His limbs tingled beneath the steady ache marching through them.
The glowing blue reflections of the overhead light stung eyes too sensitive to the extremes of dark and bright. Figures danced in the light, in the shadows, the merest filaments of shading in what should have been indeterminate gloom, unbearable brightness.
As he rolled over onto his side, he took a moment to examine his hands, the patched and spotty skin, the wrinkling folds of flesh. Aged from forty to ninety in mere moments, the years had burned away like gas-soaked tissue. He'd have felt pain anyway, but the stress of the escape had probably added the near-constant effervescent shiver in his muscles and his bones.
Nagging joints protested as he tried to force his muscles to pull him up into a sitting position and only fell back, exhausted. He'd heard of 'strength flowing away like water' and had never known what it meant until now.
Mind over matter only counted when the matter was still in a condition to work.
His chest rose and fell, every inhalation a knife in lungs that no longer breathed but wheezed. Knees screamed on the hard floor, sudden fiery heat in his legs, and he trembled unbearably as he eased himself upright. He tottered - tottered for God's sake - towards the door, and even that much movement was an effort as more than just his knees protested.
He felt like an old man.
With the breath rasping through a throat constricted by age, he forced himself to admit it. He was an old man.
And he was still alive.
Around him, the cell glowed the indeterminate blue typical of the insides of Wraith hiveships. Outside the hiveship, it might be day or it might be night, or they might be sailing through space, en route to somewhere else.
"Hey!" He yelled. Or tried to. His voice croaked, vocal chords protesting, the sound shrinking as it came out, a hopeless quaver.
Still, it seemed he was heard, for shadows moved at the end of the corridor, coalescing into three tall figures that strode down the corridor towards him and the 'webbing' that locked them into the room.
Eyes that no longer held twenty-twenty vision squinted at the approaching figure picking out the green skin and the facial tattoos. And then the Wraith was there, just on the other side of the 'door', tilting its head as though it was considering a snack.
Maybe it was.
"I saved your life," he gritted out.
"And so I have spared yours."
He nearly choked as anger and rage and helplessness gave him energy and he lifted one hand with a fierceness that belied his exhaustion. "This is your idea of sparing my life?"
Thin lips tilted at one corner, a smile thin as a knife's blade. "We tend to take a longer view of things than humans."
"We had a deal." He might be old, but he wasn't senile - not yet. And they'd struck a bargain to get free, the two of them. Unnatural allies with a common enemy: the Genii who imprisoned them.
He'd thought that meant freedom.
"We did. And I will keep it. I promise you that."
It began to walk away, dismissing him. He gripped the web, holding on with what little energy he had left. "In your own time, I suppose."
"In my own way," said the Wraith without stopping, without turning around. "You would do no less, were it in your power."
Yan woke from dark dreams for the third night in a row, gasping for air in the quiet.
Beside him in the bed, Ivali shifted and he froze. He forced himself to lie back down again and take slow deep breaths, to steady the thunderous pounding of his heart in his ribcage.
Just another dream.
In the pre-dawn dark, the summer air was warm and dry, without the chilly moistness of his nightmares. In the stillness, the millrace bubbled away out on the edge of their yard, a faint ripple of water through the channel, while a night creature chirped into the silence.
Only his heart thundered on.
Yan climbed from the bed, easing himself out from between the sheets so as not to wake Ivali. The washbasin stood by the bed, and he poured water over his hands and pressed his fingers against his forehead to cool his skin down. His hair slicked back for a moment as he ran his hands through the strands, then sprang up in unruly refusal to be tamed. The linen shirt he'd discarded last night was still hung over the bedpost, and he pulled it over his head and went out into the early morning, moving quietly through the common room of the building.
The door closed behind him, shutting in the sleepers.
Yan stared up at the night sky and breathed the open air and felt a knot inside his belly loosen.
Beneath the blue arch of the heavens and the vivid spatter of stars across the sky, he felt like someone else.
Who, he didn't know.
The man he'd once been was gone, washed away in a stormy flood of the river that had dumped him on the banks close by the village. The children had found him there, clinging to the banks in a torn shirt and rotting trousers, barefoot, bareheaded, and cold.
Yan Stormborn remembered the cold and the pain. He remembered losing things more precious to him than his own life, and remembered gaining gifts he would have given his life to be able to reject.
He remembered darkness and light and a room in which light filtered, blue-green over a loosely-patterned floor.
There wasn't much else he recalled of his life before the river.
Given the tenor of his dreams, sometimes Yan thought it was better this way.
Down by the river, a flight of birds rose from where they'd spent their night. Their chirps echoed out across the quiet village, a waking call to the people sleeping, although here and there along the row of houses, Yan could see the faint glow of a firelight and knew that some people were already awake and preparing for the coming day.
Inside the house, the inhabitants would wake slowly, stretching themselves out as they rose to go out into the gardens or the fields, to prune and plant, sow and weed, and to repair what needed repairing.
Outside, the plaintive squawks of the birds faded as they winged their way over the hills and were gone.
The longing seized him, hard and sudden.
He had to get away.
Yan turned on his heel, moving quickly back into the house where he could already hear the murmur of people rising, and the creak of shifting beds. It wouldn't be long before the house was awake and busy, and he wanted to be away before the others rose and began asking him questions.
Their room was still and quiet, faintly scented with the aromatic woods that were used in the making of the bed, faintly stringent with the herbal bunches that hung from the rafters. But as he closed the door behind him, Ivali turned over in the bed. "Yan?"
"I'm going hunting," he said, crossing over to the chest that sat beneath the window and which held his hunting clothes.
That sat her up in the bed, the faint light of dawn bringing out the line of her jaw, the curve of her throat as she pushed back pale hair with one hand. "So early?"
"Early's the best time," he said, lightly. "I'll be back before night."
He stopped at the plea in her voice. They'd been lovers for the last three moons - since she'd invited him to share her bed - and if their coming together had been from simple attraction at first, he'd come to care for her easy smile and quiet strength.
It wasn't easy, but then, Yan didn't think caring was ever 'easy'.
"You had the dreams again."
Ivali worried about him, he knew, fretted about his dreams, even as she accepted his troubles. Putting down the vest he'd taken up from the chest, he crossed over to sit on the bed and traced his fingers from her left temple down to her mouth.
"Yeah." Yan bent and kissed her lightly. Their lips lingered as their faces parted. "I need to get away," he said. "And I promised I'd so some hunting for the harvesting week."
In the pale light coming in the window, he saw the faint sweep of light along lowered lashes, before they lifted again to look up at him, and her hand brushed his cheek. "Be careful."
Tempted for a moment to roll Ivali down into the bed, Yan settled for kissing her again - soft and sweet and clinging - and went to get dressed for his hunting trip.
By the time the sun rose over the horizon, slanting gold rays along the crest of the grey-faced mountain, he was on the track that lead out of the village, climbing higher.
As he reached the first and final crest before the forest edge, Yan turned back.
The village nestled on the side of a mountain, surrounded by foothills, and sloping down towards a wide plain where the slender stalks of tava uololo rippled in green-gold waves. Already, the villagers were moving out through the rows, checking the stalks, judging the ripeness of the crop. Before the two moons waxed full again, there'd be a harvest.
And for the harvest, they'd need meat, which was Yan's job.
Yan shouldered his light pack and his weapons, and prepared to head off into the forested hills for some hunting - and paused.
The wind rippling the tava stalks skimmed the village, swirling on the updraft towards the hills and forest, and bringing with it the drying scent of the bean-grain.
The hairs on Yan's head stirred in the wind, but what he saw before him wasn't mountain or plain or village.
They looked out across the fields her people had planted - tava beans, row upon row, and the musky scent that rose up to him was like a mix between wheaten bread and the beany stuff that came with Indian food.
"Looks like it'll be a good crop," he said, with no idea if that was true. What he knew about tava bean farming could be written on the back of his hand.
She laughed as one hand pushed back a lock of curling hair in absentminded grace. "Yes, it will. If the rains will wait until we have finished the mulching, then my people will have sufficient crops for themselves and that which we need in trade."
They turned from contemplation of the tava, heading back to the camp. "You know," he ventured as they walked through the scrubby brush of the mainland, "you could just ask us for the things you need. We'd loan them to you."
From the silence, he had a feeling he'd said something wrong, although he didn't know what. They were getting on well as team-mates. She integrated into the team and the expedition well enough that there were times he forgot she was truly 'alien' - in thought and history, if not in appearance.
It was moments like now that he remembered and wondered if he'd inadvertently insulted her.
It wasn't until they'd reached the end of the track that she turned to him, the sunlight gleaming gold across her hair, her lashes, her skin. "The situation is far from dire." Dark eyes held his in a request for understanding. "Until it is, there is no need to ask."
By which he understood that her people had their pride, too.
Something flashed in his eyes, the glint of sunlight off distant metal, and Yan's gaze focused on the far edge of the tava field. A small group of people in brown leather and woollen homespun stood on the small rise that led off towards the Ring of the Ancestors. As one of them turned, Yan saw the bright glint of shiny metal again - a bared knife - and tensed.
But several of the villagers were already approaching the newcomers, their easy stride and open welcome saying that these people were trusted.
Yan turned away, troubled, not only by his suspicions - there was no-one apart from the Wraith and their worshippers who would want to raid this village - but also by the sudden memory.
He'd never yet remembered his past outside his dreams. Why was he remembering now?
In the dappled sunlight of the forest, surrounded by the rustle and buzz of the smaller creatures of the woods, Yan set careful traps of wicker and wood, designed to capture the smaller creatures alive. His hands worked swiftly even as his thoughts lingered on the memory of the woman and the field.
Her voice flowed through his head, calm and soft, like a hand resting on a tense shoulder, squeezing gently in encouragement. But he couldn't see her face. He knew that she'd stood beside him at the top of the trail that wended its way down to the fields, that her lips had curved as she looked out at her people's work, that she'd thanked him for his offer, even as she rejected it - but her name and her face were blank.
Who was she?
In his dreams, there were other faces, other names, voices that spoke to him in tones that ranged from contemptuous to respectful, from light and laughing to serious and sombre. They called him by ranks and titles that he answered to, by a name that was and wasn't his, demanded things of him that he did his best to give.
And Yan never recalled anything more than impressions when he woke.
Out of everything else that blurred in his mind and his memories, this one woman had managed to stand out.
A steady crackle of leaves and twigs along the trail path below startled Yan from both trap and musings. Something was coming along the trail.
He unhooked his crossbow from his pack with stealthy fingers. Among his arsenal were a shortbow and arrows, as well as a plethora of knives, too, but the crossbow gave him one strong shot before he had to trust to the more chancy arrows. His position on the covered slope was good - something coming along the trail wasn't likely to see him since the browns and greys of his vest blended him into his surroundings. They might scent him on the trail, although he was now downwind of the noise.
The hireni buck trotted out onto the trail below him, bold and curious.
Yan took the shot.
Even as the buck fell, he had an arrow nocked in the shortbow, ready to take a second shot. His descent was as swift as it could be without breaking his neck, and the point of the arrow barely wavered. It had taken some time to accustom himself to the bow and the way the wind and the arrow's fletching affected its flight when he first began hunting, but now he was almost as good as any of the other hunters in the village who'd been doing this since they were old enough to hunt alone.
Still, when it came to the fierce, spring-loaded power of the crossbow, Yan was the best shot in the village.
The creature was in the last of its death throes when he reached it, and he unnocked the arrow and took out his knife.
Cleaning and dressing the kill was a messy, bloody business, but Yan worked quickly, and before the sun was at its zenith, he had the hide from the flesh and most of the meat cut from the bone.
Then he had a problem.
There was only so much he could carry, and he'd reached the limit of his pack. He'd planned on small game today, mostly birds and bouncers - the small, hopping creatures that burrowed deep and had good meat and good fur. A full hireni had not been in his calculations and he couldn't carry it all back at once. But if he left it out here, scavengers would take the meat, and in the heat, it would spoil.
Yan sat back on his heels, contemplated the buck, and narrowed his eyes.
Some time later, he was on the trail back to the village, his pack full of the heavy meat, his hands and knives washed and clean.
It seemed a longer walk back to the village than away from it, but somewhere in the memories he couldn't recall were other treks, harder and harsher than this one, carrying a heavier burden, and struggling beneath the weight of someone else's expectation. By comparison, this was easy.
At the top of the path that led along the ridge of the mountain towards the village, he saw the bustle of more people in the streets than was usual in the noonday and frowned a little. As he neared the village, a group of children scrambled out of the brush cover with squeaks and squeals, most of them paying him no attention, although a couple of the older ones stopped.
"Did you get anything from the hunt, Yan?" Hanya asked, her small sun-dark face looking up at him with interest.
"I got a hireni," he said, smiling. "I came back to get help with the rest of the meat, though."
Her eyes widened, even as one of the other boys begged, "Can we come?"
Yan shook his head as he came down the trail with them. "Not this time, I think. We seem to have guests in the village."
The boy - Tirel - shrugged, wrinkling his nose. "It's just some people who haven't been here in years."
"Not years," Hanya said, "Whole generations. And they haven't been here in generations, but Tobrinna and Duray have met them off-world before."
Which explained the greeting he'd seen from the top of the hill. Yan listened to the children bicker as they went down the mountains and followed them, trying to think of whom he could co-opt to help him bring back the meat. If there were to be guests in the village for dinner tonight, then they'd need the meat all the more.
Ivali came to meet him as he entered the village, holding out her hands to his. "You hunted well?"
"Brought down a hireni. I'll need to take someone back to get the rest of the meat - I left it in the river..."
"Later, Yan. There are guests in the village."
"So I heard. Look, give me enough time to get the stuff in the pack to the cellar..."
"You can meet the Athosians on your way," she said as they moved through the various clusters of people gathered in the streets. Guests to the village were rare enough that work tended to stop for the day - but for those few who didn't feel like being social.
Yan let Ivali lead him up the street - it was easier than protesting - and into the main square where trestle tables had been brought out, and the guest-feast was being arrayed. Duray and Tobrinna were seated with the five guests and the village leader, Erthana.
"And here with Ivali is Yan, our newest addition to the village. He's been out on the hunt this morning. Yan, these are the Athosians..."
Erthana trailed off as two of the Athosians - a man and a boy - rose to their feet, their expressions astonished.
"Colonel Sheppard!" The boy's voice cracked an octave in those two words - two words that meant nothing to Yan, although the Athosians' expressions suggested it should.
He was young, his face lengthening from a boy's round softness to a man's lean planes, perhaps fifteen or sixteen winters old. His gangly growth echoed the whipcord height of his father - the resemblance was strong enough to see - but his eyes, unlike his father's astonishment, shone with hero-worship.
And their faces meant nothing to him.
There was no resonant echo of memory from any of the quintet, not from the three who sat wide-eyed but silent, not from the two who stood looking at him with slowly-growing expressions of confusion.
Unlike the flashback on the hill, he felt no answering thread of pleasure or recognition from their faces or voices, no resonant memory, only what they gave him now.
What they gave him now was identity.
They recognised him. They had known the man he'd been.
Ivali's hand convulsed around his. He squeezed it gently in reassurance as he looked from man to boy, and the back to the man again.
"You know who I am. Who I was."
The Athosians looked at each other, trading gazes, trading confusion.
It was the man who spoke. "Yes."
Yan's eyes narrowed, "Tell me."
The fields of tava along the track rustled lightly in the warm breeze off the plains, and Teyla closed her eyes and breathed in the aroma of the ripening bean-grains.
Her childhood had been spent running along the crop rows of the fields just as much as it had been spent learning the ins and outs of the forest. She and the other children of her age had often been set to scare off the birds and other creatures that came to feed on the harvest, and the task meant hours of waiting and watching - and playing and talking, too.
And, according to Halling, here was where John had lived for much of the last six months.
Her stomach twisted a little, anticipation and pleasure and fear all rolled into a ball of their own.
Teyla opened her eyes to Elizabeth's faint smile, and answered with one of her own. "Yes."
"I've missed the sun," the other woman said lightly as she looked up at the intense blue of the sky's arch, letting the warmth fall full on her face.
"It feels good against the skin." The days were short in Atlantis right now, a time of bitter wind and rainy weather. The day's work began in darkness and by the time of the night meal, the shadows encompassed the city again.
It was good to be out in the sun and the light, good to be among a peaceful people again. Her surroundings eased the disquiet within her at the news her people had brought to the city: Colonel Sheppard had been found.
Six months had passed since they'd last seen him, a bound and gagged prisoner of Kolya of the Genii, aged by the hand of a Wraith prisoner. Thanks to Ladon, they'd found the bunker where the former Genii commander had kept him. Thanks to the suspicion of Atlantis towards the Genii, Ladon's information had come too late.
They found the bodies of a dozen Wraith-drained men, still wearing their Genii uniforms, but John was not one of them. Neither was Kolya. Between them, she and Ronon had tracked two separate trails that left the planet, but pursuit after that was hopeless.
The incident had strained relations between the Genii and Atlantis, blame being piled upon blame.
And Teyla had grieved a lost friend.
As far as she was able, Teyla remained out of it. She had counselled for Ladon's release once it was clear the Genii as a people were not complicit. Atlantis had chosen other courses of action; if she could not wholeheartedly support them, then neither could she entirely dismiss them. Anger was useless, recriminations unhelpful; she had subsumed her loss in what needed doing at the time and let life go on.
For want of trust, John had been lost to them - missing, presumed dead.
And now he was found. Alive, whole, and living amongst a once-ally of her people.
Teyla turned her thoughts back to the conversation with Elizabeth. "Perhaps you should declare a day of rest, and encourage people to leave the city for some 'down-time.'"
"Perhaps I should," Elizabeth exhaled with a great sigh. "I could do with a Sunday. We all could."
Teyla did not say what she thought - that Elizabeth was allowing herself to get too caught up in the city's concerns. It was true that the new military commander in the city was not an easy man to work with, and that the administration of the city these days was as much a war as that which they were fighting against the Wraith or the Asurans, but sometimes she thought that Elizabeth wore herself out too easily.
She understood the need to oversee everything in the city, even as she wished the other woman would find time for herself.
Times in Atlantis were growing difficult.
There were five of them - Teyla, Ronon, and Elizabeth, Major Lorne, and one of his men. Two more men had been left back at the gate as contact points should Atlantis be needed. Rodney had flatly refused to go 'on a wild goose chase' as he termed it. Teyla had not pressed the point. They all had dealt with John's absence in different ways in the last six months. And although Rodney had reconciled somewhat with his sister, Teyla suspected that the return of the familial relationship had only emphasised the ache of the friendship now missing.
Rodney was not a man willing to risk disappointment. Teyla understood that.
"Teyla?" At the front of the group, Major Lorne paused by the tracks. "Where did Halling say he'd meet us?"
"At the edge of the tava fields," Teyla looked around. The instructions had been simple enough - to follow the sunwards trail to the village and wait for Halling at the edge of the fields. The Orawi were old allies of the Athosians, but they were a closed community, and protective of their own.
Teyla wondered if the Orawi counted John as one of their own now.
One of Lorne's marines climbed up a small embankment to gaze off towards the village. "I think he's coming now, sir."
A moment later, Halling crested the slight hill, his longcoat trailing out behind him as he walked.
Teyla went to greet him, touching foreheads quickly. "You are sure?"
"If I were not, then Jinto would be. It is Colonel Sheppard."
A sigh rippled through the others, relief like the pleasure of a warm bath after a long hunt. But Teyla was looking into Halling's face and saw there his concerns.
Halling looked down into her face. "He does not remember us, Teyla. The Orawi know him as 'Yan' - the name he gave himself when they asked him who he was."
"Amnesia?" Elizabeth asked, surprise in her voice.
"Memory loss," Teyla explained to Halling, whose face had creased in a frown at the unfamiliar word.
"He looked at Jinto and myself as one looks at strangers," Halling said. "The Orawi pulled him from the river during the melt season - some seven moons on New Athos - he has been living among them since."
"Five months, Atlantis time," Teyla translated for the Lanteans.
"Amnesia would explain why we haven't heard from him, ma'am," Major Lorne said and his expression was grim.
"But how would he get--?"
Teyla understood why Elizabeth broke off the question. She, too, had gained an unpleasant image of what John had endured during his captivity. "Perhaps we should walk towards the village," she suggested. "We may speak as we go along."
"We should send back to Atlantis for Carson," Elizabeth said. "This could be a medical matter..."
"He is otherwise healthy, Dr. Weir," said Halling after a moment. "He has been working among the community these last two seasons - one of their best hunters."
"If he's hunting, then he's fit," said Ronon, as though that answered the question.
"I'm less worried about his body and more worried about his mind," said Elizabeth briskly, although she shot Ronon a quick look of apology. "If he's got amnesia..."
"Ma'am, could Beckett do anything about the amnesia?"
"No. But the last time we saw the Colonel..."
"He's been working with the Orawi as a hunter." Ronon interrupted. "Whatever his mental state, he's healthy."
Teyla frowned a little, her mind following yet another tangent. "Halling, you said that you recognised the Colonel easily?"
"Why would we not?"
She had not told the Athosians the details of what had happened to the Colonel, only that Kolya of the Genii had taken him. "He was aged during his imprisonment. Kolya had captured a Wraith. He let it feed on Colonel Sheppard as we watched."
A revolted expression appeared on Halling's face as he looked from Teyla to Dr. Weir. "He let it feed...?"
"You are sure of this?"
"We saw it happen." Teyla felt her stomach roil as she remembered the agony in John's face as his life was drained from him. Bad enough to know what the Wraith did; worse to see the results; a thousand times more terrible to watch it happen to a friend.
Halling shook his head. "He shows none of that now."
"None of it?"
"He looks much the same as he did when we first met," said Halling slowly.
"How?" Ronon's gruff question rang through the group.
Teyla met Halling's gaze and saw in his expression the realisation that was slowly growing within her. But when she spoke, it was to Elizabeth and the others. "It is rumoured that the Wraith can not only take life, but restore it as well."
"The rumours come from those who worship the Wraith. It is said that they give life to those who follow them."
She did not blame Ronon's growl. There were some prices for survival that were too high, and the betrayal of other cultures to save one's own was one of them.
"They are rumours only," Halling hastened to add as the others murmured.
"Looks like they might not just be rumours," said Major Lorne, his grip on his weapon tightening as he hefted it and his eyes automatically looked to the sky. It was a defense mechanism she was sure - nothing more. She felt no hint of the Wraith anywhere nearby, and although she would not have boasted of her gift, she was certain of it. "Teyla, are we sure of these people?"
Teyla understood what he was asking and why. She reined in her offense, and gestured Halling back before he could respond in heat and anger. "We do not trade with those who worship the Wraith, Major. It is unwise and unsafe to do so."
"But you said it's been some time since you traded with these people. I'm sorry, but it's possible that - if this is really Sheppard - he's been set up as bait for us."
Teyla caught Halling's expression and silently warned him against saying anything more. There was no easy way to explain the deep histories of Pegasus to the Lanteans - that such changes in culture did not happen overnight, but in slow generations of gradual corruption. And gossip travelled, particularly now that the Wraith were actively culling throughout the galaxy.
"That's a little far-fetched, Major," Elizabeth said dryly. "They'd have to know that the Athosians traded here, and that they'd pass the information on to us in Atlantis."
"Ma'am, anyone who knows about the Athosians knows that they have contacts with Atlantis."
"We were the ones to make this contact." Halling spoke. "They did not know of our coming. The Orawi do not worship the Wraith - they would not."
"We are sure of the Orawi," she said gently to Lorne. She understood his devotion to his duty, that he had to at least ask the question and probe the possibility, but she did not think that this was a trap set by the Wraith - too many links were lacking.
The tension didn't go out of him entirely, it was not his training to do so; still, he was willing to take her word this far. It was enough. "All right." The Major looked to Elizabeth. "Did you want to send back for Dr. Beckett, ma'am?"
She looked down the trail towards the village, then back up towards the forest-hidden Stargate. "No," she said at last. "We'll go see the Colonel and I'll make a decision then."
It was a silent group who reached the end of the tava fields some minutes later, and began to climb the path up to the village on its hillside plateau.
Here, there were more people than the handful working in the fields. Small clusters of Orawi glanced up from their toils in the garden with gazes that took their measure, and the children peeped around corners and over fence posts with wide eyes. A few ventured out onto the path to trail behind them with curious gazes. Teyla smiled at those who would meet her gaze, knowing what they saw.
For this visit to the Orawi, she had worn Athosian clothing, a visual alignment with her people, even as she stood with the Lanteans. The distinction would be important in dealing with the Orawi, possibly even with John. And there were trades to make, bartering to be done. The Athosians had come here for the tava, but there was no bargain that could not be sweetened with the addition of something else.
"You're Yan's people," chirped a voice beside her. A girl skipped up alongside Teyla, keeping pace with her up the climbing slope to the village.
"Is he not of your own people?" Teyla smiled down at the girl.
"He's nice," said the girl. "He taught us about traps and snares. And plays games with us."
Traps and snares were in line with his work among these people as a hunter, but the games were more reminiscent of John. "What kinds of games?"
"Oh, we practise hunting him. Even when we try to rush him all at once, he can take us all out easy." The child giggled. "Mama says that he's preparing for when he has his own children. And then Ivali goes very pink." She skipped along. "I want to be a hunter like Yan. He's our best."
Watching her companions ahead of her, Teyla saw the quick looks exchanged among the group at the mention of the woman. She paid them no more mind than she paid the momentary dryness of her throat. "Yan would strive to be the best at whatever he did," she said with the assurance of John's character. "He would be a clever hunter."
"He's nice. But he doesn't remember himself." The girl was perhaps ten or eleven winters. Old enough to observe such things, even if the declaration was made without understanding, a naïvete that was all the more piercing for its directness. "Are you going to take him away from us?"
Teyla hesitated for only a moment. "We would like to speak with him," she said at last, extemporising. "It has been some time since we saw him and we wish to know how he does."
The girl considered this as she skipped up the hill. "Mama says he doesn't remember himself. How do you forget yourself?"
"I do not know," Teyla admitted. "I have never done it."
"I'm Hanya," the girl said. "Who're you?"
"Teyla of the Athosians," Teyla added as they came up the last leg of the trail and onto the village plateau.
"Oh. You're the tava people." She tilted her head. "So Yan is Athosian, then?"
"He comes of our allies." It was the simplest way to explain it. "Watch and listen, and you may learn."
For a moment, she was the subject of a very hard stare, and bit back a smile. Clearly, the girl had been told that often enough by her elders to resent the advice - a common proverb throughout Pegasus.
Their arrival was expected, of course. Amidst the neat wooden group-dwellings, villagers clustered, watching them with interested eyes. From the gazes that looked them over, Teyla had little doubt that her people had been the first visitors to the village in some time, and their immediate recognition of Colonel Sheppard would have caused a stir.
On the sun-washed stone of the village square, trestle tables had been brought out and groups of people gathered around them. Some food was in evidence, but the scent of cooking permeated the air up here, breaking through the aromas of rich earth and ripening tava. It was close to the noonday meal, close enough that they would have to accept hospitality.
It took her only a moment to find the group she sought. The plain-cloth weave of Orawi clothing had a different look when compared with the textured Athosian fabrics, and the table of mixed Athosians and Orawi was obvious to her even before Halling began to walk towards it.
Even as she thought that she must speak to Halling about trading clothing textiles with the Orawi, Teyla saw someone get up from the table.
For a moment, she forgot to breathe.
Her last sight of John had been of him in pain, suffering beneath the touch of the Wraith, muscles taut in torment.
Now, her heart squeezed as her view refracted into rainbows through the tears she fought against shedding. Teyla had spent many nights dreaming of John in pain, his last moments spent in agony, his final thoughts of suffering. It was a relief to see him and know he had survived.
With half the square to cross, Teyla did not doubt that this was Colonel Sheppard, even before he turned his face towards the men and women approaching him, his chin lifted, his eyes wary.
Dressed in the local clothing - the plain-weave undershirt and tunic, with a close-fitting leather vest belted at the waist - he looked like any other Orawi native. To Teyla's eyes, he looked thinner. The softness of Lantean living was gone - John had survived the Wraith, yes, but survival had worn him down. And whatever life the Wraith had taken from him, it had been restored in full-measure. The face was again that of a man of some forty Earth years, set in neutral, measuring lines.
There was no recognition in the look he gave them.
John Sheppard he had been once; but he was not that man any longer.
Halling paused at the table, stepping aside a little to show the group from Atlantis. "Erthana, these are our friends. Dr. Weir, Major Lorne, Sergeant Hallum, Ronon of Sateda, and Teyla of Athos - one of our own."
Teyla saw Erthana hesitate, and knew that the words of welcome were sticking in the woman's throat. She began to step forward, to ease the moment, and saw John glance at the leader before he spoke.
"I heard that you've been looking for me."
His words fell into silence.
Elizabeth hesitated a moment, then spoke. "Yes. We've been looking for you."
"Now you've found me." His gaze ranged over them, flicking across their faces - noting them down, Teyla thought, but keeping his opinions to himself. In much the same way had he stood in her tent that first morning, observing and considering, but not showing his thoughts - not until he stepped forward and smiled.
John did not smile now as he looked them over, studying their faces one by one.
"You don't remember who you are?"
"I know who these people have been telling me I am," he said, half-turning to glance back at the Athosians. "Look, I don't remember my past, and I don't remember..." His eyes found Teyla's and he paused, then continued with careful deliberation. "I don't remember any of you."
Teyla met his gaze, letting her eyes range across the familiar face, unfamiliarly set. "Do you wish to remember?"
John shrugged and turned away. "I've got meat cooling its heels in the river. I left it there several hours ago, thinking I'd be back to collect it before something else found it."
"You can send someone else to get it," said Elizabeth with the slight warning note that said John was trying her patience.
He glanced back at her. "They don't know where to look for it. This won't take long, and while I'm gone, you can discuss my future without inhibition."
Teyla did not flinch at the bitterness in the comment, but Elizabeth blinked as though John's words had come as a slap.
"John, we don't want to talk about your future without--" Elizabeth broke off as he turned on one toe, a neat, familiar spin.
"My name is Yan," he said coolly. "I don't know who I was before I came here - I don't remember. Maybe I was this John Sheppard in another life - but I'm not him anymore."
His hands rested on his hips, a familiar tension in the line of his body as though poised for a fight, one hand ready to come up and make his point. From the tilt of his head to the set of his shoulders, Yan of the Orawi gave the lie to his words. He might not remember who he had been as John Sheppard of Atlantis, but what he remembered was not all he had been.
From the corner of her eye, Teyla saw Lorne look away, saw Elizabeth hesitate.
Then Ronon shifted his weight from one foot to the other, a casual movement that drew the eye. "Want help to bring your meat back?"
The belligerence hovered a moment. "All of you?"
"Just Ronon and I." Teyla caught Elizabeth's frown and shook her head slightly as she brushed her fringe from her face. The Lantean woman would have to trust her in this. John - or Yan as he preferred to be called - would be better managed as a Pegasus native, not as a man of Earth.
John looked her up and down, noting the close-fitting trousers and light vest Teyla wore beneath the Athosian duster. She'd chosen Athosian clothing, partly to link her with her own people in the eyes of the Orawi, and partly because she felt it was better to meet other Pegasus cultures 'in her own skin' rather than that of the Lanteans'.
It seemed she had chosen aright.
When he met her gaze again, his eyes were green as the bead-stone the Lanteans called agate. But all he said was, "You'll have to lose the longcoat."
Teyla folded up the longcoat and gave it to Halling. "Continue with the trade negotiations without considering the matter of Colonel Sheppard," she said quietly. "And see if they have any desire for clothing textiles in exchange for next year's tava seed."
He nodded and laid the longcoat with the light-packs that the Athosians had brought.
"Teyla." Elizabeth stepped up beside her as she turned back to the square. "You're sure about this?"
"It is the only life he remembers," Teyla pointed out, glancing across the village as some children shrieked in the midst of their play. "He has made...connections here." Her gaze came to rest on the woman whose hand rested on John's arm, her upturned face betraying her fears. There was no mistaking the intimacy.
Elizabeth turned and saw the woman importuning John and her expression shifted. "We need him back in Atlantis, Teyla. We need him back willing."
Tempted to retort that she knew as much, Teyla reminded herself that Elizabeth's role had been a difficult one in the last six months, lacking a sympathetic military commander. The other woman was not advocating uprooting John from the home he had made, but she had her reasons for wanting him back.
They all did.
"He will need persuasion. At this moment, Ronon and I are closer to him in likeness than you or Major Lorne. It will be better this way."
It took Elizabeth a moment to answer. "All right. We'll learn what we can about John's time here."
Teyla nodded and went to where Ronon was waiting. After a moment, John scooped up what appeared to be a light backpack, and a bow and quiver, and looked at them. Dark brows arched over familiar green eyes, and once again Teyla felt his gaze lingered on her face for a moment longer than necessary.
When the news was brought to Atlantis by the Athosians, Ronon had run all the way to the briefing room.
Sheppard, found alive and surviving in some village allied with the Athosians. Ronon had his own issues with the Athosians as a people - borne partly of the months he'd spent with them on their new planet while the Lantean expedition was back on Earth - but as he jogged through the city, he'd sent up a paean of thanks to the Ancestors for the connection that had linked them back to their missing man.
Halling's news that Sheppard remembered nothing of them went a long way to explaining why the man had never tried to find Atlantis.
It didn't explain why Sheppard hadn't given either him or Teyla a second glance when they headed out to pick up his hunt. Ronon knew about hunting solo and hunting in groups. If you were serious - and hunting to survive was about as serious as it got - then you didn't hunt with people you didn't know you could trust.
Sheppard's behaviour said he trusted them, even as his mouth pronounced words otherwise.
The contrast gave Ronon pause.
The track up into the hills wasn't steep compared to some Ronon had walked - both in his time as a Runner and in his time in Atlantis - although it was plenty steep enough. It wound out the back of the village and switchbacked up the mountainside, heading for greener hills and a forest ridge.
Sheppard paused at the top of the trail to look down at the village, buried in the foothills of the mountain's slope, busy with people. Individual figures were still identifiable, and Ronon's eye traced back through the village to the square, where Weir and Lorne were waiting for their return. The Lanteans were clearly visible amongst the plain clothing of the Orawi, and the more detailed Athosians designs.
"You know, I came out this morning with the need to get away from the village," Sheppard said, almost musingly to himself. "I should have been more careful about what I asked for."
Grass rustled, as Teyla stepped off the path and looked out across the field. "Do you believe that desires translate to reality, then?"
"I don't know. Do I?"
She made a noise like a laugh. "I do not believe we ever discussed it."
"But we discussed other things."
Standing on the other side of Sheppard, Ronon could see Teyla's expression as she looked out over the valley, but not Sheppard's as he looked at her. His mouth twitched for a moment as he reflected that some things couldn't change, no matter how little Sheppard remembered. There'd always been moments when he'd wondered if he was an inexplicable third wheel in their dynamic, before one or the other had turned to include him again.
This time neither did.
"Movie nights. Computer lessons. Cultural explanations. Television shows." Her eyes tilted with laughter. "Football games."
"And I don't remember any of it." Sheppard looked back down towards the village. "Only in dreams."
"Dreams can tell us much about ourselves."
"Or they can be just dreams." He turned back towards the hills, dismissing both the village and the subject of conversation. "Let's go."
Sheppard took point, Ronon took six, and they moved swiftly along the trails in silence. Ronon noted spoor-trails and the disturbed leaves - habitually checking out the landscape. He saw Teyla watching the undergrowth and knew that she was also marking the hunting prospects.
Halling had said that Sheppard was one of the village's best hunters. Even beyond the prospect of losing one of their people, they wouldn't be too happy when they lost someone capable of adding to the pot on a regular basis. Life in Pegasus wasn't easy, whether a culture had technological acumen or not, but there were things that could make it a little less harsh.
"Do you hunt hireni along here?" Teyla asked as they descended past what Ronon recognised as a channel-trail leading down to the water.
"Sometimes," came the answer. "Mostly birds and bouncers here. Although, today, a buck walked right past the trap I was setting, pretty much just asking to be shot. I couldn't carry it all back."
"You are a good shot with the bow?"
The look he shot her was mocking. "Don't you know that already?"
"As a matter of fact, we do not."
He paused at the bottom of the trail, blinking a little as a shaft of sun paled his eyes to momentary gold-green before he stepped back, out of the direct light. The shadows deepened the frown on his face. "Why not?"
"You never handled bow and arrow before this," she said.
The truth was that the military in Atlantis had looked down on most other weaponry types. If it couldn't outdo their own technology, it wasn't worth looking at - and if it was, then they made persistent attempts to discover how it worked. In the time he'd been in the city, Ronon had gotten good at saying 'no' to the weapons scientists.
"I'm good enough," Yan said as they continued on along the path. "Not the best, maybe, but good enough to bring dinner in."
"How many arrows did you use to bring down the stag?"
The look he slanted at Teyla held sulky pride. "One."
Teyla laughed as Ronon grinned. Sheppard's competitiveness hadn't changed, anyway.
"If you guys are going to mock me, I don't wanna go back to..." He hesitated. "I don't want to go back to the city."
Laughter ceased, fading as they watched him struggle with a memory.
"No," he said at last. "I nearly had it."
"You don't remember anything?"
He'd begun to turn away. Teyla's question turned him back, hands on his hips, chin lifted as he looked at her. "I remember you. Looking over a field of tava and refusing our help for your people."
Teyla went so abruptly still that Ronon reached out hand out to her, and saw Sheppard's eyes narrow. The glance she threw back at Ronon warned against laughter - if he'd even been inclined to it. "That is something, at least."
Sheppard shrugged. "Maybe." He didn't sound particularly pleased to have remembered anything about his life before this.
"Do you want to remember?"
"Will I get a choice?" A flock of birds swooped down beneath the leaf canopy in a flutter of scarlet-tipped wings, calling sharply through the air, and Sheppard's gaze followed them. "I don't remember the specifics, but I know they won't let me stay here. I know too much." His mouth twisted. "Even if I don't remember any of it."
More than anyone else in the city, Ronon had an idea of what the Wraith could do to a man - what time and weariness could make blunt and worn. He understood what it meant to be entrenched in one life and be faced with the prospect of another life.
He understood why even Sheppard might hesitate.
"None of it?"
"Not really. Nothing clear. Just her and the tava field."
Ronon noticed that he hadn't yet used their names, as though not acknowledging their names could keep everything else at bay.
