Rodney stretched the tight gloves over his hands, eased them into the crevices between his fingers, and grimaced at the oppressive feel of the latex as it clung to his skin. It was a mystery to him how John had been able to recognise anyone behind the masks and fetching head gear, especially as from what Carson told him, the images he'd recalled so far appeared to have been vague at best.
"So you know the script, Rodney?" Carson asked, giving him a look that said he knew that he did, but didn't trust him to follow it.
"Of course…Sit with him, see if he recognises me, then tell him what our relationship is." Rodney grimaced. "If you want my opinion, Carson, that sounds like a bunch of crap to me. Why don't we just tell him what he wants to know?"
"Rodney!" Beckett raised his voice, then Rodney saw his friend fighting to curb his irritation. "Look, son, at this stage we just want him to reacquaint himself with the faces he already remembers. Teyla got on fine, so did Ronon, and I'm sure you will too…just don't go into too much detail about his life here." "Carson paused for a moment, then Rodney felt his hand on his shoulder. "If possible, I would like the rest of the Colonel's memories to return on their own…especially the more traumatic ones. He's been through the mill and needs friends, people who can help him find his way back…his team - understand?"
"I'm not a complete moron, Carson," he huffed indignantly, then stopped for a moment, feeling suddenly nervous when he caught sight of his sick friend through the glass. "Is he going to be okay?" Rodney asked, anxiously.
A slow smile grew on Carson's face. "I hope so. His grafts seem to be healing well, as are his other physical wounds, and his cognitive abilities appear to be unscathed. It's his mental health we need to monitor, but I'm hopeful if we take this nice and easy, the colonel will be back to normal and tearing a strip off you before too long."
"Right, as if I'd let him get away with that." Rodney pulled up his mask, then turned to his oldest friend on base. "Actually, Carson, I really wish he would - anything to show he was back. Right, okay…well, here goes."
The lights were so dim as he entered the small room that at first Rodney thought John was asleep, but then he caught a twitch of the familiar dark spiky hair.
"Hi, so you're Rodney…right?" John asked, and Rodney lowered his chin to meet his gaze, Sheppard now lying propped on his side.
"So you know my name?" Rodney felt his spirits lift at the thought his friend recognised him.
"Yup, Beckett told me you were coming to see me," John responded, in a matter of fact tone.
Rodney tried to hide his disappointment, but realised by John's next response it must have shown in his voice. "Hey, don't be offended. I can remember faces, voices, but names are a complete blank. Although if it means anything, there is something familiar about you – but I have to admit those masks don't help.
"Well, let me introduce myself. I'm Doctor Rodney McKay, the foremost expert in wormhole physics, and the resident genius here. If I do say so myself, it's thanks to my expertise Atlantis is still standing…well, of course, I know that's the wrong term, given the fact that you can't actually stand in space. And, oh yeah, I'm also one of your team," he quipped, then realised too late he sounded more like the resident clown, jabbering on like a lunatic, but unable to stop himself.
"Okay…you're definitely the guy from my visions. Even in my dreams I couldn't get you to shut up. So…how did I get to become friends with a smartass like you anyhow?" John responded, deadpan, and Rodney felt hurt, until he caught a flash of mischief behind the tired hazel eyes.
"Hey, Mister 'I could have been in Mensa - you're no slouch in that department yourself, flyboy," he retorted, before he could stop himself.
"Okay, now that is interesting. You're telling me I'm smart, and I can fly?" John gave him a quizzical look, and Rodney swallowed hard, realising he'd only been in the room for less than five minutes and had already broken his promise to Beckett. But it was too late to stop now.
"Not as smart as me of course, but yeah, despite how you act sometimes…there is a brain beneath that thick skull. As for the flying thing - you're the best pilot I've ever know."
"Cool…that's good to know. Well, I think you've just answered my question, McKay," John replied with a wry smile. "Apart from that big guy, Ronon, who didn't say much, you're the first person not to treat me with kid gloves since I woke up - thanks."
