging around. The usual. Just - hanging around, chillin' in the 'hood, scuffing his feet, looking on the bright side of life. Jay suppressed a Pythonesque whistle. He was something like halfway through the hanging around part when a new guard burst in. He said his name was K, several times over in some urgent, manic fashion. Or was it Kay? Kay after Jay, like The Men In Black. Some movie about aliens. Yeah, there he was, a soft, agitated little man, who pranced into his cell after the door burst open with an ear-splitting explosion. With that, Nancy retreated into the shadows.
Jay shook the dust out of his hair. He felt pissed that this man, whoever or whatever he was, had driven his Nancy away, had stolen her from him. He couldn't wipe away the dust that had settled on his eyelashes, yet he cautiously opened his eyes, blinked a great deal, and peeked out through his long bangs.
This was new. This was it. Jay would die today. The man was flailing his arms, wielding something, ready to strike the killing blow. As the man homed in on him, Jay decided he didn't want to die today after all, despite everything. He wanted to get back to his former life as… as… what? He thought again of goatherds and shepherds. Perhaps that was it. He was a shepherd. Jay jerked and writhed. Nancy emerged once more from the shadows.
"Stop complaining said the farmer, who told you a calf to be?"
Nancy? Honey? Why are you still singing? Now is not the time! This isn't exactly some luau. Help me think! Letters… Numbers… Quick!
'Nancy merely hummed the refrain.
"Dona dona dona do-onaaa... "
Way to help, Nance! Then she whispered something.
Sweetie? Whuh? Really? Okay...
"C4! C4!" he repeated. "Please… " He had just thrown them another bone, but this Kay just stood there, gaping. Jay cringed under his odd gaze. Another letter, another number, another symbol. In sequence! He'd just given them one. He had! It was nothing of import. They couldn't use the information. Maybe they knew that. Still, he would never help them dial the gate. Dial the gate? They would never get - Aah... Alpha. The alpha site. No, that wasn't it. A. A. A. Batteries. Triple A. Who ya gonna call? No, it was - Atlantis? Oh, God! This was about Atlantis! Jay squirmed in a feeble effort to get away from himself and from Nancy and from them.
Since he had mentioned C4, they might now find out what it was, and go fetch some.
Oh, crap. Way to screw up, Jay!
He curled up mentally, bowed his head, and let wanton tears cascade down his cheeks, and tumble down to the dirt floor. He jerked his mind out of his body, and watched his tears dissipate. That was endlessly fascinating, now more than ever, since this might be his last chance to watch salt water and blood disappear like some magic trick, or churn up a paste. He scanned the dirt floor, and clung to the memory of it, imagining tear drops falling in slow motion.
This Kay guy sliced into his wrist bonds. His efforts were fumbling, yet oddly gentle. Go figure. Once freed, and able to slump to the floor, he ignored Kay, and instantly wrapped his arms around his middle, using his right arm to lift and drag his useless left one, then clunk it in place. He crawled on three legs over to his blanket, twisted himself into it, and curled up, trying to make himself look small and insignificant and invisible. Then he felt a pat on his shoulder, and an invasive rub. Jay opened one eye to a slit, glaring daggers and shooting fireballs and emitting laser beams. He bit his bottom lip, forming the letter F, and he snarled. He was all set to bite. He braced himself for the first kick or lash from this new guy, or even that almost welcome killing blow, but still he kept his right hand wrapped protectively over his left bicep, and his broken wrist tucked under his right armpit.
The blow never came.
After several moments spent composing himself, Jay scanned the man, this Kay, with his usual lack of visual acuity. His head wobbled, and it was hard to focus, but the man was dressed in a gray uniform, and had wide, blue, hangdog eyes. Another blue-eyed man with equally hangdog eyes came within his shaky field of vision, and threatened him with some new implements he had plucked from a backpack. Maybe the damn backpack contained hypodermics filled with lethal drugs. Finally, Jay would escape his lot. He accepted his fate, but looked to the grate just once more, just to see the sky, however much his vision swam. There was nothing much in his stomach to hurl. He waited for the inevitable, panting heavily.
