His fingers grasped at the ropes tying him to the frame. They were tight, biting into his wrists, but there was no purchase to be gained. No relief from the vicious onslaught that followed.
He heard the whoosh as the heavy whip flew through the air. Felt the thud as it slammed into his back and forced the air from his lungs. For a moment there was nothing. Then a fierce sting warmed his skin, before a wall of fiery pain exploded across his back setting every nerve alight. His head snapped back as his body bucked against the vicious assault, but there was nothing he could do – he was trapped.
Lash followed lash, each strike harder than the last. He could hear the whisper of torn skin. Taste the sharp metallic flavor as the splatter hung suspended in the air. Feel the warm trickle as his life force flowed from his ripped flesh in an endless stream onto the stones beneath. He didn't want to yell. Didn't want to let them know how much he was hurting. In agony, tears mixed with blood when he couldn't stop the scream torn from his lungs.
His heart was hammering against his chest. The sound from the blood roaring through his ears so loud, John couldn't make out what Carson was saying.
John nodded. He was still struggling to catch his breath. Right now he didn't trust himself to speak.
Carson handed him a glass of water. He could barely hold it with his trembling hands. John was mortified. The glass was shaking so much the contents would have spilled if the medic hadn't steadied the bottom of the vessel.
His airway felt tight, and he choked on the cool liquid as it caught the back of his throat. Carson raised the top of the bed so he was sitting up slightly. It helped. He felt it take the pressure off his chest allowing the tension to ease. In silence the medic gently took the glass, sat down and waited for the tremors to stop. It wasn't the first time he'd had the nightmare, but up till now he'd managed to keep them private. John knew he'd just blown that by the expression on the Scot's face.
"Did…did I say anything?" John mentally crossed his fingers that he'd only screamed in his head. His hopes were soon dashed.
Carson nodded. "Aye, I heard you yelling from my office."
John cringed, and scrubbed a hand over his face. He wanted the bed to open up and swallow him – whole.
"Don't worry about it, son. Corporal Anderson is still out cold after his surgery," Carson looked around the ward, then returned his gaze to him, "and it doesn't look like you've disturbed anyone else. Besides, this isn't your fault. I'm just surprised this is the first nightmare you've had…" Carson locked eyes with him and John went scarlet. "Except it isn't…is it?"
John tried to shake off the lingering feeling of dread, and inject some lightness in his tone. "No…but I'm fine - or I will be. Seriously, Carson, that's only the first one this week."
Carson sighed. "This is only Wednesday Colonel." The medic sat back and folded his arms. "John...I'm no psychiatrist but I know the process a torture victim goes through. Part of it are these hellish nightmares you've been having and…as a doctor I want to take your pain away, but I know it's not as simple as that. Unfortunately they're something you'll need to endure until you've made peace with what happened to you. Therapy will help, so will talking to your friends but I'm not going to lie to you. The longer it takes you to open up, the longer it will take you to heal. Like I said before I'm no psychiatrist however…I would like to share a theory I have with you."
John reached for the control and raised the bed fully upright. If this theory was going to be some kind of lecture, he wanted to look at Carson face to face. "Do I have a choice?"
A wry smile grew on Carson's face. "You always have a choice, Colonel."
His fingers picked at the sheets while he considered his response. John didn't really want to hear what Carson had to say. Hell, he didn't want to know what anyone thought. This had been his experience, his torture, and no one could even come close to understanding everything he'd suffered. Still, he owed Carson big time. The guy had saved his life.
"Fine…let's hear it."
"Okay, I'll put it in a nut shell." Carson said simply. "When that man was killed on Taluna, you were too willing to take the blame."
John could feel himself tense up again. "Excuse me? What exactly are you suggesting, Carson - I run away from my responsibilities? Cause I'm telling you now…that's never going to happen."
