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For the sga_flashfic "first aid" challenge, something of an experiment in omniscient 3rd POV (not necessarily a successful one.)
The marketplace on M4C-K31 was a hub for several allied worlds, and had been so for millennia, a carefully guarded secret. Few people lived on the planet itself, so it went unnoticed by the Wraith, but traders gathered there regularly. Teyla got the next major date from one of her contacts, and the appropriate password to call once they came through the gate.
The kid who popped up from underbrush like a mushroom at that hail couldn't have been more than twelve: scrawny and smudge-faced, black hair chopped short, and none of them could tell whether it was a boy or a girl. He or she grinned at them widely and led them down a hidden trail through the trees, to the mouth of a cave. Rodney peered into the shadows, fidgeting apprehensively. "Maybe somebody should wait outside, stand watch?"
Ronon smacked him on the shoulder. "You're the one who was hoping they might have some Ancient knick-knack for sale," Sheppard reminded McKay, and they clicked on their flashlights and went in.
The lights proved unnecessary; lamps marked the way through the tunnels, globes of cool greenish phosphorescence that Rodney poked a finger at, intrigued, until Sheppard wondered aloud how toxic the stuff might be. Rodney snatched his hand back, and Teyla said, in her most patient I-am-above-this tone, "I believe I hear voices; we must be close."
They turned a corner, and here the tunnel opened into an enormous natural cavern the breadth of a stadium, echoing with the babbles of hundreds of people. The visiting traders hawked their wares in loud voices, striving to out-shout their neighbors as they showed off bits of gold and wooden carvings, dried fruits and herbs and charms against the Wraith, while many more travelers milled among the sellers' stands and blankets in flowing rivers of people.
The team looked at one another; none of them especially cared for crowds, all comfortable in their own way with solitude. But a mission was a mission, and they stepped forward, Sheppard leading the way.
The stone floor had been worn smooth by millennia of footsteps, and the high ceiling was hung with the dripping fangs of stalactites. The stone archway at the mouth of the chamber was the only obviously artificial architecture, smooth, pale gray stone polished to a shine and carved with the square shapes of Ancient script. It was wide enough for the four of them to pass through it abreast, but Rodney stopped before they did, raising his detector, adjusting it.
Sheppard halted them. "Tell me it's not another time dilation field," he said.
Ronon eyed the arch suspiciously. Rodney shrugged and gestured at the crowds beyond. "Do those people sound temporally accelerated? I'm not getting any readings."
"'Friends are welcome'," Teyla read the script along the top. "It is written simply, such as a child might."
Just within the gate stood two men in matched beige tunics and loose pants, soldiers by the swords sheathed at their sides and their at-attention bearing. "Mall security," Sheppard murmured to McKay, indicating them. Rodney shrugged back, preoccupied.
"Acolytes," Teyla corrected. "Trade through the Stargate is sacred on several of the worlds represented here." Ronon was staring at the men, but they didn't meet his eyes. They were hardly a reasonable threat anyway, scrawny young guys barely out of their teens, and their swords were ceremonial, violet tassels dangling from the hilts.
A few of the traders at the edge of the market noticed the team and gestured enthusiastically, all welcoming smiles, shouting over one another, "Look at this fine silverwork, jewelry for your beloveds!" "No, look here! This blanket will keep you warmer than a lover through the coldest nights!" "Ah, but this is better still for chills—the best wine you've ever tasted, one sip and you'll be raised to the heights of the Ancestors!"
"Wonder if he gives free samples," Sheppard said of the last, and raised his foot to step across the threshold.
Ronon smirked at Rodney. "You should steer clear, McKay, you didn't do so great at Ascension last time."
"Hysterical," Rodney said dryly. "I'm laughing on the inside."
And then Sheppard screamed, and kept screaming.
The crowd beyond the archway was frozen, open-mouthed and staring; but his team was moving, Ronon closest and Teyla and Rodney beside him. Not a glance between them, no confirmation needed, just Ronon grabbing Sheppard as he thrashed and arched back, pinning his shoulders to the stone floor; while Teyla took his head in her hands, cushioned on her knees; and Rodney checked his pulse—rabbit-fast and getting faster—his eyes—pupils blown to green-rimmed black—and his scanner—a spiking electromagnetic signal, but too weak to incapacitate, this shouldn't be happening—
And all the while Sheppard was screaming, like he couldn't stop, or wouldn't. Not out of physical pain, real or imagined; this was John Sheppard and he wouldn't make a sound like that if his legs were being sawed off at the knee inch by inch.
The convulsions passed and Ronon relaxed his hold without letting go. Teyla kept her hands cupped around his face, strong fingers holding him still, dark eyes boring into Sheppard's blank ones, trying to pierce whatever vision was blinding him. "John, we are here," she said, and Ronon's grasp tightened in emphasis around his shoulders, and Rodney grabbed one of his flailing hands and clutched it tight in his, before any of them could distinguish words in Sheppard's cries.