Still they didn't kill him. What was going on? Jay chanced brief eye contact with the second blue-eyed man, and thought he saw there either disgust or concern or even pity. Jay grimaced, and rolled his head. He was disgusting. So, kill him, already. Why were they hesitating?
Okay. Okay. They wanted him alive. Jay sighed, and rolled his head once more. So, what came after Kay?
El it was. Jay would still refuse to dial anywhere significant, even though he had forgotten what, where and why. Then he had remembered the alpha site and Atlantis, and that they both began with the letter A, and that these new bad guys, whoever they were, would never get hold of either. Not on his watch. He would rather die. They could shatter every last one of his limbs, he still wouldn't tell.
Jay narrowed his eyes. He didn't care to witness disgust slash concern slash pity. He tucked his head onto his chest, set his expression to bland and unfathomable, and frantically sought oblivion to no avail as he shook from head to toe in anticipation of some new horror.
No amount of willing himself dead or play-acting dead meant he was anything like dead. It stunk. Jay deliberately regurgitated, and struggled to choke on his own bile, attempted to inhale it, but still he didn't die. All he did was cough and splutter, and cause his new tormentors to flap and fuss. He tried holding his breath, only to sharply inhale stale, dust-filled air after some three minutes. They shook him relentlessly, and shrieked at him. Still he didn't die. He banged his head against the wall. Not hard enough. Gah… He just couldn't die! He was a coward, then, at their mercy, and he didn't even have the balls to either suffocate himself or spill his own brains. He was pathetic.
And still Nancy merely stood nearby, pleading with her now warm eyes.
"Why don't you have… wings to fly with," Nancy frowned, and she stumbled on the lyrics. "Like the swallow... so… proud and free?" she sang, her voice finally breaking.
I did once, Nancy. I was once proud and free. Just like you. But, I am not that calf.
Then that El guy wielded the new implements. Well, he could stick 'em up or bring 'em down on any part of his anatomy he liked, as Jay was past caring, now that finally he knew the stakes. Atlantis. Break limbs, break body, break mind, break all sense of hope. They would never get the information of the whereabouts of the alpha site or of Atlantis. And they would never break his soul. That he would rather scatter to the four winds.
El chose to stick some nasty-assed implement in his ear, and one into the back of his hand. Jay was not prepared to co-operate, and he curled up even tighter, protecting his left arm as best he could. He had stopped protecting his head a long time ago. A blow to his head hurt a lot less than a blow to his arm, and even knocked him out. A third, angry-looking, heavy-set man with dreads finally flipped him over onto his abused back, eliciting a squeal, and forcibly lifted his right wrist for El to manipulate. Jay let that happen, slamming his eyes shut, and he alternately pursed and sucked in his lips in unleashed fury. He was used to that. He struggled not to wrench his fist away from the fierce grip. It wasn't worth the fight. It didn't stop him from writhing and bucking though. Then came the sting of needles in his inner right elbow. Huh. He used to offer his left arm. That arm had once taken all the invasive procedures, and was nearly black with the constant bruising, but he hadn't seen fit to protest or even balance out the abuse, as he once thought to keep his gun hand as uninjured as maybe. Until his left arm got broken, that is.
Jay let out a short, piffling sound, suppressed a snicker, and turned his head to one side. They would never catch his eye. Little did they know he couldn't even see that well, and he worked that little gem to his own advantage. He waited for the pain-enhancer to take over his body and mind, but for some reason, he started to relax instead, and even focus. Go figure. Maybe he was even immune these days.
Leave me alone!
Some woman gripped him under his arms, hoisting him up and onto her lap, and snuggling around his neck. She cried out, her voice as broken as he was. What was with that? She kept stroking him - his forehead, his temples. Weird. Her actions made him cringe and retreat even further. He began to hum, to lose himself in a tune.
Tender arms reaching out to hold me…
For crying out loud… Get outta my face! Just - string me back up… At least I get it. At least that way I know where I stand! Who I am!
Then, the dreadlocked guy took over, drawing him close to his broad chest, pinning his left arm, and offering the other to one of the blue-eyed men.
