John looks out the window of the diner, then down at his plate. Black coffee, toast: these are safe things to order. The waitresses never raise their eyebrows at them. He picks up a piece of the toast, chews it slowly. Dry. He forgot to butter it. Oh, well. It all tastes about the same, anyway.
"John," Rodney says, sliding into the seat across from him. "John, you were supposed to meet me at your apartment. Did you forget?"
No, he hadn't forgotten, he just hadn't...He knows he wants to see Rodney, knows it's a long trip from Atlantis and Rodney burns almost all his leave twice a year making it. But knowing that only gets him so far. He looks at Rodney. "Sorry."
"Diet Pepsi," Rodney says to the waitress as she comes up, "and if you put lemon anywhere near it you'll be taking me out of here in an ambulance, so don't even think about it."
The waitress pulls a face. "Friend of yours?" she drawls at John.
It's the kind of question that's so complicated it tires him out.
"Yes, I'm a friend of his," Rodney says impatiently, snatching the menu from her hand. "Is that so hard to believe?"
The last thing John remembers really feeling, feeling in full color and 3-D, is the bubbles in the back of his throat as he drank a toast to Elizabeth at the party celebrating the final defeat of the Wraith. The Athosian equivalent of champagne was sweet and fizzy, and it tasted like victory and it tasted like love.
Or so he tells himself. He knows he thought it at the time; it must have been true.
He doesn't remember hitting the floor afterwards, or spending the night unconscious. The next thing he remembers is Elizabeth's pale, anxious face in the infirmary. She's clutching a pile of paper in her hands. Rodney is standing behind her; Carson's looking at some lab results. He feels light. No, hollow. As if he might float away.
"John," she says quietly, "please, please tell me this is some kind of joke."
"You wrote this while you were unconscious last night." She tilts the paper towards him. It seems to be in his handwriting—if he wrote Ancient, which he doesn't. "It says...says you're an Ancient."
Well. There's a thought.
She's staring at him, a look of fixed desperation. "John?"
"If it's a joke, someone forgot to let me in on it."
"Oh." She looks back at the paper. "Oh."
The room is quiet. He reaches for something to say. "How could I be an Ancient without knowing it? Wouldn't somebody have detected that by now?"
"Well, not exactly an Ancient," Elizabeth says. "He descended in your form. But descended Ancients can't hold onto their memories; it would rip their minds apart. So the Ancient—buried himself in your subconscious."
Elizabeth's face tells him she expects him to freak out, but he can't see why he should. If those are the facts...
Rodney's been looking fixedly at the wall. Now he speaks up, still not looking at John. "To win the war against the Wraith. Remember back in Antarctica, when you coincidentally sat in the control chair the first time? Not so much a coincidence. In fact, I'd say you've probably had the least coincidence-driven life of any human who ever lived. I'm kicking myself for not spotting it. There's no way so many irrational decisions could possibly have worked out so well for so long."
"Yes, I'm sure, John," Rodney says to him, though John hadn't argued. "In this little note our guest dashed off before he left, he left me enough proofs to advance Earth mathematics a hundred years and win the Nobel Prize twice over. Just a postscript to make his point."
Rodney's voice is thick with feeling. Disgust, horror, fear. That stirs something in John. He knows that's wrong. Rodney's not supposed to sound like that.
Carson peers at him thoughtfully. "I know it's all a bit much to take in at once, Colonel. I'm going to give you a sedative so you can rest."
A sedative is probably the last thing he needs, but there's no obvious reason to protest, so he swallows the pill without complaint. Elizabeth and Rodney trade funny looks as he lies back in bed.
"The botanists are still sulking, but of course we deserved the supplemental funds more. Pharmacologically-active compounds? Please! They're just looking for something new to smoke. I'm seriously considering..."
Rodney's been talking for the last twenty minutes. This part is easy; John actually finds it somewhat pleasant. Rodney's face is irregular and his mouth shifts and reshapes itself constantly. His voice runs through half a dozen registers, unpredictable and soothing. John doesn't have to do anything but nod and say "mm-hm" occasionally.
But eventually the story of how Rodney had routed the botanists in the battle over the budget has to come to an end.