"No problem, although you do realise I'll get my ass kicked by Carson when he finds out," Rodney said as he plopped down in the chair beside the bed, smiling under his mask, relieved to see traces of the old John were still there.
John's eyes clouded over, as he answered in a cracked voice. "Well I'm guessing Beckett's worried I'm going to have a meltdown because of what happened on Etraska. Wha…what they did to me wasn't pretty, but the pain I could deal with – kind of. It was losing my identity, my very sense of self, which freaked me out most. Not even being able to remember my name left me feeling lost, I still do, as I know so little about my own life, or myself, but at least I was right about one thing – I knew from the start I was never a slave."
Rodney squirmed at his haunted expression, and he watched John's knuckles go as white as his face, as he gripped the sheets. It wasn't like Sheppard to reveal his feelings, but the small, yet visible display of emotion showed just how much his friend must have suffered, and still was.
Then in an instant the look vanished, replaced by a grimace as Sheppard hissed as he shuffled in bed, then asked, "Where did we first meet anyway?"
A wave of relief washed over Rodney as he wasn't good with emotional stuff, and was glad John had steered away from it. So, leaning back into the chair, he finally relaxed. "Well, it all began when you sat on a chair…"
Already tired of his new prison, John felt bad about making the unkind comparison between the warm, sterile room and the dark, chilly cell where he'd been held, but he was bored. Fed up with still being confined even though he was now free, he was desperate to leave the confines of his room and escape. In the castle he'd only seen glimpses of light, but John longed to feel the warmth of the sun on his face, and couldn't remember the last time he'd seen a sunrise or felt the exhilaration as the cool breeze whipped his hair, sending shivers up and down his spine.
Though grateful to be home, he still didn't feel like he belonged. In a weird way, despite his memories beginning to return, John felt as if he was sitting on the sidelines watching someone else's life. Like a spectator, he saw the images roll past like scenes from a movie…a sometimes bad, really scary horror flick at times, but even then he didn't feel connected with the main players, or the man in the black BDUs.
Part of him guessed his isolation wasn't helping his state of mind, and John hoped his eventual release to the main ward would help him reconnect with his home and his friends - at the very least he could then see their faces, not just a pair of eyes. He knew he was being impatient, and the rational side of his brain told him it was necessary to let the skin grafts take, but he was so tired of it all. The constant pain, even muted by drugs, was dragging him down, and he longed to be free of it, desperate to escape not just from the misery of discomfort, but also the hideous memories of his brutal treatment on Etraska.
He'd told Beckett he was coping with it, and in many respects he was, but the horrific pain of the sadistic whipping was something he would never forget, though strangely, it was the betrayal of someone he trusted, the man who had turned from friend to enemy, that bothered him most.
It was ironic that while he was desperate to remember more, Hamlane's interrogation was the one episode John wanted most to forget. Interrogation, what a sick freaking joke that had been…he'd been tortured. Hamlane had asked him the same pointless question time and time again, for which there was only one answer - John Sheppard isn't dead, because he's right here in front of you. Except he hadn't said it because it would only have made Hamlane madder. So, he'd fought against the pain in the only way he knew how, by crawling deep inside and letting his rage against the injustice give him the strength he needed to endure. And he'd managed to keep his feelings hidden and hadn't let the bastard know how much he was hurting…at least at first.
Despite leading him to believe he'd been on his side, when it came down to it, Hamlane took the word of that lying bastard Ballam over him, his face scarlet, as he'd beaten him. Fists to start with, those big powerful hands pounding holes in his gut, his ribs, and his face, then, frustrated at his silence, he'd subjected him to a caning. The deep stinging pain as the rod slashed deep welts into his body was agonising, but nothing compared to the unbearable torture as the red hot poker had melted away his flesh. John remembered screaming until he was hoarse, but deep down he knew even then, that his cries weren't only down to the red hot flames that had rippled across his chest…the anguish of Hamlane's betrayal hurt nearly as much.