"Quit bucking, Sheppard."
Let me go! For crying out loud!
Get! Offa! Me!
"John. Please let us help you, there's a good lad."
"Go to hell… "
"Been there, done that, Sheppard."
Was that his profession? So, why would anyone come for him? Surely they could find themselves another shepherd. They needed a shepherd? Big deal. So much for flying. For being a jay. He wasn't that swallow. He was the goddamn calf after all. Or even a slug. He found himself squirming again, blinking over and over, and quaking from head to toe with his newfound knowledge. His eyes brimmed with tears, and he allowed a few of them to trickle down his face, but as always he licked them when they reached his lips. He craved both the moisture and the salt.
"Oh, God, John… What have they done to you… "
What does it look like? Looking for a fresh part of me to mess up? Huh? Not gonna happen. There's nothing left. Wait! They called me John! Why? Do they know me?
He let out a derisive snort. He wasn't buying it. It was wishful thinking anyways. He fought these... people as best he could, then welcomed the flood of letters and numbers and symbols and endless lyrics which morphed into each other, and threatened to overwhelm his senses, causing him to mumble. He had to get them under control. They had to become his allies. Something had to, since humans constantly let him down.
He refused to make any further eye contact with these new tormentors, and he kept his head turned away. He fought to ignore Nancy, as she'd done nothing much to help him, other than sing or hum along with him, but she now caressed his bare shoulder, and stroked his forehead some more, lifting his long bangs out of his face, and carding her fingers through his unruly hair. He turned to her, foolishly driven to give her one last chance to love him.
It wasn't Nancy, though the clinging, petite, striking new woman reminded him of her.
"Let us help you, John." He gasped as Nancy blended into the brickwork, and remained there, like a wallflower. Like a ghost. A ghost from his past. She was gone from him, yet he still reached for her.
Joohhnn, she whispered. Yoouur name iis Joohhnn…Truusst mee…
John. His name really was John, and that, of course, began with a J. He suddenly remembered a giant, bright yellow M, which for some reason made his mouth water. M was for - Michael? No, something else. What was it? M'n'Ms? Eminem? Monty P's? No, Mickey D's. Letters and numbers and symbols bombarded him, sending all his senses into overload. He welcomed the distraction. It hurt him, and he bucked and writhed. He guessed the pain-enhancer was kicking in after all, and he found himself crying out and lashing out and freaking out and wussing out despite all his resolve. So much for respite. He struggled to think of a space address he could send them all to.
"We came for you, John!" cried the clinging woman, her breath hitching. He glanced at her coldly. She looked angry and sad at the same time. She so reminded him of Nancy, who was now flat and still and two-dimensional and silent. She had become a virtual mural. Huh. Par for the course.
Came for me? I've been here for over half a year, and you 'came' for me? Go to hell!
He tried a new tack. Something he once knew as puppy dog eyes, though it had never worked on Nancy. It always worked on Ee. Ee? The letter E. What was that? Who was that? Jay - no, John! - was beginning to remember. Eliz. Liz. Ah, Liz... Ah-Beth... So, so sorry...
"I – " he said softly, his voice cracking, his eyes finally pleading inanely. Want to go home?
Where did that come from?
Knowing the answer ahead of time, he bowed his weary head, and curled up once more to deflect the inevitable killing blow. It never came, even after the passage of the sun from one side of the window to the other. This was new. He lifted his head, straining to keep it up. He was growing weaker by the minute. They all hung back, staring at him. What were they, some kind of vultures? What did they want from him?
If he presented his throat, maybe they would slit it for him. He tilted his head back, and made a throat-slitting gesture with his right hand, and pleaded with his eyes once more. For some reason, the clinging woman began to snuffle, and the big guy roared, and stormed up and down like he was seriously pissed. Jay did a one-shoulder shrug, and looked away. Still he waited for blows to rain down on him. It never happened. Instead, his new tormentors strapped his left arm carefully across his torso. He almost missed it, they had done it so tenderly, as if they actually cared. Like that would ever happen.
Six months! Six agonizing months!
