Disclaimer: I do not own any of the Stargate parts - that would be MGM - I only borrow the characters to play with.
Thanks to JoaniexJony for being my beta again.
He didn't know how long he'd been awake, things had been a complete blur for a long time.
Try to focus, John,he reminded himself.
It worked before – check one feeling after the other …
He was warm.
It feels good, nice for a change.
There was an oddly familiar smell, like alcohol, the medical kind … disinfectant.
So it's the lab torture chamber again.
His heart started racing, goose bumps began creeping up his arms and spine. "The lab" they'd named the room where they'd persecuted him with endless tests. His misery endless as each of them were more painful than the last. But "the lab" was not the worst place. That title fell to "the chair", a small windowless hole with a single metal chair. It was a cold, dank place, where they'd shackled him, leaving him for hours and tried to break into his mind.
Don't go there, John. It's not the chair this time – you're lying on a mattress. At least it feels like one.
Before, they strapped him to a hospital bed but his limbs were free now. Neither his wrists nor his ankles bound.
He felt dizzy but it wasn't because of the drug they used. Each injection had left him vomiting, choking, weeping and cramping all together and each sensation came with a bonus of severe vertigo.
Now he felt like he was floating. The water warm but without stability. There was a low humming sound below and for a moment he thought it was happening again and they'd attached him to one of their machines.
Panic was threatening to overwhelm him, his heart pounding as he tried to open his eyes. He was so tired, so totally exhausted, but finally he managed to open his eyes a small crack.
For the first time he saw the room he was lying in. It was high, the light dimmed and there was a kind of curtain around the place he was settled on a hospital bed.
The dizziness increased and when the room swam he closed his eyes, stifling a groan. Then he looked once again, lifted his head and one arm after the other.
No restraints – ok, I knew that already – only one IV going into the back of my hand. So the drug …
The concentration on this one task made him focus and distracted him from his dizziness and panic. After he'd made sure he was alone, he carefully removed the IV-needle from his left hand. John knew they would make him pay, but every minute without the drug was worth all kind of punishment.
When he was done, a thin layer of sweat covered his face and he suddenly felt all the places they had "worked" on. Especially his chest was aching so badly he couldn't suppress a moan escaping his lips.
Catching his breath he tried to relax and focus again.
Now what, you idiot? Another attempt to escape? But where? There is nothing there. They've beaten it into me that Atlantis never existed and if I want to live I have to admit it's all in my head. I want to live! I don't know why and for whom exactly, but I want to live.
That had been his tactic over the last few days: let Atlantis rest. He'd locked his memories safely into his heart and had answered their questions as requested. Yes, he'd made it all up; no, there was no team he commanded; yes, he was a normal Air Force major; no, there weren't such things like Stargates; and so forth …
Sometimes his memories of his lost home had seemed more real than the torturers who were standing before him. Not the pain, not the massive stress, starvation, cold and tiredness had been able to erase the memory of one Atlantis, of being with friends, belonging to a wonderful team, the joy of being respected as a leader, of having one special ability to think things alive.
But these memories were fading, disappearing, the more his torturers played with them.
One of them, he didn't know who, had approached him as general O'Neill and the moment his walls had broken down and he had begged the general to learn more about Atlantis and his team, the false O'Neill had morphed before his eyes into a grotesque face. John had been their laughter for a long time and decided to never mention Atlantis, his team or his command ever again.
They'd noticed the change of course and rewarded him with some dry bread and one power bar. He had to admit, the sweet bar had tasted like heaven.
Gawd I'm hungry. When was the last time I've had a decent meal?
Fatigue was threatening to overcome him; he closed his eyes and listened to the low humming under his bed. It was soothing in a weird way and later he was asleep.
When Carl, the nurse on night shift made his inspection round to look after the only patient in the infirmary, he decided to take the colonel's vitals although he'd done so one hour ago. The military commander of Atlantis had been missing for nearly 4 weeks until his team had rescued him from the same planet where he'd vanished. Sheppard had been found in some sort of deserted hospital, strapped to a gurney, severely dehydrated and nearly starved to death.
It had taken 2 days for Carson to stabilize the colonel and 3 more days to finally transfer him from ICU to the normal infirmary rooms. 5 days in which Carson had hardly slept for more then one hour without a break or the colonel's team leave their commanding officer for one second.