"Do you wanna remember?"
The wind overhead picked up, rustling leaves and creaking branches. Sheppard considered Ronon's question with a thoughtfulness that had been uncharacteristic in the leader.
"I don't know," he said at last, and turned back to the path, dismissing the subject. "This way."
Ronon caught Teyla's questioning look at him, and he shrugged. He wasn't sure where they went to from here, either.
He'd offered Sheppard help in bringing back the hunt on impulse. When Teyla had made her offer, Ronon had figured that she had some kind of a plan in mind for how they were going to deal with Sheppard. If so, he had yet to see evidence of it. Then again, it mightn't have been that carefully organised in her mind - just something she felt they had to do. He was fine with that as well - Teyla's instincts were good.
Only a little further on, the scrub grew thinner and the air grew damp. The trees began showing more moss and lichen, and the noise of the river's downwards dance grew from a distant ripple to an unending burble.
Then Sheppard stopped, holding up one hand.
He held it up in a fist.
Within a week of joining Sheppard's team, Ronon had been sat down and taught the signs and signals of the Earth military forces.
Sometimes, we're going to have to operate in complete silence, Sheppard had said from behind his desk. Which means you have to be conversant with the signals we use to communicate when we can't speak with each other.
The fist had been the first instruction Ronon had learned - Silent and alert.
Some part of Sheppard definitely remembered who and what he'd been.
Ronon let his senses zero in on the noises around them.
A flutter of birds winged their way above the tree canopy, while small creatures rustled their way though the leaves on the forest floor; neither sound rang any alerts in Ronon's mind. There was the rustle of leaves in the faint wind, and the ripple of the river - again, nothing that he felt needed notice. And - there! There was a faint, snuffling noise, interrupted by the unmistakable noise of something smacking its chops together.
Ronon's hand stole to the weapon on his hip as Sheppard's hand stole to the crossbow on his pack. He heard Teyla flip the safety off her gun, a sharp snap in the midst of the ebb and flow of forest sound.
Sheppard glanced at Ronon and indicated the slope that led up to a small promontory. Up and wait for my signal. Then he jerked his head at Teyla as they began picking their way carefully down the slope to the riverbank.
Ronon clambered up the slope and peered through branches to get a better view of the scene below.
The two rahbul - large creatures very similar to the bears of Earth - sitting on the damp grass by the river looked quite pleased with the meat package they'd pulled out. It seemed that Sheppard had tied the meat up in a package, then anchored it to a tree bough before throwing the package in the river. Not as good as the Lantean freezers, or even Sateda's coldstores, but good enough to keep it from spoiling for a day.
Unfortunately, not good enough to keep other creatures from getting hold of it.
His earpiece buzzed. "Ronon? Joh-- Yan wishes to try for the rahbul."
Ronon blinked. "Both of them?" rahbul were good eating - lean meat beneath a thick layer of fat, with a thick hide that made a warm covering - but they were also big and hard to kill.
Before Teyla's answer came, there was the twang of the crossbow being fired, followed by the rahbul's roar of pain. Sheppard's shot had taken it in the back of the neck, and the creature had dropped its meal and was clawing at the bolt it couldn't quite reach with its stubby arms.
Ronon cursed beneath his breath as he flipped his weapon to 'kill' setting and aimed at the howling beast. The range was good, but the sighting wasn't - too much foliage in the way for a good clear shot. This was the disadvantage of non-projectile weaponry: if the shot wasn't clear then the energy might dissipate before it hit the target.
Even as he skidded down the other side of the slope, he saw the second rahbul turn, its lips peeled back from its teeth in a snarl as it looked for the threat. What it saw was Sheppard, drawing a bow with practised ease, and it roared in challenge and clambered to its feet.
Ronon had seen shows about Earth's animals, intrigued by not just the planet and the people, but by the complexity of the crowded world and everything that existed in it. rahbul were similar to bears, but they weren't the same animal - not by a long shot.
Like everything else in Pegasus, the rahbul were possible prey for the Wraith; their size and the relative length of their lives making them targets. And, like everything else in Pegasus that the Wraith preyed upon, the rahbul had learned to run.
It moved much faster than a bear.
Ronon swore. He couldn't get a clear shot at the creature - the treeline ran all the way down to the narrow track and the branches intruded. He snapped off a shot between two branches, saw it hit, but knew that it wasn't enough to stop the beast. Even at 'kill' setting, it would take two shots to kill a rahbul - there was more mass to overcome than in a human or a Wraith.
Sheppard let loose an arrow. Midway through the air, the oncoming rahbul swept it out of the way with one clawed paw. Caught unawares, they could be managed. But their reflexes were too good to be taken out with bow and arrow.
Had anyone told Sheppard this? Or was he operating on old instincts - instincts left over from Earth, where humans had created their own safe spaces and were rarely challenged in it?
Ronon skidded to a stop behind a slim trunk, tracking the rahbul as it ran. He'd get a clear shot when the beast was less than five paces away from where Sheppard and Teyla were now standing. Not good enough. Better than nothing at all.
"Teyla!" She was the one with the gun - why wasn't she using it?
Five shots echoed out, sharp and brutal in the woods.
Birds took flight, calling in terror. Creatures froze at the strange new sound. A faint, oily scent tinged the watery air.
The rahbul stumbled to a halt, collapsing on the path in front of Teyla and lying still.
Sheppard lowered the Beretta. His chest rose and fell in shocked breaths. Then he brought the gun up again, sighting along the muzzle to the rahbul further along the riverbank. Two more shots rang out.
Ronon scrambled down to the soft earth of the trail.
"You could have done it yourself," Sheppard was saying to Teyla. His features seemed tight, tense.
Her expression was steady. "You are the better shot."
He grimaced and looked down at the gun he still held. "I guess that explains why I was so good with the crossbow. Point and shoot." Herding her behind him, he stepped up to the rahbul and nudged it with his toe.
Ronon had his sights on the creature, just in case Sheppard wasn't fast enough. Still, when Teyla stepped in and hauled the creature over, it was obviously dead.
"I believe you have your meat."
"Yeah." Sheppard's comment was almost a snort. "With a little help from my friends." An odd expression flitted across his face before it fled. Slipping the safety on, Sheppard turned the weapon around and offered it back to Teyla.
For a second, Ronon wondered if she'd tell him to keep it. Then she accepted the weapon from his hand and put it away.
"We'll need help to take this back to the camp," Ronon commented.
"Yeah." Sheppard crouched down beside the dead creature and pulled a long-bladed skinning knife from his pack. "But we'll have to prep it first. I hope you guys don't mind a bit of blood."
There was a lot of blood. And a lot of meat.
Halfway through carving up the first rahbul, Sheppard sat back on his haunches and ran the back of his arm across his forehead. "Did we do this very often?"
"Never," Ronon answered as he neatly slid his knife along the fatty layer between the hide and the muscle.
Breath huffed out of Sheppard in surprise. "You're no farmer."
Ronon glanced up, and found Sheppard watching Teyla thoughtfully as she deftly anchored chunks of meat in the river. It wasn't a gentle expression, but there was something in the line of the brows, as though the man was arrested.
"She's no farmer, either," Sheppard murmured, more to himself than Ronon. Turning back, he caught Ronon's gaze, and the searching look intensified. "Are you two...?"
Not the first time he'd been asked that question by Sheppard. Not the first time he'd answered, "No," either. A grin split his lips as Sheppard applied himself back to easing the meat off the bones. "You asked me that once before."
"I only needed to say it once." Except that the first time Sheppard had voiced the question, he'd hedged around it a lot more, as though he was asking a question he didn't have a right to ask.
"You know," Sheppard muttered, "this is weird. I feel as though I should know you, but I don't recognise you." He glanced up as Teyla came back along the track and paused at the edge of the carcass, studying the progress of dismemberment. "I only remember her from a flashback I had this morning."
"We were part of a team."
"Were we good?"
"The best." Ronon scraped the bone with his blade as he cut through muscle and sinew, and the blood pooled on the ground beneath the branches they'd pulled down to give them drain-space.
"That explains why you want me back."
Teyla came and crouched down by one of the thighs, pulling out her knife. "Your knowledge and experience are useful. But it is who you are and not just what you can do that is valuable to us."
"And who was I?"
In the moment after his question, it seemed that the noises around them stilled. The birds fell quiet and the chirping insects eased back on their constant racket; only the river babbled on, insensible to the significance of the moment.
Sheppard was looking at Teyla, a challenge in his eyes. After a second, her eyes flickered to Ronon, and, following her gaze, Sheppard turned to look at him.
"You were our friend," said Ronon.
He still remembered his earliest days in the city; feeling loose and lost after so long spent running only to be shown the ruin of his world and the wreck of his hopes. Teyla had been an automatic ally - someone who knew what it was to be separate and different from the others in the city, someone who comprehended what it mean to be a Runner. Ronon hadn't had illusions about Atlantis; Sheppard had recruited him because he was good in a fight. But he hadn't expected the friendship - the invitations to dine with the team, the introduction to Earth culture, the hours spent 'hanging out' with Sheppard and Teyla.
In a city full of his own people, Sheppard had chosen to befriend the strangers when more than a few people had held back, intimidated by the differences.
Ronon would have said this was repayment - if he'd considered friendship a debt that needed paying back.
Around them, the momentary lull in the background noise faded away as twitters and chirps once again swelled to fill the air. Sheppard looked down and away, the bright sunlight dappling his hair with blotches of dark brown.
"I have to go back, anyway." His gaze fixed on a point somewhere in the middle distance and the lines around his eyes deepened. "Even if I don't remember any of it, they can't leave me here."
"No." Ronon hadn't been there when Colonel Edwards debriefed Lorne and his team, but he could guess where the military's line was drawn. He didn't agree with it, but for all that he'd been in the city for two years, he wasn't one of 'them'. Accepted and acceptable, but not the same.
He toyed with the idea for a few moments, weighing a chunk of fat in his hand as he weighed the merits in his head. At the foot of the rahbul carcass, Teyla wasn't saying anything, wasn't giving anything away about her thoughts on the matter as she sliced up the fat and stuffed it into a fibrous bag, well-lined with spreading leaves to minimise the mess.
"Sheppard." He used the man's name deliberately, glimpsed Teyla's wince as Sheppard flinched. He didn't care. If the man was going to come back to the city, he'd have to learn to become used to the new name. "Come back to Atlantis. Just to see. And if you don't remember and don't want to come back, then I'll get you out of there."
He ignored Teyla's protest. Their goals were the same, but their ways of achieving it were culturally different. Athos had chosen passive resistance against the Wraith; Sateda had chosen active. The difference went further than merely choice - it went back to the bedrock of their cultural identities. Teyla would not actively countenance going against the wishes of the people she considered her allies. Ronon would.
If Sheppard wanted out of Atlantis, Ronon would offer him whatever help he needed to get away. The man had given him a place to lay his head, to let his spirit catch up with him. He'd return the favour - from one fighter to another.
Sheppard looked from Ronon to Teyla, then back to Ronon.
"You'd do that?"
Ronon shrugged. "Yeah." If that was what it took to get Sheppard back to the city, then that was what he'd do. There was nothing worse than feeling like you'd been forced into something - and, unlike Ronon when he'd first come to Atlantis, Sheppard didn't have any other options.
Still stuffing fat into the bag, Teyla's mouth was set in a disapproving line. Ronon tried to ignore it, focusing on Sheppard. At the least, they needed to find out what he remembered, what he knew. If that meant giving him an exit option when they knew Earth would fight - stunner and knife - to keep him, so be it.
"I can leave if I want?"
"I'll help you get away." He repeated the promise.
Sheppard carved out chunks of meat in silence, setting them aside on the wide leaves they'd laid down to keep the meat clean, thinking about Ronon's offer.
It was several minutes before he looked up with resolve in his eyes.
"All right then," he said. "I'll go with you."
Yan watched as Ronon slapped young Mizah on the shoulder good-naturedly, and bid him lead the way back. The two ran off along the forest trail, fleet-footed as hireni, young and eager.
Major Lorne was talking in low tones with Teyla while his man waited alongside. He glanced back at Yan once, then nodded in response to whatever she was saying, flicked his fingers alongside his temple as his eyes met Yan's and headed off with the other man.
The hand he'd half-lifted to imitate Major Lorne's gesture fell back to his side as Teyla picked up the pack of meat and swung it easily onto her back. "Shall we go?"
He shouldered the pack that sat comfortably on his own shoulders and began making the long walk back up the trail toward the village. "You got stuck with me, eh?"
"Stuck is a relative term."
"I'm pretty sure you're not one of my relatives."
She laughed - a half-muted chuckle behind him. "Are you so certain of that?"
Yan glanced back at her, but she'd turned her head to follow some movement in the undergrowth and wasn't looking at him. "Yeah. Even if I don't remember if I have relatives." Anything he knew about himself, he knew because Teyla and Ronon had told him as they helped him carve up the rahbul. He'd had time to ask them about themselves, about their cultures and the city where they now lived.
He'd had time to get used to the idea.
"What were you looking at bargaining with us for?"
"Tava uololo. Our own tava crop was good this year, but we are familiar with both good luck and bad when it comes to harvests. And we are only recently moved; it will take several growing seasons before we are certain of the ground."
The trail climbed up a slow hill, wending its way through a tangle of bright bushes and tall trunks. Yan paused by one of the bushes to inhale the delicate scent of the leaves, and saw Teyla do the same.
"You want to trade for some of the ikalele, too?"
"We already have them."
"In Atlantis?" The city name seemed strange on his lips, but the familiarity was coming slowly on him. Maybe it was the fact that neither Teyla nor Ronon hesitated when referring to the city.
Maybe it was his memory coming back.
"No," she said. "They have different plants in Atlantis."
"Plants from Earth." He hadn't asked much about his past and they hadn't offered the details to him. He appreciated that. "Does everything come from Earth in Atlantis?"
He turned around a little, angling to see her face as she answered since her reactions would tell him as much as her words. "Much of what they need can only be found on Earth," she said. "But their food and some textiles, as well as raw materials, are from my people and others."
"What do you get in return?"
"Mostly medicines. Ideas." She paused and Yan stopped and turned to look at her. "Hope."
"You know of the Wraith," said Teyla.
The prison was cold and dank. Not damp, but depressing - depressing and empty.
His team would come after him - he knew that in his bones. Atlantis wouldn't give in to Kolya's demands, but neither would they abandon him. He'd heard it in Elizabeth's voice as she gave Kolya her answer; knew that the others were listening and watching, hating their helplessness.
They'd find him.
Somehow they'd find him.
Then the shadows in the neighbouring cell moved and a voice of old dust and empty space began a conversation that led down slippery paths and shady places, until he found himself voicing the question that squeezed his gut like a punch in the solar plexus.
"Where'd you hear them call me Sheppard?"
It would be a tall creature when fully erect. Hunched over as it now was, it was gaunt, green skin stretched over hard bone, a thing of nightmares.
"Just before I started to feed."
He looked into the face of his enemy and his heart slammed against the cage of his ribs like fists on a prison door.
There were hands on his forearms, fingers digging into his flesh. He looked down at Teyla's concerned expression, a slight frown pulling her brows together.
"Yan?" After a moment, she let him go, stepping back out of his space.
He swallowed hard and his hands found his arms where she'd held him, rubbed briefly and convulsively. "Yeah, I know of the Wraith."
"You remembered something." She didn't phrase it as a question.
Yan looked away. "Yeah."
"You are all right?"
He stared at her, surprised that she hadn't asked about the memory.
"I'm not going to fall apart," he said, a little roughly.
One eyebrow rose as both corners of her mouth tipped up, a tilting smile that carried a wry twinkle to it. "Then that is just as well. It is quite far back to the village and you are too heavy for me to carry far."
His first instinct was laughter. That, and relief that he wasn't going to be questioned about the flashback.
"I'd ask if you've had to carry me before, but I think I'm afraid of the answer."
"You should be." The twinkle was arch - not flirtatious - but teasing - the kind of thing he'd have expected from a friend of long standing.
As he looked at her, Yan wondered if, in the time before memory, he'd appreciated this woman who knew when to push and when to stand back. The thought discomforted him.
An odd expression crossed her face and, for a moment, he thought she'd seen his thought, clear as writing on his face; then a faint buzzing noise reached his ears. Her expression was all apology as she turned away a little and touched her fingers to the thing in her ear. "Yes, Major. We have fallen behind a little." She paused. Yan couldn't see her face, but she wasn't disguising her voice at all and the astonishment was clear. "Oh?"
He shifted to see her profile, the line of brow and nose and chin, the strong cheekbones and the planar curve of cheek. A frown pursed her lips and drew her brows together; then she rolled her eyes. "I do not suppose that anyone--? No." She sighed and turned to look at Yan, her eyes resting on his face with a troubled expression. "I will give him warning, then."
As she drew alongside him, Yan asked, "Warning?"
She stepped back onto the path, not making any haste, but clearly not inclined to linger either.
"Atlantis is a city with both a military and a civilian populace - fighters and non-fighters. The entire city is led by Dr. Weir - Elizabeth - but the fighters have ranks and a hierarchy structure for command." She looked up at him. "Before you were taken by the Wraith, you were the military commander of Atlantis."
Yan swallowed. He thought back to the fit of the gun in his hand, the instinctive sighting along the barrel and the calm that had covered him as he took the shot. He'd felt a similar calm when shooting the crossbows or the arrows, but not like that - not so strongly. "So who's commanding the city now?"
"Colonel Richard Edwards was placed in charge of the city after you were declared missing. He has a...different style of command." It was obvious Teyla was being tactful. "He is not a bad man, but he lacks your perspective."
"And he wants me brought back to Atlantis, whatever the cost."
"From what I understand, that would be a directive of the military in any case," she explained. "However, I believe he was displeased with Elizabeth's commandeering of Major Lorne's team on this mission."
"Why would he--?" Yan hesitated. Small things caught at his memory - comments, gazes, gestures. He'd thought nothing of them at the time...
His hand rose to make the finger-flick gesture by his temple that Major Lorne had given him. It held echoes of something else, but the movement had been casual, almost...
"Yes. You and Major Lorne worked together for over a year in the city." Ahead of them a sapling had grown up close to the path's edge, its thin branches sticking into the thoroughfare. Teyla kept to the right-hand side of the path as she ducked around it, treading carefully over the indentations in the damp ground, which suggested that too many feet had trod that way and one of them had slid. "Colonel Edwards does not trust that Major Lorne will bring you back."
A frown grew on his face. "He doesn't trust his own people? Doesn't sound like a very good leader."
Teyla shrugged. "There are some aspects in which his leadership is excellent."
"You sound like you're being fair."
She turned her head enough that he saw the smile that tipped up one side of her face. "I am. But he deserves fairness, even if we do not see levelly on many things."
"So what aren't you seeing levelly on now?"
He got a wry look for that bit of humour, but even that warmth left as she said, "He has sent another military team to the village to ensure your return. They are likely to be...peremptory."
"Great." Yan blew out a breath. "How's Lorne feel about that?"
"How would you feel about it, if it were you?"
He was angry enough as it was. Sure, he didn't remember Lorne, but the man had been courteous and friendly, on easy terms with both Teyla and Ronon and accepting of their judgement. That seemed to say a lot about where the two from Pegasus stood in the Atlantis expedition - or maybe just where Lorne stood.
And Yan had encouraged this kind of co-operation.
It felt right, even now. The thought anchored the anger, even as he felt grim dread settle in his gut. "Do I get to at least say goodbye?"
"I do not believe it is their intent to summarily drag you away," Teyla said. "But I know they will not accept refusal or delay."
"How much delay are we talking?"
Yan let his breath out in an explosive burst. "You know, with that kind of behaviour from you people, I don't know that I want to go back."
"John..." Teyla stopped. "I am sorry. Yan. You were right - the military in Atlantis cannot just 'let you go'. It is not their way of doing things." A twist of her mouth suggested she'd ended up on the wrong end of 'how they did things' in Atlantis at least once. "Ronon made you an offer of assistance. I will add to that the rider that you have whatever assistance can be rendered by me or my people to help you escape Atlantis should your memory not return and your desire be to leave."
"But I can't ever come back to Orawi."
He'd made a home here, among people whose ways he'd learned, who'd learned his ways. People who didn't care what he'd been, but were willing to accept who he was now. No, it wasn't a perfect life, but it was his. And these people from Atlantis would take it from him.
Teyla met his eyes, and the compassion in her gaze nearly undid him.
"No," she said. "We cannot promise that you may return here."
"But you'll get me out of Atlantis if I ask for it."
"Yes." No fancy promises, no elaborate oaths - just a simple affirmative. He respected that she'd given him that. If he was reading the situation right, her assistance - and Ronon's - could cause trouble for them in the city: two outsiders breaking the rules.
Neither she nor Ronon had put conditions on their offers, either.
What kind of person had he been, to inspire such loyalty? And the harder question to answer - could he be that kind of person again? Yan felt his throat squeeze.
He'd belonged to these people; and they'd belonged to him. Whether or not they realised it, Teyla and Ronon had marked him with their offers. He probably would have gone to Atlantis, anyway - it sounded like he had no choice, but now he wanted to go.
He needed to go.
He needed to go back to where he'd begun, if only to find out the man he'd been.
They made their way back to the village in haste, and Yan learned more about her people and what they wanted from the Orawi - tava uololo seeds in exchange for the work of Athosian craftsmen. Like the Orawi, the Athosians were hunters, but a greater emphasis on trade and alliances of blood and friendship had sprung up in the last half-dozen generations, and so the Athosians had begun producing other things and were better poised to bargain for things that the Orawi had not seen in generations.
It kept his mind off what was waiting back in the village: a confrontation between the people from whom he'd come, and the people whom he'd come to live among.
Yan was more than a little worried as to how Ivali was going to deal with this.
The village seemed more closed in when they arrived back, all the more for the appearance of a new set of strangers. In their sneers, Yan was aware of the smallness of Orawi, of the sudden horizons that were both terrifying and exhilarating.
He didn't have a right to ask Ivali to take that step with him. But he asked all the same.
She listened in silence as he explained the situation, her hands busy sorting through the linen clothes on the bed, her eyes avoiding his. "You want us to go with them?"
Yan didn't wince at the question. "Yes."
They'd come inside, away from the watching eyes and the prying questions, but after the open space of the hunt, after the bright sun of the square, their room felt too small for Yan - closed quarters. He was fighting the urge to hunch, even as he tried to face his lover squarely.
He owed her this honesty, even if it pushed them apart.
"I'll understand if you don't," he said, getting in before she could say anything more. "It's... It's not something I'd ask lightly."
"But you'll go anyway."
He glanced at the window, looking out at the yard beyond and the people who milled there.
When he and Teyla returned to the village, the mood of the meeting had changed. A new quartet stood at the gates of the village, as though refusing to taint themselves by even entering village ground. Their leader had looked at Yan with what he immediately recognised as a sneer. "Colonel Sheppard, I presume."
"So they tell me," he said.
"I'm Major Samuel Camberwell. We're authorised by Colonel Edwards of the United States Air Force to bring you back to Atlantis."
"How kind of him," Yan had looked towards the first party that had arrived. Consciously or unconsciously, they'd clustered by the table with the Athosian visitors and the Orawi trade delegates. Dr. Weir was half out of her seat at the table with Erthana and the Athosians as Yan nodded in their direction. "I thought I already had an escort."
"Colonel Edwards thought it prudent to include us," said Camberwell. "So, if you'll just come with us..."
"Major Camberwell," Teyla said, her voice clear and calm and reasonable. "As you can see, Colonel Sheppard and I have just returned from a wearying hunt. He has been out since dawn. Perhaps a little time for him to rest himself would be advisable?"
"Ma'am, I have my orders."
"I doubt, however, that those orders involve evicting Colonel Sheppard from the only home he has known for the last six months," Dr. Weir said.
"Colonel Sheppard has agreed to accompany us back," Teyla interposed. "I believe that, in the circumstances, it is not too much to ask that the return to the city be delayed a few hours?"
"I don't think it is," agreed Dr. Weir before Camberwell could get a word out. "And I'm overruling Colonel Edwards' request for an immediate return."
"Ma'am, I was given orders..."
She looked directly at the man. "Then I am overriding those orders, Major, as is within my bourne as the leader of the expedition."
Yan would have laughed if it hadn't been such a serious moment.
As it was, he could see Ronon's grin off to the side, and Major Lorne shifted, turning so the twitch of his mouth wasn't visible by Camberwell. He admired the way the two women had neatly taken control of the situation, even if there were undertones that he didn't quite get. Still, he recognised when someone was being herded.
From an irritable twitch of his eyelid, it seemed Major Camberwell knew he was being led. Still, he met her gaze without blinking. "Colonel Edwards wishes your return as soon as possible."
"And so we shall return very soon," said Weir with a civil but unmistakeable lean on the words. "Just as soon as Colonel Sheppard has had some time to refresh himself and manage his packing and farewells."
Until then, the Orawi had been silent, leaving the argument to those whose conflict it was. Then Erthana rose from her seat, drawing the attention of Orawi, Athosian, and Lantean alike. "Yan?"
"It is your intent to leave us?"
He wanted to look away - wanted to look for Ivali amidst the crowd of their own people. He couldn't. "I think I should find out who I was."
She nodded, her eyes narrow but her expression showed she understood. Whether she'd been told or she'd inferred it herself, Yan didn't know, but he supposed she'd taken good stock of the situation. Erthana hadn't come to be head of the Orawi without knowing how to deal with people. "A person should know in what ground their roots are buried," she said. "We shall feast on the rahbul that you have brought us with the help of the Lanteans, and bid you our goodbyes and our blessing. Major Camberwell and his friends will join us."
In their room, so familiar, so cosy, Yan picked up a vest, folded it neatly, and put it to one side of the bed. His hunting clothes had been hurried off for washing, although he wasn't sure he'd be allowed to take them with him.
"They won't let me stay here."
Ivali frowned. "But you don't remember them!"
"That doesn't matter." Another one of those things that Yan knew without knowing how. "They can't leave me here."
"It sounds so cold," she said with a glance up at him as she folded a shirt, her movements jerky with anger. "They just marched into the village and were going to take you away! If the others hadn't stepped in they'd have taken you away..."
His mind was still working through what he needed to take with him and what he could leave behind. Even more than the things he would take away with him were the friendships he'd made that would have to be managed. And he had to think of Ivali, too.
He cared about her.
Neither Teyla nor Ronon had offered the information as to whether he'd been involved with someone back then. Although, by the time he and Teyla had returned to the village, he'd wondered a little. The Athosian woman seemed so easy with him - he felt comfortable with her, as though their friendship was a glove that fitted his hand perfectly, neither wearing nor abrading. But friendship was not quite the same as love and caring, and Yan suspected that she or Ronon would have said as much if there had been someone special to him in the city.
In a way, it came as a relief to know that he hadn't been using Ivali as a substitute for anyone - that he'd come to care about her for herself. Still, caring about her wasn't the same as having the right to ask her to uproot herself and her life and leave her people.
They folded clothes in silence. Yan didn't press her for an answer - he didn't want her to feel she had to come with him. On the other hand, if she didn't...
If she didn't, then it was him against Atlantis. He would have his allies, but even Teyla and Ronon had their reasons for wanting him back. They wouldn't press their advantage, they wouldn't force him beyond his willingness, but they'd push him as far as he'd let them.
Even if Yan trusted them, they weren't unbiased in the matter.
He needed someone with him who could balance things out. He wanted that person to be Ivali.
Yet by the time they finished folding the clothing, she still hadn't answered his question.
Yan looked sideways from her to the neatly folded pile, and let his breath and his hopes go. Then he reached out, preparing to sort them into a pile of his clothing and hers.
Her hand stopped him. "If you decide not to stay, can we come back?"
He hesitated, tempted to lie. But it wasn't fair to give her a fool's hope. "No."
Ivali looked up at him, her eyes huge and troubled in the muted light of their room. Then she cradled his head in her hands and drew him down for a soft kiss. Yan let out his breath in a sigh. He recognised goodbye when it was given, and when mouth touched mouth, he kissed her deeply back, wishing he dared take the time to shove the clothes off the bed and share one last intimacy with her.
When she let him up, her expression was serene, but her words shocked him. "All right."
"I will come with you to Atlantis."
"You will?" He'd been so sure that she'd meant to say goodbye that it stunned him.
Her expression was amused. "Didn't I just say?"
"Well, yeah, but..." Yan didn't know what to say. "Ivali, this is your life."
"Do you want me to come or not, Yan?"
"Yes." In spite of everything else, he was quite certain of that. Whatever he remembered or didn't remember about Atlantis, he wanted someone he could trust without hesitation.
And what about Ronon and Teyla? They didn't need to offer you an out, but they did.
Well, he wanted someone who'd understand how different the city would feel, someone who'd understand what it meant to be alone and not part of a larger group.
Teyla and Ronon know that as well.
A hand touched her face, distracting him from his thoughts. "If I decide I want to come back without you, or end this, I'll tell you, Yan. And in return, I want you to be honest with me. If you remember who you were - this Colonel Sheppard they talk about - and you want to stay in Atlantis, then don't change your mind because of me." Her fingers lingered on his jaw. "I don't want you to lie about who and what you are, any more than I want to lie about who I am. We are who we are, and we wouldn't have loved otherwise. Would we?"
Yan looked at her, wondering at the strength that made it possible for her to walk away from the life she'd known - because of him!
First Teyla and Ronon, offering him assistance out of the city; now Ivali, offering him company.
It humbled him, even as it choked him for the second time in a day - an embarrassment of emotion.
She traced his jaw again, smiling as he kissed her fingertips in brief and fervent thanks. "So, how about we start working out what we'll need in Atlantis?"
Safely surrounded by the hum and whirr of his computer banks, ensconced in the simulations he was running, Rodney ignored the personnel gossiping outside his lab.
Lorne's marines had called in with their report just before lunch - a typical soldier's brief, no wasted words. They'd confirmed that the man they'd found was Colonel Sheppard, he had memory loss probably caused by the torture and physical deprivation he'd gone through during his captivity, and he'd been living quite happily with this local group for the last five months, Atlantis time. ETA was around three in the afternoon, and they'd be bringing Colonel Sheppard back with them.
The news had swept through the city like food poisoning: Colonel Sheppard was coming back!
It was said that Edwards' already prune-like mouth had tightened at the news.
Frankly, Rodney didn't care. John Sheppard and whatever he'd been doing with himself in the last six months were none of his business. And he refused to act like all the other gawkers in the city, and line up to stare at the conquering hero come home.
Instead of following an amnesiac Sheppard around Atlantis like the rest of the expedition had clearly decided to do, Rodney had chosen to get something useful done.
And he wasn't feeling at all hurt that Teyla hadn't so much as come by to see him after they got back.
"You will not come with us, Rodney?"
"I've got better things to do with my time than follow up every wild goose chase after Sheppard."
But he'd expected she'd drop by to talk to him when they returned, because, well, she was Teyla. That was what he'd expected she'd do.
The open window that gave a slim view between silver spires showed the evening sky with it's last light-tinged clouds, the day's light almost completely receded from the sea, leaving only the faintest of glimmers on the choppy waves.
Sheppard had been back in the city for a couple of hours now.
And no-one had come to tell him anything - not even Teyla or Radek.
Rodney gave an experimental cough and grimaced to himself at the faintest of rasps in his throat. Was he coming down with something? It had been a miserable winter in Atlantis and had another seven weeks of it yet to come - no snow, perhaps, but the central heating wasn't all it was cracked out to be either. And he hadn't been feeling very good. He was coming down with something - he just knew it.
He'd see Carson at dinner, sure, but that wasn't for another hour. And it really was getting cold in here. Maybe he should check in with Carson, just in case. And if he happened to hear a bit about what was going on with Sheppard...well, the man had been a team-mate and - dared Rodney think it? - a friend.
Even if it was obvious that no-one else thought Rodney would care.
He kicked off the last of the simulations with a huff, pushed his chair neatly under the desk and locked up his computer. Then he opened his door, sending the clump of scientists gathered around outside to gossip flying in all directions, and headed for the infirmary.
"Dr. McKay..." One of the newest additions to his lab came alongside him as he turned into one of the main thoroughfares in the city, a bulky young man who was allegedly one of the brightest new minds in the field of astrophysics, but who was mostly a big irritation. "So, have you seen Colonel Sheppard yet?"
"Do I look like I've seen Sheppard yet? Does it look like I have time to gallivant around the city meekly following the troupe of gawkers at the return of the city's biggest trained monkey when there are the simulations to run?"
"Uh, so...that's a no, then? I sort of figured, you being such friends and all. I heard that he..."
Rodney'd had enough. He stopped at an intersection and turned on the man. "Lababa, do you have somewhere else to be? Somewhere that doesn't involve me having to listen to your senseless babbling?"
"Uh..." Even after nearly two months in Rodney's lab, it seemed Lababa wasn't accustomed to being cut off at the conversational knees. He faltered. "No, Dr. McKay."
"Then go find somewhere else to be and leave me alone!" Rodney stalked off without looking back to see if the kid was following him. He hoped not; he wasn't in the mood to deal with people right now.
There were a surprising number of people in the infirmary, and Rodney huffed with annoyance as he shoved past a couple of marines who were blocking the door.
"Carson, what on earth is going on..." He paused and stared. "Sheppard."
Relief swamped him. Okay, so there was no reason that the entire city should be wrong, but somehow, seeing the man in front of him made a world of difference. In that moment, seeing was believing.
Rodney blinked. "Wait-- You remember me? I thought you didn't remember anyone!"
"I don't," said Sheppard flatly. "But they told me about you."
"Oh." Rodney spared a flashing glare at Ronon, who'd paused in his conversation with a woman who definitely wasn't Teyla, then turned his gaze back on Sheppard.
He'd heard it, but he hadn't really believed it - not really. The man looked...normal. The same as he'd ever been - no wrinkles, pouches, sags or jowls, no white hair or bleary eyes. The last time he'd seen Sheppard, the man had been a shrivelled, dried-up wreck dragged away by the Genii after being fed on by Kolya's pet Wraith.
Okay, so the last time he'd seen a John Sheppard had been when the man bounced out of the containment chamber of the bridging generator in a very non-standard leather jacket, calling Rodney 'Rod', cosying up to Teyla, telling jokes that made Ronon's laugh roar to the rafters during the dinner hour, and charming Jeannie with stories of exactly how stubborn and pigheaded her brother was in the universe where he came from.
This wasn't that John Sheppard.
He looked mostly the same - well, as much the same as a man could look when dressed in the most ridiculous local homespun - did these people dress in cheesecloth? And he was wearing enough leather to have any Pegasus PETA up in arms - assuming the Pegasus galaxy ever started getting over-zealous on animal rights and invented PETA.
"So you've determined that he is, in fact, John Sheppard?" Rodney demanded of Carson without taking his eyes off Sheppard. Sheppard eyed him right back, a slight twist to his mouth, as though he'd just laid eyes on something he didn't really like.
Fine. Rodney wouldn't presume anything, then.
"Rodney, he's sitting right there," Elizabeth said, sounding more like a mother dressing down a child than a world-class diplomat.
"So? We've seen clones, Replicators, and alternate universes before. He can look like Sheppard all he wants, but that doesn't mean he is Sheppard."
A snort from Ronon matched Elizabeth's sigh, and Carson's stare.
"We're waiting on the final DNA tests," said Carson with the brusqueness that meant he was annoyed. He turned back to marking down patient notes on a tablet file. "But everything seems in order. Both Colonel Sh- Yan and Ivali are in excellent health and ready to be shown through the city."
The name gave Rodney pause - as did the realisation that the woman who quite clearly wasn't Teyla had come along to keep Sheppard company. "Yan? All the names in the universe you could have come up with and you come up with Yan?"
"Is he always like this?" Sheppard asked, looking at Carson.
Carson bit back a smile, mischief flickering in his blue eyes as Rodney glared at him. "Usually." He said succinctly. His hand clapped Sheppard on the shoulder. "Welcome back to the city, Colonel."
They were all out of the infirmary and in the corridor before Rodney remembered that he'd gone to see Carson about coming down with a cold. He dismissed it. Carson could wait. This was important.
"So," he said conversationally to Ronon at the tail end of the group. "Edwards has seen him?"
"Yeah." Ronon's quick jerk of the head backwards suddenly made Rodney aware of the two wooden-faced marines tailing the group.
"Huh. Okay. Hey, where's Tey...?" He broke off.
Ahead of them, the strange woman had slipped her hand into Sheppard's. Rodney looked at Ronon with an arched brow. The big man shrugged, and the movement of bare shoulders conveyed a lot of thoughts.
"The Athosians are finishing off some trade agreements," he said. "She'll be back later."
"Hm. I thought it was strange that she didn't come to see me when we got back."
"You didn't come see us when we came back," came Ronon's reply.
"I was busy. You know how it is."
Rodney glared as they passed through corridors so familiar he hardly noticed them, although ahead of him, both Sheppard and the woman he was holding hands with were looking around them with astonishment and awe. Even as he watched, the woman pointed something out to Sheppard, who turned and stared with her. "Well," he said, sharply, "you should know how it is."
At the front of the group, Elizabeth was talking about the living arrangements on Atlantis.
"We've put you into your old quarters, John. Most of your personal effects were put into storage - you weren't officially dead, so we could keep them for the moment. I'll get someone to get them out for you."
"I don't think that'll be necessary."
"What? You're not staying around?" Rodney blurted it before he had a chance to think his words over.
Sheppard glanced back at him, and his eyes darted to Ronon. "We're staying for a while. But it might be easier if not everything's new at once."
Beyond him, Elizabeth was frowning - possibly at Sheppard's inclusion of the woman who clung to his hand, her eyes wary and worried - but she cleared her expression as both Sheppard and the woman turned back to them. "We can give you tonight to settle in, but tomorrow, we'll be going through a brief of your history - both in the military and in the city."
Rodney bet that was going to be fun. There wasn't really any way you could be 'brief' about five months of missing time. Especially not when it came to Atlantis.
"H...how long have you been here?" The woman spoke for the first time, her voice diffident.
"Just over two years," Elizabeth said.
As Rodney opened his mouth to remind her that the time span wasn't going to make any sense to someone who lived on another planet, Ronon spoke up. "Three melting seasons ago."