He didn't dare give in to the idea of being safe, and cared for, yet as they manipulated his damaged body in an oddly gentle manner onto a stretcher, he suppressed the urge to blub with relief, like some kindergartner being picked up at the end of the first day of school. The clinging woman even covered his dignity with her own jacket. It was possible that he was about to go home, wherever that was, to where he could forget letters and numbers and symbols, and remember his own name. At least for a while.
No, it wasn't worth the effort of hoping. He must have satisfied them that he'd remembered his designation and current list of sequences correctly, and was about to be integrated into the general prison population. He'd better get things straight. Try to force his left arm straight. He couldn't appear weak and crippled. That or they wanted to take him direct to the gate, and make him dial those addresses himself. They were just being gentle so he wouldn't die just yet. He allowed himself to sink into thoughts of spires and turrets and vast, striking seascapes, and in his mind he said goodbye to a beautiful, floating city beginning with the letter A.
"It's okay to remember now. Remember, A is for Atlantis, John. And I did love you once. In many respects, I still do," said Flat Nancy wistfully.
Jay frowned and pouted, and turned over to face the wall as he used to when the D-word was imminent. He pretended not to listen to anything she had to say to him. And yet -
A is for Atlantis! And - J is for John! It was all becoming clearer now.
'I -" he cried softly once more, and he flung his right arm over his eyes, then quickly moved it back to protect his vulnerable left arm.
J is for is John.
"We got hold of another ZedPM, by the way, Sheppard. We stole it from them. They didn't deserve to keep it after what they did to you. Well, they had two, after all, and it's not as if they even knew what they had in their possession, but we left them a ninety seven percent depleted one to help them out with whatever it is they need one for until they find a new power source, and - oh, my God, John... " Kay's voice faltered.
Why? What did he care? He turned to face Kay, and opened his eyes to a slit.
'John' again? He smiled fleetingly, and then it struck him like a slap to his face.
I'm John! John Shepherd! I'm John Shepherd. John Shepherd. John. Shepherd. J is for John. I'm Shepherd. I'm a shepherd. These people know me!
"Z," he croaked out. His vision hadn't fared well after months in dim light. He listened to the oddly familiar voices all around him. He could even hear them breathe.
"What? Kidding, right?"
"Is for ZPM."
"Yes, I do believe you are quite correct." John felt a small hand squeeze his own. It was that clinging woman again. Then the second blue-eyed man bent over, the one with the backpack full of - the good stuff? The man nodded right into his face like he was out of it. Maybe he was.
"Aye, lad," the man muttered sadly. He attempted some ministrations, but Jay swatted his hands away with his good arm.
"You mean, it's okay for him to behave like this? Talk like this? Like some freaking idiot? He sounds like some muppet out of Sesame Street!"
"Kay... " Rodney? Kay. Kay? McKay!
"Yes, yes, you're okay. Now - unravel! Oh, you meant the letter K?"
"What now? Sheppard has brain damage! Fix him, Carson!"
"Settle down, now. We need to give the lad time. I'm certain he'll be fine. In the long run. There's unlikely to be a quick fix. We talked about this in briefings, and throughout the whole trip in the jumper to this bloody, God-forsaken planet. Remember? Focus, Rodney! Are we good? Yes? Fine. All right. Now, everybody, lift!"
Was this a trick? Wait! He launched his good arm out, grabbing his blanket to cover himself, ditching that crinkly metallic wrapper they had tucked around him, like they were about to barbecue him in aluminum foil.
"J is for John!" he screamed in defiance, raising his weak head momentarily. He let his head loll back into the canvas. He was spent. He allowed himself to be soothed by the welcome sway of a stretcher, accompanied by the familiar sound of booted feet on concrete. He knew he sounded like an idiot, but he really was John! That was his name! He clung onto his blanket as he clung onto his name. He had to find something to grasp onto, before he lost himself forever.
The grunts of those soldiers flanking him were oddly reassuring. Maybe someone finally gave a damn. He felt himself bouncing up a flight of stairs, and light penetrated his closed eyelids incrementally like early morning light. He was getting closer and closer to sunlight and the open sky.