Or maybe he just catches John looking at the ketchup bottle once too often.
"So," he says, picking up a paper napkin, starting to pull at the edges, "how about you?"
"How about me what?"
"What've you been doing with yourself for the past six months?"
"Oh, the usual." He makes the dismissive gesture, hopes he makes it right. John Sheppard from before had a much easier time when he didn't care. He smiled a certain way, said the right words, and people thought it was charming. "Same old, same old."
Their voices filter through the sedative, an anxious duet.
Kate: "The word the Ancient used for Colonel Sheppard was 'shell.' Now, I've never treated him, but I've observed him for five years, and I've always wondered."
Rodney: "Wondered what?"
Kate: "Didn't he ever seem a little...glib to you? He struck me as having a very weakly integrated personality, composed of traits that would normally be considered contradictory. He was a lot of different things to a lot of different people."
Rodney: "So he's good with people. Big deal!"
Rodney's upset again. John shifts, pushing at the thick comfortable layer over his consciousness.
Kate: "You're missing my point, Rodney. John had to have some personality of his own, or he couldn't function. But it couldn't be too strong for the Ancient to control, or too coherent to be adaptable to all the problems he needed to solve. So he may have only put together a rather...crude construct of a human personality, and left the people around John to fill in the blanks."
Rodney: "So...what? You're saying we made him up?"
Kate: "Perhaps. And now that the Ancient isn't driving him anymore, isn't providing him with underlying goals and desires, there may be even less to him. His remaining character traits may be so superficial—"
Rodney: "Listen, you may be a good psychologist, but you don't know a damn thing about—"
He should help Rodney. "I can hear you," he gets out past the drug, and works his eyes open.
"Oh!" Kate blushes. He doesn't think he's ever seen her do that before. "Colonel, I'm sorry—"
"It's okay," he says, and it is. It's her professional opinion. She didn't cause it. "I'm just trying to sleep here."
Rodney's smile turns sickly around the edges. "John?"
"Don't worry, Rodney. It's going to be fine."
He turns over and buries his face in the pillow.
"Same old?" Rodney rips at the napkin. "Same old? What does that mean, John?"
He remembers life before the end of the war, before he fell. Remembers watching Teyla strike through the moves of the kata with utter poise, violence tempered into beauty, even wisdom. Remembers watching the hive ship orient for a hyperspace jump with Rodney and Ronon aboard, the blood in his veins freezing, desperation crawling up his back. Remembers driving his knife into the gut of Kolya after Ford died, twisting, twisting, thick wrenching sounds and Kolya's anguished gurgle. It all seems impossibly lurid to him, that world of desires and passions. Like one of those old horror comics from the forties.
If he thinks about it hard enough, he could probably reconstruct a story that would satisfy Rodney. But those days are over.
"I see. No job, no interests, no friends, God forbid a girlfriend. You get up in the mornings and you come sit in here all day and drink black coffee and eat toast that doesn't even have any butter on it."
"Sometimes I walk in the park."
"Jesus Christ, John!" Now some people at nearby tables are looking at them. "You're not even trying, are you?"
He remembers thinking that Elizabeth's office was too much like a hip dentist's waiting room. It doesn't bother him anymore. All of Atlantis just seems big, and empty, and grey.
"I want you to know," Elizabeth says, "how difficult this is for all of us."
Her hands are clasped in front of her. Her face is drawn and tired, the cheeks almost caving in. John doesn't like it. He's supposed to be protecting her.
"I've been trying to determine what will happen when we report your—your condition to SGC." She takes a deep breath. "I think they'll want you to go back to—to go home. With an honorable discharge and a pension, of course."
Her eyes are expectant. "Oh."
"But we can fight that, John," she says quickly. "You may not be able to stay on in command, but I'm sure we can find something for you to do here in Atlantis."
She waits again.
"If you want us to," she finally prompts.
He looks at the desk. He used to have a purpose in Atlantis, but he's been used up and discarded. He loved Atlantis once, but he feels only a dim echo of that now. "What do you think I should do?"
"It's not about me, John." She looks down at her papers. "And you would never let me make up your mind for you. Especially not about this."