The corridor widened into an area where seats had been put down - not quite lounges, but softer than the chairs in the mess hall. With the addition of a couple of pot plants, they made spaces for people to sit down and take a break from their work. Rodney didn't use them much - he didn't usually need a break from his work and when he did he went and bothered Radek at his work instead - but there were others in the city that did.
Today, there were a lot of people sitting around in small groups, talking to each other.
And as their group came through, the noise level lowered a little, and eyes followed them.
Rodney usually ignored the people who spent their time 'corridor-watching'. He had better things to do than worry what everyone in the city thought about him. But he found himself watching people now - the flash of interest they showed when they looked at Sheppard, the murmurs behind the hand as they looked at the woman who accompanied him through the corridors.
He wondered if Sheppard was aware of the scrutiny. Did the man know his return was the biggest piece of gossip in the city since...well, since Teyla walked back through the Stargate wearing the full ceremonial getup of this culture that decided that she was their long-awaited Goddess?
As if he'd heard Rodney's thoughts, Sheppard's head turned - but only as far as the woman who walked beside him.
The tender smile wasn't anything that Rodney recognised as Colonel John Sheppard.
He stopped dead in the corridor, struck by the realisation that this 'Yan Stormborn' really wasn't John Sheppard. That whatever Kolya or the Wraith had done to John, it was done, and the man they had back might look like John, but he wasn't the same John Sheppard who'd been captured by Kolya.
He hadn't believed Sheppard was back - not really. Rodney wasn't sure why he'd believed Sheppard would be the same.
"Rodney?" Ronon turned, letting the rest of the group go off. One dark eyebrow arched in query.
"I...just remembered I left something running in my lab," he improvised madly. "I'll go turn it off."
He didn't think it possible that the eyebrow could hike higher, but it did. "Okay. I'll be by."
Which said that whatever excuses Rodney was making, Ronon knew that was exactly what they were - excuses. And that he understood.
As Rodney hurried away, he thanked God for team-mates who understood.
Even if it suddenly felt like he'd lost one of them forever.
It was a stupid thought, because wasn't Sheppard back in the city?
Several hours later, Rodney was feeling a bit better about it - by which he meant, he hadn't thought about it at all - when Ronon and Elizabeth 'dropped in to see him'.
"This is the pressure ioniser they found on M9R-883?" Elizabeth asked immediately, walking over to the long 'arm' of the ioniser barrel and peering along it towards the small fish-tank set up on a table at the far end of the lab. "The one that Dr. Hall thought might be related to the weather-device SG1 found on Madrona?"
"A crude version of it, maybe," Rodney said, switching off the power. "Of course, I haven't studied the original touchstone - no-one in the city has - so it mightn't be related at all."
Ronon wandered over to the fish-tank and peered into a small diorama of plants and tiny Pegasus crawlies. "Nice."
"Setup by Katie," said Rodney, checking the power ratings on the simulation. He'd appreciated her help, even if his idea of a diorama had been more along the lines of a few ferns and some of those planter gel thingies. "How's Sheppard settling in?"
From the way Ronon turned from the fish-tank and Elizabeth abruptly straightened up, Rodney guessed that the whole 'settling in' part wasn't going so well. He saw the looks they exchanged, Ronon's shrug, Elizabeth's sigh.
"He doesn't remember anything about Atlantis," she said at last. "Nothing at all. Carson's going to do some more tests tomorrow - MRI, EEG, brainscans. His...companion, Ivali Weaverkin, mentioned that he's been having bad dreams lately. We've suggested he might want to speak with Kate Heightmeyer about those."
"Because Sheppard's always been so fond of headshrinking."
"He's not 'Sheppard' right now," said Ronon.
"In the meantime," Elizabeth said, raising her voice, "we can't do much except try to jog his memory. So there's a meeting at 9am to discuss his time in Atlantis - Rodney, as one of John's former team-mates, you'll be attending."
"She'll be back by then." Elizabeth leaned back on the bench, unconsciously imitating Ronon's pose - hands behind her, elbows up. "I'll leave her a message."
"Is there a reason we're making a concentrated effort on this? Because I'd like to know if we're facing impending doom from which only Sheppard can rescue us as soon as possible, you know. Namely, before the impending doom becomes extremely imminent doom and screws everything over. What?"
Elizabeth glanced at Ronon, who shifted. "Sheppard didn't want to come back."
"Like that isn't obvious! Is the woman - what's her name again?"
"Her. Is she insurance or something?"
"Something like that," Elizabeth said cautiously.
He snorted. "Trust Sheppard to get in with a beautiful woman."
"Rodney, I don't need to tell you how Colonel Edwards is taking all this."
Rodney snorted as he saved the file of statistic and opened up his mail. "You wouldn't take the news that you're being replaced well, either, Elizabeth. Besides, Edwards never takes anything well. He probably refers to Sheppard's discovery on this planet as 'going native'."
"He's not the only one."
"Hm. Well. Sometimes I'm surprised he's survived in the city this long." Opening up his mail, Rodney began to skim through the headers, using the convenient preview pane to get a feel for what was urgent and what wasn't.
"Military command," said Ronon with unusual frankness for him. "Don't have to like them, just have to obey them."
The irony of those words coming from Ronon made Rodney look up with a skeptical expression. "You don't."
"I'm not in the Earth chain of command." A brief baring of teeth made Ronon's point quite clearly. "They can't kentlat me."
"Kentlat?" With her interest in languages, Elizabeth naturally picked up on the non-Earth word. "Court-martial?"
Rodney clicked through the messages in his inbox, glancing over the reports, requests for assistance, and city news that he'd arranged to be sent. "Actually, it's closer to a field judgement. Body of peers, on the spot, no waiting."
He didn't need to look up to know that Elizabeth's eyes were wide. "That sounds very harsh."
Rodney let Ronon explain the details of the kentlat as he skipped over the news post, read through a note from Zelenka and replied with a terse response, and scowled at a request from Dr. Ottley for volunteers for the outpost viability project.
"When did you authorise the outpost viability study?"
Interrupted in the middle of a question, Elizabeth took a moment to realise what was being asked of her. "Just yesterday. Drs. Ottley and Campanella had reasonable arguments, Colonel Edwards was willing to supply the marines, so I signed off on a short-term study expedition."
"And you didn't consult me?"
"I am the head of the science departments!"
"You've been pushing for this outpost ever since we discovered it, Rodney." Elizabeth folded her arms. "And you're not on the study expedition. I need you here right now, to help me deal with John and Colonel Edwards."
"Edwards is going to make that much trouble? Sheppard's in no position to take his job back - at least, not from what I saw, anyway."
Ronon hopped up onto one of the side benches with a light thump and a creak of table space. When both Rodney and Elizabeth turned to look at him, he shrugged. "Doesn't have to be reasonable," he said. "Sheppard's not the man he was, but we still want him back."
"Exactly," Elizabeth agreed. "And Rodney, like it or not, we need as many people who knew John as possible around right now. We need him back."
"We need him back, or you need him back?"
"Both," she said grimly. "And the IOA can bite me."
Rodney snorted. Elizabeth didn't often bring out her inner bitch - as she'd once confessed to Rodney, a woman in a position of power on Earth had to be careful about being seen as either a ball-breaker or a wily flirt - but when she did, the results were interesting. To say the least.
For the first couple of years of the expedition, Rodney had kept firmly out of the politics of the city's military backing. He was a scientist, not a politician - he'd argued that he should have to deal with the politics of what was, essentially, a scientific expedition, even if their current situation was more or less one step away from a galactic war.
Until John had gone missing, Rodney hadn't realised just how much Sheppard and Elizabeth shielded him from the politics. Elizabeth took the brunt of it since Sheppard disclaimed himself of any political acumen, but even she'd needed backup from time to time. In the absence of John and in the face of Colonel Edwards' hostility, she'd turned to Rodney.
And Rodney had begun to learn that there was a whole other side to running the city.
"They'll never accept John back over Edwards, you know."
Ronon snorted. "We need to get Sheppard back first."
"And how do you plan to do that?" Rodney demanded, flagging the email about the outpost viability mission for looking over later. He had a few suggestions for that, and since it looked like he wouldn't be getting to go, he saw no reason why he shouldn't advise Dr. Ottley of them.
"Don't know. That's Beckett's kind of thing. Or Heightmeyer's."
"I've spoken to Kate already, she'll see if she can't make some time to observe John over the next few days."
Five more emails were summarily deleted. "You do realise that we may never get Sheppard back?"
In the silence, his laptop fan hopped up to 'turbo', filling the room with white-noise. Then the bench beneath Ronon creaked.
"Yes, Rodney, we know. And I know that, even if he doesn't regain his memory, it's unlikely that the SGC will let him go back to the planet we found him on. He's still an Air Force officer."
"Even if he doesn't remember it?"
"Does he know this?"
Rodney looked up sharply at Ronon and found Elizabeth doing the same thing. "Ronon?"
"I don't know about memory, but he remembers some things. He knew it was probably going to be a one-way trip when he came back."
"So why bring this Ivali woman with him?"
"She wanted to come along," said Ronon with a shrug. "He cares about her."
"As if that isn't obvious. How'd Teyla take it?"
"Same as the rest of us."
"Why would Teyla's reaction be any different?" Elizabeth asked with a hint of pointedness.
"Uh..." Rodney hesitated with a furtive glance to Ronon, whose arched brows said everything of his thoughts on the matter. "I just... Never mind."
Elizabeth shook her head with a roll of her eyes. "All right, I'm not going to ask. But I want you at the meeting tomorrow morning, Rodney."
"You're not serious about us going through all the missions we did?"
"Not all of them," Elizabeth extemporised. "Maybe just the memorable ones."
Rodney had been about to turn his attention back to his email. Instead, he looked up. "Memorable to him or memorable to us?" There was a vast chasm of difference between the two definitions, after all.
"I'll let you decide, Rodney."
Ronon, at least, waited until the doors closed behind Elizabeth. "Tomorrow will be interesting."
"And then some." Rodney looked at his team-mate. "How is he?"
"He's Sheppard. It doesn't show."
"It doesn't show that he's Sheppard, or... Never mind." Rodney glared at his mail. "He just had to go and get himself caught by Kolya, didn't he? And then he couldn't just wait patiently for us to come and rescue him - no! He had to end up taken by the Wraith and missing for six months."
"You make it sound like it was deliberate. He's back."
"In body, sure," Rodney stuck his chin on his hand. "I mean, really, when was the last time you saw Sheppard smile at a woman like he's been looking at his local girlfriend?"
Ronon hesitated. Rodney looked up and narrowed his eyes. "What?"
"Only when we were hanging out with Teyla." Hands gripped the edge of the bench, shoulders strained as Ronon elevated himself off the bench, swinging his butt and legs in the gap between his wrists, a feat that was muscularly impressive, even if Rodney's wrists hurt just watching him. "And not very often." He shrugged. "Hey, Sheppard's still himself, whatever the Wraith did to him."
"Sure he is - he just doesn't remember anything in his life before the Wraith got him," Rodney sneered. "That's not 'still himself.'"
Ronon shrugged. "Teyla agrees with me."
"And her agreement matters so much!" The instant the words were out of Rodney's mouth, he regretted them. "Look, I didn't mean to be so..."
"Blunt," Rodney said, ignoring the fact that he was always blunt. "We have to face this. Just because we've got Sheppard back, doesn't mean we have him back."
"I know." Ronon looked like he was contemplating saying more.
Rodney scowled. Ronon did that from time to time - but where John had done it deliberately, most of the time, it was just Ronon choosing not to answer. It frustrated the hell out of Rodney, because he always just said what was on his mind, even if it wasn't always quite what he should say. Well, no-one had killed him yet, had they?
"You know I'll get it out of you later."
"You can try." Ronon glanced at the timepiece on the wall. "You remember we're training tomorrow morning after the meeting?"
"I was trying to forget it."
"Can't fight if your body's not awake."
Rodney rolled my eyes. "In eighteen months, it amazes me that you haven't yet worked out that I'm never going to be a fighter."
"Not trying to make you into a fighter," Ronon said with an amused snort. "I'm teaching you to stay alive long enough so a fighter can get to you."
Rodney knew it wasn't, and Ronon knew he knew. But they both took pleasure out of needling each other in their own ways, and anyone who'd try to hold them back - maybe with the occasional exception of Teyla - would rapidly find themselves on the receiving end of one rapier intellect and one intimidating pose.
He'd known it long before Elizabeth had commented on it one afternoon shortly after John's disappearance. Rodney had raged in full volume about the incompetence and stupidity of the IOA as Ronon leaned against a bench and offered comments Rodney didn't want. Teyla had said nothing until the end, but her query about whether Rodney now felt better had made him realise just how skillfully his team-mates had lanced his frustration.
Maybe it wasn't the way Sheppard had drawn him out, but it worked and they'd been willing to do it for him.
Of course, Rodney had realised they were family to him long before that point; but that had been the point at which he realised that if Sheppard never came back, it might be okay. Well, not okay, okay, obviously, because Sheppard would have still been gone, but okay because Sheppard wasn't the only one who'd come through for Rodney.
Except that now John was back. As someone else - someone who didn't recognise Rodney.
"What is it?"
"Hm? Oh, just... Sheppard. Don't you find it weird that he doesn't remember anything from before? That he doesn't remember us?"
Ronon shrugged. "It happens sometimes. He'll get it back."
"Oh, and how do you know that, Mr. I-Have-A-Degree-In-Showing-Off-My-Muscles?"
Another shrug. "I gotta trust he will."
Rodney wished he could.
As she emerged from the Stargate into Atlantis, Teyla nodded at the marines on-duty in the gateroom, and tipped a wave up to the technician who was on duty at this late hour.
She enjoyed late-night arrivals in the city. There was a lovely atmosphere about the dimmed-down lights and the echoing quiet of a room that was usually so busy in daylight, criss-crossed by so many people going about their business.
As she made her way through the sleeping city, rather than going towards her sleeping quarters, Teyla took the route that would take her past the 'snack' kitchens. Due to the time rotation difference between the planet of the Orawi, New Athos, and Atlantis, her last proper meal had been lunch on Orawi.
The trade negotiations with the Orawi had been very satisfactory, with the Athosians striking a bargain with which both sides professed themselves satisfied. With a little diplomacy on Teyla's part, and her careful efforts to keep the topic focused on trade and not on John's departure, they had completed the negotiations, with plans for further follow-up, and possibly looking into some mingling between the communities. Not all the children of the Athosians enjoyed life among their people, and Teyla had seen signs that Yan's arrival in the midst of the Orawi had sparked an interest in the galaxy beyond their planet among some of the Orawi adolescents.
There were ways and means to manage the restlessness among the young. Given the wisdom of Erthana of the Orawi, Teyla had little doubt that the village elder would manage it in her indomitable way.
At the transporter, she encountered one of the control room techs, who skip-slid around her in a small, capering dance. "Hey, Teyla. How are your people?"
"Very well, Kelly. How did the Colonel's return go?"
Kelly grinned. "Ask how it didn't go! Lions and tigers and bears - oh, my!"
Teyla grimaced. "Colonel Edwards was not pleased with the delay?"
"Colonel Edwards was not pleased at all," said the young woman wryly. She lowered her voice. "I'm still not sure why they sent someone so rule-bound to Atlantis, but not my call..." She shrugged and hoisted the tablet she carried. "I gotta go. Chuck's holding my post, but he's due off in thirty and we have to go through the stats."
"Have a good shift."
"Oh, yeah, I'm sure it'll be thrilling - just like last night, and the night before, and the night before that. Did I mention how much I hate drawing the night-shift?" Still, Kelly was smiling as she spun around to head back off in the direction from which Teyla had just come. The corporal was new enough to still love working in the city, young enough to hope for a challenge, friendly enough to start chatting to Teyla one night when she'd come back late from her people's new home.
Teyla took the transporter over towards the mess hall, and moved quickly and quietly through the corridors. She'd made new friends all through the city in the last six months, partly because of John's absence, partly due to the relocation of her people from the Lantean mainland.
'Defence mechanisms' was Elizabeth's term for it - the measures taken to protect oneself from further injury.
Sometimes Teyla wondered if the Lanteans had a term for everything.
Tonight, the kitchen was empty, and the fridge's shelves were similarly bare. It seemed that few people had been inclined to cook today - most likely there'd been too much excitement generated by John's return.
She wondered how he had found the city, looking at it from a stranger's point of view.
Footsteps out in the corridor beyond told her that someone was coming, but she was not expecting John's casual, "Hey."
Her breath caught in her throat as she turned. "J-- Yan." She stopped herself in time. He had identified himself as Yan, until he indicated otherwise, it was best to speak to him by the name he'd chosen.
"Mind if I come in?"
"It is a public space," she told him with a smile. "Permission is not required." Past him in the corridor, one of the marines assigned to tail him shifted, a mere shadow behind his shoulder. She looked at the marine and nodded. "You may leave him in my company, Sergeant."
The struggle between instinct and Colonel Edwards' requirements battled for a moment, then, with a nod, the man retreated.
His footsteps had vanished into the city night's oblivion before John spoke. "There seems to be doubt about your ability to keep an eye on me."
"Would he be wrong?"
John snorted a little as he sauntered in and leaned against one of the countertops.
Teyla returned to her perusal of the fridge's contents and tried not to think that he was watching her. It was not an unwelcome sensation - the sense that he was studying her - but neither was it entirely comfortable. Which was strange, given that earlier today, she had been perfectly comfortable with him as they walked back to the village, talking as though they were old friends.
Which was entirely true.
To break the silence, Teyla inquired, "How has it been so far?"
"The city?" There was a pause behind her. "Complicated. I mean...I should remember it and I guess a part of me does, but..."
Teyla smiled, turning with a plastic tub of noodle-seasoning in her hand - pesto as the Lanteans termed it. "You do not recall any of it?"
"Nothing's rung a bell so far," he said, one side of his face pulling into a grimace. "Although I've been told that's an Earth idiom."
"You probably do not notice," she said as she put the tub of pesto on the bench and went back to the fridge to look at the other options, "but your language contains a great many idiosyncratic sayings."
"I always had to explain myself at first," he said. "Although, after a while, they just stopped asking what I meant."
Teyla glanced up from her survey of the fridge. There was little else inside that appealed to her, although a gleam of plastic wrap in the depths suggested that someone had been doing some baking in the last few days. She closed the fridge doors and crossed over to the cupboards where the dry goods were stored. "What have you seen of the city so far?"
"Not much. Obviously the gateroom and the control room, the briefing room, the mess hall, the infirmary - and now the kitchens." John made a noise like a sigh of exasperation. "You'd think that in a city this large, I'd remember something..."
Teyla paused as he trailed off, an opened package of dried pasta in her hand. When she turned, he was looking around him with frowning memory.
"You have remembered something else?"
"Kind of. I think." He looked away, his usual gesture for 'embarrassed but not willing to say it'. "We've done this before, haven't we? Here, in this kitchen."
"Yeah." John glanced at her, a smile suddenly playing on his mouth. "It's...I'm getting the feeling that we were in here a few different times. Different meals, different times of day." He tilted his head. "I remember explaining to you what a fridge was."
Teyla remembered that. "That was my first night in Atlantis without my people. They had moved to the mainland and I was unable to sleep."
She'd been awake and lonely, the silence of the city unnatural to the ears of someone accustomed to the constant night noises of a planet, filtered through tent canvas. Her people were gone and Teyla had been lonely, and worse than that - alone. She'd gone wandering through the city's empty corridors and John had found her.
Which made this a fitting reciprocation.
"And I put together a midnight snack." His eyes lit with excitement, like a child given a new gift. "Leftovers..."
"And chocolate cake." Teyla remembered that first taste of the Earth dessert - so sweet and rich. She moved about the kitchen, fetching pans and adding water and salt to boil the pasta. "There were many other times, though. When our team came back from missions late, we were often hungry for more than merely the food bars sent with us for sustenance."
She laughed as she turned on the stove. "Yes. Most often, we would be here with Ronon. But Rodney would sometimes join us, and other people, too."
John had been a part of the expedition to Atlantis from the start, and with the famed persistence and stubbornness that was both admired and deplored, he'd made her a part of the city expedition too.
"So it's really a different kind of village," he murmured, more to himself than her. "Communal."
"In a way."
It was strange to think of John living communally among the Orawi - among a people who were not so from Teyla's own. While the Lantean expedition was a community of its own, it was not of a type that was echoed in any culture Teyla had seen in her own galaxy.
She wondered how the Orawi woman - Ivali - was coping with the city. Teyla's coming to Atlantis had been as a refugee, and yet she'd had her people with her; there had been comfort and familiarity in her community. It would have been much harder without them.
Ivali had John, at least.
Teyla buried the discomfort that thought caused her. "I find that people are much the same," she said, leaning back against the bench beside the stove, "whether they live in shining cities or mud huts."
He smiled at her, arching dark brows over eyes that were a warm green, even in the artificial light of the kitchen. "A personal philosophy?"
"Trappings change. People are people."
"So, does that go for me as well as Pegasus?"
Teyla hesitated, realising he was watching her reaction closely. The scrutiny was uncomfortable. John had never stared at her like this, as though looking for answers she couldn't give him. "It is not the same," she said after a moment. "You do not remember who you are."
"But you do. I guess I'm curious - do I seem the same to you?"
"More or less," Teyla said, choosing not to go into detail. "But it has only been a day."
"I feel different here." He looked away for a moment, down and to the side - John hiding himself.
"Perhaps it is the city."
"Maybe." His gaze travelled up the walls, as though trying to see through their structure to the many rooms around them. "It's like...I guess it's like I've come home. Which, if you think about it, makes sense if this is the only home I've known for the last couple of years."
"Has Dr. Beckett spoken to you?"
"Only what was required to assure everyone that I was who they thought I was."
"Colonel John Sheppard."
He grimaced. "Yeah."
"Did they tell you of your family?"
"Other than saying that we don't talk anymore," said John, "no."
Teyla only knew a little - the bits and pieces that John had let slip in their conversations and interactions. It was not enough to share, and she didn't think she even had the right to tell him. "You were always most comfortable in Atlantis."
"Apparently there'll be someone along tomo-- Oops! Pasta's boiling."
Startled and distracted, Teyla hurriedly turned down the heat. It would simmer for a few minutes more, as she went to find a serving bowl. As she rustled through the cracked and chipped dishware in the cupboard, she heard John moving around behind her. When she looked up, she found him standing at the stove, stirring the pasta around.
"So it doesn't stick together," he said with a smile and a glance and a shrug.
As she laid a bowl and spoon and fork down on the table, Teyla reflected that John had always been deprecating, as though embarrassed that he was who he was, doing what he did, being who he had to be. Sometimes, she had wondered if his entire existence carried a silent apology for not being who the people in his past had expected him to be, even as he refused to be anyone but who he felt he had to be.
It seemed that much had not changed.
"You were saying?" Teyla asked when he didn't move away from the stove.
"I was saying--? Oh. No, don't tell me." He turned around a little, hesitating, then lifted one hand to stop her as she began to point to the cupboard containing the pasta drainer.
In a few moments, he'd located the drainer, poured the pasta in, lightly rinsed it off, and slid the long strands into the bowl in front of her.
Teyla had been smiling to herself as she watched him. "Of all the things I should have expected you to remember, this is not one of them."
"Are you saying I'm a lousy cook?"
"You are a better cook than me."
"Which isn't saying much." He paused. "No, I guess that's not saying much."
One hand reached up and scratched at his scalp for a moment, fingers pushing through the dark strands of hair that were longer and looser than Teyla had ever seen on him. Then, in what seemed to be a very deliberated move, he turned away, putting both pot and drainer in the sink and switching on the water to rinse them off. "I didn't ask this before. I haven't asked this of anyone in the city because I didn't think... And I figured you'd have said if..."
Ah. Teyla concentrated on the dark green of the pesto sauce as she spooned it carefully over the pasta and didn't look at him. "No."
"I hadn't even asked."
Direct conversations had never been their strength. They either faced each other and skirted the topic, or spoke without looking at each other. There were rules - unspoken, but no less binding for their silence.
"All right, then why do I remember you?" His voice was quiet amidst the churn of water in the sink, low and intense as John so rarely was. "I don't remember people from Earth - people that everyone else seems to think I should. I don't remember Dex or McKay or Weir or Lorne - I remember you." He pushed down the lever-tap and turned to face her, and the long lines of his face were set in entreaty. "Tell me why."
"We were friends," she said, honestly.
"And I wasn't friends with other people in the city? Because they treat me like I should know them, and I don't. The only person I remember with any certainty is you."
Teyla watched him drag his fingers through his hair, turn and pace a few steps, then turn back. She wondered how to explain this, to put him off. The conversation was not one she was comfortable holding with him - shaving too close to her feelings.
"John, I do not know why you remember me of all the people in the city. We were friends - good friends, yes - there were rumours. But we were not...that."
She was not usually this clumsy in explanation. But then, she had never expected this kind of conversation with John.
"We were not lovers."
"Should I ask why not?"
Because she'd been careful that they should be nothing more than friends. But that was not something she could admit, especially not now and to him. "We worked together. The United States Air Force frowns on intimate physical relationships within its ranks, especially between those working with each other in close quarters. And I am not from Earth."
The formal excuse was easier to explain than the personal ones. There were too many complex layers of which John had been perfectly aware - and of which Yan was not. To explain them would go into realms of their relationship that Teyla was not prepared to explore.
He stared at her for a long moment, then looked away with a grimace. "Yeah, guess that would make a difference around here, wouldn't it?"
There seemed to be no need for an answer, so Teyla started on her meal as John began washing up.
"You know," John said after a few moments, "you never said anything about not being attracted to me."
Heat rushed her cheeks. She paused with her fork halfway to her mouth, saw the smile that touched the corner of his - satisfied and male. It was not an intentional flirtation, perhaps, but she had always understood the reactions of the women at his smile, even if she had been careful in her own.
In answer, she gave him her longest, most level stare - the one she'd always used when he was being silly or foolish, or pushing her boundaries.
Something hovered between them for a moment, the potential delicate as fingers on her cheek.
Deliberately, Teyla looked back down at her meal, shattering the fragile potential. A few moments later, she heard John washing up the pan.
"I see what you meant about Colonel Edwards," he said after a moment and his tone was casual, easy. "There's definitely several distinct opinions of him in the city."
"Atlantis is not an easy command to come into," Teyla said, choosing the voice of moderation.
"Yeah, I got that feeling." John snorted as he put the pan in the rack and turned around. "Was I that good?"
Even to someone with no experience in the ways of the Earth military, it had never been a question of 'good'. It had been a question of what was 'right' - and John Sheppard had been right for the Atlantis expedition and the people in it. She arched an eyebrow at him, twirling her noodles around the fork. "You were with the expedition from the start, so you were familiar. Your professional history caused some of the military in the expedition to regard you with suspicion, but it worked in your favour among those who had less cause to love the military."
Your leader looks right through me.
"You were my primary experience of the military - you and Aiden."
He hesitated. "They've mentioned him several times. I'm getting the feeling that 'Aiden' isn't with the expedition anymore?"
"Lieutenant Aiden Ford - of the United States Marines Corps," Teyla said, wondering if it would bring anything to mind for him. However, no recognition showed on his face. "It is a long story."
"Everything's a long story around here." John grumbled, but he seemed good-natured about it. "All right. So Edwards has a hard act to follow..." He trailed off.
"Another Earth idiom," she said, smiling.
"Maybe it's all coming back?"
"Or perhaps the way you speak is so much habit that even without your memory you cannot help it." Teyla let her smile twinkle at him for a moment. "But I know little of that."
"I imagine you've picked up a bit here and there, though," he muttered.
"Yes. Colonel Edwards is not a leader I would have picked for Atlantis," Teyla said. "But it is not my choice - nor the choice of anyone in the city."
"Let me guess, there are politics involved?"
"Yes." She wondered how much to tell him - there were so many layers, so many complexities. She wondered if she could explain it to him. Elizabeth had explained them enough for Teyla to understood how things worked on Earth - the checks and balances that organisations such as the IOA required - but Teyla was uncertain if she was capable of conveying it with her imperfect understanding of the intricacies of Earth politics. "You already know you come from another galaxy. The political bodies on your planet are uneasy with the degree of freedom allowed to the Atlantis expedition."
"So they're trying to control it and Edwards is their player in the city." He folded his arms across his chest. "I'm guessing I wasn't very political even before I lost my memory?"
"I believe that is what your people call a safe bet."
His mouth twitched but he didn't answer.
Teyla ate the last few strands of her pasta.
She enjoyed the flavour of pesto - so simple a thing to create according to the cooks in the city, and yet with a lovely, intense taste. She had described the process to several Athosian cooks and the results had been mixed. According to Katie Brown, only a handful of Pegasus grains contained enough of a substance called 'glutin' to make into the breads and noodles of Earth - one of them being the tava uololo that her people had gone to the Orawi to trade for.
"Yes." She began to rise with the bowl, intending to wash it. John took it neatly from her hands. "I'll do that."
Startled, Teyla stared at his back for a moment. John had always been courteous, but that courtesy had not previously extended to taking dishes from her to be washed.
"You're staring at me."
"I can feel you staring at me." With a slosh of water, he up-ended the bowl on the rack and reached for the drying towel. The strong slope of his shoulder curved up into his neck as he turned his head to address her over his shoulder. "Actually, I can feel most of the city watching me."
Teyla knew the feeling of being under scrutiny. She did not imagine that the guards who were set to watch him and Ivali helped in any way. "It is...difficult to reconcile your presence now with who you were."
"So I didn't do the washing up before?" This time he turned and faced her squarely, head tilted in challenge, his hands resting on his hips again. "I'm not who I was, Teyla."
"But that is hard to remember, Yan."
His expression might have been a half-smile, or it might have been a grimace. Even knowing John, Teyla wasn't sure. "You know, you're the only person in the city - other than Ivali - who calls me that."
Uncertain of what he expected from her, she took her time answering. "It is the name you chose for yourself."
"But it's not who people see." Bitterness stained his words.
"It is who you were - and that is who we are familiar with." Looking at him, Teyla regretted that his transition back into the city would not be smooth. She hoped it would not be so difficult that he would retreat from it all. "It has only been one day - you must give us time to accustom ourselves to who you are now."
Their eyes met across the empty kitchen, and Teyla didn't look away as he studied her expression.
"Do you really think that they'd accept me as I am?"
She recognised a rhetorical question when it was asked. But beneath the question, she heard the plea.
John had never cared for the opinions of authority; what he had desired was the approval of his friends and allies. If he had occasionally surprised her with his desire to ensure that she was okay with the course of action being undertaken, she had never denied him her honesty.
To do so would have lessened herself and the respect she held for him as a man and as an ally.
"Those who were your friends from before will do their best," she said. "Including me."
John watched her for a few moments more. Then the tension ran out of him, loosening his shoulders and the subtle fighting stance he'd taken up during their conversation. And, seeing it, something in her released, too.
"We were friends?"
"Yes." That, at least, was a direct answer.
He slanted a glance up at her from beneath dark lashes; a boyish smile that Teyla remembered seeing only a handful of times on his face. "And we'll be friends again."
It wasn't a question, but neither was it something the 'old' John would have said - he would have assumed it rather than explicitly stated it.
"If you wish it," she began to say, and lost her words in a huge yawn. "But it will have to wait until tomorrow," she said with a wry laugh at herself.
"It's been a long day," said John. "And when you factor in the daytime on different planets, it's been even longer."
They ambled through the city's corridors in silence, like many another night after a midnight feast when Ronon had sought open air and free movement, and Rodney had hurried off to get down the basics of his latest brilliant idea.
'Just like old times' as the Lanteans would say.
And yet Teyla knew the difference. This man - the man walking beside her - was less flippant, yet more open. John had always kept his secrets, even at his most unrestrained. Yan had no secrets to keep - at least, none that his consciousness recalled - and without those shadows, he seemed...free.
At least, as free as a man could be when he had no past.
She would have to be careful. John had always been aware of the lines, his reserve backing up her own caution. Yan would not see things in quite the same light as John had; then, too, Ivali of the Orawi had thought enough of him to leave her people for him. That counted for much.
"So, I hear you guys are going to try to jog my memory tomorrow," he said as they paused at the junction that led down towards his personal quarters - the room he presently shared with Ivali. "Old missions after breakfast?"
"I have not yet checked my schedule," she said. "But it is likely."
"Should I be worried?"
She wavered between 'Yes,' and 'No.'
"I'll take that as a signal to be worried." But he was smiling as he glanced down the corridors where the marines were waiting for his return. Teyla lifted a hand to signal that she was leaving him in their care and one of them lifted a hand back. "And here's my stop." He hesitated, as though he wanted to say something else.
Teyla pre-empted him. "Good night, John."
She did not look back when he murmured, "G'night, Teyla."
As she walked to her rooms, Teyla hoped that daylight - and the presence of Ivali - would make John less inclined to question the relationship between them.
They were friends and that was, had been, and would be enough for Teyla. She could only hope it would be enough for Yan Stormborn as it had been enough for John Sheppard.
The guards shoved him into the cell, the feeding slits biting warningly into his arms.
He stumbled forward, catching his toe on the floor, but catching himself short of a humiliating sprawl in front of the other prisoners. "You could work on your customer service, you know," he called as they marched away.
One shoulder twitched a little, the usual rush of edgy energy from the Wraith 'rejuvenation' finding outlet in restless movement. He stretched out his arms to the side, swinging his fists out like the pendulum in the clock that stood...somewhere in his mind, before swinging them back. He turned his head from side to side, uneasily trying to dissipate the energy before he turned to face the other prisoners.
There were just over a dozen of them now. There'd been more to begin with, but they were gone now, drained of life by the Wraith.
He tried not to think where that life had gone.
...life is pain, you just get used to it, but he'd never get used to this dreadful inrushing, like the uncomfortable tingle of electricity in the moment before his hand jerked out of Lola Williams' grip and the science teacher laughed, but Mr. Stenson's mouth was raw-fanged and his skin a pasty pale, and his body ached as his mind shut down sections to cope with the overload...
He knew what the other prisoners saw - a man in the prime of his life, healthy and whole - a man who'd been taken from the cell as a withered, shrunken old figure. He knew what they thought - the woman had been blunt enough about it the first time; and although the others had shushed her, they hadn't refuted her words.
As far as any of them were concerned, it seemed that he wasn't someone they particularly wanted to know.
He couldn't blame them.
His team would have sneered, snorted, and shaken their heads at the thought of him as a Wraith-worshipper.
But he didn't allow himself to think of them too much in here.
He'd taken classes on evasion and resistance, capture and torture, back in the day. They'd been useful enough in the hills of...Afghan? Afghanistan.
They watched him across the room, their gazes wary and afraid as his hands fisted in balled frustration. He turned away from them, trying to ignore hot-and-cold prickling in his chest, in his head, in his arms, in his thighs. Trying to think of a way out of this. He wanted to be doing something, not just standing around doing nothing.
Gotta think past the high. Gotta think of a way out. I've done this before.
He'd gotten off a hiveship before - several times before.
But those times he'd had a plan; he'd had a purpose; he'd had his team. Now, all he had was himself and the people in the cell with him. People who didn't even trust him.
A hand touched his shoulder. He caught himself in the middle of shoving it away. As it was, he had to deliberately unclench his fingers from around the man's wrist.
...you can call me John when we're off the clock, but when he said he didn't know what just happened he'd meant he didn't know why he'd made the move - it had just happened, and she seemed shocked and wary of him, no surprise there because what woman liked a man forcing himself onto her, his hand between her breasts draining life and youth from her, then forcing it all back in - a life for a life - and too many lives taken in exchange for his...
"Easy there." A cragged, gnarled face grimaced at him as one hand massaged the other wrist. "I'm meaning you no harm, you know."
He blew out a long breath. "Sorry." It was symptomatic of the enzyme that the Wraith shot into him during the feeding process, he knew. He wasn't sure how he knew-- Ford! That was how they'd lost Ford. He remembered facing the younger man, trying to plead with the lieutenant, one eye blacked out, the usually easy-going expression hard and suspicious.
There were holes in his memory; things that he was forgetting. People. Places. Events. He didn't dare examine the missing parts too carefully, in here, it was too dangerous, with the Wraith all around, looking into his thoughts.
He arched a questioning brow at the man whose hands had dropped to his sides. "Aren't you afraid of the Wraith-worshipper?"
The man snorted softly. "You're no more a Wraith-worshipper than they are."
"He gained from their lives!" A woman's voice rang out across the room, bitter in loss.
"And had it taken from him again and again," said the man. Dark eyes held understanding. "I don't imagine it's easy."
"No." Then, because it nagged within him, he blurted, "I'm sorry."
"You're not the Wraith, to hold the power of life and death over us."
"No, I'm just the survivor."
...the hollow scream echoed in his head as he watched young eyes turn old and hollow, saw skin shrivel like a time-lapse photoshoot, and the thick-fleshed lips thinned, peeling back from the teeth in an eternal scream as what had been a whole human became desiccated remains, a grim inditement on he who watched with horror as the Wraith turned to him, one arm pinning his weak, treacherous body down, the feeding slit flexing against bare chest, and then the scream was his, ripped from his throat, an endless denial as stolen life surged into him...
Anger thrust through him, frustration at being caged, and he turned and slammed his hands against the cell wall. The flexible membrane boomed back at him, impermeable and mocking, the hollow echo of his anger resounding back at him and the other prisoners.
He rested his forehead against his arm, not surprised to hear silence behind him.
"Why do they want you to survive?"
For a moment, he couldn't even remember the reason why. Then he remembered. A cell and a common enemy, an alliance between two who had no reason to trust.
We had a deal. I will keep it. I promise you that.
"He owes me a debt."
The words were like poison in his mouth.
Even before Yan opened his eyes, he knew he was in Atlantis.
He'd felt the difference the instant he walked into the city, from the moment he'd stepped through the Ring with Ivali's hand in his and looked in shock at the terraced stairs and high balcony, at the stained glass windows and the impossibly high ceiling.
Dr. Weir had said he'd recognise it when he returned. He'd thought she'd meant in terms of memory, but this went deeper than mere recollection. Something in Yan resonated with this place, like the metal bells that hummed when Jeka hammered hot iron on the anvil.
When he opened his eyes to look up at the ceiling, he already knew the day outside was cloudy and grey. The light wasn't bright enough for sunrise, and the part of the city he could see had no sun.
Had there been a reason he'd chosen a room that faced north-east, with a view of the sea between a forest of silver-grey towers? Somewhere in his past, was there a room that lightened with the dawn, but which fell easily into shadows by late afternoon, and which he'd tried to recover by taking this one?