The memory haunted him, but worse, it made him question the whole meaning of trust. He'd trusted Hamlane, and had truly believed he would help him, but in the end…
John didn't want to believe his friends, the people whose visions had given him hope during those long, dark days, would let him down, but how could he really know? The truth was, while he recognised them, he didn't really know them, and all the experiences he'd been told they'd shared were just like hearing stories from a book. He listened to their words, understood what they meant, but couldn't remember anything about those times, or the way he'd felt. Rodney, Teyla and Ronon, were still in many ways strangers, and while he did feel some connection to them, John was only too aware they were only human, and therefore just as capable of betrayal like Hamlane.
In many ways John realised he was also a stranger to himself. He was a pilot, one of the best they'd told him, and apparently he was military commander of this base, yet the clue was in the title…military. John guessed he must have fought in battle, therefore it only figured he would've taken lives, so how many men had he killed, and what kind of soldier was he? Was he one of those men who enjoyed killing for the sake of it, or, was he the sort of man who coldly took a life then never gave his victim another thought?
Scars, though not from Etraska, littered his body. Of course he'd noticed them before and could tell they'd been serious injuries, but didn't know how he'd got them or why. They were yet more pieces of the puzzle Beckett was trying to protect him from, the doctor deliberately limiting the information he received, fearing if he learned too much, too soon, it might tip his beleaguered brain over the edge. John appreciated his concern, but was growing increasingly frustrated and longed to learn more, convinced the more he knew, the sooner he would begin to feel normal…whatever the hell that was. For now, he was still a prisoner, not just in this room but also his own body, and deep down John realised he had to be patient - he didn't have a choice.
"John, what are you still doing here? Carson's been looking all over for you!" Teyla rushed outside and saw him shivering, his hair fluttering in the breeze, but wearing a rosy glow on his face and looking better than she'd seen him in some time. He also looked happier, and it warmed her heart to see her friend relishing being outdoors on his favourite balcony.
"He's fine, Teyla" Ronon answered, sounding amused, the look he shared with John conspiratorial, as she moved to tuck the extra blanket hanging from the back of the wheelchair firmly around his shoulders.
John chuckled slightly. "Listen to the man, Teyla, I'm fine, and I can stand a little cold air, its being stuck in the infirmary I can't stand," he pointed out, wearing that familiar puppy dog expression he used when he wanted something.
Teyla shook her head and stood back placing her hands on her hips, knowing that when the two men joined forces, it was already a lost cause. "Okay, a few more minutes. What is that you're reading? Carson said you weren't allowed to read mission reports," she asked, concerned as she spied the laptop perched on his knees.
Ronon interrupted by getting to his feet. "Think it's time I left. See you later, Sheppard." Then he turned to Teyla. "Will you take him back?"
She nodded. "Of course…Ronon, did you give John this?" But she just saw the flash of a sneaky smile as the Satedan sauntered away.
As she went to peer over his shoulder, John snapped the lid shut, and raised his eyes to hers. "It wasn't your fault…"
Stunned, Teyla held onto the rail for a moment and looked out onto the towering spires, allowing the fresh breeze to cool the flush on her face before she turned to face him. "What do you remember?" She asked, curious.
"Nothing, but I've read your report, and I know you wouldn't skimp on the details," John pointed out, his reasoning annoyingly accurate. "Look, Teyla, from what I've learned about myself, that's the kind of dumb ass thing I would do." He gave her a lopsided smile. "And we both know neither you nor anyone else could have talked me out of it, though from what I've learned, your actions are what probably kept me alive."
"I also left you alone in the desert…" Teyla wanted to look away, but he held her gaze then took her hand.