Today Dr. Weir had put her foot down, ordered Dr. Beckett to take a 6 hour recuperation, assigned Dr. Keller to the patient, Carl and nurse Kim for the night shift and kicked the colonel's team out to their own quarters. The colonel was on the mend, like always bouncing back to health in record time. He still was pale and skinny but he'd gained 3 pounds, his heart was beating strong and steady and there was only one IV still needed with some light pain- and sleep-medication. After all the man had suffered massive torture.
Being aware of his precious responsibility, Carl went over to the IV stand to check the line and Sheppard's pulse. He paused seeing the little puddle of blood on the bed, taking in the unhooked needle and pressing the emergency button at the same moment.
A few minutes later, Dr. Keller accompanied by Kim and Carl was standing round Sheppard's bed and witnessed their patient's first panic attack of the day under the bright lights of the Atlantis infirmary.
John was sitting bolt upright in his bed, eyes wide open glistering with tears, his hands gripping the sheets, knees near his body, shaking violently. He was struggling to breathe and stammered:
"They can't do … this. It can't be … real. They trick … me … again …"
Jennifer could tell that the colonel's body would not be able to endure the stress much longer and she was right. Only minutes later his trembling ceased, his eyes rolled in his head and he sagged to the side where Kim was standing, preventing him to fall out of his bed.
When Carson arrived, they had settled the colonel back into his pillows, IV reattached, sheets replaced and one more fleece blanket over his ice cold legs.
Carson demanded information, still fumbling with his lab coat.
"Carl started the alarm when he'd detected blood and the disconnected IV. When the colonel woke up he had a panic attack, he passed out, go back to bed, Carson, please."
Dr. Keller knew her wish was futile, but knew she had to get her colleague to rest.
"Damn, I thought the laddie would at least sleep for one more day … stubborn bugger …", the doctor mumbled while checking John's vitals.
"Why panic? He's home now, safe and more or less sound. What the hell have they done to him?" Carson said to no-one in particular.
Content with John's condition, he faced his colleagues and nodded at Dr. Keller's pleading look.
"Ok, I understand, lass. You're in control, I … just shout if he will wake up again."
"I will, Carson."
Next morning the early guests in the mess hall saw several tired out people sitting quietly at a desk, nursing a first cup of coffee or tea.
Elizabeth looked around, exhausted beyond description, seeing her co-worker's faces, knowing they all had tried to rest but hadn't succeeded.
During their search for the colonel they've all come closer together if that was even possible. She and major Lorne had talked for hours every day to stall the SGC and committee and they had managed to prevent colonel Caldwell to take over command. Lorne had been her confidant and she was immensely grateful for his loyalty.
John's team has had each other to lean on, the men relying on Teyla's strength and shown calmness. She'd managed to calm down McKay and to start Ronon speaking to her– two tasks unbelievable before, but after the third week without finding John, the three of them had merely sat together quietly, talking only with looks and fleeting touches. They'd trusted Elizabeth to never give up hope or cancel the search for their friend and they'd been right of course. How could she ever give up on John? How could one plus one end to be two?
At the end it had been Dr. Beckett who'd become her greatest worry. The doctor not only knew the colonel's medical history by heart, he was the one John had opened up to after being fed on by a Wraith and after turning into a bug and changing back.
Elizabeth had never managed to force her military leader to talk to a shrink but eventually he accepted assistance and talked to his friend Carson. She imagined that having this knowledge both was reassuring for the doctor, as it was an immense burden.
He knew what the colonel went through and what separation from his team and this new experience of violence would do to him.
She shot Carson a sympathetic smile and saw him drinking his tea with barely restrained agitation. He'd told them about John's nightly panic attack and she knew he couldn't wait to go back to his friend's side, nonetheless she'd insisted that they all had breakfast together. They needed to assure themselves that they were ok. They needed to keep strong to help the colonel through his time of rehabilitation.
"So, how do we play this?" Elizabeth asked.
Five heads were shooting up, five pairs of eyes red and puffy looking into hers.
"Now Colonel Sheppard is back, we need to be even more careful. I'm sure Major Lorne and I can calm down the SGC for a short time longer but we need the colonel back in the high life as soon as possible."
"I'm sure we can help Colonel Sheppard regain his strength. He knows he's safe with us, his friends." Teyla said, her voice filled with emotion.