"Stop it—I'll kill you—don't do this—don't touch them—stop!" but they already knew before he articulated a word.
Even Rodney had never asked Sheppard exactly what he had dreamed, when the crystal entity had come this close to stopping his heart; none of them needed to ask to understand, then or now. "We are here, John," Teyla said again, and Rodney repeated it, Ronon echoing them in a rumble deep enough to vibrate the marrow of their bones, as if they said it enough times Sheppard might hear one of them. "We're right here; we're safe, and here with you."
The signal was still inscribing a constant jagged line across the screen of Rodney's detector; one-handed, he swung the instrument up and down, triangulating. His other hand was still curled around Sheppard's. "It's coming from the arch."
In an eye-blink, Ronon had his gun pulled and aimed at the polished keystone with its Ancient message.
"Cease!" Six acolyte guards surrounded the team with swords drawn. They were wild-eyed, and their grips on their hilts white-knuckled. Whatever this was, it was unexpected. "You cannot—"
Ronon grinned at them tightly, teeth bared; he would have pulled the trigger if McKay hadn't snapped, "Wait, stop! We don't know what that'll do, if your blaster's charge overloads the arch..."
Around them, outside the circle of the guards, traders and buyers alike were crowding through the archway. They all passed under it without effect, gawking at these strangers, filling the tunnel with anxious echoing murmurs.
Ronon stared down at his teammates. "C-4?"
"I don't know what this is, I don't know what'd happen even if we could destroy it, and it's Ancient tech so the C-4 might not be enough anyway. And I don't know what it's doing." Every admission of ignorance cost Rodney, shoulders hunched and mouth drawn down, but he didn't flinch from Ronon's ferocity.
"Do you know?" Teyla asked. She was still holding Sheppard, his trembling shoulders drawn onto her lap with one arm braced like a band across them, but she raised her head toward the guards. "What is happening to our friend?"
Ronon aimed his gun at the nearest guard. "Talk, or I kill you."
The men glanced at one another. Young men, all of them, baby-faced boys playing at being soldiers, cold sweat spotting their brows for all they outnumbered the team. "We don't know," babbled the kid in front, clutching his sword in unsteady hands. "They never scream like that..."
"His pulse is getting faster," Teyla said, fingers pressed lightly under Sheppard's jaw. He blindly turned away from her touch, gasping hoarse protests, desperate begging denials, deaf to Teyla repeating his name or Rodney's muttered arguments. "I do not know how much more his heart can take."
"It's the arch," McKay said, "the signal's definitely coming from there, if we can get him away from it—"
Ronon moved to pick up Sheppard, slinging his teammate's shaking body over his shoulder, limp arms hanging down his back.
"Stay where you are!" The acolyte's voice cracked, his sword's blade wavering back and forth.
"Get out of our way," Ronon said, tilting up the barrel of his gun.
There were only a half-dozen guards, but the tunnel beyond them was clogged with people, half the marketplace now blocking their exit. Great enough numbers can overwhelm any tactical advantage of training or weapons; that lesson of the Ancients was not soon forgotten. They would be on Ronon before he could bring them all down.
But Sheppard's breaths were coming short and shallow, and getting shallower, his lips moving soundlessly now. "If we don't get him out of here," Rodney began, and Teyla answered, "We will," low and even, and raised her P-90 to cover Ronon.
Ronon's gun had a stun setting; Earth artillery was not so versatile. The buzzing crowd was all shining eyes and pale skin in the tunnel's gloom, jostling and shoving in a human tide, drawing away, then pushing closer. They might have seen guns such as the Genii's before, but not semi-automatics, and Teyla and Rodney both carried an extra clip. Two, counting Sheppard's.
"We cannot let you," the young acolyte in front of them pleaded. His eyes were scared, but he wasn't moving. Trade through the Stargate is sacred, Teyla had said, and fanaticism can fill in for courage.
Rodney looked from his teammates, Ronon tall before him and Teyla with her hands steady on her firearm; to the people in the tunnel, the guards with their stubby swords, and the mob behind them, the weaver, the wine-seller, men and women here to trade and buy, so eagerly welcoming them only minutes before.
No one had come here to die, or to kill; but then Sheppard's hyperventilating breaths caught, choked off for an agonizing second before resuming, and Rodney's jaw clenched tight. He slid the detector into his pocket, wrapped his hands around the P-90 hung from his vest and brought it up to bear. Finger on the trigger and Teyla braced next to him, ready to fight.
But Ronon didn't fire; before he could pull the trigger, a voice cut through the crowd, a quivering, reedy old voice, but everyone went quiet. The crowd parted to let a woman through, a hunched and ancient crone in robes cut to match the guards', though finer cloth and trimmed in gold. Her wrinkled skin was tanned dark, but her eyes were a very light gray.