"No…of course I don't mean that. But let's face it, Colonel, all it took was a little investigation on my part to find out the truth." Carson let out a long sigh. "Look, son, ever since you woke the Wraith it seems like you've been constantly looking for ways to punish yourself. Look at all those suicide missions you volunteered for - by rights you should be dead by now." Carson looked sad. "All I'm saying is if you'd looked into the matter further, you would have found out what I did…We both know you would have dug deeper if this had happened to any of us. It's just yourself you won't cut a break - it's about time you forgave yourself, John."
John felt his mouth go dry. He was trying to digest what Carson had just told him but he was struggling to take it in. "I still shot an innocent man, Carson…I should have seen him. I know he wanted to die, but it was still my bullet that killed him."
Carson's face twisted. "Well…if you're going to blame yourself for killing a man who wanted to die, then you might as well blame me for infecting you with the retro virus. I created it. It was me that left it unattended for Elia to find." Carson's voice had risen, then his face clouded over and he patted John's arm. "You didn't blame me, John, because it was an accident. So don't blame yourself for what happened. That old man deliberately walked in front of your gun. Even with your quick reactions, you didn't stand a chance."
Carson rose from the chair and pulled up his covers. "I'm sorry…I didn't mean to upset you. Please…just give some thought to what I've said. You're my friend as well as the military commander of this base. Atlantis needs you, son, and the people here rely on you more than you know. Frankly, it wasn't the same place while you were gone." The Scot took a loaded syringe from the metal tray on the cabinet. "I've been reducing your medication, but tonight I think you could use something stronger than pills to make you sleep. Physically you're healing well. Your knee will need physical therapy for a while yet, but I don't see any reason why you can't go back to your quarters." The Scot peered at him through hooded lids. "Do you realize in all the years I've know you, this is the first time you haven't nagged to get out the infirmary? Actually…I think I find that more disturbing that anything."
John managed a faint flicker of a smile. "I never gave it a thought. I suppose I just feel safe here."
As Carson guided the syringe into the crook of his arm, John flinched slightly when the needle pricked his skin.
"Aye…I would imagine it must feel like that after what you've been through." Carson rubbed the site of the small wound and put on a dressing. "But…it's time to start picking up the threads of your life, John. Tell you what. We'll plan to get you back into your quarters the day after next. I'll prescribe some sleeping pills for the first few nights then I'll assess where we go after that."
John was ashamed to admit Carson was right. He had been hiding. His physical wounds had given him the excuse to keep the world at bay. Now it was time to move on. He couldn't hide out in the infirmary any longer. He needed, wanted, to regain control of his life.
"Thanks, Carson…and I will think about what you said."
Carson nodded. "Good…Sleep well, Colonel."
The Scot dimmed the lights slightly and left him alone. Sleep was pulling him under but he resisted. Of all the things he'd thought Carson would say, what he'd just heard was the last thing he'd expected. Was Carson right? Did he deliberately not investigate the shooting properly? Had he accepted responsibility too easily – was he really persecuting himself? The Sekkari had told him he tortured himself every day, where they right? For months now he'd blamed that damn woman for setting him up, but was the truth more complicated than that? Had he been partly to blame?
John still felt guilty about waking the Wraith but if Carson's theory was correct, he needn't have gone to Flenda. All of the pain, the misery he'd suffered could have been prevented. It was a disturbing thought but one he couldn't deal with right now. As hard as he tried to stay awake the drugs won out. They took him to oblivion and he didn't resist the call.
Time was a great healer, and John wasn't going to argue with the guy who'd coined the phrase.
He'd been beaten, whipped to within an inch of his life and the frustration, anger at everything that happened had torn him up inside. His spirit had been damaged almost as much as his body. John wasn't used to feeling helpless. Restrained by chains and an oppressive regime that thrived on violence, that's just what he'd been.
Carson and Woolsey had insisted he see the shrink. He had. But it was his friends who'd pulled him out of the mire. It had been them who'd got him through the long dark days that followed.
When he'd first been discharged to his quarters they'd made sure he was never alone. No words were spoken but looking back it was clear they had worked out a rota. Ronon took the nightshift. He'd watched in horror as the Satedan put down his bedroll on the floor, ignoring him when he'd asked him to leave. John had been angry at first, furious at being treated like an invalid. When the night terrors struck that first night, he'd been glad to have a comforting presence nearby.