He thinks she's near tears. He reaches automatically to pat her hand and she jerks it back.
"Oh! I'm sorry, John, I didn't mean—"
The Ancient had had to manipulate Elizabeth more than anyone. Now there's a sliver of sickness driven into John's throat. "It's okay. Just let me think about it?"
"We don't have long," she says, blinking rapidly. "People will talk."
Later, Teyla finds him on a balcony, watching the crash of the waves. It used to be one of his favorite views. "Colonel?"
"Teyla." It's a little easier talking to her. He knows she doesn't expect much. And it doesn't feel quite so much like pretending.
"This is our normal hour for sparring. Would you like to—?"
He's gotten pretty good over the past five years; good enough to hold his own, most of the time. Not this time. The sticks feel heavy, he can't concentrate. Can't put himself into it. He's too light.
He thinks Teyla might go easy on him, but she never does. The last pass ends with her striking him in solar plexus, thigh, and shin in rapid succession, and he yells "Ow!" and throws one of his sticks away.
"You are far better than this, Colonel," she says, and her eyes burn.
"Yeah, well, maybe I was. When I cared."
"You do not care for fighting well?" She raises her sticks, even though he only has the one. "For the ability to protect your people?"
"The war is over. My people don't need—"
She attacks, hard, and only just doesn't shatter his wrist when he blocks. It really hurts, and he responds with an uncoordinated flurry of defensive moves that don't actually touch her, but at least back her up a step.
She stops, looks at him, breathing hard.
He woke up the Wraith. The Athosians lost everything.
"What the hell do you people want from me?" he demands. The anger is like a geyser spurting suddenly in the desert, and it's unexpectedly scalding inside.
"You, John. We want you."
"Fine. Here." He snaps the stick over his knee, throws it at her feet, and stalks away.
"Trying what, Rodney?"
"Trying to be a person!" Rodney glares. The napkin is a little flurry of shreds around his plate. "I know, I know you didn't have any friends or family here, but lots of people have to start over at some point in their lives. They don't just sit there like, like..."
"A puppet," John says. "With the strings cut."
He wishes Rodney wouldn't get so worked up. Every second of every emotion flickers over his face, and it's hard for John to watch.
"You're not a puppet. I know you can feel things. Maybe not exactly the way other people do, but..."
"Not like anybody else, ever, Rodney."
"You gave up, didn't you," Rodney says, with a different, quieter anger. "You came back here and it was too hard to be in your own story and you just gave up."
The jumper responds to him only sluggishly, but it can still override the gateroom controls, and that's all he needs. He doesn't really pay attention to the address he dials into the gate—he just wants to get away. Looking back, he's lucky he didn't end up on a planet with acid atmosphere, or no atmosphere. Instead, he lands on a planet with hail for atmosphere, in a big sea of mud, and he gets jumperjacked by acquisitive locals the minute he opens the rear hatch.
He wakes up, head pounding, hands bound, face-down on a cold cave floor. The locals are arguing in the next chamber about what to do with him: whether it's better to ransom him or just kill him outright.
With his face half in a puddle and his shoulders aching in their sockets, he realizes that he doesn't, actually, want to die. Well, that's something.
The argument is still going on when he discovers the cause of a soft murmur he'd thought was the wind—his comm, which they'd taken off and thrown a few feet away. He inches close enough to hear, though the shackle on his ankle prevents him from actually reaching it.
"—I mean, what's the point? What are we going to do after we find him? Just take him back and keep pretending that he's John instead of ELIZA?"
"Many people have lost some part of themselves to war, Rodney," Teyla says, and the strain in her voice makes John flinch back. "I would prefer not to lose him altogether."
"Still. We should've told Elizabeth. If something happens to us—"
"That's it," Ronon growls.
Then there's gunfire in stereo, comm and nearby. John flattens himself and hopes to avoid stray bullets. Eventually it stops, and Teyla bursts into the room.
"Colonel Sheppard, can you—Oh. He is back here."
"Hey," he says faintly.
"You should not have done this," she says, kneeling to free his hands. Ronon and Rodney charge in, and Ronon pulls out a key and fits it into the lock near his ankle. "This will not be easy to hide from Elizabeth."