They'd offered Ivali a 'guest room' but Yan had taken her hand and simply said, "We'll share."
In the end, they'd brought in a spare mattress, and they'd made a 'nest' on the floor, blankets and quilts over the sleeping furs they'd brought with them from Orawi. And if the marines stationed outside the room lifted an eyebrow at the sight, a hard stare kept their thoughts to themselves.
In a way, the looks he gained from his statement that he'd share with Ivali were even more disturbing than the fact that the room they showed them to sported a single bed. It was quite clear that intimate personal relationships were not encouraged by these people - as clear as it was made that Ivali was considered 'unnecessary baggage' to Yan's presence.
It made him all the more determined not to abandon her in this place.
Beside him, Ivali shifted sleepily, her lashes thick and curling on her cheeks. "Yan?"
Mischief stirred him. "No," he said, making his voice a little deeper. "It's Berdo."
Her eyes flew wide open, before she saw him and relaxed. "That was unkind."
He laughed and bent to kiss her, a light morning brush of lips against lips. "Who were you expecting in your bed?"
"No-one but you." Ivali sighed as her eyes skimmed above his head across the walls and ceiling of this room that had once been Yan's - or so they said. "This place," she murmured, "is so confusing."
"It's not what we're used to," said Yan. Which was true, he thought to himself. But he couldn't use the word 'confusing' for it - not the way Ivali did. He understood the city perfectly. And, what was more worrying, the city seemed to understand him perfectly back.
She was watching him, her blue eyes clear as the spring melts in which he'd been found. "It's not what I'm used to," she said softly, and her fingers brushed his lips too fast for him to kiss.
She flung back the blankets and sheets beneath which they'd slept, shivering a little in the cool air. "Is there time for a wash before the mornbreaking?"
Yan sat up and scraped a hand through his hair. "At least a few hours," he said, not sure how he knew the information. There was something odd about the city's time, something that wasn't quite right... "It's only just gone sunrise."
Ivali paused at the door to the internal washroom - something else that had astonished them last night. "Did Dr. Weir not say that the meeting would be the first thing in the morning?"
"Yes, but..." He groped for an explanation to the sensation he was getting that 'first thing' meant that the meeting would not be for some time. "They don't count hours the same, here. 'First thing' means...several hours after sunrise. Once everyone's woken up and had their br...mornbreaking."
The word breakfast had risen on his tongue, hitching the Orawi syllables on his tongue.
But Ivali didn't seem to notice. "A strange way of counting time," she said as she passed into the washroom and turning on the water. Ronon had explained the functions of the washroom to them last night, showing them how to use it.
Yan had thanked Ronon as he left. The man's familiarity with and acceptance by the people in the city, coupled with his visible difference, had put Ivali at ease as Dr. Weir's polite formality hadn't. The man might look intimidating, but he had a gentleness about him, too.
"Atlantis was new to me once," was all the man had said in response to Yan's thanks.
What Yan hadn't said to Ronon or to Ivali or to anyone was that nothing felt new.
Oh, there was a moment of surprise at the different way of doing things, a second when he stared and thought, I didn't expect that, only to be followed by the realisation that something in him did expect exactly 'that'.
Ivali had struggled from the moment they came here. Everything was strange and unfamiliar. She had no concept of the door switches or the tiny room that moved you halfway across the city. People's stares made her nervous and shy, and the food had confused her - not just its strangeness, but how it was eaten, coming as it did in small open-ended boxes that weren't wood or stone and being handled by utensils instead of eaten with tavaloaf-slices.
But yesterday, Yan had walked through the city and something in him had known where they were going before they told him. Or else as they walked through the corridors on their way to a room or place or office, he'd almost remembered the way.
Last night, unable to sleep with the strange thrumming in his blood, he'd climbed out from the bed and gone wandering through the city, the soldier set to watch him following at his heels like the legend of the Runner Kaftor and his loyal heel-beast.
The instincts of his feet had set him on a path to the kitchens, and there he'd found Teyla.
We were friends.
It was easy to believe that - easier to believe that he'd been friends with her than it was to believe he'd been friends with the abrasive Dr. McKay.
Still, Yan had been aware of the smiles of those around him as he and McKay exchanged short words in the infirmary - Dr. Beckett's open grin, Dr. Weir's hastily-turned smile, the twitch of Ronon's mouth behind the concealment of his beard. And it had been a relief to have someone who didn't care about making him feel 'comfortable'.
It had felt right.
Just as it had felt right to stand with Ronon over a kill, talking absently in the to-and-fro way of men with a common task and a common feeling.
Just as it had felt right to stand in the kitchen with Teyla and watch her put together a meal and talk about everything or nothing, the silence as speaking as the words.
Just as it had felt right to stand in Atlantis - to feel he'd come home.
For all that he didn't remember who he'd been, something in Yan knew he belonged here.
The feeling only intensified as he and Ivali made their way from their room to the dining area - the 'mess hall'.
When Ivali paused at the doors, instinctively turning to the marines who still hovered there, Yan plucked at her sleeve and gestured in the right direction. He didn't know why it was the right direction, it just was. 'Body memory', Dr. Beckett had called it. "You'll probably find that your body remembers things your mind doesn't. After all, you're walking and talking without any apparent trouble."
The day outside the city windows looked cloudy and grey - a far cry from the summer weather of Orawi. Here and there among the cloud cover, it looked like blue sky was trying to break through, but Yan and Ivali walked towards the 'mess hall' in the indeterminate light of a bleak day.
Men and women passed them in the halls, some going about their work with bright faces, others retiring from it to their beds with weary ones.
And as they passed him and Ivali, every head turned, every eye lingered, and almost everyone who did so gave Yan a brief nod of acknowledgement.
If it had been strange enough yesterday to walk through Atlantis as people gaped and gawked at him, it was even weirder now to be treated as though he was someone they knew. Even if they'd known who he was, as he'd said to Teyla, who he'd once been wasn't who he was now.
They saw Colonel John Sheppard of Atlantis.
And Yan Stormborn of the Orawi felt battered from all sides by their expectations.
Beside him, he felt Ivali's tension growing; turned to flash a smile of reassurance at her as they entered the mess hall, and fought back the resentment that blossomed as heads turned and voices lowered as they were seen - the city's latest spectacle.
However, at least one person didn't seem to be joining in with the staring.
"Don't talk to me," Dr. McKay said, putting one hand up as Yan and Ivali sat down at his table with their breakfast trays. "I just thought of how we're going to get the power conduit running from the deep-sea mining facility up to the outpost without losing half the energy along the way."
Yan narrowed his eyes at the man's rudeness. "Fine, then. Don't let us keep you."
"I won't." McKay was scribbling over one of the 'tablets' that almost everyone in the city carried around with them when they were 'working' - although it seemed only McKay brought it along while he was eating.
He'd spotted the man as soon as they'd walked into the communal dining room - the 'mess hall' as the people in the city called it. A quick perusal of the place hadn't provided any sign of Teyla or Ronon or anyone else who seemed familiar, so although Ivali had suggested one of the spare tables, Yan had headed for the empty seats at McKay's table.
It had been possible that the man's terseness yesterday might have been due to the unexpectedness of seeing Yan again. Sitting down this morning, Yan was forced to concede it was probably just McKay.
"Good morning, Rodney, Colonel, Ivali - I hope you slept well?" Dr. Weir paused by their table, a friendly smile on her face.
"We slept very well, thank you, Dr. Weir." Ivali said, pausing to put down her utensils.
He didn't wince at her use of his name. Maybe he'd been John Sheppard before he was captured by the Wraith and lost his memory, but he wasn't John anymore. "It was fine."
"Good. I'll see you both - and you, Rodney - in the briefing room at nine. Rodney?"
"Yes, yes, briefing room at nine. Now go away."
With a smile for Yan and Ivali and a roll of her eyes, Dr. Weir walked off, cheerfully greeting other people on her way through the room.
McKay went back to his mad pattering, leaving Ivali to look at Yan with an expression of distaste on her face.
"You know," Yan said as he began buttering a slice of toast, "I've been missing for six months."
"I've been working on this problem for six minutes."
"You could at least talk to us."
"Why? It's not as though you remember anything we used to talk about."
It took Yan a moment to find his voice. He ignored the nudge Ivali gave him with her knee, eyes narrowed as he glared at McKay. "I've held conversations with Teyla and Ronon..."
"Neither of who have the kind of ingrained Earth knowledge that you require to have a reasonable conversation with me." Finally, the man's head lifted from the screen he was so frantically tapping, and the staccato tattoo stopped. "All right then, Batman or Wolverine?"
"John or Paul? Skrulls or Starro? Sebastian Bach or Freddy Mercury? American Psycho or Batman Returns?"
Yan blinked. "Huh?"
"Okay, try humour - taking over countries with the cunning use of flags? Did your mother smell of elderberries? Good evening, godless sodomites?"
Not a single word coming out of McKay's mouth was making sense. Or, rather, individually, they made sense, but together...
"Are you always like this?"
McKay looked away from Yan to someone coming towards the table. "Teyla, tell Mr. Amnesia if I'm always like this."
Yan's heart gave a quick thump as he turned in his seat to face the woman approaching them, a food tray in her hands. He forced it to quiet, aware of Ivali sitting beside him. "Hey."
"Yes," Teyla said in answer as she paused by the seat opposite McKay. "He is always like this. Whatever he is like, he is always like this. Good greeting, Yan, Ivali."
The Orawi salutation brought a relieved glow to Ivali's face - something familiar amidst the unfamiliar. Yan could understand that; the reassurance of someone who wouldn't deliberately misunderstand him - as he was pretty sure McKay was doing - made a difference. "Good greeting, Teyla."
"Rodney, please move your tray."
"But I'm working--!" The protest was half-hearted. McKay grumbled as he pressed a few buttons on the screen, and then leaned it against the table leg beside him and pulled his tray over.
"Thank you." Teyla sat down. "I apologise for not coming to see you yesterday. I did not return to the city until very late." Her eyes flickered over to John's face and they shared a brief smile before she looked back at McKay.
McKay shrugged. "Ronon and Elizabeth turned up later so it wasn't all loss." He picked up the utensils and began shovelling food into his mouth with all the care of a hoarthik gorging on decaying flesh while Yan and Ivali looked on in blinking surprise. "I can't believe they serve us this crap."
Teyla seemed unbothered by it. "And yet you eat it."
"So do you."
"I do not complain of it." Teyla sipped at a cup of what smelled like tea. "My negotiations went very well, Rodney, no thanks to you for not asking." She glanced at Ivali with a smile. "Your people are hard bargainers. Erthana has great cunning in trade."
"She is our best. And our strain of tava uololo is famous in the markets," Ivali said, smiling. "But I do not imagine your people let us off easily."
"We gained some concessions." Teyla stirred fruit pieces into a small container of creamy stuff. "But that is done. Now that we have the promise of seeds for the next planting, my people must prepare the ground as this year's harvest is taken in..."
"And you made me put away my tablet for this kind of conversation?" Rodney interrupted, his expression sour.
"Is this the problem of not remembering the topics you want to talk about?" Yan asked, annoyed by the other man's interruption. Maybe it wasn't the kind of conversation McKay wanted to listen to, but he could at least be quiet while other people were talking.
"What do you think I know about planting and harvesting and stuff like that? For all I care, MREs could grow on trees in their little paper-and-foil packages, to be picked off by marines dressed in frilly aprons and singing Barry Manilow."
Abruptly, Yan had a vision of full-grown, uniformed men dressed in frilly pink aprons and serving silver packages to rows of men who were sitting in front of large pieces of glossy black furniture that were making music. "Okay. That's definitely disturbing."
McKay shot upright like someone had stuck a pin in his rear. "Wait, you remembered something? I said something that made you remember?"
Across the table from him, both Ivali and Teyla paused in their conversation. Teyla's expression was interested, her gaze bright and questioning as it rested on Yan; in contrast, Ivali's expression was suddenly guarded, as though she'd drawn a curtain across her thoughts.
"It was just a flash," he said, pressing his foot lightly against hers. He described what his mind had conjured up, saw Teyla's mouth twitch before she concealed it behind her mug of tea, saw McKay roll his eyes.
"Right, so of all the things you had to remember, you pick Barry Manilow?"
Yan narrowed his eyes. "I didn't pick it, it just happened."
"Yeah, well, let's hope that it'll 'just happen' again sometime this morning," said McKay. "Teyla, you'd better not have taken P8X-223 with the Barbie-doll mud, because I've already got that one."
Somehow, Barbie-doll mud didn't sound very promising.
Teyla sighed with exasperation. "I reviewed your choices and took care to pick ones that complement your choices, Rodney - as did Ronon. You might put a little trust in us to know you."
"You know? I think that, out of everything you could possibly have just said, that is probably the worst thing to reassure me..." McKay trailed off as someone paused beside their table.
Yan looked up into the austere features of the man who now commanded Atlantis.
Colonel Richard Edwards was a tall man - a little taller than Yan, with hard blue eyes and a Nordic cast to his features.
They'd met yesterday upon Yan's arrival in Atlantis and Yan hadn't liked him much. Neither, it seemed, had Colonel Edwards been impressed by the present state of the man whose position he'd taken over.
More interesting to Yan had been the reactions to Colonel Edwards. Lorne and his men had grown carefully precise, imitating Major Camberwell and his men as they saluted the Colonel before heading off down the corridor - although Lorne had glanced back. Ronon had followed them without the salute. And Dr. Weir had taken on the subtle stance of someone expecting a fight as she'd inquired about the state of the city in her absence.
And all the while, Edwards had been looking Yan over, summing up what he'd become in the intervening months, before summarily dismissing him.
He saw the conclusion in the man's hard gaze, recognised it from the time before even if he couldn't remember who'd said it.
A bad apple. A losing hand. No steel in that backbone. No fight in that horse. Untrustworthy, unreliable, disobedient, reckless...
The words played in his head, like a snatch of a song in his head, repeated over and over, wearing him down with condemnation. But even as Yan realised it, something else rose up inside him like a shadow and closed that door with a firm hand, shutting out the litany.
Screw them. You did what was right.
But he'd felt defensive, and his answers had been terse enough to gain worried looks from Ivali.
"Colonel Sheppard, Ms. Ivali, Dr. McKay, Ms. Emmagan." The greeting was cool and precise, the eyes flat as they looked at each person sitting around the table.
"Ah, Colonel Edwards," said McKay, stepping boldly - or foolishly - into the fray. "We were just discussing this morning's meeting. I'm guessing you'll be there to give us the benefit of your wisdom and experience?"
Opposite him, Teyla's expression grew slightly fixed, and Yan wondered if he dared kick McKay under the table.
"Considering I've only heard of Sheppard from reports, it's safe to say I lack any experience in dealing with him. I understand that's Dr. Weir's specialty, anyway."
McKay's eyes narrowed and his mouth opened, but opposite him, Teyla shifted and he fell silent. "Is there a change to this morning's schedule, Colonel Edwards?"
"Very good, Ms. Emmagan." He sounded, Yan thought, like someone patting a dog on the head for performing an unusual trick. "As a matter of fact, I didn't come here to exchange sarcastic comments with McKay. I came to inform Sheppard that General O'Neill will be with us at eleven-hundred hours for a closed-file meeting about his past."
Yan met the cold gaze as the man looked at him, refusing to back down, although the stare made his eyes water. "Closed-file meeting?"
"While you may not remember it, Colonel," and Edwards' stresses suggested that he doubted Yan's forgetfulness, "your military history goes back further than merely Atlantis. General O'Neill has agreed to take the time to come in and debrief you privately on the details of who you were back on Earth."
An interest in him? Who he'd been back on Earth? As compared to who he'd been in Atlantis? Yan wondered at this splintering of himself, the division of who he'd been - who he was - into so many distinct parts.
Something else in the sentence caught his attention. "Privately?"
"Your file is closed for security reasons, Colonel. There are very few people with the authorisation to know what's in it. And the General has a...personal interest in your situation." The smile was thin and brief. "I'll see you at the oh-nine-hundred meeting, Colonel."
He strode away, quite distinctly regimental in the midst of the city. Maybe too much so, from Yan's point of view.
I wasn't like that.
"See, this is why we want you back with your memory," said McKay, digging his fork into his omelette.
"Oh, come on. Edwards spits out of the side of his mouth every time he talks to you. I don't know how you and Ronon stand it."
"We manage," she said, and Yan heard the steel in her voice. "If you wouldn't provoke him--"
"Unlike some people around here, I'm not willing to sit back and let people aim verbal slaps at me!"
"It is an easy price to pay compared with Elizabeth's dealings with him," Teyla said, and there was an edged note in her voice. "Do you believe he does not hold her responsible for what is said and done to him by us?"
McKay opened his mouth, then shut it, looking troubled.
"You know," Yan said, interrupting their exchange, "I don't see anyone in this city letting people get away with slaps - verbal or other wise."
There was a moment when Teyla looked at him, her eyes large and with a sudden warning in them. Then she relaxed as McKay exclaimed, "You remem--"
"No," he said. "Not exactly." He glanced at Ivali who'd shifted in her seat, her gaze fixed on her food. Yan hesitated.
"Perhaps this is something better discussed in the meeting," said Teyla, with a quick look in Ivali's direction. "After all, that is what it was planned for."
Dr. McKay reminded Ivali of a puffer-bird.
The small, rotund birds were often to be found in the plainsforests in the early spring, peeping and swirling in their mating dances. The male birds, in particular, would sing an invitation song to attract the females, puffing up their chests as they strutted around the nest they'd built.
Comparing the people and things of the city with what she'd known in Orawi made the strangeness easier to bear.
Laughing at the comparisons - if only inside - protected her against her first instinct, which was to take Yan's hand and lead him through the Ring and never come back to the city of the Ancestors and the people from which he'd come.
It was a lovely place, if seeming so strange to her.
Still, others had adapted - Teyla Emmagan had clearly become accustomed to the city and the people in it. Ivali had made cautious inquiries yesterday, and discovered that the Athosian woman was well-respected, even held in affection.
It had helped a little in the strangeness of Atlantis, to know that someone who came from a people like Ivali's people had adjusted to Yan's people here, and that Yan's people had adjusted to her, too. Maybe, in time, they would accustom themselves to Ivali's presence by Yan's side.
Maybe, in time, Ivali would accustom herself to them.
Maybe, in time, she would accustom herself to the city and all its strangeness.
She glanced at Yan, who'd sunk his chin into his hand, his eyes narrow in thought as he listened to Dr. McKay's recounting of the 'Thalen-Phoebus Incident'.
He caught her glance and turned his head a little to smile at her, the warm, easy smile that she had first seen and admired. In these moments it was easy to believe that even here he was no more than the man she'd invited to her bed - that who he'd been could make no difference to how and how much she loved him.
"And so," concluded Dr. McKay, "thanks to my excellent hacking skills, I regained control of the city's systems in time for Teyla not to have to shoot you, and the day was saved." If he did not exactly pose for the acclaim and approval of his listeners, Ivali thought that the semblance to the puffer-bird preening in the wake of a performance was not too strange a likeness to recall.
In the corner of her eye, Ronon leaned forward. "Teyla engineered the solution," he said mildly.
Across the table, Dr. Weir shifted, and Teyla's cheek dimpled, although her smile was repressed. There was no apparent change of expression on Colonel Edwards - he had been silent and disapproving all through the last dozen stories from Yan's former friends. The observation seemed to fluster Dr. McKay.
"Yes, and who made it possible? Besides, what did you do? Get shot in the stomach and be in surgery for five hours?"
"Six," Ronon said, leaning forward in his seat so his body was hunched over his hands as his shoulders pushed back. It looked like a stretch of some kind. "That's not the point."
"The point," Dr. Weir interrupted, "is that there's a little more to the story. Teyla, if you would?"
Dr. Weir had seemed calm enough during all the other narratives; when she squirmed in her seat as Rodney described Phoebus' deception, Ivali had been sympathetic - to be used against her people in such a manner would not be a comfortable memory - and her sympathy had only increased as Phoebus' perfidy was fully revealed.
Teyla leaned forward, making eye contact with both Yan and Ivali as she spoke.
"Although she no longer had control of the city, Phoebus was still intent on her revenge. While she was making her way to where I held Thalen captive, Thalen's imprint faded, releasing Colonel Sheppard. While I was still determining this, Phoebus located me and under the guise of surrender, I gave Yan a weapon to disable her while he played dead."
"And I did."
"You did." Teyla smiled briefly, as though remembering something in the statement. "With the city unlocked, Phoebus captured and contained, and Thalen gone, most of the management was cleaning up the damage done by the fire-fight in the city, and Colonel Caldwell was in charge of that."
Ivali wondered what had happened to this Colonel Caldwell that he wasn't running things in the city now. His name had been mentioned several times, and it seemed he'd been well-respected by the expedition, even if they did not consider him one of them in the same way they did Yan. Surely an ally would have been better than the watchful man who sat at the table beyond Dr. Weir, his mouth set in a disapproving line as he stared at Yan.
That Yan had been a commander among these people, she could easily believe. Even if he had not taken a formal position in the village, he had always acted with authority, as though he knew what he was doing. It was one aspect of him that had attracted Ivali in the first place.
But she could not see why this Colonel Edwards had been allowed to take his place.
Doubtless, there were reasons. Yet the man did not fit amidst these people, even a stranger to their ways could see that.
Yan sat forward now, resting his hands on the table and his gaze on his hands. "I think I remember this. Something from it, anyway."
"You do?" Dr. McKay gaped as the others sat up, suddenly interested.
"The part where Teyla's holding the gun on me, about to shoot," Yan said after a moment, and he glanced over at Teyla, oddly tense. "You apologised."
"I... Yes." Ivali saw the way Teyla looked down at her fingers, as though discomforted by the admission. "I would have killed you to gain time for the expedition."
"Well, I'd have done the same if our positions had been reversed," he admitted. "Guess I have to be thankful to McKay--"
Yan stopped as Dr. Weir and Colonel Edwards reached up to their ears. Ivali looked from them to Yan and then over to Teyla, who was watching Dr. Weir.
An alarmed expression grew on the woman's face. "Is he injured?"
"Have him report to the briefing room," said Colonel Edwards.
The others in the room were reaching for their 'earpieces' - the means of communication that Teyla had tried to explain to her yesterday. Ivali had understood that it enabled the speaker to be heard from another room, although how it did this was still a mystery to her.
Dr. Weir turned to Yan. "Colonel, I'm sorry to interrupt this briefing..."
"No, it's fine." He leaned back in his chair again with a wave of his hand. "I was going to ask for a break anyway. All these missions are starting to blur in my head."
"Sergeant Patrick will take you back--"
"Actually," Yan interrupted firmly, "I'd like to observe this for myself. Seeing as this used to be something I did. Atlantis in action, as it were."
Ivali had pushed her chair back, having expected to escape the others for a little while. She had planned to take Yan and find somewhere that looked out on the sea - somewhere private to speak and be together. Yan's request surprised her.
That he didn't look at her surprised her still more - although he was looking to Dr. Weir, a plainly expectant expression on his face.
Stormclouds might have done Colonel Edwards' expression justice. "I think that--"
"You're welcome to stay," Dr. Weir said, interrupting the Colonel, who gave her a fierce, warning glance.
"As an observer, only."
Yan's smile was sardonic as the door to the room opened with a hiss of air and a hum of machinery. "Of course."
Then he turned to her. "Ivali? Do you mind?"
What else could she do before them all but smile and say, "No, of course not."
She stifled the momentary resentment that this had intruded on time she had expected to spend with him. He had come here to rediscover himself; she would not stand in his way.
The man who was admitted into the room was wiry, with dark hair, deeply-tanned skin. His features were round and blunt and good-natured in repose, but at present his expression was distressed and his uniform looked dirty and slightly unkempt. A distinct odor preceded him into the room, of sweat and of stress. As he stood in front of the room, panting, Ivali wondered if anyone had thought to offer him a drink.
"Where's the rest of your team, Dr. Thi?"
"Take a moment to catch your breath," Dr. Weir said, even as the man stiffened at the blatant demand from Colonel Edwards. Ronon was already pouring a glass of water, which Teyla handed to the man. "Then tell us what's happened."
The news was garbled and broken, delivered piecemeal, like patches of a quilt. A standard team - four people, two whose specialty was in study, two whose task was to protect them - had gone out for a weekly check-in with a people who called themselves the Smytha. They'd been trying to persuade the Smytha to share with them the secrets of producing certain medicines that were useful in pain relief, and the relationship had developed over a number of moons.
During this meeting, however, some of the youths had become fractious and demanding, jostling the protectors - the military men - and trying to steal the sidearm of one. In the ensuing fight, one of the youths had been injured and in retaliation, the whole team had been taken prisoner.
Dr. Thi had been on the outskirts of the riot when it began, but he'd seen at least one of the military men injured before the local assistant gained word of the situation and advised him to run for the Stargate and bring back help.
"Dr. Weir, I believe with honesty that the Smytha intended no riot," said the man earnestly. "They have been peacefully visited in the past and we have been welcomed with wide arms."
"Peaceful or not, we've got people imprisoned there," said Colonel Edwards in grim tones. "We should send a retrieval team in immediately."
"I...I was thinking that perhaps we might ask Ms. Emmagan to intervene for us..." Dr. Thi's nervous gaze came to rest on Teyla. "They have been cautious of uniforms - their traders previously have Genii encountered. It is over time that we won their trust."
"Clearly they got over their fear of uniforms." Colonel Edwards reached up to tap at his earpiece. "Major Camberwell and team report to the Gateroom immediately."
The turn of Dr. Weir's head was slow and disbelieving. "Colonel, I don't think that a full retrieval is necessary for what appears to be a misunderstanding--"
"A misunderstanding that's gotten one of our people injured--"
"--and which might easily be cleared up with the application of a little diplomacy," finished Dr. Weir, her voice cool, although sharp undertones lurked beneath. "Teyla?"
"I can be ready to go in ten minutes if there is immediate need."
"If there is immediate need?"
Beside Ivali, Yan stirred at Colonel Edwards' furious question. "If they're rioting, wouldn't it be better to wait until the riots die down before going in?"
Heads turned to stare at the unexpected intervention. Ivali had a moment to feel stricken before Colonel Edwards stood, shoving back his chair.
"I think you forget," he said, making no attempt to hide his animosity, "your opinion doesn't count here, Colonel Sheppard."
"And your plan doesn't take the locals into account," Yan replied, and in his tones, Ivali could hear the stubbornness that had tinged his voice when he'd first gone out hunting alone and been sneered at by the older, more experienced hunters. Pride warmed her breast as she looked at him. "Dr. Thi says the people have been peaceful up until now--"
"Initially, the expedition thought the Genii a peaceful people, too!"
Yan tensed. The others had shown him the video of what Kolya of the Genii had done to him that morning, and Ivali had watched it as far as the first Wraith draining - then gone away to be sick. She had often wondered what Yan dreamed when he woke from a nightmare and escaped to the forest. Now she knew.
"I think that this is a very different situation," said Dr. Weir firmly. "The Smytha aren't hiding a military sub-culture beneath the façade of simple farmers."
"Those are our people out there--!"
"And we owe it to them to retrieve them. But we don't need to cause an incident while doing so."
"Are you saying, Dr Weir, that you are willing to throw away the lives of expedition members in order to avoid hurting the feelings of a handful of Pegasus natives?"
Ivali blinked. It seemed a large jump between waiting for an otherwise peaceful people to calm down their hotheads, and condemning the prisoners of those hotheads to death. There were reasons for killing people among the Orawi, and purely out of spite or anger was never a 'reason'. The Wraith claimed lives enough - no need to add to their number.
Still, Dr. Weir was already answering the unspoken accusation.
"I'm saying, Colonel Edwards, that I'm willing to accept that there may be alternative ways of going in to retrieve our people other than with all guns blazing."
"And if the delay kills our people?"
Across the room, Teyla shifted in her chair, laying her hands flat on the table. A sign of tension or of open-ness? "It will not."
Colonel Edwards shot her a scathing look. "Easy to say when it's not your people!"
"Excuse me?" Dr. McKay interrupted. "Since when hasn't Teyla been part of the expedition?"
"Since when have we taken to questioning her judgement?" Ronon rumbled.
"I don't think this is a helpful avenue of discussion," Dr. Weir interrupted. "Colonel, I'm willing to take the risk that the Smytha might - might - act against our people. However, I'm also going on the reports from the planet that we've received from the previous teams there - that we've developed a rapport with them in the matter of these medicines and that this is an isolated incident."
"An isolated incident that has two of my men captured, one of them injured."
"And Dr. Brown doesn't count in your assessment of 'your people'?" Ronon asked.
Dr. McKay paled, looking wildly from Ronon to Dr. Weir. "Wait, that's the team that Katie went out with--?"
"Makes a difference, now, doesn't it, McKay?"
"That is enough!" Dr. Weir paused. "I still have the final say on matters in the city. We will be going after our people, Colonel, but it will be in a way that balances the safety of our people with the relationships we have to develop in this galaxy. Will this be a problem?"
The question rang in the now-silent room, and Ivali looked to Colonel Edwards - as they all did.
His only expression was the slight narrowing of his eyes. "No, Dr. Weir," he said in tones as sharp and edged as a new-honed skinning knife. "It won't."
"Good." Dr. Weir said, her voice just as crisp and biting. "Please inform Major Camberwell that the diplomatic mission has been delayed."
The sarcasm slid off her back, unacknowledged. And as Colonel Edwards did so, she turned to the rest of the room. "We'll take a break for fifteen minutes."
This time, at least, Yan was amenable to leaving.
Still, he said nothing until they were out on an empty balcony, away from the others. "Ivali..."
"You're finding who you are." Perhaps she hadn't expected it to hurt so much, but she'd agreed to come with him.
"I don't even know if I have a place here anymore," he said, leaning against the railing as he looked out at the city. The sky was still cloudy overhead, with no sight of the sun. "Edwards is running things in his own way."
"And not to Dr. Weir's satisfaction."
"Yeah, well..." Yan hesitated. "I get the feeling that she was always a bit bossy."
"You don't remember her?"
"No." He glanced up and out at the shining spires of the city. "It feels familiar - all of it. But I don't... It's not quite there."
That was what she'd thought - what she'd feared.
"You still don't remember anything?"
He hesitated. "Bits. Moments, mostly. Like remembering Teyla about to shoot me..." He trailed off.
Ivali shivered. The thought of having to kill Yan in exchange for the lives of others revolted her. No wonder Teyla had looked away at the memory of it.
"I'm glad she didn't."
Yan made a soft, huffing sound. "I'm glad she didn't have to. But she would have."
I'd have done the same if our positions had been reversed.
Something passed over his face - something almost like resignation - and he reached out to tug her into his arms. She went to him, glad of the excuse to hold him. They'd made love last night, a little hesitant at first, but with greater need as they went on, and Yan had seemed driven, almost desperate, in a way that she'd never known him. Not rough or unkind, just needy.
Like he needed her embrace now.
"I saw you go out during the video. Did Teyla...?"
The Athosian had been kind, bringing Ivali water and a 'paper' towel with which to wipe her mouth, and offering a steady presence. It is not an easy thing to watch. We are accustomed to the Wraith, but even they only do what is in their nature to do. Human cruelty is less pleasant.
"She found me." Ivali closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of him. "Yan, what they did to you..."
"I don't remember it." He lifted his head from hers and looked deeply into her eyes. "I don't remember any of it."
Except in his dreams.
"They want you to."
"I know." He held himself still against her. "You know, if you want to leave..."
How had he known that she was considering leaving? After seeing what had been done to him, after knowing what chased his dreams, Ivali had wondered if things could be the same again. Could he forget what had been done to him? Could she forget what had been done to him to bring him to her?
We are who we are, and we wouldn't have loved otherwise.
Ivali had spoken those words while still smarting from Yan's treatment by the second Lantean group who arrived at Orawi. She hadn't expected them to be so true.
"I'll stay," she said at last, and felt the subtle lessening of the tension in his body as he relaxed. She loved him and he needed her. For the moment, that was enough to keep her here.
She wasn't sure how long it would be enough, though.
And that, even more than what had been done to Yan, frightened her.
Yan was standing at the railing of the balcony overlooking the Gateroom when General O'Neill found him.
He roused himself from his contemplation of the people assembling down in front of the Stargate long enough to nod at the man who'd excavated John Sheppard from the icy obscurity of Antarctica back on Earth, bringing him into the Atlantis expedition. According to Colonel Edwards, the General was a busy man and had taken time out of his schedule specifically to come and see him.
The implication that Yan should be grateful for this did not escape him, but right now, he could ignore it.
If anyone had hoped that the sight of O'Neill might spark a recollection in him, they were to be disappointed.
He saw a grey-haired hawk, tall and wiry, with the lined face of a man who'd lived long and hard, and the eyes of a man who'd seen and done more things in heaven and on earth than Yan Stormborn of the Orawi had ever imagined was possible.
General O'Neill's sharp scrutiny held no memory for Yan. Only a sense that here was a man who should be respected. "General."
"I hear you prefer to be called 'Yan' these days." Perhaps the sharp dark eyes had seen Yan's slight wince after all.
"It's what I'm used to these days."
Below them, Teyla and the others of the 'diplomatic retrieval team' walked into the water-like surface that separated the here-and-now from the there-and-then. Dr. Beckett went with them, shouldering his backpack as they vanished.
In the moment between the last of Lieutenant Vega's team going through and the closing passage, Yan felt a sudden restlessness take root in him. He gripped the railing against the unexpected sensation that he was in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing. He should have been down there, geared up and ready to go with them; he should have stepped out onto the other world with the team.
It was a strange feeling for a man who'd never felt the faintest desire to follow when other Orawi left the village to travel to other cultures for trading. Some of the others had watched with envious eyes, their skills required in the village rather than out among other peoples, but Yan had waved them gone and then retreated into the forest.
"Watching them go out without you is never easy."
O'Neill's observation startled him. It came with a sympathy that seemed at odds with the gruff exterior of the man.
"You know that? Sir?" Vaguely, Yan wondered if he should have read the old man's file. It might have provided some insight into the man. Or not, depending on whether Yan remembered anything he'd read.
"I had my own team, once upon a time."
Foreboding touched Yan's spine. "What happened to them?"
"Nothing happened to them." O'Neill shrugged, not noticing his tension. "I got too old to stay out in the field. There were...other considerations, too, but...that's the gist of it." He glanced at Yan with eyes that saw through Yan like a hot poker passing through fine cloth. "You're sure you don't remember anything?"
He shrugged. "Some of it's coming back. Not much. Fragments, mostly."
"Well, let's find a room and see if we can't piece a few more bits of your past together for you."
As O'Neill turned to ask Dr. Weir where was a suitable place for this private meeting, Yan frowned a little. There'd been an inexplicable darker note beneath the lazy timbre of the man's statement, as though O'Neill thought he was better without his past.
It wasn't until they were seated in the smaller briefing room - him and O'Neill and Ivali, who'd returned from her marine-followed wanderings through the city - with the doors sealed up behind them, that Yan realised just how serious this past of his was.
"There was a certain amount of resistance to this meeting happening at all," said the General as he opened the bag the marine had put on the table and began taking out files. "You have friends and enemies in high places, Colonel." The glance up wasn't quite a smile, but it held elements of amusement. And Yan suddenly had an inkling of how this was going to go.
Ivali's hand was resting on his thigh, a touch that reassured and supported him, even as Yan fought the desire to move away from her. He wanted to put her away from him, now, very gently, until the meeting was over. He didn't know why - not fully. But he'd tensed at the sight of the first green-grey folder, instinct telling him what his consciousness couldn't.
This was not going to be a 'nice' meeting.
Three files and a laptop sat on the table by the time O'Neill put the bag down on the floor beside him. "I'm guessing they told you the basics of who you were."
"John Sheppard, Lieutenant Colonel, 534-221-9938."
The dark eyes lifted to his face and held there, arresting them both. "Yes." There was a pregnant pause. "Why'd you answer like that?"
Yan shrugged. "It seemed right."
The laugh huffed between O'Neill's lips, a sardonic amusement that seemed directed more at himself than at Yan's words as he opened the first file. "Edwards said you've been resistant to your past. Personally, I don't blame you."
A small wad of paper was passed across the table to Yan, connected at the top by paperclips. On the top page, an eagle spread its wings above a shield, circled by stars. Beneath the stamp it said, Application for Air Force Academy: John Patrick Sheppard.
"You joined the Air Force Academy straight out of school. Your father wasn't pleased when the older of his two sons rebelled against the career he had planned for you in the family business, but he couldn't persuade you against it, and figured you'd grow tired of the life when you got older."
Yan glanced up, a little surprised at the mention of relatives. The city and the people in it loomed far too large for him to contemplate anything beyond it. And yet, somewhere on Earth, he must have had family at one stage, even if he'd chosen to leave them behind.
"You stuck it out," O'Neill said, rather unnecessarily. "Went in for pilot training. You already had extensive civilian experience, and on top of that, your instructors reported a drive to learn that easily sat you at the top of your class. Started training with the T-37B Tweet, ended it with the T-38 Talon. And there began your glittering career as a pilot in the Air Force..."
It started off easily enough. The bare outlines of missions - successes and failures. A handful of photos - classmates, the planes he flew, even a younger Yan looking cockily out at his older self, a woman whose exotic beauty was highlighted with her dusky colouring.
"Your ex-wife, Nancy Worrall," O'Neill said.
Yan glanced nervously from the photo to Ivali, who'd been silent through all this, her hand never moving from his leg. She looked up and smiled briefly, before turning her gaze back to the photos, as though unable to look away from them.
There was something compelling about it all, even as it felt like a distant, dim story someone had told him a long time ago.
None of it felt like his life. None of it felt like him.
Something was wrong - perhaps everything.
This man he'd been - this John Sheppard - had been someone else, something else that Yan could barely comprehend. He'd been someone that Yan wasn't sure he wanted to be again. He didn't think he even could.
While O'Neill poured water into glasses for himself and Yan and Ivali, Yan picked up the most recent photos of his father and brother - a glossy photo of a white-haired man whose face was jowled with the added weight of years, his sandy-haired son in the background, and the red frame surrounding them both with the word 'TIME' high above them.
"They don't look like you," Ivali said, leaning her chin against his shoulder.