Teyla had dragged his ungrateful ass down to the mess breakfast, lunch and dinner - even when he didn't want anything. Flenda had screwed up his appetite and he hadn't felt much like eating, but the Athosian could be a sneaky woman. She'd always brought Torren along for the ride. Teyla knew him only too well. She knew he wouldn't make a sharp exit or else he'd upset the kid. So he'd eaten. At first it had been a struggle, but with Torren watching he'd forced something down. He'd never carried a lot of weight but food had never been his enemy before. It still wasn't thanks to Teyla.
As for Rodney, he'd been his usual. A pain in the ass.
Still weak and dragged down by the constant nagging pain in his leg, he hadn't been able to do much back then. Lost and detached after he'd left the sanctity of the infirmary, all he'd wanted was to stay in his quarters. Hide away from well-meaning people, the world, and from himself. McKay however had other plans.
When Rodney had invited him to visit his lab, he'd been curt in his refusal. Unusually the scientist had simply shrugged. Much to his annoyance instead of butting out, Rodney had set up shop in his room instead.
John had tried to blank him out. The constant calls to Radek followed by the high pitched rants only McKay could make, soon had made him curious. He'd always known Rodney was a genius, but up till then he'd never pegged him as a devious guy. Who knew the scientist had a game face? Certainly not him. It hadn't taken long before he'd been unable to resist asking a question. The rest as they say was history.
Without his friends John didn't think he would have made it. It was their support and unwillingness to allow him to crawl into a shell that had saved him. They never pushed or demanded information, and they seemed to know when he'd been ready to go it alone. John felt better. Better than he'd been in a long time. He was well on his way back, but even now he still wasn't ready to share what he'd been through. He didn't know if he ever would.
As his injuries healed he'd had a lot of time to think about what Carson had said. John realized the Scot was probably right. It still didn't matter. At the end of the day it was hard to change who you were inside.
He'd finally accepted he hadn't been responsible for killing the farmer, but he had awoken the Wraith. That was a crime that didn't deserve forgiveness, nor did he want any. He would bear the guilt for the rest of his life. Try to atone as long as there was a breath left in his body.
Now he was back on Light Duty.
John reckoned it was a concession from Carson. He guessed the Scot knew he needed to take the next step. His knee still had a way to go before it was completely right. Plus, while the grafts had healed well, his new skin was still a little tender. His team had been awesome. Lorne too had done a great job filling in while he'd been out of action.
Unlike some men it was clear his XO didn't have designs on his job. Lorne had kept him in the loop right from the get go. Evan's relief had been obvious the first day he'd donned the black BDUs once more. The Colonel was back, even if it was in name only. John had known he would never truly return to normal unless he got back on the saddle. Even if for the moment the saddle in question was a desk and chair.
John turned from the stack of paperwork, grabbed his cane and limped over to the window. He loved Atlantis, and never tired of the view. During the long desperate hours in the hole he would try to imagine it. Make believe the cool breeze from the ocean was ruffling his hair as he looked out over the city. Sometimes it was hard to believe all of that crap that had happened to him. Then his knee ached and he felt the itch from his new skin, and it all came flooding back. It was getting easier. Even the nightmares were less frequent. They still woke him up, but he didn't scream anymore. If he did, his neighbors didn't mention it.
The sun was shining on the spires and the reflection shone in his eyes. He blinked but didn't look away. It didn't matter how much it stung. He would take the small ache anytime over the interminable darkness he'd suffered in the hole.
"Have you got time for a visitor, Colonel?"
"Kilund…" Surprised, John nearly stumbled. If it hadn't been for the cane he would have face planted on the ground.
The sergeant went scarlet, except he wasn't a sergeant now. According to Ronon, Kilund was a captain. "If this feels awkward, Colonel…I'll leave."