"Do you bow before the Wraith?" she asked them in her creaking, aged voice.
"The Wraith?" McKay echoed. "Of course we don't. Are you in charge here? You have to let us go, now, if you don't—"
"We bow to no one," Teyla said. "Least of all the Wraith."
It might have been the undisguised abhorrence that twisted Teyla's voice with that word, or the practical warning of Ronon's gun when he took aim at the matriarch; or else it was whatever the old woman saw when she stared at Sheppard with her light eyes intent. "This is not the Ancestor's punishment; this should not have happened. If you truly do not serve the Wraith, then you may freely leave."
"But, Sacerdosa," protested the leading guard, "that he could not enter—"
"How may we prove ourselves?" Teyla demanded.
The old woman raised one arm, loose sleeve falling from a bony wrist looped round with heavy gold, and pointed at the stone archway. "Cross under the arch without punishment, and you may go."
"All right," Teyla agreed, and turned toward the archway.
"Wait," McKay protested, throwing out his arm to bar her way. "You saw what it did to Sheppard—"
"We have little choice," Teyla said, looking past him to Sheppard, now gone silent and still. Behind them, the matriarch watched, and all her people, their eyes glittering weird and inhuman in the lamps' cool luminescence, in the red light of Ronon's gun. "Other Athosians have visited the market before, without coming to harm."
McKay swallowed. "I should," he stammered, "it could be, we don't know—any of us could—"
"If it is Ancient technology," Teyla murmured in a barely audible undertone, "then I may fare better for lacking the gene. And if I fall, you'll have an easier time carrying me than the reverse."
She said it so lightly that it might have been teasing, and Ronon let slip the edge of a bloodthirsty, humorless grin, a silent promise to get her out and Sheppard too, if it came to that; but Rodney only glared, angry and powerless. But he gave a jerky nod and stepped out of her way, and Teyla walked forward.
Her stride didn't falter when she passed under the arch, though her eyes widened a fraction and she shivered once, almost invisibly, as if a cold draft had hit her. Then Teyla was standing in the marketplace on the other side, awake and aware and unharmed. She lifted her chin to intersect the old woman's intent gaze. "Is this proof enough?"
The matriarch bowed her head. "Go," she said, bringing down her arm like she was casting them aside, and the crowd shuffled aside to clear a reluctant route through the tunnels.
The team didn't hesitate, not waiting for explanation or understanding. Rodney's voracious curiosity, Teyla's hopes for alliance, Ronon's need for vengeance—none of that mattered now. Sheppard's face was bone-white and shiny with cold sweat, his eyes rolled back and his head bumping brokenly against Ronon's shoulder blade with every step.
They soon passed from the dim tunnels and emerged blinking into daylight again. But Sheppard was entirely unconscious, unable to be roused, and Rodney's scanner still showed the serrated zigzag of the archway's pulse. They sprinted through the forest, down the barely marked trail, Teyla leading with sure grace and McKay taking their six, P-90 still clutched in his cramping fingers, though they weren't followed, and no one appeared among the trees to stop them. The kid who had greeted and guided them was nowhere in sight.
Teyla reached the DHD first, hit the sequence for Atlantis in swift jabs. "Away team to Atlantis," she gasped into her radio, "medics to the gateroom, repeat, we need medical—"
Ronon had shifted Sheppard, slid him down to curl a big hand around his throat, checking his pulse. "He's not breathing," he said, and Ronon wasn't winded from their dash, but he was breathless all the same.
"Go!" Rodney cried, checking his GDO, "we're clear, go, now!"
Ronon with his burden first, they charged into the event horizon, diving off the planet into the oblivion of the vortex in between.
"What happened?" was the first question asked when they burst through Atlantis's gate, but none of them were listening. Ronon crouched to let Sheppard slip down to the floor, Teyla helping catch him, lowering his limp body and checking his airway to begin CPR, while Rodney stood over them, detector in hand.
"Signal's weaker but it's still coming through—cut it, cut the wormhole connection, now," he rapped out, snapping his fingers up at the control deck, and the blue shimmer of the event horizon flickered and evaporated. McKay's gaze never left the detector's small square screen. "That's done it, it's out, it's gone, hopefully—"
The medical team was charging into the gateroom when Sheppard convulsed, heaving air in a great gasp as his back arched, blank eyes snapping open. "Sheppard!" Ronon said, and Teyla called, "John?" Her hands bracketed his face, and Ronon's were set on his sternum, braced for chest compressions.
There was nothing in Sheppard's eyes for an instant, absolutely nothing, empty space, dead air. Then everything changed and he was looking at them, looking up at Teyla, at Ronon, blinking to focus on Rodney past them. His mouth worked, shaped their names, silent around his uneven breaths.
Ronon grinned, nodded at him. "Oh, god," Rodney said. "That's—good, good. God," and his legs folded, so he was sitting at Sheppard's side, opposite Ronon.