"Guess I took after my mother," he murmured, more to himself than her. It felt wrong that he couldn't even remember his mother's face - bad enough that he couldn't remember the woman he'd married.
Planes and piloting and his history was one thing - although it explained some of why he'd never been that comfortable inside the village, but these were the people who'd been closest to him. Or should have been closest to him.
"Water?" O'Neill put the glasses in front of them, and Yan looked up at him.
"Why do you assume something did?"
Yan indicated the photo of the woman he'd once cared about enough to marry. "According to you, she's my ex-wife. No-one in the city's mentioned my relatives back on Earth. And when Edwards said you were coming, he said that you were the man who 'dug me out' of Antarctica, which, I understand is very cold, very lonely, and where there isn't a lot of use for planes."
"Not a lot for planes perhaps," O'Neill said. "Plenty for choppers." He began gathering up the photos of the Academy and the sleek arrows of the jets Yan had once flown. "Which is where the second half of this story begins."
"Choppers..." Yan frowned as something tickled him. Actual memory or a recollection of something said to him in the last day? "Helicopters?"
"You took a job as a flight instructor down in Texas shortly after your marriage. Hung around with a lot of chopper pilots, kissed enough ass to learn how to fly them. You already had experience with combat situations, now you learned about ground-to-air extractions. Saving the sixes of the ground-pounders."
Yan watched as O'Neill stretched out his legs. "You were a ground-pounder."
"Yeah. Air Force Special Ops," said O'Neill with the quiet of a man for whom the memories weren't a boast but a burden. "Operation Desert Storm - before your time."
"So when was my time?"
"Afghanistan." Sitting up again, O'Neill reached into the last of the three files and took out another pile of papers. He set them in front of him and looked from Yan to Ivali. "You know, I'd appreciate it if you didn't take this the wrong way, ma'am, but you might like to leave the room. What I'm about to show isn't nice viewing."
Beside Yan, Ivali's chin lifted. "I'll stay."
O'Neill lifted an eyebrow, but he didn't ask again. Instead, he waved one long-fingered hand at the table. "Help me put these away, will you?"
And when all the paperwork and mission reports and photos were sorted and put away in the other two files, O'Neill began laying out the photographs across the table.
Yan's belly churned; his forehead felt hot and cold at once, and the air was sharp as knives in his throat. Beside him, Ivali made a mewling noise of protest and distress. Automatically, he reached for her, sliding his his fingers over her ice-cold hand, even as he kept his eyes on the images, starkly brutal in black and white.
Not images you'd show on the seven o'clock news, thought Yan. The coldness of the statement shocked him more than the photos. He didn't even know what the seven o'clock news was - but the phrase came to his lips without prior thought.
Your language contains a great many idiosyncratic sayings.
"Photographic technology had advanced a lot between Desert Storm and Afghanistan," said O'Neill, and now his voice was clipped and clinical. "We went in to topple a regime and we succeeded, in a way."
"Succeeded?" Ivali looked up from the images, horrified. "But all the people are dead!"
"This was a village in the southern hills, forty klicks from Kandahar. Until now we'd mostly pounded the Taliban from the sky - softened them up. We put men on the ground to dig them out of their hidey-holes - that was your part. Not the same secrecy, but it was needed."
"We found this village." The words seemed to come from someone else. He glanced up, meeting O'Neill's querying eyebrow. "I don't remember, I just know we found the village."
"You were on your way out when you saw the smoke, called it in with your co-pilot, circled the village. According to our records, allied troops had passed through it on the way to Kandahar and were hailed as heroes. Clearly, someone disagreed with that assessment." O'Neill's gaze never wavered. "Do you remember any of it?"
Yan stared at the photos, trying to dredge up a wisp of memory, a wisp of anything. But whatever it was that blocked him off from the time when he'd been John Sheppard didn't budge. "Good men died."
"You and your crew put down - you judged it was safe enough. One village in a pacified area."
"But it wasn't."
"No." The file fronts slid softly onto the table before Yan, four serious faces - two barely out of school, two with a little more experience of the world in them.
Yan didn't need to ask what had happened to them.
"According to your report, you put the chopper down to let your men off to look for survivors and to keep a record of what had been done. You radioed the local base to let them know what had happened, and heard gunfire. The ground-leader called them in, but of the eight, only four made it back."
"Insurgents." The word felt strange on his lips.
"With rocket-propelled grenades. Both ground-leader and your co-pilot were fervent in their praise of your flying skills."
It didn't quite make sense - it didn't have to. Yan was getting the picture. "I'm guessing we made it off the ground."
Yan indicated the four men whose faces stared out of their file fronts, fixed eternally at the age they'd been at their death.
"Did I leave them behind?" Somehow, it was important.
It was important to O'Neill, too. The man's expression didn't change, but he nodded, as though satisfied with the question. "There was some argument about that since you were the only member of the team to make the claim that you saw those men fall. Your co-pilot was facing the wrong way, and the other three were trying to save the fourth and fifth. However, it was generally agreed that, no, you didn't."
The term 'generally agreed' didn't sound very good. "They don't know?"
"They don't." O'Neill sat forward. "But I do."
"You weren't there."
The wide mouth twitched a little. "But you were."
Yan watched the other man for a moment, waiting for the punchline. "I'm missing something."
O'Neill shrugged. "Afghanistan was for your generation what Desert Storm was to mine - just longer, more painful, and more drawn out. You were involved from Mazari Sharif onwards - Kabul, Tora Bora, Anaconda. Troop shuttling, avoiding RPGs, flying patterns."
"I'm guessing they were battles?"
"That's a lot of fighting."
"Five months of it. Two Chinooks went down during Anaconda, one of the pilots was a friend of yours. After that, you volunteered for just about every S&R mission that you could humanly manage and some that you couldn't."
They were better than intel runs that just got people killed... The thought rose in his head, unstoppable. Yan bit it back. He could feel the story building, rushing towards a point in time that he couldn't remember - only sense with a foreboding as strong as a fist in the gut.
"In October 2002, your wife filed for divorce, your father legally disowned you, and you went back to Afghanistan for another six months. According to Colonel Longbourne, your flying was perfect, but your judgement was crap. They were on the verge of reassigning you anyway - somewhere away from the frontline. Then you went into a hot-zone against orders after a buddy of yours whose Apache had last been seen trailing flames and they had no choice but to deal hard with you."
I don't like anybody who doesn't follow the proper chain of command...
"And that was the end of my brilliant career," Yan muttered.
He closed his eyes against the photographs, the images etched on the backs of his eyelids. It still wasn't memory - he couldn't remember any of this happening. The narrative wasn't personal - as if everything O'Neill had related had happened to someone else.
But Yan knew that it had happened to him.
It felt right.
Even if he wanted to say that it was wrong - that all this wasn't him, had never been him.
"You spent almost a year in Antarctica before you came here."
"Came or was sent?"
O'Neill arched an eyebrow. "Got anything to complain of?"
"Other than being abducted by local warlords and tortured by Wraith," Yan said dryly, "no."
Ivali made a soft noise in the back of her throat, recalling Yan to her presence. Sometime during O'Neill's recitation, he'd dropped her hand, or she'd withdrawn it from him. He looked at her now, at the shadows in her eyes as she looked at the images they'd been shown, as her mind painted pictures of a conflict too great for her to imagine.
"Hey," he said quietly, capturing her gaze with his own. "Are you okay?"
She nodded, but her eyes slid away from his like a fish fresh from the river. "It's just..." Words seemed to fail her, and it was a moment before she could speak again. "There's so much death..."
Yan couldn't think of anything to say to that. And the expression on O'Neill's face said a lot more than Yan wanted to know.
The pictures and reports on the table said a lot more than Yan wanted to know, too.
From the sound of it, John Sheppard had been a man in a job he loved, doing what he wanted to do, driven to be the best, to excel. But the man had left no relationships back on Earth worth holding onto - neither father, nor brother nor former wife - nothing that spoke to Yan with even a fraction of the kind of force with which the people in this city spoke to him.
This morning, his former team-mates had spoken of a man they respected in their work, held in affection in their play.
But Yan looked at his past, at the man painted by the portrait of mission after mission after mission, of a relationship dying from lack of effort, of a family drifted because of unbending souls, and wondered if they'd had any idea of who he'd been beneath the man they'd thought he'd been.
O'Neill was watching him again. Yan wondered if the dark gaze missed anything.
"From the sound of it, the Air Force got their dues out of me years ago," he said. "Why try so hard to bring it all back now?"
There was no response from the general. Not at first. Then the man leaned back in his chair, swinging a little from side of side as he bobbed up and down.
"Two hours ago, when I asked you what they'd told you about yourself, you gave me your name, rank, and serial number."
"Yeah. It was. It's one of the first things you're taught at SERE - Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape - a program that teaches military personnel how to deal with captivity. The first thing you're taught is possibly one of the last things you'll ever say. And you sit there with no memory of who you were and what you've done, and hand it up to me like I'm a goddamned mullah holding you in a prison in Diyala province."
"I wouldn't know, sir."
"And you just called me 'sir'," O'Neill added. "Memory's a funny thing, Sheppard, and something in you remembers, even if you can't consciously do so. That's why the Air Force - hell, that's why Earth wants you back."
"Because of what I remember?"
"Because you're a weapon, Sheppard." There was no mercy in O'Neill's words, just a hard, bitter truth. "From the moment you showed an aptitude for flying and a willingness to put the job first, the United States Air Force turned you into a weapon. Ms. Emmagan wrote in her report that she put a Beretta in your hand and you fired it like a pro. Dr. Weir said you swiped your hand against the door controls of your room without prompting when they showed you there. Edwards watches you like he's about to be demoted to airman and pushed into baby-sitting duty."
"I know too much."
"You were taught a lot and that's all still in you. Maybe you're an empty weapon, but the ammo still exists to be put in you and, what's more, you remember it. If we believed you'd really forgotten it all, we'd have left you alone."
"I find that hard to believe."
"Well..." The man snorted. "Maybe not. But it wouldn't be so dangerous to leave you living happily in your farming community." A brief expression of longing touched O'Neill's face before it steeled again. "Only an idiot leaves a weapon around for innocents or enemies to take up."
He remembered the discussion with Ronon yesterday morning, saying they'd never let him go. Now he knew it - and, moreover, he knew why.
Yan looked down at the images again, at the people, alive and dead, and immeasurably distant from the part of him that didn't want to take up the burden of his past.
It wasn't an intentional question, but it hung in the air between them all the same.
Ivali was forgotten; the rest of the city didn't exist. There was only Yan and O'Neill, facing each other across the short, rectangular table.
He couldn't have said why he put it into words, why he asked the question of O'Neill, why the answer mattered. But it was said, and now Yan waited.
"You were the kind of man who was needed."
"And what kind of man was that?"
"One who'd do what needed to be done, and still regret the necessity."
Yan couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't look away from the bleak dark gaze of a man who knew the road Yan had walked - had walked it himself, once upon a time.
And Yan was beginning to understand.
John Sheppard still existed in the spaces behind Yan's consciousness, a spectre that shadowed every aspect of Yan's existence. Everything that Yan was - everything that he said or did or thought - was linked to John Sheppard. He mightn't remember it, but it was there. And whether or not he ever remembered John Sheppard, the man had been dangerous - and he made Yan dangerous, too.
You can't go home again.
Worse. He couldn't go anywhere again.
He'd thought, at first, that it would be as simple as getting out of Atlantis, getting away somewhere where he wasn't known.
He knew better now.
Rodney was expecting Teyla to drop by his lab, so when the doors hissed open some time after 2500 hours, he was astonished by the sight of a bleary-eyed Sheppard standing in the corridor.
"What are you doing here?" Okay, so maybe that wasn't the most diplomatic thing to say to a friend who'd been missing for six months. Then again, nobody but an idiot - or an amnesiac - expected Rodney McKay to be diplomatic.
"It's good to see you, too, McKay." Amnesiac or not, it seemed that Sheppard hadn't lost his sarcasm. He wandered in, ignoring the shadowy marine who hovered outside the door, having probably tailed him from his quarters to the lab. "As it happens, I can't sleep. And since I tried the kitchens last night, I figured I'd wander somewhere else for a change." He shrugged and began wandering around the lab. "Found myself here."
Once upon a time, over six months past, Rodney wouldn't have given Sheppard's presence a second thought. Now, though, he felt...nervous. Edgy with this man who both was and wasn't the friend Rodney remembered.
More than anything else, it was the silence. They'd never been quiet men - at least, Rodney had never been a quiet man. And Sheppard hadn't exactly been the shy and retiring type. He'd seemed to save that for the time he spent with Ronon or Teyla.
But he was quiet now.
It was weird.
"So," he said, making conversation just to break the silence, "How'd the meeting with O'Neill go? Since we didn't get back until after dinner and everything..."
Sheppard had started meandering through the room, peering at computer banks and scribbled equations on the boards. "We met. He told me about my past. That was about it."
Okay, so Rodney wasn't the king of nuance. He left the fine detail to people who actually did people - like Elizabeth and Teyla and Carson and Heightmeyer. But he was getting the feeling that there was a lot more to it than 'that was about it.'
He didn't ask.
"Uhuh. Didn't twig any memories?"
"Okay, then." Sure it didn't. Sheppard was up and about right now, rather than snuggling down with the woman he'd brought back with him, which was something else Rodney wasn't going to touch with a ten-foot pole. How did Sheppard always manage to attract the women? Not that Rodney was desperate for women to start throwing themselves at him, but surely there were one or two women in this galaxy for whom male pattern baldness and a tendency towards allergies for everything wasn't an issue?
"I guess you got out of the situation with the Smytha easily enough..."
"Yes, well, it wasn't as though it was that difficult a situation. The marines weren't in any kind of real danger - one of them got sliced in the arm in the initial fight, that was all. And Edwards wanted to go in, guns blazing." Rodney sniffed. "Even at your worst - which, now I come to think of it, really wasn't that bad at all - you waited for information on the situation rather than rushing in and causing more trouble."
Sheppard paused by one of the desks. "Does Edwards do that often?"
"All the time. Although," Rodney lifted a finger in the air and waved it warningly, "you had a unique gift for making enemies, too.
Right, so he hadn't expected the conversation to go in that direction. "Uh..."
"I'm not going to break down, you know."
"You mightn't," Rodney retorted. "I might. Look, Kolya wasn't a very nice person in the first place - I still have the scar from our first meeting. But he really didn't like you. It probably has something to do with the fact that you'd killed about twenty of his men before you even spoke with each other."
Yan grimaced. "So, we weren't buddies?"
"You'd choose a Wraith over Kolya." In fact, he had, Rodney realised. And if that wasn't a thought calculated to blow brains, then he didn't know what was. He slanted a gaze at Sheppard, but the other man hadn't noticed the irony of the thought. Instead, he was frowning thoughtfully at a set of whiteboard equations. "Can you read them?"
"Hm? No. Did I used to be able to?"
"Are you kidding? You used to solve them. Well, some of the easy ones. With help, of course."
About to automatically answer, Rodney paused. "Well, sometimes it was Zelenka. Occasionally Miko. Even Ronon helped once. Of course, he didn't actually help with the maths but he suggested something that started us down the right path."
"Good to know I was useful from time to time." There was no mistaking the mockery.
The conversation stopped and didn't pick up again. Rodney tried to go back to his work, but the prowling happening around the edges of the room was bothering him. "Okay, I can't concentrate when you're wandering around like that." He pointed at the closed laptop on the side desk. "Boot it up."
"Boot up the laptop."
"Just trust me, okay? Boot it up. And I don't mean kick it."
"I know that." John grimaced as he crossed the room, but a minute later - and after some examining - he had turned the computer on and was staring at the wallpaper on the desktop.
"Don't look at me," said Rodney, defensive at the look Sheppard gave him. "Hinsmore likes Robert Downey Jr. Open GolfPro."
He deliberately didn't explain what GolfPro was, or where the application could be found. While it seemed that Sheppard couldn't consciously recall much, he 'just knew' a lot of things.
This, it seemed, was just one more thing. The white and green starter screen lit up that section of the room and Sheppard looked over at him. "Is this a test?"
"That's the general idea, yes."
Sheppard looked at the game menu, eyes narrowed as he scanned the screen. "I don't remember this."
"But you turned on the computer and opened the application."
"Yeah, and now I don't know how to play this."
Rodney was about to protest that Sheppard could learn - or, in his case, relearn - when there was the sound of footsteps running along the corridor, followed shortly by Ronon.
"Sheppard." Ronon blinked for a moment, then looked to the computer screen. "Oh, golf."
"You've played this? Great. You can teach me."
"Oh, like you didn't already try to get him into video games. In case you didn't guess, it failed miserably." Rodney remembered Sheppard complaining about Ronon's lack of interest in video games, and the coolly amused arch of Teyla's brow. "I am injured. You did not complain I lacked interest in your games." Sheppard's, "It's different, Teyla. You're a girl," had produced an involved discussion about gender perceptions and the differences between them on Earth and in Pegasus.
"I don't play. No challenge."
"So what do you do instead?"
The man tossed dreadlocks out of his face, then tied them back with two of the outermost dreads. "Run. Train. Spar." He placed his hands on one of the benches and began stretching his legs. Rodney didn't know the muscle names, he just knew that Ronon liked to come into his lab and do this - incidentally, stinking up Rodney's lab with his sweaty machismo.
Which was, of course, why he did it.
Sheppard turned back to Rodney with a questioning expression. "See, that sounds like good stuff. Why didn't I do that?"
"You did. A bit. Mostly until you got your ass kicked," Rodney countered. "Which tended to happen on a regular basis, I might add."
"Uhuh." He glanced at Ronon. "When do you train?"
"When are you free?"
"Right now, I have no idea what's planned for me tomorrow. They've filled me up with as much of my history as they can. Guess they're hoping something takes."
"Do you want to remember?"
It wasn't a question Rodney would have thought to ask. But it seemed to strike a chord in Sheppard.
"No." There was bitterness in the negative. "But, like I said yesterday, I don't get a choice, do I?"
"The offer still stands."
"I know." Sheppard reached out, clapping Ronon briefly on the shoulder. "Thanks."
Ronon shrugged, as though embarrassed by the gesture, and Rodney made a mental note to get out of Ronon exactly what offer he'd made Sheppard, even if he didn't like it.
Then he realised something else.
He'd missed this.
Sitting in his lab, listening to John and Ronon 'bargaining' times with each other, Rodney felt a wave of something suspiciously warm and achy in his belly. It nudged him with the awareness of just how much he'd missed this sort of thing - the casual trade of information between the two men - 'guys' guys', his own slightly adversarial interactions with Sheppard and the snapping interplay of words, so different to Ronon's silence or Teyla's perceptiveness.
The other two didn't notice his silence, too busy discussing possible times for them to go running together. Rodney was just as glad of it. For once, it wasn't about him - well, it was, but only within the bigger picture. He and Ronon and Teyla had retained their bonds to each other, but it wasn't the same. Two was company and three was a crowd - but four was a family.
And, Jeannie notwithstanding, this was Rodney's family.
He looked away from the easily conversing men and saw Teyla standing at the door, watching them all with a soft smile on her face - the last element of the complete picture.
She came in when she realised she'd been made. "I see that I should have passed by the kitchens for some popcorn on the way," she said with an easy smile. "We could have made a party of it."
"Still could," Ronon said.
Rodney huffed. "I don't suppose anyone thought to ask me about this since it is my lab?"
"We can go elsewhere if you prefer," said Sheppard airily. "We'll just have the party without you."
Since Sheppard knew that he hated being left out of things almost as much as he hated incompetence...
Both Teyla and Ronon were looking at Sheppard, who'd stopped, as though realising what he'd just done. A triumphant smile lit Ronon's fierce features, and a faint quirk touched Teyla's lips like the glowing beginning of a fusion reaction milliseconds before the chain reaction broke into incandescence.
Shock blinked in Sheppard's eyes, growing to an awed understanding.
"Ronon said we were the best," Teyla said after a few moments of silence. "He did not lie."
"I know." Sheppard seemed to be groping for words.
All at once he seemed exactly like the man who'd chivvied them out on the planet where they'd lost him, all those months ago. At the same time, his behaviour was very much not the friend Rodney remembered. The John Sheppard who'd been captured by Kolya would never have even tried to explain himself - not like this. Not about this kind of thing.
"The US Air Force wants me back - with or without my memory."
And that went without saying.
"And you do not wish to return."
Sheppard locked gazes with Teyla, a strangely lost look. "It's not that." He seemed to be begging for something, some kind of understanding. If so, he didn't find it in her face, because he looked away. "I get why they want me back. I'm... They made me into a weapon and my memory or lack of it doesn't change that."
"The Beretta," Ronon murmured.
"Yeah. And the feeling that everything's familiar - that I've been there, done that."
"It's called déjà vu," Rodney interposed, unable to stop himself. Both Ronon and Teyla gave him exasperated looks. "He might as well use the correct term for it."
Sheppard snorted. "I get why they want me back. I just... I don't..."
"You don't understand why we want you back," Rodney said.
Which was possibly the most stupid thing he'd ever heard from Sheppard - and he had a long list of stupid things that the other man had said and done in their history in Atlantis.
"Yesterday morning on Orawi," Teyla said. "We told you that you were our friend."
Sheppard's laugh was bitter. "Did you even know me, Teyla? Did you - any of you - have even the faintest idea of who I was?"
They exchanged glances around him. Rodney opened his mouth to retort, but saw Teyla shaking her head at him. Let him have it out.
"General O'Neill took me through my background history this morning. War and death, and death and war from the time I was eighteen until however old I was when I vanished. According to them, that's my entire legacy to the universe." Sheppard stepped away from the table, still talking, but apparently needing to move. "You know, I left nothing behind on Earth that I thought worth keeping. I had a family and didn't get along with them, so I didn't bother to let them know I was coming here. I had a wife once - until she left, anyway. I don't even remember her face."
He dragged hands through his unruly hair, a restless movement of arms that was as familiar to Rodney as Ronon's hunched-over pose, as Teyla's hands sitting curled and still in her lap.
"I lived most of my life on Earth, and I left nothing behind. What kind of man does that make me?"
"A human one?" Rodney couldn't help the snort. This, at least, he understood. "Look, most of us who came to Atlantis didn't have family history. We either didn't have strong relational ties or we broke them to come here. Kate's got a study about it - the increased propensity of expedition personnel to depersonalise or something..."
"What? I'm pointing out that just because he didn't leave anyone or anything behind on Earth doesn't make him a bad person."
And maybe just a little of it was justification for Rodney's own situation - after all, he and Jeannie hadn't been on speaking terms for years - not until she'd solved that bridging problem and come to the notice of the SGC.
"Perhaps not to you," said Ronon.
That pulled Rodney up short. "Wait, what are you saying--?"
"Rodney." Teyla interrupted his tirade, her eyes resting on Sheppard. He stood at one of the windows of the lab, next to a computer bank, with the external city lights pouring in through the glass, over his hunched up, closed-in figure.
In the time before Kolya, Rodney had usually ended up arguing with Sheppard when the other man got into a funk. They'd pick a fight, argue a meaningless point, and Sheppard would go away feeling self-righteous over their ingrained stance and completely distracted from whatever was getting him down. When faced with a morose Sheppard, Ronon had usually challenged him to something physical, wearing him out so he had neither time nor energy to brood.
But it had almost always been Teyla who showed Sheppard the way out, helping him find the way out of where he'd been rather than simply redirecting his attention or giving him an outlet.
"Earth isn't like Atlantis, and Atlantis isn't like Orawi," she said after a moment. "They are not the same. In spite of their numbers, it is easier to escape community on Earth. Without the communal aspect of life, relationships are more tenuous. It is considered simpler to break something and discard it than to try to mend things."
Teyla had been shocked to realise that Rodney had not spoken with his sister in years. When taxed with the query about people she hadn't seen in years, she'd pointed out that the distance was not because they did not wish to talk or because they had nothing to say, but from lack of opportunity.
Their conversation had given Rodney some unexpected insight into Teyla.
"In our communities, it would be," she said. "But that is not the way of Earth. They are...different."
"Different good or different bad?"
"Different different," came Teyla's dry answer. "Have you considered that who you were on Earth shaped who you have become here, in Atlantis? Perhaps you would not have befriended us if you had been satisfied with your relationships on Earth."
There was silence for a moment. Then Sheppard levered himself off the wall by the window. "Your leader looks through me as though I don't exist," he said softly.
Rodney looked at Ronon, confused. The other guy was looking at him with a question that Rodney couldn't answer.
"Yes," Teyla said. She'd only hesitated a moment, her gaze dropping into her hands before lifting to John's again. "Colonel Sumner saw our camp as something temporary. Somewhere he might stay under duress, nothing more. But you saw it as someone else's home - as somewhere that could, perhaps, be your home. You came to Atlantis with nothing behind you, and because you had nothing behind you, everything you had you gave to this city and the people in it. That is not necessarily a bad thing."
"Maybe not from your perspective. But from mine..."
"You lived among the Orawi without a past," said Ronon, resting his chin on his shoulder to look in Sheppard's direction. "Gave them everything you were."
"That's because I didn't remember you guys."
"You still don't," Rodney felt he should point that out and earned a glare from Sheppard. "What? You don't!"
Teyla hesitated. Rodney heard the intake of breath that held words behind it - but the words didn't come until a second or two after they were expected. And they were all looking at her by then.
"You asked Ivali to come with you to Atlantis," she said in even tones to Sheppard.
He looked away, dropping his gaze to the table. It was a moment before he spoke. "Yeah." Then he looked up at them. "I shouldn't have." The admission was quiet - and shaming to the man who Sheppard had become, Rodney realised with unexpected shock.
"Perhaps." There was gentleness in Teyla's voice - more gentleness than Rodney expected. "Perhaps not. But you asked her to leave your people - possibly forever - and she did. For you."
Rodney wasn't an idiot. He knew there'd been something between Sheppard and Teyla before Sheppard vanished. Maybe it wasn't what the gossips had thought, but there'd been something. Potential, maybe.
"You don't remember us and what we all were together," Teyla continued. "We accept that."
"Mostly," she conceded with a brief quirk of the lips for Rodney. "Ivali does not know who you were here in Atlantis, but she knows who you are to her. We do not know who you were on Earth, perhaps, but we know who you were among us."
"What if I can't be that again?"
"Then we will take the option Ronon offered you." She delivered it without looking away, perfectly even, perfectly composed.
They'd mentioned this offer before, but what it might be hadn't registered. Now it did, and Rodney gaped and turned on Ronon. "You what?"
"He needed to have a choice," Ronon said stubbornly. "An opt-out. It's fair."
There were so many things Rodney could say in response to that. But, knowing Sheppard as an individual and not just a peon in the military structure, he couldn't argue the logic of it. He exhaled and made shooing motions at his team-mates. "All right. All right. But if it ever comes down to it - and this is probably a good time to say that I really hope it doesn't - you'll need me to help."
He wondered what the hell he was doing.
One look at Sheppard answered that question. The man looked like he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It was an odd expression on his face - and all the more indicative of how he'd changed in the time since.
"You guys are crazy," said Sheppard at last. His voice was low and amazed.
"Oh, congratulations," Rodney drawled. "It only took you - what? Two years to work that out?"
"He took his time," Ronon said, standing up and stretching his shoulders with suspicious cracking noises.
"I believe the correct phrase here is, it takes one to know one," said Teyla with a little smile.
They looked at each other. For a moment, it was exactly like old times.
Then Sheppard spoke again. "I still don't know if I'll remember anything of who I was, you know."
If it wasn't exactly as things had been, well, six months had passed. Some things had changed - even if it was obvious that others hadn't. They still considered themselves a team; and they'd help John escape if it became necessary.
Rodney just hoped it wouldn't be necessary.
"You'll stay long enough to find out, though, won't you?"
"Yeah. I'll stay long enough to find out."
It was raining outside again, a steady downpour that dripped its way across the windows and lashed at the spires of the city.
Once, Ronon had run his way across planets, setting traps and snares for the Wraith, avoiding human habitation as often as he could. He'd suffered the elements and the seasons, unsteady ground, wildlife and tamelife, the expected and the unexpected, and still, he'd run.
Now, he ran his way through the city, learning paths and passages, mapping out the city's corridors in his head and in his feet, safe and shielded from the wintry rain and the cold outside, with nothing more to worry about than someone stepping precipitately into his path.
Today, he ran with Sheppard through the city, dodging personnel who weren't attentive enough to keep out of their way.
On such stepped out into the corridor without looking. He spun out her way. The loping side-step nearly carried him into Sheppard's path, and for a moment, they moved shoulder-to-shoulder. Behind them, the woman blinked and lifted startled eyes from the report she'd been engrossed in.
"Sorry," he grunted at Sheppard as they passed the startled woman. Her apology swiftly faded into the air behind them as their strides ate up the ground before them.
"People really don't watch where they're going around here," said Sheppard wryly.
"Mostly the scientists. Occupational hazard." It felt weird to be the knowledgeable one about Earth, while Sheppard was the stranger.
"Like being captured by old enemies?"
He huffed in bitter amusement, remembering the burned-out buildings and rubble-deep streets of Sateda. "Yeah." He knew about being captured by old enemies. "You've got the session with Heightmeyer today?"
"Teyla told you about that?"
Ronon indicated the corridor they were heading down, empty, although that would change when they reached the next intersection. "She said she persuaded you."
"Said it was returning a favour."
Ronon didn't know about that. It might have been before his time.
This corridor was dark, with high panels that reached up to the ceiling. It would come out in a sitting area before branching off in a choice of avenues. "I'm guessing that I was never fond of being headshrunk before this?"
In the three days since Sheppard had returned to Atlantis, there'd been no sign of progress with his memory. He 'remembered' when he was told something, but he couldn't pick out the details. He only knew what they told him.
"Ivali's going to sit in - she's intrigued by the idea of studying how people remember."
Ronon wondered if Sheppard was being tactful about his lover. While Ivali Weaverkin seemed to have accepted the city, sometimes it seemed like she was more of a ghost, less of a person. She'd spoken to a few people - Teyla in particular had been careful to include her when others 'forgot' her presence, and the anthropologists were always eager to talk to people from local cultures. The problem was that there wasn't much for the Orawi woman to say or do other than support Sheppard - and it was a very limited and short-sighted purpose for someone who had a lot more to her than merely emotional help.
"Heightmeyer's more about how people think and react," Ronon remembered that much of Teyla, Elizabeth, and Rodney's explanations.
"You've never done one of these sessions?"
"Never had to."
They'd offered him the 'service' when he first arrived in the city. He'd declined. That was it.
"Teyla says you're one of the key trainers for the marines."
"Wanna join in?"
"I was thinking about it. Weir wanted me to talk to Edwards about resuming some of my duties, but he wasn't encouraging. So, I'm at a bit of a loose end, between hanging about and waiting for my memory to come back."
Ronon considered it as they wove in and out of an area of narrowly-spaced silver struts holding up a grilled platform overhead. The struts made it impossible to run in anything but straight and perpendicular lines - a little difficult since they wanted the stairs that started diagonally opposite their entrance.
"Starts from 1400 in the larger training room. Wear loose clothing and shoes that come off easy. We'll start you at the bottom, work you up if you get better."
Sheppard was huffing just a little as they reached the stairs and began to climb. "You know, I know we used to run together, but it doesn't sound like we trained."
"Didn't train," Ronon grunted at the top of the four flights. This wasn't the hardest set of flights to keep running up, but it was a good change of muscle-use in the middle of the run. "Sparred a bit. Bantos."
"Yeah. You sparred with Teyla and me. Weren't very good at it." Ronon looked at Sheppard with a smirky grin. It had been a major sore point that Sheppard had never trained enough to be really good with the bantos.
Now, Sheppard just shrugged as he fell back into step with Ronon, smiling. "Probably had other things on my mind."
Ronon huffed out a breath in surprise.
The change in Sheppard was disconcerting at times - the attitude wasn't typical of Earth, certainly not that of a career soldier, or of the kind of man that Sheppard had been before: intellectual and kinesthetic, driven and focused, and with a strong competitive streak.
It took some getting used to. Although, it had only been a couple of days.
Ronon turned his thoughts back to the matter at hand. "Talk to Teyla about the bantos if you want something to do. And come to training this afternoon."
He knew how it felt to be at a loose end. His arrival in the city had been difficult: culturally, physically, emotionally, mentally. Everything had been different, and his two anchors had been Teyla and Sheppard. Teyla had helped him make the transition from Pegasus with her own experience; Sheppard had helped him make the transition into the expedition with his inclusion.
This was not only regaining a friend, it was returning a favour.
"I'll see what Ivali's doing," Sheppard said. He didn't seem bothered by the 'checking in' that his statement implied.
Which was strange, because in his own marriage to Melena, he'd never have concerned himself with a soldier checking in with his wife before he went off drinking with the squad. But then, Sateda had been a different time, a different culture, a different life to Atlantis.
Perhaps it was the Lantean perspective - the division of lives into the 'workplace' and the 'home' and the implication that one or the other was the sole province of one partner - worming its way into Ronon's thinking.
He found he didn't like it, even if it was inevitable.
"She can come watch," Ronon said. He grinned faintly. "The guys like an audience." They also liked going up against Teyla - even if she tended to beat them up.
Sheppard gave him a sour look. "Maybe I won't see what she's doing."
Ronon chuckled. "You could do that, too."
Earth ego was a funny thing; Satedan society had been bigger on the power of the community, not the strength of the individual. Ronon didn't feel the need to prove himself better than others - to stand as proof of his people's ways, yes, to better himself, yes, but against others?
He wondered if this was the way Sheppard felt right now, like he was trying to prove himself to everyone else in the city - against their expectation and their demands, their needs and their wants, while still trying to be who he now was.
"You know," he said as they turned a corner and flashed past a set of rooms, "you're a lot fitter than you were."
"Healthy living and all that." Sheppard glanced up at the 'cathedral window' of the room they were running through. "Do you ever miss the sky?"
"A bit. There's balconies."
"I was more thinking forest."
"That's why we go through the Ring."
"Yeah, well, I'm not allowed to do that yet."
"Who else would?" Sheppard was puffing a little now, healthier than he'd been, but not quite able to keep up with Ronon.
Ronon had his opinion of Edwards. It wasn't entirely complimentary. Maybe the man wasn't a Kell, but he wasn't a Sheppard either.
"Beckett got anything?" He knew that the doc had been doing tests on Sheppard - blood, DNA, reactions, brain patterns... Sheppard was usually in the infirmary every couple of days, being checked out.
"Not really." Sheppard shrugged. "Of course, some of the tests take a while to get results. We're due to go see him again the day after tomorrow."
"Yeah. At least there aren't any needles. Those things are just..." Sheppard made a huffing noise.
Ronon grinned. "You hated them back then, too."
"Good to see I had taste." They turned a corner into a tall, panelled corridor that led out towards the 'ring corridor' that encircled the city. "You know, it's weird being told what I liked or didn't like before."
"You don't remember any of it?"
"Bits, mostly. Nothing big."
"Takes time, I guess."
That was the opinion of all the medical people in the city - given enough time and a few jolts to his memory, Sheppard would remember who he was. Ronon had his doubts, but Teyla and Elizabeth seemed to think so, and they were better with people than he was, thought more about this kind of thing. Ronon knew his strengths and didn't fret about his weaknesses - that was why he was on a team, why he had friends, why he'd stayed in Atlantis.
In the meantime, Ronon would be a friend to the man who still showed elements of the man he'd been, and do what he could to help. They'd get all of Sheppard's memory back eventually. Maybe.
Although the Ancestors only knew how.
It was a relatively small group that had come to see Carson about Sheppard's test results - only Sheppard, Ivali Weaverkin, and Elizabeth.
He was surprised not to have John's team along for the ride as well, although he'd heard bits and pieces about the goings-on in the city that suggested that now was not a good time for them. He was even more surprised that Colonel Edwards wasn't in Sheppard's train.
Not that Carson was complaining.
"Medically, there's nothing different about you, Colonel," he began, taking a confident, calm tone to reassure his patient. "Blood tests, cell tests have all come up identical with your old report. We've run all the DNA tests and studies we have to run on you, and you're fine. Whatever happened to make you young again, it doesn't seem to have affected your body."
Carson hesitated, as much from tactfulness as from uncertainty as to how to broach the topic. "I don't suppose you recall much about the...uh...life-returning process?"
Small tightenings in Sheppard's facial muscles told the lie as the man said brusquely, "No."
"Right then," Carson was sorry he'd asked. Still, if they knew by what means the Wraith returned life, then it might be possible...
To what? Return life to the withered victims of Wraith cullings? Modern medical science made it possible to bring the recently dead 'back to life', so to speak - although Carson's good Protestant upbringing reckoned there was only so far man was meant to go - but the withered, drained dead he'd seen on a dozen different planets?
He cleared his throat. "Your MRIs show no signs of swelling or pressure in your brain - there's no medical reason that we can find to explain your amnesia. It's not even a standard kind of amnesia - you can't recall anything specific from before your capture and release by the Wraith, but you can remember perfectly all the things that have happened since then. You have no trouble with procedural skills, but they should tie in to your episodic memory - or where you actually learned them - and they don't."
"So what's that mean?" Sheppard and Miss Weaverkin were sitting on the side of the bed, quite clearly a couple.
"Memory loss isn't usually as neat as your case, Colonel. Amnesia tends to leave gaps and holes in the mind - things that people know they should know, but don't. There's incapability where they were once adept, missing episodes, changes in personality. You're displaying none of this. Tests come back the same; skill-sets, general knowledge, your ability to walk and talk, your language skills. What's happened to you doesn't resemble anything that we've seen on Earth."
"Probably because we're not on Earth?"
"We're dealing with the Wraith, here," Elizabeth said after a moment. "They've got telepathic abilities beyond our comprehension - isn't is possible that they just...wiped John's memory?"
"We considered that," Carson said. It had provoked a great deal of discussion and argument between him, Kate Heightmeyer, and the Atlantis neurologist, Dr. Cole. "In the end, though, we don't know enough about the Wraith's mental capabilities to say what they can and can't do. It would explain what happened to him."
"But if the Wraith got to him like that, why aren't they here? If they could wipe his memory, then why couldn't the pick his brains?"
He saw the understanding of the situation on their faces, and knew that they'd reached the same blank pages as he, Kate, and Tiffany.
Over the last few days they'd tried testing John's knowledge and memory - not just what he knew but how he knew it.