It did. Kilund was one of the men who had oppressed him. He was also the guy instrumental in his release. Life could be weird sometimes. John pinned on a smile he wasn't feeling. "Congratulations on the promotion."
Kilund shrugged. He looked stiff in his jacket. "Thanks…I suppose. After I left you I wanted to retire, run a bar someplace…now I'm back in Flenda managing the freaking place."
Now John did laugh. "So I heard…"
"I'm sorry…I'd meant to come and visit weeks ago, but…"
John waved him over to a chair. "The pressures of leadership. They can be a bummer – right?" For reasons he didn't understand himself, he tried not to hobble as he went over to sit by his desk.
Kilund reached into his jacket. "Dulane got released last week. I told him I was coming to see you. He asked me to give you this." Kilund handed over a shabby envelope.
John took it and put it in his top pocket. "How is he?"
Kilund smiled. "Good. I took him home myself. I know that's not my job, but after what he'd been through…well, I just wanted to make sure he got there okay. By the way...he's left the army and joined his dad on the farm. I think that kind of life will suit him better."
"Yeah…I think you're right." John remembered his young friend with affection. Dulane was the only thing that had kept him sane in that hell-hole.
Kilund coughed, and John realized he'd zoned out. He still did that from time to time. It was something he'd need to knock on the head if he hoped to return to Active Duty.
"Anyway…I just wanted you to know that things are different in Flenda now, Colonel." Kilund said. "The prisoners are treated right. They have proper bunks with bedding. The foods improved too. I also fought tooth and nail to get a medic for the place. We have a young guy starting next week. There's still a lot to be done…but I'm going to turn that place around if it's the last thing I do."
John nodded. "That's good to hear…"
Kilund interrupted, and his voice cracked slightly. "I only took the job because of you, Colonel. When you saved my life – a man who'd treated you like dirt – you showed me what I'd become. I want to thank you for taking the blinders off." Kilund smirked, "I might still go to hell, but at least now I have a chance to save my soul."
Kilund smiled, got to his feet and extended his hand. John was speechless. He accepted the gesture in the manner in which it was given. "Rualin?"
The question hung in the air for a moment. "He was court marshalled. Found guilty of your unlawful imprisonment, and the murder of Ceeland and at least twelve prisoners. At least that's what we know of." Kilund's face darkened. "Rualin came to Flenda after his wife died. I think he believed a stable billet would be a good place to bring up Jalune." Kilund went silent for a moment. "Men came and went from the prison, but he didn't realize he'd made Flenda into a prison for him and his boy. I served with Rualin many years ago, we were in the same regiment. He was only a Captain back then and while he was never an easy man, he never used to be vindictive. I reckon all the horrors, every evil act he inflicted on the inmates poisoned him. It was so gradual a process I'm ashamed and sorry to say I never noticed. It wasn't until the day I came to get you...I saw what he'd become."
"What was the verdict?" John asked quietly.
"He was killed by firing squad yesterday."
There was nothing to say about that. The man had deserved to die for his crimes. John only felt sorry he hadn't pulled the trigger himself.
Kilund stood up a little straighter and started for the door. "I'm glad to see you're on the mend, Colonel, but I'd better to get back – I have a prison to run."
John was about to rise, but Kilund forestalled him. He glanced over at the paperwork. "I can see you're busy so I'll see myself out. Goodbye, Colonel. Take care of yourself." His ex-captor saluted and walked out of the door leaving him alone. Rualin was dead. Flenda was in good hands. It was good that Justice had finally been done. It still didn't take away the pain he felt deep inside.
"Are you ready for some lunch?"
John put down his pen and closed over the report he'd been reading. "More than ready."
His brain was turning to mush trying to catch up with the staff evaluations. It was mind numbing stuff at the best of times and he was ready to run for the hills. He smiled at Teyla and reached for his cane. A stab of pain pierced his bum knee and John suppressed a wince at he struggled to his feet. Too long sitting in the same position had stiffened his healing limb.
"What is that in your pocket, John?"