"Maybe we'll try a light sedative with the Colonel. I know he hates those but after what he went through it might help him recover."
"And what exactly was it he went through, Carson?"
Rodney was fiddling with some napkins.
"You've told us about the scars, the new ones, the burn marks, cracked ribs and bruises all over his body but what …", he gulped down some coffee to prevent his stomach to show him his earlier inhaled dry bagel again.
"What does this really mean?"
Before Carson could answer him, Ronon took the crumbled napkins out of Rodney's hand and growled: "It means torture, McKay and it means we have to be there for him to reassure him, he'd pulled through it. Once again."
"Oh …" Rodney wiped his forehead with a fresh napkin.
"Oh … ok, we can do this, can't we? We've done it before."
"We will, Rodney."
Teyla took his hand for a quick squeeze.
"Right. With your permission Elizabeth, I would like to go back to my patient to make sure he's ready for his friends to visit."
"Permission granted, Carson. I would like to meet you all for dinner here again. Take care, all of you."
He once more was at the dark side of his mind.
John was awake for a while now but didn't bother to open his eyes or move one limb. He felt the IV in place again and knew the drug was long since anywhere in his system.
He gave in to this overwhelming feeling of dread.
They've done it again.
It looked like they mocked him with a strong imagination of Atlantis, of it's personnel; they even created some virtual infirmary scene to let his heart break once and for all.
Soon they'll come to question me again, to stab me, hit me, burn me and laugh at me. How long? How long 'till I break for good? The Air Force hadn't thought about preparing me for this. But even the Air Force isn't real any more. Am I real? Is this sadness inside me really real?
He heard the fussing around his bed. Someone had replaced the blanket over his legs, plumped up his pillow and placed something – maybe a cup – onto the nightstand. Then a soft voice had called him "Colonel". Crazy after they'd thoroughly beaten the "Major" into his mind and body.
Why now Colonel? Meaningless … only one more point on their twisted agenda …
Slowly he could distinguish four different voices, one female and all somewhat hushed and vague. The female one was nearest his right ear and every once in a while he could feel a tiny puff of air on his cheek. She talked the most and used his name frequently.
"John, please wake up and look at us. We're so glad to have you back. You're safe now – back in Atlantis. Back with your friends. Please open your eyes."
She sounds exactly like Tey … NO! Nothing they say to me is real! Don't fall for their nice talk … only cruelties …
A shiver ran through his body and Ronon and Rodney stepped closer.
"Is he waking up? Sheppard? Rise and shine, Colonel. Show us the Kirky twinkle of your eyes."
Seeing the irritated looks of his team mates, Rodney shrugged.
"What? Carson's said to act as normal as possible. You know me – I'm not the best for the comfort zone."
"Shut up, McKay, you're scaring the nurses."
"Since when do you care about the nurses, Conan?"
"You both shut up!"
Carson stepped between them, raised the bed until John came to a sitting position and placed a thermometer into his right ear. He noticed the slight flinch but did not comment on it.
"He's developed a light fever so please calm down and let him rest."
Why? For heaven's sake why are they doing this? Why suddenly make something up that sounded and felt so completely like home? Is this the last step? Are they finally done? Only waiting for me to surrender completely?
Suddenly it was so quiet, John could hear the breathing of his visitors and again the low humming of their machine. But it sounded different, like something or someone was soothing him, telling him he could trust.
Trust? I trusted O'Neill and he was THEM.
No trust anymore but no defeat either. I am Colonel John Sheppard, Air Force and I will fight until death!
With all strength he'd left, he opened his eyes and winced because of the glaring sunlight shining through the window on his left side.
"Look who's joining the party. Welcome back, Sheppard."
Rodney smiled as did Teyla, Carson and even Ronon.
Holding the upcoming next panic wave at bay, John's body went rigid but he managed a hoarse whisper:
"You … are not … real! You cannot … fool me anymore. You … can … stop!"
"What are you talking about? Not real? If I'm not real how comes this city is still functioning?"
"I … will fight you. You cannot hurt me … any … more. There's nothing left … you already took … it all."
Exhaustion clouded John's vision but he forced his eyes to stay open. He wanted to see the four figures at his bed change into his tormentors. He would not let them win this time. He would not flinch.
"All of this is real, Colonel. You're back home, lad. Now you can let go and let us take care of you. We've missed you dearly."
"Not … real."