The medics hovered over them, but it was Ronon who grabbed Sheppard's wrist, pulled him up sitting; and Teyla who rested her steady hand on his arm, quieting the tremors shivering through him. "John?" she asked, low and calm.
"I—" Sheppard said. "I thought—you—I thought—"
"Yeah, but it's okay," Ronon said. "We're all okay."
"Present and accounted for," Rodney said. "It was all in your head."
Sheppard didn't smile, didn't answer. He inhaled, exhaled shakily, then leaned forward until his forehead touched Ronon's. Shutting his eyes, he reached out, blindly, but that didn't matter because Teyla was there, because Rodney was there, right where he needed them to be.
Sheppard was half-sitting on Ronon's legs, one hand pressed to Teyla's back, the other hooked loosely around the back of Rodney's neck, folding them in, bringing their heads together. John's eyes were closed and his cheeks were wet. Ronon's mouth moved silently and Rodney's face was still white and Teyla now was trembling, not visibly, but enough that all of them could feel it, as they breathed, in and out, warm and alive and together.
By the time Sheppard reached the infirmary, his eyes were reddened but dry, like he'd been through a sandstorm. He submitted to the medical scans with easygoing impatience—"Really, I feel fine, but if you want to waste time, sure..."
None of the scans turned up anything atypical, and McKay's analyses of the waveforms generated by the Ancient device were inconclusive at best. "Elements in common with particular EEG signals," according to his report, but he refrained from further speculation.
Teyla's mission report mentioned "a brief sensation as I crossed beneath the arch, what I would call an Ancestor's touch; Dr. McKay tells me the English term is 'someone walking over my grave'." She described the matriarch and the acolyte guards with their swords, but nothing of how she had raised her P-90, nothing of Ronon's teeth showing in his joyless grin. Ronon himself submitted no individual account, just signed off on Teyla's with a bureaucracy-taunting, "What she said."
Sheppard's own mission report was even terser than usual; he claimed to remember nothing between walking under the arch on M4C-K31 and regaining consciousness in Atlantis's gateroom. He was cleared for duty the next day after exhibiting no aftereffects.
Their mission the day after that, a follow-up expedition to an agricultural world with limited Ancient technology, was a milk run that went off without hitch, netting them bushels of blue almost-apples, even if the potential Ancient weapon proved to be mostly a bust. "Insect repellent would be great if we lived in the woods, without window screens, but the Wraith are a little bigger than your average mosquito," McKay complained on the hike back to the gate.
"Maybe it works against Iratus bugs," Sheppard mused.
"Sure, and if you want to put it on and go waltzing into an Iratus nest to test it, be my guest."
"Good apples, though," Ronon said, taking another crunching bite.
The commissary served indigo-shaded almost-apple crisp at breakfast for the next week. After three days, they perfected the recipe, and Ronon and Rodney had a thumb war for the morning's final dish. Ronon won it handily, but McKay refused to relinquish his spoon—"It doesn't count if you kick me in the shin!"
"I did not," Ronon denied, in the disinterested tone he got when he was totally lying, and snatched for the spoon, but Rodney's reflexes had been much improved by Pegasus and he avoided the grab.
Teyla carefully did not watch them, drinking her tea in private peace, all but the merest traces of a smile stowed away for a more deserving moment. But gradually her false inattention slipped into a real frown, and she set down her cup, half-full. The clink of ceramic against the tabletop was quiet, but both of her teammates looked over.
"John has not had breakfast with us in several days," she said.
"Not since the market," Ronon confirmed.
Rodney shrugged uncomfortably. "It's not like we schedule..."
"I have not seen him in the commissary when I've come for lunch, or dinner either," Teyla said.
"He hasn't sparred with me," Ronon offered. "Or gone jogging. Asked him a couple times, he said he had stuff to do."
"Nor has he asked me for any lessons," Teyla said.
"He hasn't stopped by the labs for a game in a while," Rodney said, then added hastily, "Don't get me wrong, I'm getting plenty done without the distractions. But."
"Yeah," Ronon said.
"But the mission," Rodney said. "To the apple planet. That went fine, no problems. Like always. Well, not that 'no problems' is like always for us. But Sheppard was, you know, suitably Sheppard-like."
"Saw him on the shooting range yesterday with the newest guys off the Daedalus," Ronon said. "Seemed normal."
"And I saw him in the gateroom the day before that," Teyla said, "talking with Chuck, about the betting pool for the cross-city marathon, I believe."
"See? Normal," Rodney said. "It's not like the doctors didn't scan him. And he says he doesn't remember," he waved his hand, "it, any of it, anyway."
"Nothing to remember," Ronon said. "Nothing happened."
"Nothing permanent," Rodney said, bobbing his head in emphasis. "Right."
Teyla nodded. "But he has not shared any meal with us since then."