"Because if they think you are unstable, they may—" She swallows.
He rolls over awkwardly, giving him a chance to blank his face. "Thanks, guys, but you shouldn't have bothered."
"You asshole," Rodney says suddenly. "I just ran through two fucking miles of mud for you. It'll be a miracle if I don't get pneumonia. Teyla had to trade some C4 to some very dubious characters for your whereabouts, and God knows how she's going to explain that to security. Ronon just killed three admittedly unfriendly-seeming locals who didn't have to die. This is real. Don't talk to us like the whole team is meaningless to you!"
His face is red and clenched, almost like a newborn about to cry. There's an ugly bruise already forming on Teyla's cheek, and her eyes are more than a little wild. Ronon has the baffled, frustrated look of a man who wants to hit something, but who has no idea what.
It's his team. He's dragged his team through mud and misery and maybe he was wrong, maybe a nice anonymous death on a nice anonymous planet would have been the right option after all.
He gets to his feet. "Let's go."
He shakes off Rodney's hand. "Two miles is a long walk, Rodney."
Behind him, he hears Ronon's fist connecting with the cave wall.
As soon as he gets back to Atlantis, he goes to Elizabeth. "I've decided."
"It's only giving up if you haven't already lost, Rodney."
Rodney stares at him for a full minute, then pushes his plate away from him. "I don't know if I can do this anymore, John. Do you think I like coming to see you like this over and over again? Do you think I enjoy going back and telling Teyla and Ronon how you are?"
"Teyla doesn't ask you to do this," John says, a little sharply.
"No, she doesn't. She only needs me to." He leans forward. "You know, Major Lorne proposed to her again. She turned him down. I guess she'll turn him down again next year, too."
John rests his face in his hands. He'd left Atlantis because the one thing he was sure he still cared about was not hurting his team. The Ancient had built the urge to protect his people into him so strongly that it had survived everything. But they don't understand, and they won't let him do what has to be done. It's been four years.
"Maybe I can't do this anymore either, Rodney," he says slowly, looking back up. "You turn up twice a year, you draw blood and put me through weird brainscans and lecture me like what happened to me was my fault. Well, it wasn't, and I'm tired of this."
"Oh, I'm sorry, does it bother you that we're trying to help you? You have no idea, the resources I've devoted to—I agreed to the hiring of a neurochemist who calls me 'daddy-o', for God's sake. Zelenka's set us up a slush fund. We're knee-deep in felonies because we care about you, John!"
"Rodney." This hurts, this actually hurts, so it must be the right thing. He remembers that from before, too. "Let me make it easy for you. John Sheppard? Annoying, smart-ass best friend in two galaxies? The flyboy who saved the world with you and then treated you like you were just one of the guys? He doesn't exist anymore. He never existed. You only saw him because you needed to. This guy at the table with you? He's just...just a shell. And he doesn't care."
Rodney swallows, starts to rise. "Fine. Fine, then I'll—" And then he stops, all the bitterness on his face clearing away before a look of almost comical surprise. "Wait. No."
"No!" He snaps his fingers and points at him, with the old smugness of being the first one to figure out the problem. "If you didn't care, you wouldn't give a damn whether I came around or not. You're trying to get rid of me because you think it's too hard for me—us. Teyla was right, that's the reason you left in the first place." John's eyes widen, and Rodney leans back, half-laughing. "John Sheppard: no matter what happens, still a hero and an enormous idiot. You can't take that away from him."
"Rodney—" Each breath is painful, and he feels giddy. His hand shoots out and grips Rodney's before he can think about it. Rodney's fingers are broad and agile and his other hand covers John's without even the slightest hint of self-consciousness.
"Okay, John. It's okay. We're not going to give up on you. We don't leave anybody behind, remember?"
John squeezes his eyes shut and nods. After a minute, the feeling passes, but it leaves something behind, a corner of his mind where sensation might return. He relaxes his fingers. Rodney lets him go.
"Hey," he says. "Why don't you show me the park?"
John opens his eyes. "You'll tell Teyla about that. Not—this."
"Of course. Come on, I'll buy you a hot dog."
John remembers the spicy burn of mustard. He also remembers what it feels like to be grateful.