The man knew how to throw a rugby ball, but couldn't have said where he learned to throw it. He didn't remember his time in the military, but when taken to the Ninth Circle Of Bureaucracy (as one of the lieutenants had nicknamed the military archiving room) and told to pick out the appropriate forms for the reassignment of a man from Atlantis back to Earth, he selected the correct forms - although he couldn't remember who the forms had to be lodged to.
Procedural memory was intact; semantic memory - or John's general knowledge - was fine. He had no trouble retaining what he learned in Atlantis, but there were no echoes back to the 'first time' he'd learned it.
Carson had never seen the like - not in real-life cases, anyway. There were movies of people who forgot who they were, but who retained their ability to function in society.
That wasn't the way memory worked.
Function was tied into history was tied into the physicality of memory was tied into a million and one other aspects of the individual. It wasn't like erasing a chapter of a book, it was like snipping the anchoring threads of a spider's web: the whole structure collapsed without them.
If not for the Wraith and their known ability to control minds, Carson would have had his doubts, too.
Still, they were doing tests - all the ones that Carson could think of and a few that his team had made up 'just in case'. Sheppard was being a good sport about it, but it was plain that Elizabeth wanted answers.
He could understand that.
"This is out of our area," he said, looking to Elizabeth. "Physically, Colonel Sheppard is fine. Better than fine - the Orawi are clearly a healthy, energetic people." He smiled briefly at Ivali, was glad to see her smile back tentatively. She was a sweet lady, even if she didn't seem to be adjusting so well to Atlantis. He turned back to John, who was waiting for the verdict on his medical health. "You're healthy, you're in your right mind, there's no physiological indicators to explain your memory loss. Without that, we only have psychological factors to account for it."
"And I don't match any of the patterns you know." It was hard to tell whether this disappointed Sheppard or not. His expression seemed to indicate it could go either way.
"So we're flying blind."
"There's nothing you can recommend that might help jog his memory?"
Carson hesitated, aware that Ivali had tensed a little at Elizabeth's question. "Nothing that we can do medically," he said at last.
"Memory's a complex thing," he said after a moment. "You seem to remember how to do things, Colonel, even if you don't remember the when or where or who of learning them. It's possible that being back in Atlantis - doing the things you used to do here - will help trigger your memory."
"Jogging, sparring, computer games...that kind of thing?"
Carson nodded. "That kind of thing." He imagined Rodney would have been trying to chivvy John back into their regular 'gaming' habits. The attempts over the last six months to draw Ronon and Carson into gaming had clearly failed. Ronon was too restless for such mental pursuits, and Carson had no interest in moving screen bytes around in front of him. Work was spent in front of computer, why add free time to that?
Besides, there was an entire ocean out there with the grandfather of all fish that was just waiting for Carson to catch him.
"Playing your old games might help a little. Settling into a routine is most likely to help get you back into the rhythm of things. In the meantime, Elizabeth, you might like to talk to Colonel Edwards about putting him on a light roster again. If John's willing, of course."
Sheppard hopped off the gurney and shrugged. "Fine by me."
Elizabeth's expression was pained. "It's not John's willingness that's the problem."
Rodney deliberately waited until they were in the middle of the 'jumper bay before switching on the lights. Just for the dramatic effect. "Ta-da!"
Sheppard's reaction was gratifyingly awed. "These are flying ships?"
"Puddlejumpers, yes. Don't look at me," he added when John mouthed 'Puddlejumpers?' "I was all set to call them the eminently practical 'gateships', and then you decided it was a boring name!"
Sheppard's laugh echoed in the otherwise empty bay - an odd noise. Rodney hadn't heard John laugh too often like that. "So, which one are we going to use?"
"Well, hm, the nearest one seems like a good idea." Rodney pointed at the one sitting on the pad by the door, its hatch closed. He ran a quick query on the 'jumper bay to see if there were any scheduled works presently being done and it came up green.
It wasn't that they were doing anything wrong. No-one had said that Sheppard couldn't be taken out in a 'jumper, and Edwards was making disapproving noises whenever anyone even mentioned authorisation access and Sheppard's in the same conversation. Exactly what he thought the man was going to do to the Atlantis network without his memory, Rodney had no idea.
And they thought Rodney was paranoid.
He unlocked the hatch and lowered it. The internal lights came on automatically, lighting up the inside of the 'jumper.
He'd already said 'Ta-da' so a second rendition wasn't necessary. Still, he took pleasure in the slow-growing excitement on Sheppard's face as he took in the machine.
"And it flies? Like a bird?"
"Oh, it definitely flies." Rodney pointed at the pilot's seat, innocuous in front of the windscreen. "Try it!"
For a moment, Sheppard looked like he was waiting for the punchline, but he went up to the front of the 'jumper, his fingers trailing across the gate dialling buttons.
The click of a gun being cocked behind them stopped Rodney cold.
The next moment, Major Camberwell's cool voice said, "Dr. McKay, John Sheppard, come out with your hands up."
Rodney groaned as he brought his hands out - no way was he going to lift them up with a tablet in his hands. Besides, the very idea was insane. "Okay, of all the possible lines you could have used, you had to pick that one? The cliché is ridiculous."
"Not as ridiculous as you're going to look if I shoot a hole in your leg, Dr. McKay. Turn around and come out."
"With our hands up?"
Camberwell's eyes were narrow and his mouth was an upside-down 'U' shape. "With your hands up."
Rodney led the way out, but he could hear Sheppard's steps on the ramp behind him as he came out. Thankfully, Camberwell had uncocked the gun and put it away. It seemed that shooting them was not on the agenda, even if threatening them was.
"Can we help you, Major?" For a moment, Sheppard sounded like his old self; the cadences of his speech taking on the note of meaningful command that Rodney recognised as John about to rein someone in - he'd been on the receiving end often enough to recognise what was coming.
"Dr. McKay could start," said Colonel Edwards, striding into the 'jumper bay with a brisk gait, "by explaining to me what he's doing allowing an unauthorised person to access important military equipment."
Rodney gaped at him, disbelief like a clamp on his tongue. Then the clamp loosened. "Unauthorised...? Are you insane? This, might I remind you, is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard of the United States Air Force who had access and authorisation to Atlantis long before you turned up here!"
Edwards' gaze raked Sheppard from head to toe, surveying the Orawi-style clothing that John still wore after nearly five days in Atlantis. He probably took in the flat hazel gaze and the unruly hair while he was at it. "I don't see an Air Force officer here - just a Pegasus native."
Rodney stared. "What? Yan Stormborn is John Sheppard!"
"John Sheppard was declared Missing In Action, and his accesses frozen. Until such a time as he is once again re-authorised, his permissions in the city are limited to those of any visitor. As it stands, lacking the memories of Sheppard, Yan Stormborn is essentially a Pegasus native with unwonted access to the city and its people."
"So," Sheppard said, dangerously soft, "Teyla and Ronon are on sufferance in the city - like Ivali and me?"
The dangerous note slid off Edwards' hide. Either he'd never encountered John Sheppard before, or he figured his authority would override any temper Sheppard showed. "They're authorised for the missions they go on. As such, they're permitted in the 'jumpers at that time. Yan Stormborn," and here, Edwards' lip curled, "is not - certainly not until he's cleared for a mission."
"This is ridiculous," Rodney said for the second time, reaching for his earpiece as he turned to Sheppard. "I've never heard anything so stupid in my life. I'm sure that Elizabeth will grant you authorisation--"
But when he contacted Elizabeth, she was short-tempered and annoyed. "Rodney--"
"Look, we've been talking about--"
"Rodney, now is not a good time. We'll discuss this later!"
"Later, Rodney." And Elizabeth cut him off.
She cut him off.
Edwards looked smug. Behind him, Camberwell had an oily glitter of satisfaction that firmed Rodney's resolve to pay more attention to Ronon's self-defence lessons.
"Don't think I'm not going to follow this up," Rodney snarled. "Just because you can throw your weight around doesn't mean you're in control of this city."
"This isn't about controlling the city, Dr. McKay," said Edwards grimly. "It's not about winning. It's about the proper formalities and forms being observed - about not just getting things done but getting them done properly. It's about protocol - something that you've never even thought about in your life."
"I think that's enough, Colonel," Sheppard interrupted, and if the ring of authority in his voice didn't seem to take Edwards aback, it was sufficient to stop his baiting. He tapped Rodney on the shoulder. "Come on," he said and although his tone of voice was mild, the greenish eyes had a dangerous glitter in them that fired Rodney's sense of righteousness anew. "We'll come back once Dr. Weir's given us the green light."
When they were walked out of the room, Rodney thought it was just like old times.
Okay, except for the fact that it was usually enemy hostiles, not their own people.
She was at the meeting early, thanks to an excuse that she needed a walk to clear her head. The control room staff just nodded and said nothing.
As she walked down the final corridor towards Teyla's meditation room, Elizabeth reminded herself that this was not illegal or wrong. A meeting of people to discuss the state of someone who'd been a friend was not forbidden in the city - especially not when among those people were the expedition leader, the chief scientific personnel, the chief medical officer, and two of his former team-mates.
"Elizabeth." Teyla looked up from the laptop she had settled on her knees. "You are early."
"Well, I had some spare time." She settled on one of the padded cube-seats with a sigh.
"You still feel guilty about these meetings?"
"No." Then, forced to concede the truth, Elizabeth grimaced. "I know that Colonel Edwards wouldn't be helpful in these meetings. But he is the military commander in Atlantis. I didn't always like John's decisions or opinion, but I never tried to exclude him from meetings."
Teyla finished her typing and closed up her laptop. "Atlantis has become political since John left."
"It's always been political, Teyla," Elizabeth said with a short laugh. "Just not this much."
That was all she had time to say before the others began to arrive, starting with Ronon, then a frazzled Carson.
"Slight mayhem due to some confusion with the med kits being sent with the outpost group," he explained. "Someone got the antivirals and the antivenom confused. Luckily, Jennifer has a sharp eye. She's sorting through it."
"Will it delay their departure?"
"Probably not at all. Worst case scenario, a couple of hours."
Elizabeth nodded, relieved to hear it. A delay would have assorted departmental personnel at her door demanding to know why they were being held back from the excitement of exploring an operational Ancient outpost, and she didn't need that on top of everything else happening in the city. "Thanks."
As she spoke, Rodney stomped in the door, swiped his hand over the door panels, and almost as soon as the doors had slid shut behind him demanded, "What the hell is Edwards doing?"
"His job, Rodney," said Elizabeth grimly.
She'd expected the outburst. Anticipated it, even.
Clearly, Rodney hadn't expected her answer. He stared at her, shocked that she was defending Edwards. "What? How is his job not to get Sheppard back? I mean, isn't that what they sent General O'Neill here to do - give Sheppard his background?"
"His job is the protection of Atlantis," she said. "Even if you don't agree with how he does it." God knew, she usually didn't. But in all honesty, Elizabeth hadn't always agreed with John's assessments, let alone his actions.
The difference was that even if John had never apologised, there'd been times when he let her have her way. It was a trade-off, a balance - something for something.
Richard Edwards had upset the balance from the day he'd walked into Atlantis with the IOA's priorities inscribed on the back of his eyelids.
"It's politics again, isn't it?"
She looked to Ronon, sprawled out on the floor like a dog taking a rest from running around. It didn't surprise her much that he'd seen the situation faster than Rodney - or even Carson, who was mostly concerned with his work in the infirmary.
"Since John's return to the city over a week ago, the IOA has been pushing for his return to Earth. For what they're calling 'screening and re-centering.'"
"Why not just call it like it is?" Rodney demanded.
"What is it?"
Carson answered Ronon's question with quiet weariness. "The reason Colonel Edwards was assigned to Atlantis is because the IOA no longer trusts the original expedition members - including Elizabeth. According to them, we've been here too long. Our views have become diluted."
"Gone native," Ronon said. "I've heard." He looked around the room. "So, everyone?"
"Everyone here," said Elizabeth. "Even some of the later arrivals. When John first went missing, I put forward both Major Lorne and Colonel Caldwell as possible alternatives. Neither were acceptable to the IOA."
"Uncertain loyalties," Teyla murmured.
The look she exchanged with Elizabeth was speaking. Teyla's own loyalties to her people had been called into question when she chose to return to the Atlantis expedition. She had answered them as best she could - with more time spent among her people. With John's absence, Teyla seemed to find it easier to get away.
At least one of them could.
Elizabeth nodded. "For the moment, General O'Neill has the ear of the President and the Chair of the IOA. He's managed to persuade them that John's better off here - that there's a better chance of regaining his memory in Atlantis than there is on Earth."
"Or there would be if Edwards wasn't trying so hard to keep Sheppard out of the loop all the time."
Carson made a noise of frustration. "Rodney, will you give it a rest? If you'd thought about it for half a moment, you'd have realised that trying to sneak Sheppard into the 'jumper bay was bound to cause problems."
"Sneak into the 'jumper bay? We didn't sneak in there!"
"But you didn't log a service request or an inspection schedule, either," Elizabeth said, grimly.
The 'jumper bay doors were set up to flag when a person or persons tried to access them without first logging a request. It prevented not only sabotage, but also inadvertent mistakes, and gawking by newcomers to the city.
She wasn't going to go easy on him - not with the trouble he'd caused. He'd put her into a position where she agreed with Edwards on the state of the matter, even though she disagreed with his course of action. Because, yes, John was no longer authorised to access Atlantis as he used to be, and no, Rodney hadn't followed the proper procedure, but Elizabeth would have overlooked both issues in the interest of setting John up in a situation that might help bring back his memory.
Maybe it was a long shot, but most of the Atlantis expedition had been an improbable, long shot that had pulled through with perseverance, ingenuity, and a little nudge from whatever Powers were out there, looking over them.
"I didn't think I'd need to!"
Elizabeth had drawn breath to snap back at Rodney. Teyla's question diverted her. "Is the IOA likely to succeed in their aim of taking John back to Earth?"
It was a relief to have someone around who could keep the conversation on track. "Not as long as both General O'Neill and the President are on our side."
And she wasn't even going to think about the politics involved in that.
With every day that passed, it was becoming clearer that John wasn't going to regain his memory without something big happening. Exactly what that big something was, Elizabeth didn't know and couldn't imagine.
In her time as leader of the city, she'd agreed with John most of the time, and when she hadn't, at least he'd been amenable to negotiation. Sometimes. Still, she'd at least been able to trust that he was backing her up, presenting a solid front to the IOA.
"And John doesn't remember anything?" Carson looked at Teyla.
"Moments only," said Teyla, shaking her head. "Nothing significant."
Rodney harrumphed. "Well, what will it take for him to remember?"
It was despair or make a joke of it. Elizabeth went with the joke. "A miracle?"
But she feared the words were closer to the truth than she liked.
Of all the things he wanted at this particular moment, Yan really wanted to beat Teyla at bantos.
In the last ten days, he'd been running against Ronon and managed to keep up - not just in the first five minutes, but all the time. That, according to not only Ronon, but also Teyla, Lorne, and just about everyone else in the city, was impressive. Naturally, Rodney waved it off with a, "But no-one beats Ronon when it comes to stamina. The man was built for it."
Yan figured he could try.
If he wasn't allowed any say in the running of the city or allowed to do anything in the line of what he'd used to do, once upon a memory, then he'd do some things that they said he'd never really had a chance to do before.
Mostly, it involved sparring.
Guns and weapons were out - Edwards had refused to budge on the matter of the 'jumper and extended that moratorium to all Earth equipment bar the computer systems. And even on that, Yan was given 'guest' limits, which McKay ranted about for nearly an hour before Ronon picked a fight with him.
Dr. Weir had sent off to the IOA, requesting the same 'special status' that applied to Teyla and Ronon in Atlantis. Her annoyance as she told Yan this had been plain, and Yan appreciated that she was willing to fight for him.
But he had other things to occupy him, too. There were medical tests with Dr. Beckett, and sessions with Dr. Heightmeyer, and the scientists elicited all manner of promises from him regarding tests with devices once his authorisation came through.
And there was the physical exercise.
He was better at hand-to-hand. Or maybe he'd always been good at it and just never had the chance to develop fully. Again, he wasn't quite good enough to beat Ronon, but he was better than most of the guys. One of the marines was threatening a rematch just to get back his hundred dollars. Yan had no idea what he was going to do with a hundred dollars - there wasn't anything to buy in Atlantis - but it was good to know he'd gotten better.
According to Ronon, his increased fitness meant he was better at bantos than he'd been before.
For all the difference it made when he went up against Teyla.
The clash of sticks rang harshly in the confined space. Bare feet moved deftly across the mats, seeking balance. Bare arms whirled the bantos rods in careful patterns. A droplet of sweat slid down through his hair and onto his temple. Yan never let his eyes drift from her face, watching as carefully as he ever had while hunting.
She came at him fast, the rods slicing through the air with a speed that wasn't quite deadly. Her hair was tied up, but the wisping ends gleamed in the cold silver light that filled the room in the midday grey. Her eyes gleamed, dark as sanclan carapaces, valued for their shine as well as their strength. Yan was distracted enough not to meet her blow with quite the resistance he'd intended, and forced to stumble back.
Regaining his balance took a moment, and she gave him the grace of the moment.
Yan still wasn't sure if it was made better or worse by the fact that she toyed with him. It was perfectly obvious that he was never going to be good enough to beat her at these; but she still let him wear himself out against her.
It was his turn to attack, and he followed the forms, his memory providing the moves even as he saw the opportunities. High and wide, middle right, parry her thrust, use the momentum to drive her back. His attack was blocked, his defenses open, she took him out with a rap to the knuckles and a twist of his arm.
Yan was down on his knees with his arm behind his back before he knew it.
She bopped him lightly on the head as she let him go, a friendly tap of the rod across his skull.
He snorted in mock disgust as he reached for the bantos he'd dropped when she stung his knuckles. "I hold out for nearly ten minutes and 'well attempted' is all the praise I get?"
Teyla laughed. "It is better than you used to get from me."
"Was I lazy?"
He grinned at her chiding tones, and sat back on his heels as she paced over to the window to get the water bottles.
If he was honest with himself, he enjoyed the sparring with Teyla as much for the time spent with Teyla herself as for the physical exertion of it.
"So someday, I might actually beat you at this?" He caught the bottle of water and the towel she tossed to him, and accepted the condescending smile that came with them.
"Perhaps. If you are very fortunate."
Yan narrowed his eyes at her, but only received a flicker of one lash in return. He gulped back cool water and paused over the mouth of the bottle. "Did it ever actually help in our missions to know this kind of stuff?"
Teyla came back over, her towel slung around her neck as she gracefully dropped into a sitting position. "Occasionally. Sometimes, knowing how to defend oneself in close combat came in useful."
"Given the kind of missions we went on, I imagine it did."
Ivali thought the bantos sparring unnecessarily violent. She'd watched the first bout with her knuckles white where her hands clutched in her lap. After that, Yan let her know when he was going sparring and suggested that she schedule her visits with the anthropologists around the same time.
And if he was uncomfortably aware that this time could be called 'getting sweaty with Teyla while out of Ivali's sight', then he didn't think about it too much.
He'd been friends with Teyla before the memory loss. He was with Ivali still. More than anything else - any interest he felt in Teyla - those two points were important. This was just like spending time with Ronon or Rodney or any of the other people he'd befriended in the last two years.
"Colonel Edwards will still not allow you to do more than read through the reports?"
"I'm pretty sure I've read through all the reports for the last two years of the expedition," he said wryly as he stretched out his legs and lay back with his elbows propping him up. "Liberally salted with the major reports from the SGC. And nope. Until I regain my memory, I'm considered 'unauthorised personnel' and shouldn't be using any of the weapons in Atlantis."
"Which includes the 'jumpers and the city chair." Teyla nodded with a rueful expression on her face. "I truly do not believe that Colonel Edwards is as against you regaining your memory as Rodney thinks."
"The guy's just following orders." Yan made a face. "You know, on one hand, I get that. On the other..." He took another gulp from the bottle, letting the cool liquid slide down his throat and figured he'd go find Ronon and get a beer after this. "I probably wasn't one for following orders so well, was I?"
"You were not." Teyla's smile gleamed with amusement, cinnamon and honey, even in the bleak light from the grey day outside.
"And this would be why the IOA doesn't like me?"
"The IOA does not seem to trust anyone who is not of their mind," Teyla said, and if her tone was candid, her words seemed carefully thought-out.
"Well, Edwards doesn't trust me. And I don't like him, so...stalemate." Yan grimaced. "I must have had superior officers who didn't like me before - although General O'Neill seemed fond enough of me."
"Possibly because he never had to work with you?"
He shot a scowl at her over his shoulder. "You know, you could be nicer."
"It would be less amusing."
Yan rolled his eyes, only a little peeved at her answer, and climbed to his feet. Rest too long and his muscles would contract, and he had pride enough to at least assay an attempt to beat her. "Another round?"
Teyla held out her hands, still smiling. "You are determined to be beaten again?"
He took her hands in his and hauled her up. "I can't have lost every bout--" Yan stopped.
He was growing accustomed to the flashes of memory, mere fragments of time in the years of his life. Sometimes it was something he saw, sometimes a similar situation, occasionally just the recounting of whatever had happened. Usually it was just a moment between people, a few seconds of time and space, a feeling or a scent, the shape of something familiar - rarely was it anything worth noting.
Sometimes it was very noteworthy.
Warm sun and warmed dust, tinged with the scent of sweat and effort, challenge and excitement - and desire. Hot desire that strained within him like an animal loosed from its chain, snapping and snarling, demanding and dangerous. And she was nervous and unnerved, by his intensity, by his proximity, by his hunger.
He wanted. He took. And for several moments, he possessed.
Sanity swept through him as she managed to shove him away.
Teyla stared at him, her fingers tensing in his, although she didn't pull away. "What?"
"You said there was nothing between us."
"What--?" But this time, understanding flared like a dark flame in her eyes. "I did not lie, John. There was nothing--"
"I remember the taste of you." He said it deliberately, wielding his words like a weapon. He took her face between his hands, remembering the feel of her skin beneath his fingers, the way her head had tilted up to his as he looked down into her eyes. "You kissed me back."
In the stark light, there was no mistaking the flood of colour to her face, but she didn't pull away. Beneath the golden-brown of her skin, a vivid heat bloomed. "You were...not yourself."
"It seems to happen a lot." There was something cold and dark inside him, like a creature clawing its way out of a black pit, scratching at his soul. "I wasn't myself during the Thalen-Phoebus incident, either." Yan watched her face, saw the way her gaze flicked up to his then drew away, lashes shading her gaze.
"I said we were not lovers," she answered, her voice level. "I did not lie."
Yan remembered that moment, the intense hunger, the cool of her skin beneath his hands, the way her mouth moved under his, the desire that had crawled through him, a vicious fire that had craved extinction in her body. "You responded to me."
She'd responded to him in that instant, the way his body was responding to her now. So close, so deep, so hungry.
"I did not say I was not attracted."
He could tell from her tone of voice that she was trying to smooth everything over, to put it behind them, to forget. Yan had no intention of forgetting this. Teyla was the only person he clearly and repeatedly remembered. He'd asked why that might be and she'd put him off.
Now, Yan knew. And this time, he would not forget.
"Are you attracted now?" He lowered his face to hers, their noses brushing. Her lips parted beneath his, he yearned to taste her in his mouth...
It was a whisper of breath from her mouth, barely reaching his ears. It slammed into his gut like one of her bantos rods.
Yan caught his breath, caught his desire, caught himself. Caught Teyla watching him with unforgiving comprehension.
He'd forgotten amidst everything else - had let himself forget.
Guilt crashed in on him like a wave dumping him in sandy shoals.
Teyla stepped back, releasing herself from his grip. He let her go.
"We were friends, John."
She was using his real name now, not the name he'd given himself while he didn't remember.
"Were?" He fumbled with the tense.
"Are," she corrected herself.
"And that's all?" He didn't intend to sound so bitter.
It wasn't Teyla's fault she didn't want this - or Yan's for being attracted, come to that. It wasn't Ivali's fault for loving him or for being with him. It wasn't anyone's fault.
That didn't mean it didn't hurt.
Emotion flickered across her face, uneasy thoughts. "Isn't it enough?"
Yan wondered if he'd struggled with this as John Sheppard. It was clear that he'd never faced down his feelings about Teyla Emmagan, preferring to let things glide between them, but he wondered if he'd ever really felt caught between what he should do and what he wanted to do.
Everything he'd heard about John Sheppard so far - all the history, all the reports, almost all the interactions - said that being John Sheppard was a good thing.
Overall, perhaps it was.
"I guess it has to be," he muttered. "Teyla--"
She was shoving her bantos rods into her shoulder bag, preparing to go. Yan thought about initiating another round of bantos, then decided she had the right of it. Better to calm down - cool down - and walk away for the moment. Although if she thought he was going to leave them like that...
"We're okay, right?" It pressed against his breastbone like a fist. They had to be okay, because if they weren't...
Teyla was important. Had always been important. Maybe he couldn't move on that now. Maybe he could never move on it. But that didn't change anything: he still needed her friendship.
She paused, looked up, her eyes measuring him. Then she nodded. "We are okay, Yan."
"See you at dinner then?"
Pushing it that far seemed right, and although she initially hesitated, after a moment, she smiled.
"See you at dinner," she said, lightly, moving brisk and barefoot across the floor, the swinging stride of a usually confident woman...running away.
He said something that must have satisfied the proprieties, but when she was gone down the corridor, long out of earshot, he threw the bantos rod across the room with a whistling clatter.
There were things he couldn't remember - a lot of things. But there were some things he could and did.
And Yan knew that this wasn't the first time the question of 'them' had come up. Just as he knew that Teyla had walked away that time as well. Just as he knew that John Sheppard hadn't gone after her.
What he didn't know was if it had been a lack of courage to step out of his personal safe space and offer something more to a woman he'd loved, or if it had taken courage to live by her decision.
He was afraid to find out.
Teyla wondered if she could ignore Ronon's question, choosing silence as her barrier.
The mess hall was mostly empty in the wintry dark of Atlantis' evening hours, and Teyla had spent several days with her people, and deliberately timed her return for the later and quieter dinner setting, expecting to dine alone.
Instead, she'd found Ronon waiting for her.
"My people are negotiating with the dwellers of the Tethra for seagrass," she said, deciding to misinterpret his question. "There was a misunderstanding between Varron and one of the Tethra which resulted in blows being exchanged... It was much like the situation with the Smytha."
Ronon glared at her. "And the situation with Sheppard?"
Again, Teyla took the broadest interpretation of the question, rather than the specific situation she knew he meant. "I think he will stay in Atlantis."
"You know that's not what I meant," he said, stretching himself out in his chair. They were sitting diagonally across from each other, specifically so Ronon could put out his legs as he ate.
"You should speak with Carson."
She avoided smiling. "If you intend to fish, yes."
Ronon bared his teeth. "Very funny."
"I thought so myself. It is not your business."
"You don't have anything to say?"
What Teyla had to say was more along the lines of telling Ronon to keep his nose out of her life - that their friendship did not permit him the extent of his curiosity.
Besides, she was still more than a little wary after her encounter with John from a few days past. Going to her people had been a refuge as well as a responsibility.
I remember the taste of you. It would have been less confronting if she hadn't remembered the taste of him, too. Potent and ardent, with a delicate whisper of want and need and have that had left her with aching dreams for a few nights during his recovery.
We were friends. It had always been important to her - more important than whatever personal intimacy might have been possible in the past. Yet there had been times - particularly in his absence - when Teyla wondered if she had exchanged the sweetness of intimacy with John for the more assured safety of his friendship.
She wanted to say that it did not matter that they were friends; that friendship was sufficient between them.
Then John went missing and was found again, and in the finding, he had brought Ivali with him to Atlantis.
And it mattered more to Teyla than made her comfortable.
Yan Stormborn was not John Sheppard - not quite. They shared a body and a mind and a past, but the emotional limits that John had lived with were not there for Yan. He could spar against Teyla without a care for what people might think. He could reach out to touch the woman he loved without embarrassment or self-consciousness. He could draw a line between talking about what might have been between John Sheppard and Teyla, and walk it - even briefly contemplate crossing it.
John Sheppard had always been conscious and careful of the gossip in the city.
Teyla had grown accustomed to the lines John had drawn between them - had come to count on them. Her own boundaries needed no watching; John was vigilant enough for them both.
The man he had become was not vigilant, saw no need to be vigilant.
She hadn't seen the danger until his hands were on hers, his gaze holding her as fast as his grip.
Yes, she was attracted to him. John Sheppard was Yan Stormborn was John Sheppard - there were elements of the man Teyla had cared for in the man he had become. But they were not quite the same man - two selves, divided. It was only after their encounter during bantos sparring two days ago, that Teyla had realised how careful she would have to be around Yan.
"What is there to say?" Teyla asked. "She loves him, and he loves her - he would not have asked her to Atlantis if he did not."
"I'm not interested in whether she loves him."
She did not mistake the lean. "Don't presume, Ronon."
He shrugged, unbothered by her chiding. "Is she going to stay?"
Teyla wanted to kick him under the table and remind him that Ivali had a name. She'd noticed that it was common among those who'd been in John's close circle to refer to Ivali by a pronoun, not a name. It was doubtful they were even aware of it, but Teyla felt the sting - of temptation and of guilt - and made an effort to refer to her properly.
The Orawi woman was still struggling in the city, but she was finding her feet well enough. What she would do in the city was another matter.
"I don't have your skill with bantos, or your will for the fight," Ivali had said during one of their conversations. "I wouldn't fit in here."
"There are other roles in the city," Teyla had pointed out. "Not all of them involve fighting the Wraith."
Ivali had stared out at the sea for a moment, her eyes watching something on the water's surface before she turned to look at Teyla. "I do not think it will come down to that in the end," she'd said at last.
Sitting in the mess hall, her food untouched and rapidly cooling, Teyla contemplated what she knew of the situation and whether she had a right to tell Ronon.
Finally, she murmured to Ronon, "I believe she has already made her decision to leave."
He sat up, suddenly alert. "Yeah?"
His brows drew together as his eyes narrowed at her flat reply. "There's a problem?"
Teyla wondered if she could explain it - if it would make sense to him and not only to her.
"Ivali came to Atlantis at John's request. She did not know what to expect, or if they could return to Orawi, but she came all the same - for John's sake. I believe she has known for a long time that they would not let him leave - and resigned herself to the parting."
"So she is John's anchor in the city - the only one who knows him as he now is." Teyla had seen the way John turned to Ivali. Ivali needed him in Atlantis, yes; but his need was no less - if from a different perspective. "Ivali knows Yan Stormborn, and John needs that. He needs the acknowledgement of not only who he was, but who he became in the time since he escaped the Wraith. We have adapted to him, but he will always be John Sheppard to us."
She looked from her meal up to Ronon's still face. Understanding was dawning, a perspective he hadn't anticipated - an argument he had only one protest for.
"He is Sheppard."
Teyla shrugged as she dug her fork viciously into the pie. "Perhaps he is to us. Some parts of him are very much John in nature. But he is still Yan in his own mind."
"So he needs someone who can reflect that back at him. 'A man without a reflection is no man at all.'" She quoted an old Askani proverb about individuality and community and saw it strike Ronon.
"Couldn't you mirror him?"
Teyla's smile was thin. "I could reflect John when he needed it," she said at last, as close to a confession as she would ever get with Ronon. "But I cannot mirror Yan as he needs to see himself. That is beyond me."
It was beyond anyone but the woman who Teyla knew was preparing to leave John behind.
Ancestors help them all.
The floor was thankfully solid beneath his hip and shoulder and forehead. He needed something to hold onto after that last draining.
Memory was like a beach, the days of his life like sand through the hourglass...
There was a footstep behind him, and he jerked, startled into wakefulness, horror creeping through him at the thought of the feeding yet again. Not again! Not so soon!
Human hands that touched him, warm rough-tipped fingers that closed around wasted limbs and tugged with the gentleness of one accustomed to human fragility. "Easy there," the voice was quiet and solid as the hills, with an impermeable patience - a familiar voice and presence in the cells of the Wraith hiveship. "I'm meaning you no harm, you know."
He knew. His body knew and relaxed into the grip long enough to be assisted to his feet. Independence asserted itself as soon as he was up, and he pushed the hands away irritably. He was old and withered, yes, but he wasn't feeble. Not yet.
Limbs gave the lie to that thought, trembling in the unaccustomed effort. This time, when the arm came around his back, he didn't protest it.
"You have to be so stubborn," said the man as they eased him down to the bench.
"It's a bad habit," he said. He lifted one shaking hand to brush away the cold sweat across his brow. Clumsy and slow - old and withered, useless - the list went on and on. Pain and injury were old friends. In other times and other places, he'd been taught to take pain and absorb it, make it part of him, give him strength.
Where had he learned that? When had he learned it?
The warmth of the man went away, and he shivered before he forced himself to still. How long had it been since he'd been warm? Even when they gave him life - their feeding hands slamming energy into him, a terrifyingly electric crackle of power - it was cold, brutal. No kindness, no humanity.
They are Wraith.
The stranger knelt beside him, the worn, easy face looking up into his features. "You have lasted longer than any of us."
"Only because they want me to." And even when they gave him back his life, he felt the years weighing down on him. Not the years of his own life, but the years of life from those they drained. Fragments of being that splintered and shattered in the new container, unable to keep their shape, tearing him up inside. "Look, I'm sorry about your people."
"You are not to blame. You were not even with us when we were culled."
"The only reason I'm living is because the Wraith gave me their life!" It burned within him, the only heat he could claim anymore, the only fire in his belly - a burning smear of regret and shame. He had lived while others had died.
Guilt was the only passion he had left; the Wraith had taken everything else from him.
There'd been memories in his mind before, a lifetime of history, of knowledge, of experience. He'd blocked it away once he realised the Wraith were trying to get into his thoughts, and if he couldn't remember what he'd done to forget anymore, then the Wraith probably couldn't either.
There'd been people in his mind before, people whose presence had comforted him, given him hope. He'd put them away somewhere, closing them out of his thoughts with inexorable discipline. If he didn't think about them, didn't let the Wraith near them, they'd be safe. He couldn't be there with them anymore, but he could still protect them.
He'd been someone else, before. Someone else somewhere else that he couldn't remember, but which had to exist. He hadn't been in the cells all his life; there'd been...a time before.
He thought there'd been a time before.
"You would have given your life in exchange for ours." The stranger's words were quiet and slow, as thought the man measured his speech with care. "I remember, if you do not. You made a bargain. Your life to be taken and our freedom given in exchange, and all debts be cancelled."
"It wasn't taken up." He didn't remember the offer - one more thing that had been washed away in the beach of his memory - but he knew it hadn't been accepted. If it had been, he wouldn't be here.
"It was offered. No small sacrifice - your own life for others." A broad hand came to rest on his frail shoulder. "The last of my people salutes your courage - for whatever peace it may bring you."
If the man had intended it as a benediction, he felt it more like a curse. Thin arms, wasted with the years, closed around his body, protecting what was left of himself - little enough of the body, almost nothing of who he'd been.
Memory sparkled like dust motes in sunlight.
I am Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tegan.
He looked down at the stranger "You know, I don't even know your name."
The stranger's mouth tilted slightly. "You don't even remember your own name. You won't remember mine."
"Maybe not," he said. "But it's important to try." He knew that much.
A soft snort was his answer, a warm puff of breath in the cold of the cell, like a green tendril of trust reaching out through the wintry snow; a bridge between two men. "My name is Yan."
The servingman behind the counter was grinning from ear to ear as Yan approached the food displays for lunch. He wasn't sure if that was a good sign or a bad one.
From the reactions of the behind-counter personnel to him over the last two weeks, he gathered he'd been something of a favourite with the kitchen staff. According to Teyla, this was because he'd often acted as intercessor (Lorne had used the phrase 'running interference') when McKay wasn't pleased with the food.
But they never grinned at him quite like this.
"Hey," he greeted the man - Harry Jansen. "What are the options today?"
Jansen's grin grew even broader. Yan hadn't thought it possible. "It's your meal, sir."
"My meal--?" Yan scanned the menu list and his brows rose. "Okay."
The sign read Pegasus-style
Shepherd's Sheppard's Pie.
Yan avoided grimacing at the brown stew-like thing with the creamy white pulp on top. It didn't look very appetising.
Still, his instincts weren't prodding him with warnings against eating it, and other people were already at their lunch - among them, Ronon - and eating without negative effect.
"All right," he said at last, after reading the ingredient list. "Serve it up."
Five minutes later, he had the 'pie', a sliced chunk of bread, and two 'cups' of vegetables on his tray, and was making his way over to where Ronon was sprawled with a fork in his hand and a smirk on his lips. "Sheppard's Pie," he said by way of greeting.
"I noticed that. Those guys have to get out of the kitchen more."
Ronon turned his fork over and sucked the pie off the back. "Teach 'em to play golf?"
Yan made a face.
One of the scientists from the technology division had invited him to golf the other day - a 'game' that involved hitting a small white ball out into the open sea with great force. Apparently Yan had been into the game in the time before his memory loss. Now he struggled to understand why - the game had no point, even less point than the computer game that Rodney had tried to interest him in and failed.
Dr. Watson had been a little disappointed. He had hidden it reasonably well, but Yan had seen it.
He wondered if John Sheppard would have seen it.
This was his chief problem in the city right now.
Colonel Edwards continued to keep him out of the military loop in Atlantis, citing IOA restrictions on use of Atlantean equipment by a 'Pegasus Native'. Yan's memory of his past continued to refuse to return, taunting him with fragments of recollection. His relationship with Ivali was growing strained, even as his relationship with his former team-mates was reasserting itself, familiar patterns of interaction in a familiar place.
But Yan was finding it increasingly difficult to sustain 'being' John Sheppard.
It had been two weeks.
Two weeks; fourteen days; one restday short of three cycles.
He had no trouble working his mind around the concept of a seven-day division, even if Ivali struggled with it. "You have four fingers and one thumb on your hand, just the same as us," she'd said, bewildered the first time Yan had undertaken to explain the concept of a week. "Every other culture we have ever known of has four days of work and one of rest. Why six days and one?"
Teyla had explained the significance of seven days to Ivali as a religious, cultural thing on their part.
But Yan wasn't going to dwell on Teyla.
He was pretty sure Teyla hadn't been dwelling on him.
Irrationally, he would have dealt better with it if she'd been the slightest bit uncomfortable the next time they'd met. But when he and Ivali joined her and Dr. Beckett at their table the next day, she gave no recognition of what had nearly passed between them after sparring.