Rodney looked down at the bowl of bright blue crisp. He dropped his spoon in it and shoved the whole tray at Ronon, leaned back in his chair and drummed his fingers on the table. "So what do we do?"
Sheppard wasn't happy about half his team revisiting the M4C-K31 marketplace without him, but by the time he returned from McKay-ordered ATA detail on the western pier, it was too late for him to do anything about. Ronon was standing like a sentry in the gateroom, with his arms folded and the gate technicians shooting him nervous glances over their shoulders. Sheppard didn't say anything to him, though, just pressed his lips together and went to the locker room to suit up.
But no rescue proved necessary; Teyla and McKay returned half an hour ahead of schedule. Rodney left the debriefing up to Teyla and headed immediately for his lab. Ronon followed him there, while Sheppard listened in to Teyla's account of their visit.
"The Sacerdosa regrets what happened to Colonel Sheppard; even if he had not been innocent, the Ancestor's punishment is not meant to be so cruel. As restitution, she allowed us to examine the arch," Teyla explained. "Dr. McKay was not allowed to pry open the console, but he took enough readings that I believe he was nearly satisfied," and she smiled slightly, though Sheppard did not.
"It's not a bad system," Rodney said later, after he had finished running his simulations. "Obviously; it's worked for a good thousand years or so. Rewiring memories is on the shady side, but it's better than killing possible Wraith allies and raising suspicions. And it's not much worse than blacking out from alcohol poisoning—the Ancient version's more sophisticated and skips the long-term liver damage. Hopefully the brain-damage, too."
"Hopefully," Sheppard repeated.
"Don't worry," Rodney said, "it never got as far as rewiring with you, as far as I can tell."
It was late, past midnight; the four of them were the only people in the lab. Tomorrow McKay would submit his report, but not everything he told them here tonight would be on it.
Sheppard had been alone in his quarters when Rodney had radioed the team. Not asleep, and he had been the first to reach the lab, now stood with his hip propped against the corner of the counter, listening calmly. But his gaze roved the room, cataloguing the exits, doors, windows, ventilation shafts, as if he were planning for a siege, or a jailbreak. "So what did it do?"
"Nothing," McKay said, "or, not nothing, but the 'punishment' never engaged. It got stuck trying to determine if you were a Wraith loyalist. The arch is an empathic inducer, capable of manipulating emotions on a primitive level. In this case, fear. For most people it induces a split-second spike of terror, unnoticeable on the conscious level, but enough to stir the subconscious, and then it scans what pops up. If you fear Wraith, it lets you pass; if you're more afraid of, say, discovery, then it knocks you out and deletes your memory of the marketplace. It's probably weighted towards false positives; a Genii visiting under false pretenses might've gotten booted, if they were more frightened of people finding out about their subterfuge than they were of the Wraith."
"So did the arch detect Colonel Sheppard as being a spy for Atlantis?" Teyla asked.
McKay shook his head. "Like I said, that's how detection works with most people. With normal people, I should say."
"Hey," Sheppard said, sounding vaguely insulted.
"The ATA gene?" Teyla guessed.
"In part," Rodney said. "The inducer device originally must've been designed to work with Ancients, so the connection's stronger with someone with the gene. It's also because we're not from around here. The Wraith aren't as fear-triggering as for someone from Pegasus."
"I've gone up against the bastards enough times, I'm as scared of the Wraith as anybody," Sheppard said.
"Not on the same level, not on the primal level," Rodney said. "We didn't grow up with bedtime stories about the Wraith; they're not our original nightmares. Pretty much anyone in Pegasus, you ask for their top ten greatest fears list, the Wraith are number one, the clear winner. While as, say, me, the Wraith are on my list, sure, but there's also small spaces and infectious pandemics and dying without a Nobel and—"
"We get the picture," Sheppard said.
"Right, so, the marketplace arch is calibrated for Pegasus people; it's confused by multiple results, no clear hierarchy. The colonel's scared of the Wraith, but not enough to count."
"So what'd it do?" Ronon asked. "Throw other nightmares at him, see how they rated?"
"Not exactly." Rodney shook his head. "The arch doesn't work like that; it only scans images, it can't transmit thoughts. The fear induction is a simple manipulation of brainwave patterns, direct stimulation of the amygdala. Whatever you think you see is what your own brain comes up with—the induced emotion's so violent and overwhelming that you hallucinate to cope with it, to try to explain it. If Sheppard had just hallucinated a Wraith eating him, that would've done it, but he didn't, which made the arch increase its stimulation, trying to get a clear result, until it ended up literally scaring him half to death—"
"Rodney," Teyla said, too quiet for a rebuke, but Rodney shut his mouth, darted a glance at Sheppard.
Sheppard was still leaning against the counter; without uncrossing his arms, he lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "You saying my hallucinations were deficient, McKay?"
Rodney tipped up his chin to look him in the eye. "You don't remember them anyway, right?"