"You did what you had to do in order to save me and the kid - it wasn't your fault some freaking psycho came along who recognised me and wanted revenge." He let out a deep sigh. "I attract bad luck, and when it comes down to it, it wasn't just me who suffered because of Ballam's actions - you're as much a victim of his deceit as I was. The way I see it, it's going to take a while, but I will recover. But you…you've got to stop beating yourself up over this, okay?" John squeezed her hand, then let it go. "Now, let's get out of here - I'm freezing!"
"I'm still sorry though," she said, her voice cracking.
"I know, but you needn't be." John blew on his hands, then rubbed them on his arms. "C'mon. How about a ride to the mess for an illicit cup of coffee and one of Martha's chocolate chip cookies before Beckett sends out the dogs?"
Teyla shook her head as a smile pulled at the edges of her mouth. "Now, John…you know that Carson is just looking out for you."
"Yeah, I know, but he's going to give me a lecture when I get back, so seeing as I'm already on the run, I may as well make it worth his while!"
John slumped onto his bunk and raked a shaking hand through his hair. He felt achy and exhausted after the short walk from the infirmary, but it felt good to be back in his quarters, although painfully aware he wasn't free of the damned place yet. Daily wound checks, meds though not as strong as before, and of course counselling would be part of his life for some time to come, still, he was glad to be home, back to his own bed, around his own stuff, and for a while anyway, his own space. The last thing he ever thought he'd say after spending so much time alone in his cell, but the silence was welcome after the constant activity around the ward, and well meaning friends who'd never left his side. All of which John appreciated after everything he'd been through, but now he needed time to think, time to get straight how he was going to deal with the events on Etraska, and time to decide what the hell he was going to do with the rest of his life.
The new psychiatrist, Doctor Morris, had told him he needed to confront his feelings about what happened, and for once he had…sort of. John knew he could never forgive Ballam at all, and felt no remorse on hearing that the Lord Protector died soon after he'd been rescued, although he had been surprised to learn that Hamlane, a former slave, was the new Lord Protector. John reckoned it must have caused Garmend a lot of grief to make a decision like that, given the old man's attitude, but when it came right down to it, what other choice did he have - either leave Etraska to a man who had effectively sealed his death warrant, or hand over succession to his illegitimate son…there was no one else.
The way he felt about Hamlane - bitter. Hamlane betrayed him, but John gave the man some kudos for emancipating the slaves. Lorne had told him he'd set everyone free right after taking office, instead, offering paid employment for those who wished to stay. Etraska was now officially an ally, and Atlantis, provided them with regular medical care, with Woolsey acting as mentor to assist Hamlane adjust to his new role. John had nearly choked when Woolsey told him that the bastard sent his regards, and it had taken all his self-control not to out him for what he'd done. But the SOB was guiding his people into a new life, and at the end of the day what was more important, helping Etraska recover from years of oppression, or his desire for revenge?
He was freaked out by the whole thing, but John knew if he'd revealed Hamlane's part in his persecution Woolsey would have withdrawn the offer, but what would be the point? The man had been obeying orders at the time, something John partly understood, but he could never condone the vehemence of his assault. Blind obedience had never been his way, his own butt kicked many times for standing up to authority when he'd thought the command dumb, or just plain wrong, and he didn't like to think he would ever lose his cool the way Hamlane lost his. The fact was, John had foolishly believed he'd followed the same code, but when it came down to the wire, the former Chamberlain had chosen loyalty to an oppressive Master, instead of doing the right thing.
John was ashamed for once comparing the ex-Chamberlain with his real friends, the people who'd proved their loyalty and affection by supporting him during the long painful, boring weeks spent in recovery. In the beginning, he'd barely remembered them, but they never gave up on him, one of them always there when he'd awoken, either Rodney, Teyla, or Ronon, sitting quietly, when in so much pain he'd been too miserable to talk. Then later, as he'd started to feel better they'd kept him amused with endless games of chess, gossip from the base and movie 'nights' around his bed - true friends who hadn't left his side, and he wondered what the hell he'd ever done to deserve them.