In the four days since their encounter, Yan had realised that he really was living someone else's life. Maybe it had been his life when he was John Sheppard, but he wasn't John Sheppard now. He didn't have John Sheppard's memories, and without those, everything that had made him Sheppard was gone. He still thought of himself as Yan Stormborn - he still thought as Yan Stormborn. 'John Sheppard' was a person he could slip on when he needed him, but beneath the covering, he was still Yan.
Dr. Watson was just one person in a city full of people who'd remembered John Sheppard and been surprised to get Yan.
Yan was starting to wonder if he'd spend the rest of his life as not-John-Sheppard.
"Was I that big a fan of golf before?"
"You tried to get all of us to play it."
"I'm guessing you resisted."
The dark eyes glanced up as he hunched over his tray, twinkling. "Yep."
"...considering I came up with the idea for the shielding," huffed a distinctive voice halfway across the room, "I think it's very unfair..."
A soothing murmur followed, Teyla evidently preferring to keep her voice down in the mess hall. Not that it made much difference when McKay was in a mood to complain.
"You were aware that Elizabeth was unwilling to allow you on this expedition," Teyla was saying as they set their trays down on the table.
McKay waved that aside. "I'm sure I could have persuaded her to let me go."
"Just for setup?" Ronon swung one of his dreadlocks back over his shoulder, then thought better of it and sat up, tying two of the outermost locks together to kept the rest out of his face.
"Yes, well... That's always the best part."
Yan snorted. He'd seen McKay often enough over the last two weeks to have a good idea of why the man enjoyed the setup and discovery of new things. "You mean, ordering people around is the best part?" He grinned as McKay spluttered, and Ronon openly grinned. Teyla only coughed lightly, hiding a smile in her next mouthful of food.
McKay glared across at her, then turned to Yan. "I admit, my expertise is usually invaluable in these situations..."
"Yeah," Ronon muttered. "He likes bossing people around."
"Look, the outpost is the first one we've come across with such extensive technology! We're lucky that it was even still standing, let alone repairable. I should be in there."
"So why aren't you?" Yan asked, digging through the pie and wondering why everything was gravified beyond recognition. He could taste the meat, tubers and spices in the pie, he just couldn't quite work out what was what. The silence caught his attention, and he looked up to realise the other three were looking at each other, somewhat nervously. And he realised that McKay had stayed behind because of him. "Oh. Well, you didn't need to stay on my account."
"Oh, if it had been up to me, I wouldn't have. Unfortunately, Elizabeth decreed that I stay here."
In anyone else, the bluntness would have been offensive. However, even in two weeks, Yan had experienced McKay's lack of forethought or consideration. It wasn't intentional, it was barely manageable - it was simply Rodney McKay.
Still, he saw the look Teyla and Ronon swapped, a rueful exchange. He flashed them a smile as a disgruntled McKay shovelled food onto his fork and muttered something about it being barely edible.
"The outpost will need your help sometime. Dr. Lababa will almost certainly require it." If there was a hint of irony in Teyla's voice, McKay didn't seem to notice it. Yan hid a smile in a mouthful of the sauce.
"Yes, well, Sheppard had better not lose his memory again the next time we discover a fully-functional Ancient outpost that can be powered by a naquadriah generator." Rodney shovelled another mouthful of the pie into his mouth and chewed direly.
Yan was about to point out that he hadn't intended the first time, when a shadow fell over their table.
Ivali paused beside him, her tray in hand as she looked over the table.
Startled, Yan realised he'd sat down at a four-person table with Ronon, and when Teyla and McKay seated themselves, hadn't thought twice about where Ivali was going to sit. The omission startled Yan - shamed him. He scrambled to his feet. "It's okay," he said immediately, his heart sinking in his chest. "I'll come sit with you..."
But he felt the damage done, even as he transferred his tray and dishes over to the next table and sat down in the cold seat opposite Ivali. The distance between him and the members of his former team was more than just physical - and from the way Ivali kept her lashes down, never looking at him for more than a few seconds at a time, Yan could feel the gap between them widening as well.
A lot had changed in two weeks.
"Were you able to help Professor Woolley with the Kaufari treatise?"
Her eyes met his for a moment, seemingly surprised at the question before they slid away. "A little - she had most of it in place already. I didn't add anything significant."
"I'm sure that's not true," he said immediately, reaching out to touch her hand. He'd noticed people giving him odd looks when he touched Ivali, but both Ronon and Teyla had put it down to cultural differences. And if John Sheppard should have felt self-conscious, Yan didn't.
This whole situation was giving him a headache.
Except for the part with Ivali, which was giving him a heartache.
Ronon inquired after the Kaufari treaty, giving Ivali a chance to talk about her morning. Yan appreciated the diversion, particularly when Teyla encouraged Ivali with questions about subtleties that completely passed by him, Ronon, and Rodney.
It loomed above him like a wave - the awareness that he was running out of time with Ivali.
The nightmares came more regularly now; nearly every night. Yan could identify more of the people who featured in them, but there were still faces for whom he had no names. He suspected that many of them were dead - that the features lit by blue lights, contrasted by orange glows, had ended up wrinkled husks, mummified by the Wraith feeding process.
Still others seemed to be from his time on Earth - bruised and battered faces, grim eyes and set mouths - people who wandered in and out of his dreams like they belonged there, John Sheppard's personal cavalcade of memory.
He continued to sleep on the floor of his old room, Ivali resting beside him, but Yan found himself roaming the city more often than not, until exhaustion took him.
"They wanted access to the gani orchards on Bavalar," Ivali was saying.
Teyla nodded. "You advised against granting them?"
"Of course. I think they are expecting to take advantage of a Lantean-brokered treatise."
Yan looked from Ivali's grim expression to Teyla's nod and back. "What's so important about gani orchards?"
"The gani orchards are traditionally planted around or close to the Bavalari women's tents," Ivali explained, as though that should make it instantly comprehensible to Yan.
Ronon seemed to understand, but McKay's brows drew together. "What's that got to do with anything?" He demanded, saving Yan the need to ask the same question.
"What the Kaufari want is not access to the gani but access to the women's tents." Teyla, reached for her drink. "Their traditions..."
Abruptly, she, Ronon, and McKay paused.
After a startled look, Ivali looked to Yan, who shrugged. He'd become accustomed to the sudden halts in conversation when an emergency was called over the earpieces. His own earpiece was cool and silent against his cheek, which either suggested something they didn't need him for, or - more likely - Edwards was blocking his involvement.
"What? They're trying to-- No, they can't do that. I explained it to Ottley. What? Well, certainly if they're going to switch the crystals around then they've got to expect some... Look, you do realise I can't do anything from here. Oh." McKay paused and visibly deflated. "Now?"
"Trouble?" Yan asked Teyla and Ronon.
"Outpost encountered a technical problem - they think they need McKay."
Ivali frowned. "And you're going too?"
"We act as escort," said Teyla.
"Sanity space," Ronon offered and laughed when McKay glared at him.
"Oh, very funny," he snapped. "We've got fifteen minutes to gear up and get to the 'jumper bay. Coming, Sheppard?"
Yan stopped with his fork nearly at his mouth. "Me?"
"Yes, you. We need a pilot. The gate at the outpost planet is in space, so we'll be taking a 'jumper."
Teyla turned her head to look at Rodney, "Will Colonel Edwards allow him to--?"
"Hey, I'm the one who needs a pilot to take me out to the outpost! Last I checked, I have the right to ask for a pilot of my choosing--"
Three heads turned towards him, their expressions showing various shades of surprise. Beyond them, heads swivelled, drawn into the confrontation by the small scene rapidly developing in the still-busy common area.
McKay nearly choked on his disbelief. "No?"
Yan ignored the hard stare Ivali was giving him across the table and worked the 'Sheppard's pie' through his mouth. "I'm not going."
The other man's mouth opened and closed like a fish. Teyla's eyebrows had lifted in delicate query. And Ronon's face had taken on an expression that Yan had mentally rated the, 'Oookay,' look of disbelief, for all it involved a couple of raised eyebrows and a twist to the man's mouth.
But all it took was one glance at Ivali to steel his resolve. She looked as astonished as any of the other three, as though she'd expected him to walk off with his former friends and just leave her behind.
Of those former friends, it was Teyla who seemed to accept it first. The eyebrows came down and she nodded to herself as she brushed back a wisp of hair from her fringe. "You are sure?"
He met her gaze without flinching or blushing. "Yeah."
Ivali was his responsibility - his care. Yes, he was attracted to Teyla, but there was a difference between what he could do and what he wanted to do. And after his recklessness the other day, Yan would walk the line.
She nodded, and her movement broke McKay's frozen stillness. "But...you have to go!"
"You won't need me," he said. "I'm just the pilot."
"But this is-- I mean, when else are we going to get you in a 'jumper seat?"
Ronon huffed out a long breath. "Come on, McKay, let's get geared up." He tugged at the other man's jacket, half-jerking him along. By the time McKay began protesting, they were halfway out the mess hall, Teyla following them with one enigmatic glance back.
Yan continued eating as though nothing had happened.
Quite abruptly, the silence that had fallen gently over the mess hall lifted back into the normal babble of conversation over the chink and clatter of utensils on dishware.
He could feel Ivali's gaze on him, but it was at least a minute before she spoke. "You can go, Yan. You don't have to stay for me."
"Then let's clear this up now," he told her, firmly. "I didn't stay for you. I stayed for me."
It was mostly true, too.
Digging in his heels now was a backlash against the last few days: his encounter with Teyla, his argument with Edwards over responsibilities, the growing feeling that he was ignoring or sidelining Ivali from John Sheppard's life. It was definitely a rebellion of sorts - if they only realised it. He wasn't John Sheppard. He could pretend to be John Sheppard for a while, but sooner or later it would all come crashing down. It was better that everyone accepted that sooner rather than later - even Yan.
He wasn't John Sheppard - not anymore. And while he could do some of what John Sheppard had done, it looked very much like his memory wasn't going to come back anytime soon.
Yan couldn't help that.
Any more than he could help the feeling that came upon him as he finished his meal and wandered with Ivali over to the rec rooms - the feeling that he was somehow letting down his friends.
"If it's any consolation," Evan Lorne said as they sauntered back to personnel quarters after their bout of hand-to-hand, "you've gotten better."
Yan snorted as swiped one end of his towel across his face, thinking that he really needed a shower. "You know, since you just spent the last half-hour squashing my face in the mat, I hate to think how bad I was before."
Since Ronon was away, the usual sparring group hadn't convened. According to Lorne, some kind of secret signal went out among the marines to say that there wouldn't be training, but always stopped short of letting the Air Force personnel know.
When only Lorne turned up, Yan had offered some light hand-to-hand practise and the man had taken him on. And beaten Yan in just about every bout. Not by much in most cases - just a small slip, some opportunity-seizing move that the other man managed that took him out.
"Actually, you didn't used to do this very often at all," Lorne said as they stepped aside for several cart-pushing personnel to move past them. They flattened themselves against the wall to a chorus of 'thankyous' from the men and women. "Although you went up against Ronon and Teyla a fair bit, you didn't really join in with the regular hand-to-hand training."
"No? Why not?"
The question was out before Yan realised that Lorne mightn't have known why he hadn't participated in the hand-to-hand before.
"I figured it was commander distance," said Lorne. A smirk quirked his mouth and slanted his eyes. "It gets difficult to keep military rank when you're squashing a senior officer's head into the mat every Tuesday."
Yan grinned as they came to his rooms and swiped his hand past the door panel to let himself in. "So you're taking advantage?"
He was looking at Lorne as he spoke, but the other man's expression spun him around.
Inside the room, Ivali's face rose guilty over the clothing she was folding neatly into her pack - the clothing she'd brought to Atlantis from Orawi. Her eyes met Yan's for only a moment before she dropped her gaze and picked up the next item - an embroidered jerkin that she'd made out of hide-leather from a katapi that had been one of Yan's first kills in the village.
Yan remembered that leather - that hunt. She'd expressed a desire for katapi leather, and he'd agreed to the bargain in exchange for some shirts. It had been a difficult hunt, but he'd caught his quarry, trapped it and killed it, skinned it and cured it, and when he presented her with the softened leather, he'd let his hands linger on the even softer skin of her hands for just long enough.
As he looked at the jerkin in her hands, there was a moment when Yan felt like she'd skinned him.
As it was, something in him felt severed, like a sharp knife had sliced through his chest. Everything ached, and he wasn't sure if the burning sensation in his lungs was regret or relief. Then it all coalesced into a hot, hard ball in his belly and the anger came.
"When were you going to tell me?"
Behind him, Lorne muttered something and made good his escape. Yan ignored him - his whole focus was on Ivali, who pushed the jerkin into her pack and lifted her face to him, the lines around her mouth and eyes tight, her expression careful and stiff.
She didn't answer at first, so he knelt opposite her over the pack, and closed his fingers over hers. "Ivali..."
"I don't belong here," she said, lifting her eyes to his. "It was obvious before the end of the first day."
"Not to me!"
Her smile held both love and bitterness as she lifted her hand to his face. His stubble shifted as she trailed soft fingers down his cheek, and he wanted to turn his face and kiss her hand, but he held back, watching her face.
"You're the only one who hasn't seen it, Yan. Everyone else knows." She turned away, her hands reaching for the next item - skin-clinging undergarments he remembered sliding off her the first time they made love. "I never intended to stay forever, you know. Only long enough for you to find your footing here."
It shocked him. He hadn't realised. "Why didn't you say this at the start?"
Ivali shrugged, her mouth twisted ruefully as she looked down again. "Because you needed someone to be here for you."
"I still do."
"You've got your friends."
"Is this about lunch?"
"It's about belonging, Yan!" Her voice lifted, rose, cracked. She closed her eyes, and something glittered beneath the brown sweep of her lashes. "You belong here as you never did in Orawi. I don't."
"You could. Teyla--"
"I'm not Teyla." Her lashes lifted, looking directly at Yan. For a moment, Yan thought Teyla had told her about what happened between them in the gym - a gesture of honesty. But there were no recriminations in Ivali's eyes. "You've got friends here."
"Yeah, but they're from here." Yan rocked back on his heels. "I'm John Sheppard to everyone else here, but everything I know about John Sheppard was told to me by them."
"You said that it feels right."
"It does," he said, the tight-wound pressure in his chest again. "It feels right, what they tell me. But I don't remember it. Maybe I used to be John Sheppard - but I'm not him now. He's just the man the people in this city see when they look at me. You see me."
He'd reached her - he could see it in her expression, the understanding that was mixed with a touch of grief. For him? For her? For the home she yearned to go back to?
"Don't leave," Yan said, pleading with her. "Not like this."
His earpiece buzzed. "John?"
Yan jerked upright, his hand already halfway to his ear. And at that instinctive movement, he saw Ivali look away.
He nearly dropped his hand and avoided answering.
"Would you come to my office immediately, please?" Beneath the brisk politeness, he could hear urgency; a tone that resonated uneasily with the feeling he'd had before - that he should have gone with Teyla, McKay, and Ronon when they left at lunch.
The conflict tore at him as he asked, "What's it about?"
His gut twisted as the answer came. "It's about the outpost expedition."
Ivali had started packing again by the time he ended the call and he cursed the timing of it all. "They need you here, Yan."
"I need you here," he told her, echoing her words. "Ivali." When she kept packing, he put his hands down over hers again. Her fingers were cold beneath his palms, and this time he gripped her tight enough to stop her packing. "Promise me you'll stay until we have a chance to talk about this."
The uneasy resonance was back, prompting him to get out to this meeting with Weir. But he couldn't leave without knowing that he and Ivali would sort this out on his return - discuss it, argue it, try to forget it in passionate bed-play... Anything other than walk away from it!
"I've already thought about it."
"But I haven't." Yan couldn't stay. He climbed to his feet, feeling almost dizzy. "Ivali..."
She lifted her gaze to look him in the eye. "I promise to wait until you get back."
Relief sighed out of Yan - not as much as he wanted, but as much as he could ask for. And it would be one less thing to fret about in the meantime.
He'd expected Edwards to be in Elizabeth's office, but there was another man in the second chair - a tall man with an imposing face that was neither someone Yan expected nor anyone he recognised from his memories.
Bald and broad, the man seemed comfortable in the chair, his pose easy and alert. The stranger wore a uniform with a ship's patch on the shoulder. There was no name on the chest patch, but the fine print above it said 'Daedelus' and his presence in this meeting suggested he was high up in the echelons of Atlantis' trusted personnel. He summed Yan up with a brisk look and a faint smile and spoke in a comfortable voice.
"Colonel Sheppard. You're looking well."
Yan nodded at the man."I'd say the same, sir, except I don't remember seeing you the last time."
The stranger looked at Elizabeth with good-humoured brown eyes. "He's doing pretty well for someone who doesn't have their memory."
"John, this is Colonel Steven Caldwell of the Daedelus," Dr. Weir explained, and her demeanour towards him was a lot warmer than he'd ever seen her behave towards Colonel Edwards. It made Yan feel a lot more hospitable to Caldwell than he did to Edwards. But now wasn't the time for the pleasantries.
"You said the outpost expedition was in trouble?"
Elizabeth nodded, as though to herself. "How much do you know about the outpost?"
"Bits and pieces."
"Which bits and pieces?"
There was an interrogative note to Edwards' query. Yan fought back the instinct to ask if he needed a lawyer and just answered the question. He could feel the urgency in the room like the vibrations of the ground before the hireni herd stampeded across his path, driven mad by their pursuers.
"It's an Ancestor outpost similar to Atlantis, but built on a smaller scale - just one wing of the city, sitting on a promontory out towards the sea." He frowned, trying to remember the bits Rodney or Teyla had mentioned in passing; the tidbits he'd overheard in the last two weeks. "No power source, although since it's smaller it's compatible with our own generators, and it seemed to have been a farming site. Something about a drilling station? And the Stargate is in space so it can only be reached by 'jumper."
"He told you all that?"
Yan smiled thinly. "I picked most of it up in passing," he said.
Past Edwards, a twitch was playing at the corner of Caldwell's mouth.
"The gist of the problem is that there are indigenous creatures that are drawn to human presence," Elizabeth said. "There used to be shields on the outpost and the farming lands, but the lack of power means they've long since fallen. We thought it was just a question of plugging in our generators; but then they had trouble with the shields."
"Hence the call for McKay."
"Exactly. Now, it seems that Rodney's got the shield systems operating, but it's gene-activated, and there's no-one with a gene strong enough to start it up. Which is where you come in."
"Which is where Dr. Weir wants you to come in," corrected Edwards, his expression punctilious. "John Sheppard - or 'Yan' as he's now calling himself - is no longer a member of the expedition. He does not remember his past or any of his responsibilities to Earth and its people, and, as such, should not be permitted any privileges beyond those granted to any other visitor to Atlantis."
"It's a little late to be protesting that, don't you think, Richard?" On the top of it, Dr. Weir sounded sweetly reasonable, but there was a steel fist behind the velvet. "Considering that Colonel Sheppard has been permitted full run of the city for much of the last two weeks?"
"He's been barred from the more delicate military equipment," said Edwards, his tones flat. "Including the 'jumpers and access to the Stargate. We can't afford him going AWOL again."
"Again?" Caldwell asked from his corner. "You did see the video of his torture, didn't you, Edwards? Between Kolya and the Wraith, he wasn't supposed to have survived."
"But he did, and has been missing for six months..."
"With no memory of who he'd been or where he'd come from," Elizabeth interrupted, sharply.
Yan felt more than a little annoyed that the discussion was about him but didn't seem to have any intent of involving him.
"The IOA doubts that it's possible for a man to allegedly remember so little about his past and yet operate at a level that Colonel Sheppard is doing!" Edwards snapped. "Amnesia isn't something that just erases a person's past, Dr. Weir! It erases whole segments of their memory, identity, capability, physicality. Might I remind you, that even Dr. Beckett has no reasonable medical explanation for Sheppard's ability to function in society while maintaining his alleged memory loss?"
This was news to Yan.
"Might I remind you, Colonel, that while you protest Colonel Sheppard's attendance on this mission, we have people in a vulnerable situation out on that planet?" The pause was dramatic - and effective. "Or are you saying that you are willing to throw away the lives of expedition members in order to avoid disobeying the edicts of the IOA who, I might add, are not even present in this city?"
Edwards' eyes narrowed. "You go too far."
"I'm the one going too far?"
"Let him go, Edwards." Caldwell sounded lazy. "If you need a scapegoat, I'll play it. It wouldn't be the first time."
Yan looked hard at Caldwell - as did Weir and Edwards. The man seemed casual enough, his fingertips resting lightly on his knee, but a mocking smile played about his lips as he looked back at Edwards.
A scarlet grip had taken hold of the Atlantis commander. His thin face was sharp and bitter. "This is not about--" He cut himself off with a snap. "Fine, send him along. But I'm logging my disagreement with this decision - and it's not just because of the IOA." His eyes were more grey than blue as he frowned at Yan. "You're cleared to leave on this mission, Colonel Sheppard. But your duties are restricted to assisting with the chair. Under no circumstances is that to go any further."
"You will do whatever is considered needful to protect the lives of the people at the outpost," Elizabeth corrected. "That's my directive," she said, "as the leader of this expedition."
She smiled and jerked her head at the door. "You'd better get geared up. Major Lorne will meet you in the 'jumper bay in ten minutes."
Yan wanted to say something about Ivali, but this wasn't the time - not with Caldwell and Edwards eyeing each other. Instead, he nodded and left to change. He'd have to let Ivali know he was going, though, ask her to wait for him to return. It would give her time to think about what she was doing - it would give him time to think of how to persuade her to stay.
But he was on his way to the personnel quarters when his earpiece buzzed again.
"John? We've just received a call-back from the outpost. They're in need of urgent backup. You're leaving as soon as you reach Major Lorne's 'jumper."
"They're under attack, so getting someone with a strong gene into the outpost is a priority."
"Okay." Yan hesitated, not entirely comfortable with bringing this up over the communications systems. Still, he didn't have time to speak to Ivali before they left - if there was a crisis on-planet and the departure was waiting on him, he couldn't delay. Not even for her. "Ivali's making noises about leaving."
"Ah. You'd like me to stall her?"
"I figure she can't go through the ring until you give her the okay..."
"And you'd like to talk to her before she actually leaves," Elizabeth surmised.
What Yan really wanted was to talk her out of leaving. But it was enough for them to hold Ivali here - on the off-chance that she might leave without talking to him.
"If you could stall her..."
"We can do that. Your 'jumper is cleared to go - good luck."
"Yeah, you too."
Yan jogged through the city, taking the twists and turns of the corridors instinctively until he was up at the 'jumper bay.
Two teams of marines were geared up and ready to go, already seated in the cargo hold of two 'jumpers. Lorne stood at the hatch of the one centrally positioned. His expression lightened when he saw Yan. "Ready to go, sir?"
"Let's do this."
He'd seen the 'jumper only briefly the day Camberwell and Edwards had halted his tour. Now, sitting in the front seat, Yan could take a good look around as Lorne 'started up' the 'jumper and they rose into the air.
Yan felt like he was sitting still, unmoving, but his view out the 'jumper front screen showed them lifting up from the floor without so much as a bump or jostle. There was a humming noise, like machinery shifting, and then he saw the bits of the floor around the edges of the 'jumper receding back, showing glowing glints of blue and green beneath the dark-coloured floor.
And then they began descending, floating through the opened floor into the room below - the Gateroom - gently as a feather falling in the wind.
Over in the pilot's seat, Lorne grinned. "It's pretty cool," he admitted as the top of the open Stargate began to show, the surface shimmering with what McKay said was the excess energy of the wormhole's anchoring. "If we had more time, I'd show you what she can do."
Mentioning the time reminded Yan that this wasn't just a pleasure jaunt, but a trip with purpose and urgency. That nebulous guilt tugged at his chest again and he set his jaw. "Work first, play later."
They needed him on the planet - Yan and no-one else. This was important - something he had to do. Possibly something that only he could do. And even if they just needed one more person in this rescue, it was better to be out doing something than sitting at home, waiting for news.
He could see why he'd never been good at sitting quietly in Atlantis.
Lorne had switched on the intercom as the 'jumper came level with the open Stargate. "This is Major Lorne, we're good to go."
Dr. Weir couldn't be seen from their vantage point, but her voice came through the comms, loud and clear. "Good luck, Major."
"Thank you, ma'am."
In the moment before the 'jumper went through, Yan stared into the rippling blue surface and felt the unspeakable possibilities lying ahead of him. His memory of travelling through the Stargate - passage through the Ring - was limited to once: leaving the planet of the Orawi for Atlantis.
Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knew there was nothing to fear. He'd done this a hundred times and more, according to the reports, there'd been nothing on the other side that he and his friends couldn't overcome.
Between those reports and now lay six months of another man's life.
Between him and the people who'd been important to him in the time before those six months was only a trip through the Stargate.
And then there wasn't even that as Lorne flew the 'jumper into the Stargate and in a matter of seconds, they were soaring out into a midnight arch of stars, with a huge ball of blue-green streaked with white below them - the outpost planet.
"Atlantis Outpost, this is Major Lorne."
"You took your time about it! And where's Sheppard, anyway?"
As the sky before them lightened in shades, Lorne glanced at Yan, exasperated. "Yeah, it's good to hear from you, Dr. McKay."
"I'm here," said Yan, answering McKay's question. "We're on our way in."
"Like that does us any good! How long before you reach us?"
Lorne rolled his eyes, and a visual display appeared just in front of the window glass ahead. Yan's memory provided the acronym - a HUD - even as a curved shape appeared glowing green within a gridded, bordered rectangle of gold - the curve of the planet below them. Numbers and letters scrolled to the side - the distance they had to fly before they reached the outpost.
"ETA is five minutes."
"Five minutes? Five minutes? In five minutes we'll all be dead!"
The sky outside was the colour of evening, rapidly shading to dawn. Below them, the planet's surface was becoming clear, both in the hovering HUD and the view out the front screen showing the planet's surface.
Landmasses and oceans became dark valley shadows and snow-capped mountains. Sweeps of dark forest slid down mountains below the snowlines, and vanished like a beard to skin, becoming scrublands and plains and marshes. Far out, past the plains, a broad yellow-gold swathe promised a desert - or possibly a savannah - before it was gone, out of sight, past Yan's vision.
They were flying over an ocean now, glistening waves around white-sand archipelagos, then nothing but the sea, endlessly blue, unfathomably deep.
Under other circumstances, Yan would have found a moment to be properly awed by the sight. The urgency of the situation held his attention - as did the necessity of finding something to distract McKay.
"All right, so why don't you tell us what happened here?" Lorne said, talking over McKay's protests. "That way, when we come upon your mangled corpses, we can at least tell Dr. Weir what happened."
"Oh, charming," came the snap. "You want to know what happened here? What happened here is that some idiot didn't take the local fauna into account when planning this expedition!" There were voices in the background, protesting McKay's terms and he snapped, "Well, what else can you call it when--?"
"Fine then. The planet was initially settled by the Ancients, who built this outpost here to study the geothermals and incidentally set up a farming complex while they were at it. They developed a deep-sea station to draw energy from the submarine geothermals, which in turn shielded the farmlands from the local predators. Unfortunately for us, a blockage has developed in the link from the deep-sea geothermal station. This means the original shields around the outpost have since disintegrated."
"All right, so you've got no shields and the local fauna are being over-friendly," Yan said, remembering the brief in Dr. Weir's office.
"We've got shields," McKay said promptly, sounding offended. "We just can't get them up. That's why you're coming in. Did I mention that the 'local fauna' resemble oversized scorpions? About the size of horses?"
It was hard to tell how fast they were going, the sea seemed endless, but Lorne was apparently pushing the 'jumper to the limits of its ability, because another landmass was coming up, terrifyingly, thrillingly fast.
This one was rockier, more mountainous in places, but there were signs of fertile valleys - great spreads of vivid green and black soil, thick with growing things.
"Coming up to the outpost landmass," Lorne murmured.
In the background of the channel from the outpost, someone said something that wasn't loud enough to be heard. "Yes, yes, I'll get to that. Anyway, someone dismissed the giant scorpions because, well, they looked like giant scorpions. And it's only today that anyone noticed that the giant scorpions had been amassing beyond the nearest ridge and thought, 'We'd better get that shield up and working, oh no, we can't, so let's call Atlantis' pre-eminent scientist and all-around errand boy, drag him away from his lunch and stick him in the middle of an expedition that doesn't even have a single natural ATA gene-carrier in its population when they're sitting in an otherwise fully-operational outpost in the middle of nowhere!'"
"Feel better now?"
"No!" It was definitely a whine. And the man wasn't finished either. "Anyway, me, Teyla, and Ronon only just got into the city when the creatures started attacking the outpost. They damaged our 'jumper - apparently it was the first thing they went for when they initially attacked the outpost. Which suggests they're not quite as stupid as we initially thought them!"
This time, the background comment was clearly audible. "They're fucking bugs, man!"
"The next time you have downtime, you should watch Starship Troopers - you'll never look at bugs the same way. Oh, wait - you're never going to get downtime again because you'll be dead!"
Yan decided that the asides were getting annoying. And he wasn't even in the same room as the disgruntled man. "McKay! How about we focus here?"
"I'm focusing. I've been focused for the last five hours, trying to fix the shields. Trust me, you won't find anyone more focused than me in this place!"
On the far horizon, something was growing in their viewscreen - a distant glitter of a silver city. Smaller than Atlantis, but still very visible. The Ancients had not believed in hiding - at least, not until the Wraith came for them. "Well, you might be able to ease that focus a little, McKay. We've got a visual on the outpost," Lorne said. "Less than a minute's ETA." He turned his head to alert the marines. "We've got an industrial-sized bug problem here - Kristov, you'd better start hauling out the RPGs--"
With his attention drawn away from the viewscreen, Lorne didn't see what lay before them on the long plain between the 'jumper and the far-distant glitter of the outpost.
There was a glitter across the countryside here, too. But not the silver glitter of metal and glass, but a ebony gleam of carapaced bodies, row upon row, file upon file, gleaming lines that stretched down from the hills and into the plains, and marched upon the outpost: an insectile declaration of absolute war.
"Lorne..." It came out of his mouth as a shock and a warning, and even as it did, Yan felt his gaze sharpen and focus, saw the clustering movements among the creatures as they passed overhead - movements that tickled an echo of a memory, delicate as a twig scraped across bare ground in the forest night.
"What are they doing?"
The echo trembled, struggling against the weight of forgetfulness, shaping the memory so delicately that Yan couldn't quite recall what--
It came to him in a rush.
"They're firing at us! Break!"
Lorne gaped, a moment's hesitation when he should have been enacting evasive manoeuvres. Even as he tried to jink the 'jumper, the first missile soared at them. It came far faster than anything they'd expected, a roughly spherical, gold-brown rock, aimed with careful precision at the 'jumper.
They evaded the first one, jinking left in a leaning curve. Others were already rising from the ground, a barrage of small missiles - rocks, in fact - being hurled at them with deadly accuracy. The shudders of direct hits echoed all over the 'jumper, throwing them around.
"Evasive manoeuvres," Yan barked at Lorne, frustrated by their inability to avoid the projectiles being thrown at them.
Lorne flashed him a brusque glare before he jinked again. "Sorry, sir, but I'm not the former pilot." The words were sharp and controlled, and it suddenly struck Yan that he'd treated the man like a subordinate. An apology hovered on his lips.
"What the hell is happening up there?"
"We're under fire," said Lorne, his face pale in the planet's light. Sweat gleamed on his forehead. "ETA's extended."
"They're firing at--? They shouldn't have that kind of range!"
"Thanks for telling us that they can do this at all!" Another evasive manoeuvre - simple evasion, getting out of the way of the nearest boulder, no planning to it, no foresight.
Yan interrupted the argument brewing between Lorne and McKay about responsibility of information. "This ship has weapons capabilities doesn't it? Head on down, fire on them, then rollover left and up."
Lorne gave him one look. "I'm not a fighter pilot, sir. All the hours I've ever logged in flight have been in a 'jumper - and I can do basic manoeuvres and that's about it. You're the crack pilot."
A moment's hesitation.
It meant taking the controls - taking control. An instinctive No was drowned out by the flood of Yes that rushed through him.
Yan reached out his hands, intuitively knowing that he didn't even need the controls in front of Lorne. His fingers touched the bulkhead, and the HUD display re-angled itself. The transition from pilot to pilot was swift and neat, without even a shiver.
Then Yan had the pilot's seat, and his instincts were soaring, thrusting for the far curve of his own personal horizons. Three dimensions in which to move in a craft that responded to his will, and he instinctively knew this thing could turn on a pin. He could stop dead in the air, roll over without loss of speed, twist and dive like a salmon in a stream.
"I hope you're all strapped in back there," was all the warning he gave.
The 'jumper wasn't an elegant craft - none of the sleek lines Yan had seen in the photos of the craft he'd flown. But it had its own elan - a response time that owed less to mechanics than to the unity of ship with pilot.
Yan was the 'jumper.
Evasion, distraction, and a calculated risk...
There was firepower available to them - something Lorne had forgotten in the rush of trying to elude their attacks. Yan felt the availability of the weapons and fired them off, marking out a handful of firing stations, intending to diffuse the attacks still coming for them. The less concentrated the creatures' attention, the easier it would be to win through.
A few projectiles still came at them - nothing he hadn't encountered time and time before. And simpler, too - these were no smart missiles, no computer-targeted weapons systems to outthink - just his instincts against the base laws of physics.
Point and shoot.
He flipped the 'jumper into a barrel roll, heard something bouncing around in the back and hoped it wasn't a person. There were a few grunts and one yelp from the men in the back, an indrawn breath from Lorne and a choice expletive or a dozen from his 2IC. Something scraped the hull of the 'jumper and the forward screen was still full of rocks, but the HUD sidescreen didn't report any new damage and the outpost was that much closer in their view screen.
He twisted and tilted them through an array of angles, thinking the plane through the projectile obstacles, letting his mind interface with the ship rather than having to go through his hands and the pilot's yoke.
F-18 Hornets be damned. This was flying.
"All right, since the fancy moves are out in the 'jumper, I'm guessing that we're all damned by the IOA for allowing unauthorised persons access to 'valuable military equipment'? Sheppard?"
"I'm kinda busy right now," he said, his mind assessing the paths and options - this was the faster route in, but it brought them closer to several insect emplacements than he liked.
"I will be brief." A new voice entered the conversation - Teyla. She sounded brisk and cool, more like reporter giving a news brief than a fighter under fire. A smile tipped Yan's mouth up. "The original landing site is now overrun by the insects - they have breached the area designated as the 'city perimeter' although they have not gained entry to the buildings themselves."
"Deaths?" His attention was still on the flight path, but he could spare this much attention for her - could trust her not to waste his time.
"Two. Dr. Sanford and Corporal Pitcher. The creatures' catapults are in range of the city and there is no place to land."
Yan swore as projectiles peppered the sky. "No kidding," he muttered before lifting his voice so the men in the back could hear him. "They're going for barrage fire - we're going to take damage..."
He could hear the bangs and crunches of the rocks against the 'jumper's outside. The HUD beeped - they were losing power.
But they'd reached the besieged outpost.
It was definitely besieged.
McKay had called them 'oversized scorpions', and they were - to a point. A larger, upright body tapered down to a thin tail that they seemed to use as everything from balance to a catapult. The head was small but the eyes glittered with diffuse refractions, opaque to human reading. They were big as horses, with large, segmented bodies and a strength proportional to their size - which was to say, pretty damn strong since they were lobbing rocks significant distances into the air with impressive accuracy.
And they covered the plains and hills outside the outpost, a blackly iridescent army.
Something tickled in the back of Yan's head - a white city on a hill and the battalions of a monstrous army spread out on the plains below.
"I think this counts as an 'oh, shit' moment," said the marine in the seat behind Yan.
Yan ignored the comment. "Teyla?"
Her use of his old name stopped his breath, pounded his chest with a sudden ache. John Sheppard. Who he'd been, who he was, who he needed to be. Could he be John Sheppard again for these people when they needed him?
Do or do not, there is no try.
His voice was steady as he asked, "Where's the nearest balcony to Rodney?"
"On the seawards side of the city. Dr. Houston, do you have co-ordinates?" A woman's voice said something in the background. "You should be receiving information from us."
They were - and the balcony was shown in glowing gold. Not quite as seawards as Yan would have liked, but enough that a limited number of the scorpions would have firing angles on the 'jumper as he offloaded the passengers.
"Lorne? I hope you're good to hold this thing in a steady hover, because I need to get into the city."
"I can do a hover," Lorne said with a grimace. "And after unloading?"
"Take her up out of firing range and keep the channels open. If things go bad, you're to head back to Atlantis and let them know." Yan saw the tightening of the eyes, the slight furrow in the jaw that portended rebellion. "Major."
"You're the ranking officer."
"I used to be," Yan muttered, more to himself than Lorne. "All right, let's get in there and shut McKay up."
They came in close to the outpost from the landwards side, circling around the perimeter of the outpost. It gave them a good overview of the amassed insects. What had seemed terrifying from far out wasn't much better up close.
The number of attackers staggered Yan - and there was something slightly creepy about the glittering sea of insectile bodies. Apparently he wasn't the only one who felt that way; there were mutters of shock from the hold behind them.
"What did you do to set them off, McKay?" Lorne demanded.
"Why does it have to be anything I did? For the record, when the outpost group first encountered these creatures, they pulled up the outpost database entry. They have an insectile mind - a hive mentality - as well as genetic memory. It appears that the Ancients initially did some experimentation on them thinking they were related to the Iratus. By then, of course, they'd realised the creatures were sentient, but it was too late. The creatures developed an enmity for them - I can't imagine why - and the Ancients created the shield to keep them out of the outpost."
Yan listened with half an ear to the conversation, concentrating instead on dropping the drones on carefully chosen targets below. He aimed for the stockpiled stones rather than the creatures themselves. There were too many of the creatures to do any kind of significant damage to their numbers, while the drones found their targets, splintering stones at their detonation, scattering the creatures and causing their own kind of damage.
"So we're talking about a ten thousand year-old grudge?"
"Something like that."
"And the shield is supposed to keep them away?"
"Considering that a full city shield can keep out everything from a tsunami to dangerous radiation, I think that it can manage a handful of bugs."