Sheppard's head tilted a fraction to the side. "Yeah," he said, drawn-out and easy.
"Right," Ronon said, low, though not low enough that Teyla didn't shoot him a sharp look.
Sheppard's face didn't change, though, his eyes pale in the lab's bright light. "Interesting stuff," he said, "thanks for filling us in, Rodney. Guess we cross the market off the go-to list."
"Maybe not," Rodney said. "Someone lacking the gene wouldn't have as bad a reaction; the empathic induction wouldn't be powerful enough to be dangerous. The worst that could happen is that they'd get knocked out, but almost everyone on Atlantis is probably sufficiently frightened of the Wraith to pass anyway."
"The Sacerdosa asked that I give you her apologies, in the name of all her people, John," Teyla said. "She regrets that you were so hurt."
Sheppard shrugged again. "No harm done," he said.
But he woke early to go jogging alone, and didn't join them for breakfast that morning, or dinner that night. And when Teyla went so far as to ask him if he might finally show her Alien, Sheppard tapped his laptop keyboard, said, "Sorry, got a lot of paperwork to catch up on. Maybe some other night? Or you could ask Ronon, Corporal Flemming gave him the special edition DVD."
"What's his problem?" Rodney asked at lunch the next day, him and Ronon on one side of the table and only Teyla on the other, off-balanced and askew, and all of them automatically pushing their trays close on the tabletop to leave an unnecessary space for one more.
It was a rhetorical question, but Teyla said, "To understand the reasons is comforting for you, Rodney, but not so for everyone."
"Except nothing happened," McKay said. "He says," and he grabbed his tray off the table, shoved it onto the bussing cart and stalked back to his lab.
Ronon didn't say anything, but after he finished the last of the apple crisp, he went down to the gym, and gave impromptu fight lessons for a couple hours, until Sheppard showed up.
Sheppard, spotting him, started to say something about coming back later, but Ronon nodded sharply and the three Marines in the gym grabbed their stuff and cleared out in a hurry, before Sheppard could make his getaway.
In a black t-shirt, without his gun holster and his knife, Sheppard looked stripped-down, thin and pale and with shadows under his eyes, like McKay on the verge of a breakthrough. He caught the wooden bokken that Ronon tossed at him one-handed, then leaned it against the wall and rubbed the arch of his brow as if he had a headache. "Look, buddy, I'm not really—"
"I'll go easy on you."
Sheppard cocked an eyebrow. "I'll believe that one when I see it."
Ronon grinned, twirled his own wooden blade once, twice. "You scared?"
Sheppard's eyes flickered like a guttering candle, then went flat. He rocked back on his heels, looked down at the sword, looked up at Ronon. "Let's see, you've got me on height, strength, age, and speed. Yeah, I'd be crazy not to be."
"Crazy never stopped you before," Ronon pointed out, and swept the bokken around in a broad, leisurely swing, an attack in slow-motion, insult or invitation. Sheppard rocked a step back to avoid it, picking up his bokken as he did.
He hefted the wooden sword thoughtfully in his hand, brought it down in a test feint, then hastily snapped it up again when Ronon's second swing came at full-speed and without warning. The wood cracked satisfyingly at the impact, and Ronon grinned wider and swung again.
After an hour they were both black-and-blue, and Sheppard sported the beginnings of a black eye where Ronon's elbow had caught him in a block, and Ronon's knuckles were bloody where Sheppard's bokken had smashed them. Ronon was having to force himself to draw deeper breaths, and Sheppard had been panting for some time, and their shirts were damp with sweat.
Then Ronon ducked when he should've dodged and Sheppard's bokken dipped low to crack him across the knee. He stumbled, and Sheppard pressed the advantage, slamming another blow to the back of his knees to knock him down. Ronon landed hard, looked up to see Sheppard staring down at him, shoulders heaving with the exertion but he didn't look triumphant, eyes wide so that white showed around the green rims.
"Sorry," Sheppard said, breathing hard enough that he stuttered a little around the word.
"Told you, you got nothing to be scared of," Ronon said, then rocked onto his palms for a roundhouse kick, sweeping Sheppard's own feet out from under him.
"Ow," Sheppard wheezed, picking himself up off the floor. "That's going easy?" He drew up his legs, hung his head down between his knees as he caught his breath.
Ronon stretched out his legs, leaned back on his arms. "You okay?"
"Fine." Sheppard prodded his purpling eye, winced. "I should put ice on this."
Sheppard glanced at him sidelong. "And you're okay?"
Ronon flexed his fingers. They were bruised, but they'd stopped bleeding. "Yeah."
Sheppard dropped his head down again. His damp hair stuck out over his brow. "Good."
Ronon studied him. "Would've been easier if we'd really been hurt, huh," he said, finally.
"What?" Sheppard looked over, blinking sweat out of his eyes, then shook his head hard. "No—fuck, no, never."
"Good," Ronon said, and for all the bruising mottled around Sheppard's eye, the shadows underneath seemed less.