As for Ballam, apparently the former noble hadn't been seen or heard of since that day, though if his sorry ass wasn't lying dead, left to rot in the dungeon as Ronon thought, John reckoned the bastard better dig the biggest hole he could and jump in, as his buddy, even more than him, was looking forward to meeting him again.
Etraska was just one more fuck up in his life that he'd consigned to the dark, closed box hidden deep within his soul, a raw open wound that would linger for a long while to come, but just like every other time John knew it would eventually pass, and in the meantime he would do what he always did - suck it up, put on his game face, and not let anyone know how much he was still hurting.
He thought of Streya and smiled. She'd been the only one who showed him any kindness during the whole hellish nightmare, and he wished her happiness. Lorne had told him that she, along with Durand were intending to leave as soon as they'd earned some money, but she'd sent her love, along with his jacket, after his last visit. John was glad she'd got over her crush and found someone to love, but maybe if he was honest, felt a little hurt that the pretty young girl had got over him so quickly. Even so, after the events of the last few months John wondered if he should do the same thing. He'd been in uniform for more than half of his life, and while he didn't regret the sacrifices he'd made for his country he was tired, a bone weary feeling that had nothing to do with his injuries and now he just didn't know if he could live this kind of life any more...
For one thing he was over forty, and didn't bounce back from injury the way he used to, his body really slow to heal this time, with long weeks of recovery still lying ahead. John reckoned Lorne was doing a great job in his place, so maybe it was time to let go of the reins for good, and find himself a Streya to settle down with, but someone closer his age, maybe another Nancy if he was lucky. It had been his job that caused the rift between him, but John knew if he resigned his commission, things would be different. He had money, his dad's inheritance, and could finally set up the company he always dreamed of - building prototype planes.
John wondered who this paragon could be, grinning at the old cliché of the perfect wife in a perfect house surrounded by a perfectly straight white picket fence, with a couple of little Sheppard's running round the perfect lawn…
He would miss Atlantis, of course, really miss her, not to mention the family he'd made here, though everyone was settling down; Rodney had Jennifer, Teyla…Kanaan and Torren, and John knew that Ronon was dating Amelia Banks. Truth was, everything was changing around here, especially him after his ordeal. More cynical than he used to be, definitely less trusting, and the next time a 'Kolya' came across his path…there would be no second chances. John reckoned they might miss him to start with, at least he hoped they would, but knew at the end of the day he wouldn't really be missed. He suddenly realised he'd answered his own question - it was time to move on.
"John, are you alright? I rang the buzzer but got no answer…are you sure you're quite well?" John lifted his head to see Teyla, looking concerned, but she wasn't alone. A young boy was with her.
"I'm fine, Teyla…good in fact. I was just deep in thought, that's all." He was mildly surprised to see her standing there, but wasn't prepared to share his plans with anyone just yet. "And who's this?" John asked smiling as he scanned the kid's face, but it wasn't one of the Athosian children, and he drew a blank.
He was a cute kid, with light brown hair and dark eyes that never left his face. John reckoned he couldn't have been more than five or six, and was clearly shy, clinging onto her skirt, although he seemed to be struggling to find the courage to come over.
Teyla ran her fingers though the child's hair as she spoke to him. "I know you still have no memory of what happened on Pallonia, John, and may never have, but this is Elient…the boy you saved."
John was stunned, and couldn't speak, as he looked at the child, trying to remember, but failing. Then after a moment's silence, Teyla continued. "Elient has been living with his new family on the mainland; you know them, John - Arudnla and Morlande – Halling's sister and her husband. They haven't been blessed with children, so were thrilled when Elient agreed to go and live with them - but he never forgot you, and when he heard you were feeling better, he was desperate to come and thank you."
John was confused as although he couldn't recall a damn thing about that mission, he understood the boy was deaf, so was surprised when the young kid hesitantly stumbled over, and spoke to him in a clipped but clear voice. "Thank…you."