"McKay, your idea of a handful doesn't match mine," Lorne said.
"I hate to interrupt," said Yan, his tone dry as he glanced over the outpost exterior to find the directed balcony site. "We're coming in."
"Good. Hurry up - this could have been so much easier if you'd just come out with us in the first place you know."
It was unnerving, 'pushing' the 'jumper into position - even mentally. Yan was only too aware of the insect groups congregating down on the plain in front of the outpost. Given, enough time to rearrange themselves, they'd find their range and they'd be back lobbing stones again...
He was watching the HUD, which was showing the proximity of the 'jumper to the city. His mind was inserting a 'beep-beep-beep' sound for some reason.
Closer. A little closer. Nearly there...
Both he and the 'jumper flinched as an almighty crash sounded against the hull. He steadied it in a moment, even as another rock slammed into the side, but the crash and lurch wasn't doing much for the confidence of his passengers.
"Open the hatch and start evac," he barked at the marines, then turned to Lorne as the mechanical whine of the bay door began. "Hold her steady. Now that they've found their range, it's going to be difficult, but you've just got to hold it long enough--"
He trailed off, as movement down below caught his eye.
The first rock crashed into the front screen of the 'jumper, a visual and auditory jolt. Two others followed in swift succession. Then there were more - a sudden barrage of rocks crunching against the jumper's sides and front. Silver cracks webbed crazily through the clear material. Outside, there were irregular booms - projectiles hitting the 'jumper body. Glass splintered and metal creaked, and a human cry of shock and astonishment sounded, shrill through the steady battering of the 'jumper.
Yan peered through the mass of bodies climbing down onto the balcony - or what was left of it - the marines ducking into the city, which seemed to be holding together remarkably well.
"We're losing power," said Lorne, his voice tight but still controlled. "You'd better go, sir. I'll hold her until you're out."
He'd been turning on his heel, but that last statement caught his attention. "Major--"
"Sheppard, where the hell are you?"
He was already turning back to Lorne. Beneath his feet, the 'jumper lurched. Beyond the pilot's seat, the windscreen was a mess, and he saw the graceful arc of a projectile as it sped up towards them.
With a curse, he grabbed Lorne by the arm, hauling the man away from the front as glass splintered inwards. The rock slammed into the chair where Lorne had been sitting a moment before, and the 'jumper began to lose altitude.
"Everyone out!" As he spoke, he saw the second-last of the marines lunge at the balcony. But as he and Lorne scrambled across the rubbery grip matting, the angle of the 'jumper was increasing.
Yan saw the last marine make the leap across broken struts and shattered glass, saw faces bright and terrified in the hatch opening. The material of Lorne's vest dug into his palm, but he held on and their boots still shoved back against the tilting floor.
Would they make it?
They reached the edge of the hatch as Teyla emerged from the building, swift strides to the 'jumper's hatch. She pushed the last marine into the city, and turned to Yan. Her lips formed his name, as she stretched out her hands. The moment seemed to extend forever as Yan and Lorne pushed off the 'jumper's edge.
Time snapped back.
Metal screeched as it dragged against metal, sharp shards of sound splintering against Yan's eardrums. They slammed into Teyla, her hands caught his arm and Lorne's vest pocket, yanked them away as a rock crashed into the side of the outpost and splintered on the balcony nearby.
His boot slid on something. He let go of Lorne, and stumbled through the open doors into the outpost, crashing inelegantly down to the ground as the outpost shuddered with something solid slamming into hard ground.
Yan looked down into Teyla's eyes closed in a grimace of pain. He'd fallen atop her, and there was a trim, lean body beneath his. Even as he panted, still high on the rush of that escape, lashes lifted and her eyes stared up into his face - startled but not wary as light played across skin the colour of melted sugar...
Desire was an instinctive reaction to the closeness of death. The moment pulsed between them, bright as blood, intense as a kiss, something Yan could no more control than he could his lost memory.
He reined himself in.
"Yes," her answer was steady and strong. "Rodney needs your help."
He nodded and rolled off her, playing it cool. "I'm there."
It was as simple as trust and belief, he realised as he stood. She believed he was capable of it, and he was. She trusted him to hold back and he did. To keep that trust, that belief, Yan realised he'd risk a lot more.
One of the scientists grabbed his arm, tugged him off towards a corridor. "This way, Colonel!"
A glance back showed Teyla rolling up off her back to her knees, facing Lorne as she addressed the people standing too close to the windows of the city - dangerously exposed.
His first impressions of the outpost were jumbled. Similar architecture to Atlantis, although the colours were dust red and sienna gold to match the terrain beyond the windows. Floors and levels, stairs that spiralled up and down, and the bright patterns across the floor like rocky striations.
Further down in the structure, there were shouts and cries, the sound of weapons fire and the crash of the catapulted rocks against the glass.
"How long have they been doing that?" He demanded of his guide, a thin woman whose curly black hair was pulled back harshly from her eagle features. Her name didn't come to mind, but he thought it was Campbell...Campy-something, anyway. "The firing barrage, I mean."
"The creatures have been gathering since early this morning," she said. "About eight hours, now - the reason we called for Dr. McKay. Without a 'jumper, we had to wait for the Stargate to come into range of our communications so we could dial out. It's in a moving orbit around the planet, not a geosync - quite an odd configuration, actually."
"The place is holding up pretty well," he said as they turned into an internal corridor, moving closer to what was probably the geographical centre of the outpost.
She didn't look over her shoulder as she took a sharp right turn into a small antechamber and headed for a door diagonally across from it. It occurred to Yan that the layout of this section of the outpost was decidedly defensive - no straight lines of attack. "They only started firing at us an hour ago. We think it has to do with suitable numbers to attack the outpost at full complement."
The room was darker than the surrounding corridors - no surprise since there were no windows to the outside and little light got through. Overhead, ceiling panels gleamed at spaced intervals in a roughly circular pattern. Beneath them, the raised dais in the centre of the room sported a chair, tracery work across the back and sides of it gleaming silver over the deep blue material beneath it.
"Oh, thank God, you're here," McKay said, looking up from the tablet into which he was frantically entering data. There seemed to be a network of Atlantis laptops all lined up around one section of the wall, a serpentine writhe of cords from computer to computer, from the chair to the computer. "Well?" McKay demanded when Yan gaped at the room. "Hurry up! Ronon's just reported that they've breached the city - that 'jumper of yours broke the walls of the city and now they're using it as an entry point."
"It's good to see you, too," Yan snapped, but he moved to the chair. "Teyla?"
"Probably taken the marines down there, which leaves you and I to do the important work."
"More important than keeping us from being overrun by bugs?" The woman shot Yan a sardonic look then escaped out the door before McKay had time to formulate a sarcastic answer.
"Fine," he muttered, then fixed Yan with a dire glare. "Well, what are you waiting for? Get in!"
Back in the city, they'd sat him in the chair, watched it light up, stared at him expectantly. He'd stared back at them, only commenting that it buzzed his skin a little.
Yan sat down and felt the same silver tracery sear cold into his limbs and back. The chair immediately rotated around and stretched out, leaning him back. Overhead light panels began to dim and glimmering lights began to pick out moving shapes and figures in the space between Yan's head and the now-darkened ceiling.
"That's us - the outpost, I mean..." McKay trailed off as main visual blurred into another with a broader scope and a higher vantage point. "I didn't know there were so many..."
"Keeping us from being overrun by bugs is a good thing," Yan commented, his attention only half on the images.
His skin was humming.
The buzzing across his skin was stronger here than it had been in the city. Then again, Atlantis was a full city, heavy with the weight of people in her, with the solidarity of her making, with the focus of her purpose. This outpost was trimmer, slimmer, made for speed and maneuvreability, not firepower.
It wasn't uncomfortable, just a little strange. The outpost chair was considerably more 'active' than the Atlantis chair, which had felt like a couple of glasses of cool basuk on a warm summer's night. This chair felt, well, more like the first breathless gasp after iceflower wine, or the hot shiver of a slow kiss after sex...
It was only when several of the panels above him started changing that Yan realised this chair not only had a lighter feel to it, it was more responsive to his wayward thoughts.
"That," said McKay, after a moment's stunned silence, "was a look into the prurient experiences of John Sheppard that I could definitely have done without. Although later, we're going to have a conversation about exactly when you kissed Teyla and why you never said anything about it. After you focus and get us out of this! Think of shields and shielding for the city."
Yan blanked out the random memory, focusing instead on the battle unfolding in front of them - around them.
The 'jumper had fallen straight down from the balcony, taking the side of the city with it. Until then, it seemed that the city had managed to maintain its structural integrity, and although the bug-catapults were strong, they weren't quite strong enough to break through the city - or they hadn't yet tried.
Of course, since Yan had done their work for them, they were taking full advantage of the opportunity.
A mass of insectoids were trying to move the 'jumper out of the hole that was blocking them. Some were trying to climb into the gap between the top of the crushed 'jumper and the ceiling level of the first floor, some were tugging at the steel and glass around the edges of the breakage, trying to widen the hole so they could get through.
Another view in the ceiling showed the outpost expedition members setting up a 'firing point' from which they were going to defend. It wasn't just military, either. Weary-faced scientists dragged boxes of equipment and goods to form barriers in the corridors, while others fiddled with door controls, and still others did things involving netting and wires in the middle of broad corridors.
Yan could hear them talking, chattering away, giving orders, making jokes. It was soft, like noises from down the corridor, but he could hear every word that was being said.
In one of the nearby corridors, Lorne issued orders in crisp and easy tones, with a professional soldier's calm. Beyond him, Teyla reached one arm out to tap on the diagram of the outpost they were looking at. Her words were lost in the sudden clink and clatter of metallic things being arrayed - doubtless the marines were working at gun emplacements and firing positions. Ronon grunted, offering a comment about channelling the bugs to specific locations. Lorne gave the okay, and he ran off, grabbing one of the scientists to help him work out the logistics of his plan.
They were nervous but they were controlling the fear and doing what they could. Help had come - maybe not what they wanted, but enough to gain them time and options.
He'd been told about crises in the city. About how people panicked a bit, thought a bit, and then came up with solutions, putting in their all.
Atlantis, Elizabeth had said, wasn't just somewhere that people worked, it was a community. "Part of that's your doing, John. I was prepared to run the city like a workplace - probably because I had someone back on Earth at the time. You treated the expedition like it was your home. It was all you had."
Yan was seeing that now - a smaller version, perhaps, but still quite clear.
It was all you had.
The humming sensation was growing against his skin, more like a slight buzzing noise now, still not painful, just unexpected, like champagne bubbles in his blood.
It was his first sip of champagne at one of his parents' parties, and his mom laughed at the face he made. "Don't like the taste of it, Johnny?"
"It's tingly," he said, watching the serving staff slide by with great trays of champagne and craning his neck to see down into the bright room of adults who chattered and laughed, talking in adult tones of adult things. "Is Adam here tonight?"
When he looked up, his mother's eyes - greener than his own - were laughing at him beneath the shining weight of her black hair, piled up on her head in curls. "I should have known there was a reason you sneaked out. If I send General Horton out to talk with you for a while, will you go to bed?"
"Yes," he promised, eager to talk from the man who'd had such interesting stories to tell the last time he'd come to visit. Dave had gotten bored, but John could have listened for hours.
She pressed a kiss to his forehead, ruffling his hair with her hand. "Not more than a quarter hour, John." And she went down the stairs to the party, murmuring 'shule agra' to herself with a smile.
"Shields!" Rodney was yapping somewhere close and distant. "Think of shields!"
Yan turned his head to look at the man hunched over the keyboard. After that memory, he felt strangely blank, like the smoothed-out riverbanks after the winter melts subsided. His mind tried to engage. Think of shields... Think of shields... Think of...
"Try to think of...our place in the galaxy..."
What were the odds? Antarctica was hell on the body and the mind, to say nothing of the career - but he'd given up after Afghanistan. Meaning of life? He'd leave the singing and dancing to Monty Python. John was war weary, world weary, soul weary...
Planets circling suns circling a galactic centre built of a billion stars that gleamed like his mother's diamonds, and the swirling cascade of light and life and energy that connected John with everything in the universe, everything in the galaxy, everything in the planet...
Even the man who took one look at him and said, "I told you not to touch anything!"
"I just sat down!"
Sitting in the chair, John could feel the continental drift of his fortunes, inexorably tying him to whatever was going on in this place - the Stargate, Earth, the aliens that were out to get them, and a universe full of a meaning that was more than John's futile flights back and forth between McMurdo base and the research centre - more than even his missions in Afghanistan.
This would leave a mark, change the world, change his world.
"We're working on it!" Rodney barked into his earpiece, startling Yan out of the reverie. "Although I'd do a lot better if he'd focus on shielding us!" He spun on his heel. "Are you back with us, yet?"
"What?" Even that much was difficult to get out. Sluggish.
"Teyla estimates that they'll be awash with bugs in less than five minutes," Rodney said brusquely. "And you're zoning out--"
It wasn't zoning out, it was that he couldn't think straight. The chair was doing something to him, something both draining and energising all at once. His flesh was fizzing now, like he was in a can of soda pop. His heart was jiggling in his chest like it would explode out of his body, spreading wings to fly...
A fighter's flight agility counted for nothing when the enemy stuck a SAM in the gut of your plane.
The proximity alarms blared with redundant intensity. John didn't need to be told - he could feel the F-16 breaking up beneath him, the shudders wracking the craft. His radio crackled once with his flight leader's urgent message, "Punch out!"
He punched out, yanking at the rubber-grip handle between his knees. Another explosion rocked his eardrums - the canopy ejection, then he and his seat were free and clear of the falling debris of several million dollars worth of aeronautical engineering.
For a moment, John thought his heart was in freefall, too. Then he realised it was only somewhere in his throat, and forced it back down into his chest, although he couldn't stop its pounding. The parachute would kick in shortly... He watched the built-in altimeter in his flightsuit drop and drop and drop and drop and...
It jerked his seat with spine-compressing intensity, a moment of discomfort before he continued to sail down and down, like a dandelion puff blown by the breath of God into enemy territory.
For a while after that incident, John joked that hiding from the Serbs hunting him was the easy part - the hard part was being grateful to the Marines who rescued him, four days later.
His gaze focused on the panels above him, and the images switched to ones of the Marines clustered behind their safety points. Yan saw the angles of retreat, saw the way the situation had been engineered to draw the creatures in a specific direction.
"We'd do better if we had those shields," said Lorne, his voice faint in Yan's ear. Then, louder, "Sheppard?"
His tongue felt thick and heavy in his head, stuck full of pins and swollen. The fizzing in his flesh was uncomfortable now, but his limbs seemed pinned to the chair, too weighty to move. Answering Lorne was beyond him.
"Yeah, we're having some technical difficulties here," said McKay. "Give us a minute..."
Yan barely heard him. Above them, the panels were full of moving things, angular bodies shoving past the twisted wreck of the 'jumper.
The creatures had breached the city.
The Wraith walked on two legs, but they were far from men. From the predatory stalk of their stride, the too-still moment before movement - a turn of the head, a gesture of one clawed hand, a narrowing of eyes
John didn't struggle as they dragged him up with cold hands - he had no strength to struggle. His mind had been a blur since they'd left the planet, since the creature had dragged him through the Stargate. He had barely even the energy to summon resentment. If you found yourself burning alive, would you settle for just one drop of water, or would you take more?
Still, he'd thought, at least, to survive.
Cold corridors undulated beneath his stumbling feet. He was tired and his body wasn't working the way it should. He felt querulous, like an old man.
As they dragged him up onto the slab, his hands flailed for grip, knuckles refusing to obey his orders, his palms frozen against the cold material. He was a sacrifice laid out on the altar, and the high priest of his doom was here.
It paused in the door and their eyes met in a communion of stoic enmity - the Wraith, and the man who'd saved its life only to pay forfeit in his own.
"John!" He heard her through the sharp transmission of in his earpiece, but also distantly over the screen display, as well as somewhere in his head, where the connection between him and the outpost was taking up all his energy.
His lips formed her name, even that much effort forced his eyes closed. "Teyla..."
"John, you must concentrate." He remembered this voice, the encouraging voice, a steady edge to it. On the screen, she fired her weapon in brief bursts, pausing to touch her ear again. "We need the shield."
"Trying..." A whisper was the limit of his capability right now. Fire roared in his blood, thundering through his veins in a flood he couldn't halt.
The spattering rain stung the open welts on his back. He'd scraped half the skin off crawling out of the wrecked dart and never noticed until the first jump, he was so desperate to get away.
Two random jumps later he'd emerged onto this planet. Sundown - not the best time to find shelter, but he was hungry and thirsty. The thirsty was more important than the hungry, though - and on a planet with rain like this, there had to be a pond or a river or something he could drink from.
Down a hill - was this a track? Yes. The soil beneath the rough leather of his shoes was firm, well-trodden. There were people on this planet. He hoped they'd take in a stranger.
He was so tired.
Sleep was his next priority - after a good drink, and maybe a wash. Clothing and shelter and sleep and food and water and air. The basics of survival.
It had become the touchstone of his existence. He wasn't thinking beyond survival - not yet. Thinking ahead ached in his brain, like a rusty nail driven into his skull.
He could hear the river ahead - a rushing cascade that propelled him forward in eager relief. It promised him a drink and a wash and possibly civilisation once he followed its path downstream. The track climbed a small embankment and wound down to the river's edge. He paused at the top, his hand resting on a tree stump, long since lopped, then took a step down.
Treacherous ground shifted beneath him, and as he dragged his foot free, he overbalanced, tumbled, fell.
The river closed over him, swallowing who he'd been in its chill depths.
"McKay!" The roar was Ronon's - rough and desperate.
"I can't do anything!" Frantic typing filled the backspace in the room. "The chair's not working... It's got Sheppard..."
In the panels above Yan, shadowy human figures fired weapons into the oncoming creatures. Yet for every one insectoid that fell, another climbed into its position.
He struggled in the throes of this energising lethargy, trying to reach that point where he could make happen what was needed to happen. No-one was dead, yet.
The moment poised over him like a sharp knife against the skin, no pressure on the blade, just the fine edge waiting to cut.
There was a splintering crash and shouts of alarm. Orders were issued and counter-orders yelled. Devices crackled, and things went bzzt. The world went crazy with screeching metal and breaking glass, cracks and clatters and clicks and tinkling noises, and the bright, heavy chatter of weapons fire.
And beneath it all, Yan's mind followed the shouts and cries of his people.
"They've broken through!"
"Retreat to the next point!"
"--coming too fa--"
"--need those shiel--"
Arterial blood fountained from a man's leg, shockingly bright as they dragged him back. The trim, dark figure turned to duck under his arm, to help him back.
It crashed through him like a sandstorm in the desert, scouring him down to bone. It shot through his mind like a thousand tiny steel wires rammed into his skull, piercing him like a sieve, screeching pain in his brainpan. It caught Yan Stormborn up in the force of its blow, shattering what had been done to make him forget - by Kolya, by the Wraith, by himself.
And he remembered.
"I think we'll look back and say that the OPEC crisis was a good thing for us," his father said, picking up the beer by his plate. The over-ripe scent of heavy malt rose above even the thick aroma of the steak they'd had for dinner. "It taught us to focus on what we're good at, instead of diversifying before we're ready to move. But maybe that'll be your area to look at, eh, John?"
It came to him from everywhere and nowhere, an effortless drawing of power from throughout the city, weightless strength, yet with a tension that strained his muscles, aching nerves protesting as he stared at the screens and envisaged the city.
And still the memories poured through him, a wildfire of history and personality, too fast for the screens to follow.
The cockpit was tiny - cramped, even - but the skies beyond it were endless.
John could barely breathe with the exhilaration of it, even as he kept an eye on the gyroscopes and dials. Off his port wing, his wingmate hovered, 'Dutchie' Grootenarte.
"What's your readings, 'Richie'?" His nick among the pilots was'Richie Rich' thanks to his father and his all-American background.
He reeled off numbers and placements, even as the ground blurred below him and his palms grew damp. The strumming pulse of his blood matched the humming thrust of his turbo engines, in the cockpit and out.
It was the brilliance of American engineering that gave this aircraft its power.
It was John's mind and piloting skill that made it deadly.
A flicker of thought and the shields spun out, pouring down over the surface of the city like thick molasses. He heard the starting shouts of alarm and surprise and relief, but his gaze was focused on the screen - on the small group encompassing the bleeding man and the woman who held him up.
They ran low so others could fire over their heads, but it wasn't enough - insects had been trapped inside the shield when Yan lowered it. Now, with nothing to lose and everything to win, they scuttled in.
"You just have to hold them off!" Rodney was yelling into his earpiece.
On the nearest insectoid, one limb rose for a killing blow.
It would slice through their backs, severing their spines, killing them as it cut deep into their bodies.
Teyla took a few kernels of the tub proffered, then, when John hassled her, scooped up a handful. She fingered the popcorn, ignoring the wonders of the screen, although she'd been wide-eyed when John first showed her the huge flat-screen TV that O'Neill had thrown in for the expedition to play with. "And I chew it?"
"Unless you like choking on your food, yeah." John grinned. "Try it."
The remnants of the kernel surprised her. She froze as it crunched between her teeth. Then, when he nodded at her, she continued chewing.
She could be funny about some things - so carefully polite. Then again, she was sitting in a city of alien people with alien customs. Only an idiot wouldn't be cautious.
He wondered how much caution was advised when inducting a pretty woman into Earth customs.
Teyla seemed to be rolling the flavour around her tongue - real Earth butter, the like of which Pegasus hadn't seen, although they had plenty of their own fats and oils for cooking. "I like it."
Over the next hour, while teaching her about football, he watched her absently eat her way through the bowl and resolved to stash some away for when their supplies ran out. It had been years since he'd had someone he could relax with like this - since Mitch and Dex died.
It felt good, this thing - friendship, alliance, whatever it was. A new start, a new life, a new friendship.
Later, he couldn't have said what he did, only that he needed Teyla and the Marine to survive.
In the moment, he felt something lash out, his skull on sudden fire and his nerves a-tingle. Being a distant descendant of an Ancient only gave him a fingertip's control of the outpost, but a fingertip was enough, like a yoke was enough to turn a plane when dodging missles. His mind thrust back, shoving out, his eyes full of the men and women running in to try to help the duo, heedless of their own danger, his thoughts full of how to stop the bugs in their tracks, stop them where they stood right now.
The control twisted in the channels of his mind, slippery as the fish he'd caught while fishing on the lake with his father when he was seven - back when Patrick Sheppard was still 'Dad' and not 'my father'. John clung to the outpost interface with every bit of the will he'd learned as a boy in the Sheppard household, as a new recruit with the sky in his veins, as an unparalleled pilot in the cockpit, as a man who'd seen Pegasus as somewhere to live - not just somewhere to work.
It had been an emergency code for the Genii, given in good faith after Ladon Radim returned a number of addresses of worlds capable of producing particular items for the expedition - some raw metals, assorted foodstuffs, and a world of saltpetre mines. For his sister's life, it seemed the Genii leader was very grateful.
Breathless on the run back to the Stargate from unknown assailants, John acknowledged that maybe the faith wasn't so good after all.
Ronon paused by trees to aim bright stunner blasts into the overgrown undergrowth. John laid down similar cover-fire with his P-90, covering the angles Ronon couldn't take. They didn't know how many were after them - the first shot had spun past Teyla, missing her by less than a handspan when she turned to Rodney's query after drifting to the side of the track.
Behind them - technically, ahead of them, closer to the Stargate - John could hear her voice, prodding Rodney on as Rodney protested.
"If we make a stand here, we can take 'em!" Ronon said, his dreadlocks swirling about his face like the hem of his coat.
John thought it optimistic. "Negative. We don't know how many we're up against!"
He yelled at Rodney to forestall any thoughts of heroism the scientist might have. He waited to see Teyla running for the gate. He trusted that Ronon would hold long enough to keep them back, but not so long he'd be trapped.
The jerking snap of his vest yanked him off his feet, and the shuddering electrical jolt fried his synapses for the moment when he might have fought back.
He heard the Stargate close, cutting off his escape.
Then Kolya's unctuous face filled his vision. "It's good to see you again, Colonel."
Consciousness slammed into him, reality and awareness and thought and adrenaline and pain and ow. His eyes snapped open, and the light stung his eyes and refracted his view with tears. The chair was warm beneath his butt and thighs and arms, and his heart seethed with the effort he'd expended in defence of the outpost.
Above him the screen was relatively quiet. The bugs appeared to have temporarily frozen, and the marines were making short work of those that remained within the city perimeter, killing them before they could move again. There was no sign of Teyla and the injured marine that he could see.
Fear sank deep talons into his belly. Had the memories been fast enough? Had he failed?
A head poked into his vision; Rodney on the dais, peering at him. "Sheppard?"
"Good to know you recognise me," he retorted. "Teyla?"
"She's... She's fine. Sergeant Aspley's fine. Well, not fine fine, but he's alive. They can work on making him fine from there. The bugs are down and dead, and those that aren't are being held back by the shield - which you nearly didn't get out there, I might add. What the hell were you waiting for?" Then, as though dim cues were filtering through his brain and only just catching up with his mouth, Rodney paused, frowning slightly. "Sheppard?"
"Yeah." The affirmative breathed out of John like a sigh. "I'm back."
John didn't feel 'back' as he stared out across the twilight ocean, watching the waves bounce back the sky's light in deeper colours. It was pretty, but it was reflected glory only, tinged by the sea's own darker shadows.
In fact, he wasn't really feeling anything, his emotions numbed as the chill breeze swept off the sea onto the cooling land.
Most of his life was back, from his first memory - an ice-block in the backyard when John was five, summery orange - to the last solid memory he had of being John Sheppard - the rock he stumbled on as the Wraith dragged him up the steps into the Stargate.
He didn't think too much about what followed. Not yet.
They didn't question it - either his memory or his command. At least, Lorne had fallen naturally into the role of subordinate, and if his backing had faint overtones of 'making it all legal', nobody protested.
Ronon had come to check on him, then clapped him on the shoulder, satisfied. "Good rescue." The broad mouth was a fierce curve as he said, "Better to have you back."
John wasn't so sure it was good to be back.
The last six months of his life yawned behind him, another life lived as another man. The psychotherapists would have a field day with him and the persona of 'Yan Stormborn'. Had 'Yan' always existed in his head, a secondary personality? Or was 'Yan' more like the id to John's super-ego, the part of John Sheppard that was unconstrained by his inhibitions and self-criticisms - the blank slate of John's personality, untainted by his history?
Did it matter, in the end?
Behind him, the doors into the outpost slid open and someone stepped out.
"Rodney says your predisposition for heights is a sure sign of a warped mind."
It was an infusion of humour into his spirit. "Yeah, and Rodney gets vertigo from crossing a rope bridge three feet above water! Besides, anything anyone does that Rodney wouldn't do is warped."
There'd been cleaning up to do, and explanations - a lot of explanations. John wasn't entirely certain what he'd done with the bugs, but a little poking and prodding of the outpost system had revealed that the bugs weren't immune to specific frequencies, which froze certain fluids in their bodies and paralysed them. The reason this hadn't been used against the bugs on the plain was that it was a very high signal frequency, and too weak to be used in open spaces. Apparently the city was close enough quarters.
Nearly too close.
John wasn't going to think about that right now.
"Has Rodney been able to boost the transmission signal to the Stargate?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Teyla rest her arms on the railing. "Apparently, and I quote, 'there is not enough power in the outpost to electrocute a fly without bringing down the shields, let alone boost the transmission signal to reach the Stargate.' We must wait for Atlantis to call us."
"So we'll be here overnight?"
"It seems quite likely. Dr. Gormley is finding us bedding and quarters."
Sleep was the last thing on John's mind right now. After his encounter with the outpost, after the afternoon's attack by the scorpions, after regaining his memories, he had no quietness to spare for sleep.
And yet, with Teyla standing beside him, her wrists slim and brown on the railing in front of them, John let his hands rest on the edge, adopting her pose, and let the wind blow through him in the sunset air. Sleep was beyond him. Silence was not.
For a while they listened to the wind whistling about the handful of spires, stronger than the sunset breezes in Atlantis, listened to the waves crash on the rocks out along the edges of the promontory where the outpost had been built.
It was only when the moon began to rise over the horizon that Teyla turned her head towards him and spoke.
"How are you, John?"
There were a lot of ways to answer that. He settled for, "As good as can be expected."
In the first light of the moon, her skin gained a polished, silvery cast over its rich bronze. "You remember all of it?"
The hesitation was marked, as was her deliberate continuation. "I am sorry."
Out of all the people from Atlantis, only Teyla would have said such a thing. Then again, John reflected that she was the only one who really understood what it meant to be strung between two worlds and to yearn for both.
It had been easier being Yan Stormborn.
"I'm not." He said it like he meant it, but they both knew he lied.
When they returned to Atlantis the next day, John was still feeling blank. The night and new morning in the outpost had been difficult, mentally turning over everything he was and had been, everything he was and would be, and what wouldn't be.
He knew his team had run interference for him, managing the questions and the queries.
He was grateful for it.
By the time he roused to a cup of coffee, thick and black and tasting like the bottom of the pot - military coffee, none of this finest-brew shit - and the toast Ronon ate with him, the sky over the outpost was thick with 'jumpers ferrying new supplies and equipment across.
They'd waited until the outpost was fully stocked, then hitched a lift back on one of the 'jumpers.
Rodney had protested at returning home. John had given him one wordless look and the man had slumped. His grumbles had been background noise in the 'jumper all the way back to Atlantis, with Ronon and Teyla managing him.
Elizabeth came up to meet them in the 'jumper bay, her smile warm and welcoming. Teyla had briefed her on 'the Sheppard status' (as Rodney had taken to calling it) and she'd spoken briefly to John when the initial connection came through. "It's good to have you back, John."
"Thanks." But his eyes slid past her, drifting off to the woman who stood to one side, out of the way. Apart, separate, different.
The marines still kept guard over her - a conceit that John recognised as ridiculous and small-minded, even if Yan had supposed it necessary. She stood motionless beyond the people moving through the 'jumper bay, one still island in a busy storm.
But John recognised that there was no haven there for him.
Dark eyes met his and she smiled, bittersweet. Something in him ached and was swiftly put away. His attention was being called elsewhere, but he held her gaze a moment longer. This changed things, yes, but it didn't have to be like this.
"The IOA will require a full physical," Edwards was saying with prim distaste. John regarded him with contempt. He hadn't liked Edwards before; he liked him even less now that he knew the full extent of the situation. "As well as an assessment by an approved psychologist."
"Oh, and Heightmeyer isn't suitable for the job?" Rodney glared.
"I'm sure Dr. Heightmeyer is perfectly good at what she does," said Edwards evenly. "But she's not approved by the IOA."
John felt a sneering retort slide effortlessly onto his lips. He closed his teeth around it. Now was not the time and here was not the place.
"Well," Elizabeth said, pointedly polite, "in the absence of the IOA, we'll just have to make do with what we've got here in Atlantis. John? Will you be ready for a debriefing in an hour?"
"If Carson's people have time to do the basic physical," he said. "Are they busy right now?"
"Not so busy we can't fit you in," said one of the medical aides briskly as she passed by them.
Elizabeth smiled. "As Sharon says."
His team stepped off the 'jumper ramp, flowed around him with smiles and glances and a brisk punch on the shoulder from Ronon.
Ivali had drawn closer. Now she interrupted. "Dr. Weir. Now that we know that Ya-- Colonel Sheppard and Teyla and Ronon are back safely, perhaps what we spoke of before...?"
The ache he'd stifled came back with a gasping vengeance. John spoke, but it was Yan's plea. "Ivali..."
Beyond Ivali, on their way to the door, John's team-mates had stopped, turned back. There was a momentary lull in the echoes of the 'jumper bay. Voices and tools paused a moment, heads turned, ears pricked, all the better to hear this drama unfold.
Yan wouldn't have cared who heard.
John had to care.
"I think that there'll be time to talk about that later, Ivali," Elizabeth said with a glance towards John. "Once we've gotten everyone sorted out and debriefed."
Her tone was light, but there was an inexorable note in her voice. In the face of that steel, Ivali acceded.
She accompanied John to his room, and John kept his thoughts to himself until they reached his rooms and the doors slid shut in the faces of the marines. He activated the privacy controls, just to be sure they wouldn't be overheard or interrupted.
Then he looked at Ivali, standing in the middle of his room.
It was exactly the same room he'd left this morning, the same room he'd left that morning all those months ago. The boxes of his things from storage had been put to one side and opened, inspected and wondered at by Yan and Ivali, but not unpacked and rearranged.
Yan hadn't been ready for the trappings of John Sheppard's life.
John craved the familiarity of them.
And the familiar and unfamiliar stood in the middle of the room, next to the mattresses where they'd been sleeping, cuddling, making love for the past two weeks. Six months that John still remembered, but which seemed dreamlike, distant.
Something twisted in his chest, just looking at her, knowing this was goodbye.
We are who we are, and we wouldn't have loved otherwise.
John Sheppard might have flirted with Ivali Weaverkin, but he'd never have caught her a katapi, asked for a dance at the moonlight fire, or let her lead him to her bed.
He swallowed hard against the ache. "You could stay."
Ivali turned with an almost broken half-laugh. The airy light of the morning sky tinted her hair with pale blue as the light slid off it. "For what, Yan? To watch you drift away from me?"
He didn't have an answer for that.
"I always knew you were missing parts of yourself," she said after a moment. "You would never have been whole without them."
It would have been nice to be able to deny it. But John knew it to be true; he'd never be whole without Atlantis.
It stung, to have to hurt her like this. To not be able to give her what she wanted. Maybe it wasn't the first time he'd disappointed someone he loved - Nancy's face rose in his memory - but it still ached, a nebulous tingling in his hands, a hunch in his shoulders, rib-squeezing tension.
So many things to say!
Yan would have known what to say, would have said it without reservation.
John knew what he wanted to say, but actually speaking the words was beyond him. There was too much history, too much memory, too many hurts to be so easily healed.
He couldn't divorce himself from that, but he wasn't going to deny his links to Ivali, either. Yan Stormborn and his life was a part of John Sheppard and always would be, a time when he'd been someone else, when that other man had been loved and been able to love.
Still, he recognised that who he was now was no man for her.
The silence stretched too long with nothing to say.
In the end, Yan had been a man of action - just as John was - some things too fierce and strong for even memory to deny. And so John acted, crossing the empty room and tipping back her chin. The planes of her face were intimately familiar to his sight and his touch, the curve of her lips soft and sweet against his as he kissed her, long and tender, with regret.
Ivali tensed at first, uncertain of his intent. It took her a moment to relax, but when she did, her arms came up around his neck, clinging to him as though she'd never have to let go.
They both knew otherwise.
In summer, it was a warm afternoon room, filled with the setting sun.
In the Atlantis midwinter, it was somewhere to come in the middle of the day, to soak in the pale light on the handful of occasions when the sun was out. And, with a beanbag, a handful of cushions and a good book, it was a perfect place to sit and read in silence.
Teyla even had a pile of books in the corner, recommended to her by various personnel in the city - everything from the rather explicit romances that Dr. Houston enjoyed, to a detailed history of Middle Eastern culture that Elizabeth had brought her.
She was curled up in the beanbag when she heard the footsteps outside.
No need to look up; she knew that tread well.
She also knew not to protest when he tugged the book up off her knees so he could see the cover. His eyebrows quirked in disbelief as he regarded it and the pile that sat by her elbow. "Harlequin romances? Those books will rot your brain, you know."
It was an old tease, and Teyla responded as he expected. "No more than your action movies." They smiled, in brief concordance, before awareness intruded. His smile faded and he looked down and away.
For six months, he had been another man, lived another life. For six months, he'd had no memory of Atlantis or the people who'd lived in the city. For six months, he'd loved Ivali Weaverkin of the Orawi.
In the space of a day, he had regained his memories, regained himself, and said goodbye to a woman he loved but who didn't understand the man he was here in his city.
John's ordeal had changed him.
"You saw Ivali off?"
"Yeah." He glanced up, a brief meeting of eyes, a brief understanding. "She said you were kind."
As she ran her fingers along the smooth surface of the book, over words that held no interest for her at this moment, Teyla supposed that, compared to others, she had been kind. "I have...some understanding of how it feels to be a stranger in Atlantis."
"Is that why you were kind to me?"
Ronon, she reflected, was not the only one who 'fished' when he did not wish to address the question directly. She gave a careful answer. "You, too, were a stranger in Atlantis as Yan Stormborn, John."
And if Ivali was not alone in caring for John, then he would not hear it from Teyla.
"Come," she said, slipping a bookmark in between the pages of her story and putting it aside. "You have missed six months of television."
"I have," he agreed, something like relief in his voice. What he would have done had she answered the question with frank honesty, Teyla could not imagine. That was not the John Sheppard she knew.
It was good to have him back.
He stood easily, offering a hand to help her up. "So what are we going to start with?"
"Well, there is a new Doctor's companion," Teyla said as hand gripped hand, warm to cold, and she clambered to her feet. "You would not have seen the episodes yet."
For a second, they stood close, her face upturned to his, his downturned to hers, their hands still joined, palm clasped to palm. Then he inclined his head still further, and their foreheads bumped gently. Through the window, the sound of waves washed the silent communion, otherwise unbroken by anything more than the sound of their breath and the beat of Teyla's heart in her ears.
It was good to have John back.
When she felt him shift, she lifted her head, saw the ruefulness in his gaze as he stepped back, re-establishing the space between them. The moment was gone and lost, put aside for other things - less personally satisfying, perhaps, but more necessary. And Teyla was not ready to permit him into that space, even had he not only just seen off his lover.
"So," he said, conversationally, "what happened to Billie?"
"I believe she went into a parallel universe," Teyla answered. The conversational tone was a relief, as was the querying arch of his brow, and the wry smile he gave. "I believe it will be best if you watch it and see for yourself. Rodney does not think much of my explanations."
"His aren't much better," John muttered.
At his wave, Teyla preceded him through the doors and out into the city, glancing over at him as he fell into step beside her with an accustomed smile.
She met his smile as they walked through Atlantis together.
There were still questions to be answered, injuries to tend, hurts to be avenged. Colonel Edwards was still the military leader in the city and the IOA was still to be placated regarding John's state of mind and body. And there was still six months of time lost between John and the people he cared for - people who cared for him.
Still, John was back in Atlantis. For the moment, it was enough.