The next day they had an afternoon mission, and came back from MT4-346 mostly uninjured but cranky and covered in mud. When Sheppard finally emerged from the steaming showers, Teyla was waiting for him. "I do not think this mission report will take long to write," she said. "Tomorrow I need a jumper flight to the mainland. I will be ready by 0830."
She was gone before Sheppard could articulate any excuse.
Teyla was the only one waiting in the jumperbay the next morning, dressed in her Athosian hunter's garb with a leather bag slung over her shoulder. She said little beyond a polite greeting, sitting meditatively quiet in the jumper as Sheppard piloted them to a partly explored stretch of rocky, forested coastline. When they landed, she said, "There are a few different herbs and plants that I hope to find; it may take me several hours. If you wish to leave and return later to pick me up—"
Sheppard rolled his eyes, checked his holstered sidearm and hit the door controls with his fist. "Which way are we going first?" he asked, and Teyla smiled.
The spring underbrush hadn't yet grown in thickly, so it was easy to walk among the trees without a path. Teyla stopped here and there to dig up a root from the ground, or to point out a flower by its Athosian name. The new Lantea had been seeded with the same flora as the old Lantea and Athos and how many other planets, so the plants were vaguely familiar to Sheppard even if he didn't know what they were called. Teyla showed him the leaves she wanted for her teas, and Sheppard ducked under low branches and brushed aside ferns, helping her search.
He balked when she plucked a few mushrooms for her bag, though. "You're sure those aren't poisonous?"
Teyla glanced at him. "Of course."
"They've got yellow spots."
"I have eaten such mushrooms since I was a child, they are quite safe."
"As long as you're sure it was those, and not ones that looked like them. Eating the wrong mushroom..."
"If it would make you feel better, I will ask Botany to test them for me before I add them to my soup," Teyla said primly.
"Soup?" Sheppard said, and, "It's not that I don't trust your expertise; you know more about these woods than I ever will. Just..."
Teyla straightened up, allowed her mouth to soften into a curve. "I understand, John."
Sheppard stood there in the forest, still, with his hands at his side, sunlight and the twittering songs of alien birds streaming down from the green canopy overhead. Teyla stood before him with the bag on her shoulder. The wind teased a few stray strands of her hair, and she tucked them behind her ear, waiting; but Sheppard didn't turn away, didn't return to combing the forest floor.
After a moment Teyla said gently, "We are warriors, you and Ronon and I. And even Rodney, now. We are fighters and we are used to injury in battle; we are used to first aid, pressure and tourniquets to stop the bleeding, and then we continue to fight. I think we forget, let ourselves forget, how long it takes to heal. How hard it is. And we forget that the most dangerous wounds are those we cannot see, the internal injuries, that we cannot merely bandage tightly and push on and ignore."
John cleared his throat, gazing out over the forest. "It's just going to get me hurt, I know," he said. His hands curled briefly into fists, relaxed again. "Not like I haven't been told so before. Not like it hasn't happened before, and it's just going to get me killed, I know, but all the same, I can't. I can't stop..."
"I can't make myself stop caring."
"No," Teyla said, her voice rising with anger. The birdsong above cut off in a flurry of escaping wings. "No, and you never should. None of us would ask that of you, John—none of us would ever want it. It was for this that I trusted you when you first came to my world, that I said yes when you asked me to be one of your team. That I stayed on Atlantis, fighting at your side, and believed you understood that the war against the Wraith was not only Atlantis's battle. Could you ever think I would accuse you for that? That any of us would?"
"No," Sheppard said at last. "Of course not."
She had no more she had to say to him. But on the jumper flight back to Atlantis they swapped wilderness stories, trading the absurd luxuries of summer camp bonfires and snug wooden cabins for harrowing anecdotes of Athosian survival training, laughing at the contrast. When Teyla asked if he would join her for a late lunch, Sheppard only hesitated a second before saying, "Sure, I'll meet you at the mess as soon as I get the jumper parked."
And that evening, when McKay opened a radio connection to request, "Colonel Sheppard, please report to me," Sheppard shook his head and rolled his eyes, but jogged rather than walked to the transporter.
Rodney was waiting for him in one of the auxiliary labs, no other scientists around, and Sheppard stopped in the doorway, crossed his arms and drawled, "You guys really got this all planned out."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Rodney said. "Come here and turn this thing on."
Sheppard caught the Ancient artifact tossed at him, a little cube about half the size of a Rubik's that flashed orange when he touched it. Rodney made 'hmm'ing noises, had him turn it upside down so it flashed green, and busily typed notes on his laptop, but Sheppard noticed that one of the computers behind him was also on, and the main program window open on the first hole of his favorite electronic golf course.
Sheppard shook his head again. "You, Ronon, Teyla, you've all got too much time on your hands."