He saw Teyla with a large tear rolling down her cheek, and he could feel a lump in his own throat. "I'm glad you're happy here, Elient…and thank you for coming to see me." John spoke clearly so the boy could read his lips, then took his hand and gathered him into a hug. He grimaced at the pain of the small hands gripping onto his back, but it was worth - all of it.
"When did he get the cochlear implant, Teyla?" he asked after spotting the small device protruding from behind his ear.
"A few weeks after he arrived here," she said, then went on to explain. "Once Carson realised Elient would be a suitable candidate for the procedure he applied to the SGC. At first though, he couldn't get permission for the expense, as the IOA refused on the grounds that Elient isn't part of the establishment, but in the end Mr Woolsey paid for the treatment out of his own pocket, and has offered to pay for whatever else he needs."
Then Teyla turned and gave him such an intense look it was almost as if she'd guessed what he'd been planning. "Those are the first words he wanted to learn, John, as Elient has been desperate to tell you how grateful he is. You saved his life, just as you make a difference to all the lives here. When you were missing, Atlantis just wasn't the same place without you..."
"What's the hold up?" Rodney snarked, checking his watch as he barged into the room. "The pizza is getting cold and I only have 'Inception' on loan from Zelenka for another day."
John was struggling with embarrassment, and more than ever he needed time alone. "Thanks, Rodney but I think I'll pass…I kinda wanted an early night," he muttered, although quickly realised from the determination on McKay's face that wasn't gonna happen.
"Move it, Sheppard. There's no way you're spending your first night's escape from Stallag 13 sleeping," Rodney retorted, sounding impatient. "Once we drop the kid off with his parents, it's down to the rec' room, 'cause if you think I made a deal with Beckett to allow you a beer for nothing…you have another thing coming. When John looked puzzled, Rodney's horrified expression made him laugh. "You won't believe what he expects me to do. Seriously - you really don't wanna know."
John suppressed a flinch as he hauled himself up, still sore but all thoughts of hitting the sack gone. If he was honest, glad that McKay had forced the issue, as he was now looking forward to some junk food, good company and not forgetting that beer.
Later, surrounded by his friends, John felt a warmth, nothing to do with the climate, start to melt the chill that had started all those months ago in the cell. He'd been to hell and back…and lived, but why? John guessed there must be a reason for that, just like there had to have been a reason why he'd felt drawn to that chair in Antarctica. Up till then his life had had no real meaning except for his love of flying - apart from that, he'd been going nowhere fast. His career had been in ruins – frozen, just like the wasteland where he'd been leading a futile life.
John remembered his father had once told him he was worthless, and for a very long time he'd believed him, yet here his life meant something. It was dangerous to be sure, but each scar littering his body told its own story…Teyla's rescue, Keller's too, and now Elient's, times when he'd made a difference, times when he'd proved his father wrong. John knew he wasn't perfect, and wasn't the only one who saved lives, but he was suddenly aware that if he gave up what he had, he'd be making the biggest mistake of his life.
Atlantis was not just his workplace…she was home, a place where he'd finally fitted in, where he meant something to the folks here not just because of what he did, but who he was. They were good people who trusted him, and forgave him even when he got it wrong - friends who meant so much more than the family who'd never tried to understand him.
John drained his beer, wishing he could have a chaser. but accepting with all the meds, it was way too risky. There would be time for that later when he was fully healed, just like there would be time to pursue his other dreams when the moment was right, for now though, his place was here as long as fate decreed. Still, he doubted he would ever settle down, aware that in some ways he would always be a solitary man, but knew he'd never be entirely alone, as the people sitting beside him would always have his back…
Well that's the tale told and I hope you enjoyed it. Many thanks to those of you who have left reviews, and to all those who followed the story. And please, I would appreciate it if you would review this chapter and share your thoughts with me.
A very special thanks goes to my fabulous beta shepgirl72 who sorted out my mistakes, and not forgetting the birthday girl Sterenyk Strey for whom this story was written. Thanks, Strey for giving me the two great prompts without which this story would never have seen the light of day!