"And I can fly!"
"Sure, Sheppard," came an oddly welcome growl.
And A really is for Atlantis, John thought, as he chose to give way to sleep, smiling once more since he might even get his full eight hours, and not merely the four. He finally allowed his tears to flow freely under the shelter of his one good arm.
And I will fly…
That El had him on the good stuff, and as they rocked him there on the stretcher, swinging him back and forth, he felt himself being lulled with the rhythm of it, and, feeling safe, he closed his eyes with a sigh.
He was… John Shepherd… This he knew...
But he'd never let them know it, these new tormentors. They might try to change it out on him. Throw numbers at him. Make him give up important gate addresses. He gripped his blanket tight, tucked it under his chin, and hummed once more to distract himself until he knew their intention. A song of his own. After all, he'd had some six months and the rest to come up with original lyrics, having had nothing else to do beyond contemplate his long bangs, his filthy, bare feet, the relentless drip-drip-drip of blood and slop from his wrecked body, and an endlessly fascinating dirt floor. In the meantime, he would enjoy the respite and the care while it lasted, and he felt the warmth of the sun for the first time in six months as they emerged into daylight.
"I do recall," he sang tunelessly.
"When I was caught up in the waves
How it felt so strange
How my life got rearranged - "
"Oh, for God's sake, Sheppard, shut the hell up! This is worse than Seasons In The Sun!"
"Isn't it a pity?
Only you were cast ashore
I took a ride to the city
Because the life we knew was no more - "
"You surfing in there, Sheppard?" Someone rapped him none too gently on his forehead, making him smirk big time.
"I do recall
How I was tumbled by the waves
Didn't wanna be saved
Didn't want the lifestyle that you craved -"
"To whom do you sing, colonel? John?"
"I was so lonely
I missed the sea and the sand
I thought I'd lost me
Then I felt your hand holding my hand - "
"Aye, lad. We're all here, holding your hand. Don't give up."
"I do recall
When I was lost within the waves
Didn't wanna be saved
Didn't want to take the path that you paved - "
"He's gone nuts on us. Seriously, Sheppard, do you absolutely have to squawk? You're making me anxious."
"I do recall
Don't wanna recall - "
"Sheppard is still squawking, Carson... "
"Don't make me recall
I do recaaall… "
"Oh, for God's sake, Carson, do something before I put him out of my misery. This is torture! God, Sheppard, just please don't hum Tie A Yellow Ribbon, whatever you do!"
With that, J slash Jay slash John chuckled. For some reason, that Kay guy amused him.
"N is for Nancy," he mumbled. At that, the stretcher bearers picked up the pace. How 'bout that. He could now hear their booted feet impacting with a dirt path. He knew it was a path, because they were going in a straight line. Straight line? "P is for puddlejumper," he added brightly.
"Yes! You are correct, John. This is a good thing? He is remembering, yes?"
Remembering? Teyla. Teyla!
"Yes! It is Teyla! I am here. For you. You will be fine, John. We will get you well."
"Am I going home?"
"Seriously, haven't we been saying that all along?"
"A is for Atlantis."
His team. This was his team. His team. His. He reached out his right hand to Teyla, and his left to Flat Nancy. Although his left hand remained physically bound to his chest, he mentally freed it, and reached for her, towards his receding prison. She reached for him from within the walls, and sang to him, most likely for the last time.
"Calves are easily bound and slaughtered
Never knowing the reason why - "
"But whoever treasures freedom
Like the swallow must learn to fly… "
She lowered her hand and faded back into the brickwork, becoming merely a faint, dark stain, like some popped soap bubble.
Goodbye, Nancy… I'm going home. I guess I should thank you for being there for me, even if you couldn't bring yourself to touch me.
With that, and for the second time in his life, John let go of the swallow that was Nancy. Teyla squeezed his hand tight, as he struggled to treasure freedom, and to remember his own name without retribution.
He was John Sheppard, this he knew. And he was going home. With that, even from lying right there, trapped and prone and hurting on a stretcher, he soared higher than ever before.