"No, we really don't," Rodney huffed. "But we had to make time for this. So what do you want to do? Computer golf? Or the putting range, if you want a real stick in your hand?"
"Club," Sheppard corrected. "You really want to go out there?"
"Not at all," Rodney denied. "But yes, sure, let's go. There's lights, we can go at night, right?"
"Not really, no, since the water's not lit, we can't see where the balls splash down. But you don't have to, Rodney, it's okay."
"So you say." Rodney typed another line of notes, then saved and closed the laptop. "So," he said. "The whole gateroom saw you cry."
Sheppard didn't quite flinch, but then, he was used to McKay, and one eyebrow might have quirked anyway. "And three of the marines on duty at the time also saw you mutate into a bug and try to kill them," Rodney continued. "I haven't taken a poll, but macho posturing aside, I suspect they prefer a few tears."
Sheppard blinked once, said, "And what about you, what's your preference?"
McKay rocked back on his stool and shoved his hands in his pockets. "I'll take neither. The marines weren't there on M4C-K31 when you started screaming." He looked away toward the window, the curtains pushed aside to reveal the rising moons. "Those kids with the swords, and Ronon had his gun, and I..."
He shook his head. "You turning into a bug, last week, I put them about even," and he pulled his hands out of his pockets to indicate two level planes. "Worse than bringing Lucius Lovin through; better than watching a Wraith life-suck you on home video." He stuck his hands back in his pockets.
"Sorry," Sheppard said.
"Oh, yes, like you meant to stop breathing. It was entirely intentional, I'm sure, just to mess with our heads."
Sheppard idly ran his fingers down the smooth countertop, watching them trace meaningless patterns until they reached the Ancient cube. "This last week, it wasn't about what happened in the gateroom."
"We know," Rodney said. "You haven't been any different around the marines, or the gate techs. Just us."
"Yeah." Sheppard picked up the cube, turned it over, orange then green and then orange again. "You didn't ask," he said. "You haven't asked. None of you. About what I saw."
"You said you didn't remember."
Rodney sighed. "It's not like you haven't seen one of my own worst nightmares. In full-blown Technicolor Surround Sound VR, no less."
"It wasn't that." Sheppard set down the cube. "It's not that I don't...I trust you, all of you. I just..." He rubbed the back of his head, rearranging the short hair in all directions. "It's hard to explain, you don't get it."
"Really," Rodney said. "Like we're not just as terrified?"
"What?" Sheppard said, looking up.
"I wouldn't have hesitated," McKay said. His eyes were fixed unwavering on the empty countertop before him and his voice was even. "On M4C-K31, in the cavern tunnels. You read the reports, but we didn't put everything in the reports. The arch was killing you, and they were blocking us off. Not just the guards, but the people from the marketplace, too. All those traders and tourists. Women and children. And it wasn't just Ronon with his gun—Teyla, and me, too, I had my finger on the P-90's trigger, and I wouldn't have hesitated. If it had been the only way to get you out of there, I'd have done it. You think you're the only one who's scared, John?"
Sheppard looked at Rodney, long and patient, until Rodney finally turned toward him, until their eyes met. Then he said, "No. I don't."
"We didn't need to ask," Rodney said. "No point, when we all had the same nightmare anyway. It was in your head for you, real for us. Sucks either way. I'll take neither." He got up, took the cube out of Sheppard's hands. It flashed slower in his grip. McKay stowed it in a small plastic bin, marked the clipboard on the top.
"I didn't try going under the arch, when Teyla and I went back," he said as he resealed the bin's lid. "Didn't want to risk it, with my ATA gene, and all my various permutations of paranoia to confuse the mental scanner. We're lucky Teyla was the one to prove we weren't Wraith worshippers, because I don't think Ronon fears the Wraith, exactly; hatred's not the same thing."
He looked at Sheppard. "Even Teyla," Rodney said, "the Wraith were the monsters in her closet when she grew up, and the killers of her father, and she's been in their heads; she knows how terrifying they are, more than anyone. But it took a long time when she walked under the arch, for it to let her pass. I observed plenty of subjects going through it; most people don't hesitate, don't feel a thing. They don't confuse the machine with worse nightmares."
Sheppard didn't say anything, but he nodded, his eyes steady on Rodney, until Rodney turned away.
"Come on," he said, gesturing over his shoulder as he headed for the door.
"What about golf?" Sheppard asked, aiming a thumb at the computer screen.
"It can wait," Rodney said. "Teyla's willing to watch Alien instead of Bogart, how often do you think you're going to get this chance? You might as well take advantage of the team bonding thing."
"I thought you didn't like Alien," Sheppard remarked, turning off the lab's lights.
"I don't," Rodney said. "Face-hugging, gut-bursting parasites? No, thank you."
"But?" Sheppard prompted.
"But it's not like it can make my nightmares any worse," Rodney said. "And it's worth it if it makes yours any better," and the doors slid shut behind them.
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