"Huh…" John saw her looking at the envelope in his top pocket. It was the letter from Dulane. He'd forgotten all about it. "Kilund paid me a visit…he gave me a letter from Dulane. I forgot to read it."
Teyla went to leave. "If you wish to read it now, I will wait for you in the mess."
John considered the offer then shook his head. He liked Dulane, but apart from saying 'hi' and maybe extending an offer to come visit, he didn't reckon his prison buddy would have much to say. He was wrong.
Teyla had wandered over to the window while he read the letter. He wasn't even aware she'd come to stand in front of him until she'd called his name.
"John…are you quite well?"
Truth was he didn't know the answer to that. He felt the color drain from his face and he sat down on his chair so hard, he nearly fell off the edge. "Yeah…I'm fine."
Teyla looked at him anxiously. "You do not look…fine. Is there anything wrong with your friend?"
He reached for his half-drunk bottle of water. Teyla handed it to him. He swallowed it in one. John could see she was still waiting for an answer. It was simpler to hand over the letter.
"The guy makes me sound like a freaking hero. All I did was push someone down the stairs. By the way…don't ever do that. It really hurt."
Teyla finished reading and looked at him. "You are a hero to these men, John. Not only did you protect them from a violent man, you gave them hope and a belief that their lives could get better…Because of you they have." Teyla handed back the letter and went to sit on the bed facing him. "I tried to tell you once before, John. You have made a difference to the lives of so many people, including Ronon's and mine. Your courage and strength has inspired many, but we…we are only alive because of you. You gave us a home, and the faith you have shown in us, making us part of your team, has given our lives purpose. If you had died in Flenda that selfish woman would have done Pegasus a great disservice. When you were sent to prison we missed our friend, but Atlantis missed you more. Without you our lives would have eventually moved on, but no one could ever have filled the gap you left behind. I do not believe there is anyone who could have achieved what you did. Atlantis needs you. We need you to keep leading us in our fight against the Wraith. "
Teyla's words hung in the air and John felt the flush grow on his cheeks. He was thankfully spared from replying by Rodney's timely entrance. "Well…are we going for lunch, or does the Colonel have more pressing concerns to deal with?"
John wasn't ready to share the contents of the letter, or the conversation with anyone else. He looked at Teyla. She smiled. The smile told him she wouldn't betray his confidence. John was embarrassed. He didn't think any of the praise was deserved. All he'd ever tried to do was the right thing. Sometimes his actions worked, but sometimes they didn't. If he got lucky and managed to help, that was good enough for him.
He was still a little shaky from the latest revelations, but Rodney was waiting for an answer. John quickly roused himself from his fugue. "No…the Colonel is ready for a break, and I'm buying today. What's on the menu?"
Rodney folded his arms and rolled his eyes. "It's pizza, Colonel Cheapskate, and blueberry muffins – your favorite. That's the third time this week they've been on the menu. If I didn't know better I'd guess Martha had made them especially for you."
"She did." Ronon smirked, and gently elbowed him in the ribs. "Martha's got a thing for you, Sheppard."
John looked at his friends and wondered how he'd got so lucky. He wanted to thank them for everything they'd done. But what did you say to the people who not only saved your life, but your sanity? There was so much he wanted to say but he'd never been good at expressing his emotions.
So he did what he always did. Hid what he was feeling inside, composed himself and put on his game face. John knew they were waiting for him to respond so he settled for pretending to ignore the gibe. He grinned. "What can I tell you? I've got friends in high places. C'mon…let's go see if we can bag our usual table…"
Well that's the end of the tale, and I hope you enjoyed it.
I want to thank my very patient beta and good pal, Sherry 57 for all the hard work she did on this fic. Her invaluable insight encouraged me to make this a longer and hopefully better story. And…I hope there was enough drippy blood in it for you Strey!
As for you, the readers, I want to thank you for coming along John's journey with me. It was very dark in places, but you trusted me to bring it to a brighter conclusion. I can't thank you enough for all the wonderful reviews.
Until the next story – take care – Joanie.