John shook his head, dizziness again making him nauseous but he sucked in some air and reflectively took the cup of water Teyla offered him.
The water was cool and refreshing. John thoughtfully stared at the cup in his slightly trembling hands.
When will this end? How long before they change and start laughing off their asses at me again?
"Please … stop."
He hated his voice to sound so needy, so weak and pleading but he had no strength left for their games anymore. He wanted to fight his last fight and then rest for the next ten years.
Carson took the cup out of his hands.
"Do you know where you are, John?"
They always ask that and I always say the wrong thing. I once heard the name of their world …
He didn't answer the question but when the one with the lab coat took out a syringe he lost it again.
So much for fighting them … , he thought briefly then memories of dealing with the drug took his breath away, he tried to suck in air, but his throat refused to let it through and he pressed his hand against his aching chest.
"Calm down, John. I'm so sorry I have to do this, but it will help you sleep and get better."
The look of pure fear would haunt the doctor the following nights but now his friend needed help. Never taking is eyes off his patient, he stuck the needle into the IV-line. A few minutes later John sagged to one side and Ronon helped Carson to lie him down again.
"Sorry", the doctor whispered. To Ronon and his team mates he said: "His body does not do well with this stress. He's week and he needs sleep and rest badly."
"You did the right thing."
Teyla's hand on his arm felt good but Carson never had wanted more to hear the same words from the colonel's mouth.
Dinner was a gloomy affair as they sat at their usual table, trying not to look at the empty chair.
The SGC had given Elizabeth only 3 more days and Carson's report had been unsettling to say the least.
Ronon grunted: "We rescued his body, but his mind's been left behind."
All of them were staring. It wasn't like Ronon to speak sentences with more than three words.
"Ah, Conan the psychologist! And what's your recommended therapy? Going for a jog? Using some bantos sticks on his abused body?"
Rodney's face was red, the lines around his eyes deep and dark.
"Why not, geek?"
"Please, gentlemen. Fighting will not help the Colonel."
"And what will? If he thinks this is not real, we're not real, how do we reach him and shake him back into reality?"
"That's the reason we're talking, Rodney."
Carson's voice was hoarse, his bread and salad untouched. He looked from Rodney to Elizabeth and back again.
"I've talked to Kate about the panic and obvious psychological problems. The Colonel would hate every single suggestion she'd made."
"So we'll not do them."
"And what's your idea, Con …" Rodney registered Elizabeth's stern look. " … Ronon?"
"He has to re-connect."
"Great … we put him in the chair or what? Unconscious like he is?"
"What do you have in mind, Ronon?"
Elizabeth and Carson leaned forward, Teyla gave him an encouraging smile, Major Lorne's face was expressionless, Rodney shrugged his shoulders.
"We let him fly."
"Sure, and if it doesn't work we rescue him out of a crashed Jumper."
"What? You're not in earnest considering this, are you?"
Elizabeth took a deep breath, then rubbed one hand over her aching forehead and sighed scarcely audible.
"We're all going with him. Major, you could fly the Jumper if needed and all of us are being there for support."
"That's ridicul …"
"That's an order, Dr. McKay. How long to prepare the Colonel, Dr. Beckett?"
This was definitely a different feeling. He was in a sitting position, back pressed into a very comfortable seat, his arms hanging, hands in his lap and his head rolling against a soft headrest. He was moving. No rumbling or engine noise but he just knew that he was moving – more so, he was flying!
His mind tried to turn to the dark side but something was pulling in his head as well as in his heart against his dread and uncertainty. A strong feeling of … reality!
Without opening his eyes he listened to the humming inside and outside of his body and suddenly he could hear the words:
"Welcome back, John. We've missed you so much. We're glad you've connected with us again."
This is not possible. This is just not possible … I've never heard them use words like …
"We've never felt the need to talk with you before, John and after you're with us again we'll probably never do it again. Feel, John … just … feel."
It was quiet again and he felt – good. He wasn't alone in here. There were hands on his shoulders and on the side of his right arm. Warm and friendly touches, light and reassuring. They were talking to him as well.
Home. I'm really home! My friends are here for me.
John opened his eyes, took control over Jumper Two, whirling it up, up into space. Then he halted for one second, enjoying the complete nothingness of motion, gained speed again and circled down in beautiful waves until he could finally see where this flight would end: Atlantis!