Recipient: for Rustler.
Characters: Team genfic
Disclaimer: No profit is being made from this story.
Contains: (spoilers, highlight to reveal) Ascension, deAscension, memory loss
Beta: Many thanks to my beta, gaffsie, who was ruthless in all the right places and called Todd a faithless bastard.
Summary: John's team lose him, but then they bring him back. A story about love and memory.
The first mission through the stargate after Ford left, John put on his stoniest expression in the locker room and said, "Teyla, I trust you. And Rodney, it's good to have you at my back." He didn't look at either of them, but what Rodney could see of his face looked angry, as if defying them to even notice that he'd said anything. "Let's go," John added. He tugged at the straps of Rodney's tac vest, which was an annoying habit he'd developed during the siege of Atlantis.
"Yes," Teyla said, moving forward with a confidence that dared John to mother-hen her. "Thank you," she added over her shoulder, and then segued into some nonsensical warning about local taboos on the planet they were visiting, including one against eating in front of other people.
Rodney didn't think twice about John's aberrant compliments until the next time they were kitting up and John did the same thing. Rodney felt awkward because clearly this was not something they were going to talk about. He was also fairly sure that if he forced a conversation John would stop. And he freely admitted to being greedy; why would he jeopardize praise for curiosity's sake? Especially when John himself probably didn't know why he felt compelled to say anything. Rodney asked Teyla instead, when John was out of earshot. She looked away.
"He blames himself for losing Ford," Teyla said. "There are probably things John wishes he'd told him. He doesn't want to have regrets with us." She gave Rodney a quirk of a smile. "And for John it's a penance. It's hard for him."
Rodney didn't like the idea of penance, but he framed John's comments in his head as a superstitious habit. John included Ronon when he joined the team, and Ronon took John's peculiar pep talks in stride. Rodney knew he was forgiven after the Doranda debacle because John didn't even hesitate between telling Teyla she was a good leader and telling Rodney his instincts were, usually, on target. Over time, Teyla began making it a point to touch foreheads with John after returning from missions, and Ronon expressed interest in learning Earth sports from John, and Rodney became John's regular partner for video games (Tau'ri and Ancient) as well as for building models of things that actually flew, or raced, or blew up.
They never actually hugged or professed deep sticky love for each other, unless that one drunken karaoke night counted, but Rodney preferred not to be reminded of how much of his precious brain space was wasted on Celine Dion lyrics. Still, John's team was family in every way that counted, and love was what families were supposed to do, Teyla said.
The team broke up after Atlantis landed on Earth. Ronon escorted Teyla back to Pegasus; she insisted she didn't need his protection, but Ronon just said he needed to kill some Wraith anyway. Rodney worked with Sam to try and figure out what the idiots at Icarus Base had been up to. John kept his Atlantis command (just barely, according to the rumor mill) but spent a lot of time at the SGC going on unofficial missions and attending classes and seminars which John referred to as remedial education. Rodney just assumed he was bitter because he'd had to cut his hair and shine his shoes.
When the SGC finally gave the order for Atlantis to return to Pegasus, Rodney was suddenly overwhelmed with pent-up impatience. He didn't even complain about the way Atlantis responded to John in the chair like a hunting dog given a scent. He was exhilarated and excited and unable to sleep until Atlantis swept down through the atmosphere to settle on the ocean by the light of two alien moons.
"We're back," he told John, grinning and bouncing on his toes as John sat up slowly. Using the chair for hours on end made John clumsy and muzzy-headed and fun to tease. "Your landings suck, like always, but what are a few loose fillings between friends?"
John looked like he was trying very hard to think of a clever comeback and failing. He gave Rodney a bright smile to cover his mental hydroplaning, stretched his legs out, and twisted to crack his back. "My landings are awesome," he said, with a flick of his eyebrows that acknowledged Rodney was right but John had to argue as a point of honor.
"Go to bed," Rodney said, and pointed at the door. "We can't get the band back together until the gate's online, and Zelenka's team is in charge of that. Someone will call you. Probably."
John dropped a hand on Rodney's shoulder, leaning on him and steering him towards the door. "You, too," he said. "Caffeine's not the same as sleep."
"Mm, sleep," Rodney agreed. He handed his tablet to Zelenka on the way out, and he must have looked pretty bad because Zelenka just waved him on.
John walked Rodney to his door, still holding on to him and still smiling like he was high.
"See you tomorrow," Rodney said, and shook John's hand for no reason other than it seemed like a good idea at the time. John swayed a little, and then turned and headed down the hallway. Rodney did not watch him round the corner; he found his bed and took off his shoes before crawling under a blanket and dropping out of consciousness.
John managed to look radiant and energetic the next morning as they headed out to the Athosian settlement, and he let nearly everyone there hug him. Rodney ended up holding the baby, which somehow just figured. Torren had Teyla's eyes and Kanaan's nose, and he appreciated Rodney's recital of the periodic table of the elements, all the way up to the still-theoretical Mckaynium and Rodnium.
The first trip John's team took through the gate after Atlantis returned, John just gave each of them a smile and a heartfelt Thank you. And with that, life settled back to normality.
Their seventh mission after returning was to PI9-424, which the Ancients called Hereth. MALP video footage showed a landscape that looked like an abandoned set for Jurassic Park, but the scans did not turn up any velociraptor-sized lifeforms. There were a series of energy signatures and anomalous fluctuations in the planetary magnetic field that suggested the Ancients had been in the process of terraforming the world for human habitation when they were forced to abandon the project. The geophysicists were itching to explore, but Rodney had called dibs; the power requirements for making planet-wide changes must have required at least one ZPM. He wanted it. The trip back to Pegasus had left Atlantis more energy-depleted than he was comfortable with.
The stargate was located inside an enormous complex built over a system of tunnels and machinery that might at one time have been used to manipulate tectonic plates. Rodney put his Ancient map-reading skills to use and found a building that probably served as the control center. John split the team up, sending Teyla with Rodney because she had a fair grasp of Ancient and actually liked rummaging through databases. John and Ronon went off through the weeds and wildflowers to check the perimeter. Rodney was nearly positive that this was because John hoped against hope for velociraptors, or at least pterosaurs.
Rodney lost track of time. He was vaguely aware of John checking in every so often, usually with some variant of Find anything good yet? Teyla made Rodney stop to eat lunch, sitting outside on the steps in the sun. Rodney restrained his impatience enough to ask Teyla awkward questions about Torren's intellectual development; it was never too early to start planning for graduate studies, he felt. He had finished his package of crumbly raisin cookies and was just crushing the garbage from packaging into the bottom of his backpack when Ronon radioed.
Ronon sounded forcibly calm. He said that a tunnel had collapsed, and that John was trapped under a bunch of rocks. "He's alive," Ronon said. "There's a lot of blood. Get Keller."
Teyla was already dialing the gate, relaying Ronon's words to Atlantis with the same preternatural control over her voice. But when she was done and Lorne had promised that a jumper would be there as soon as it was loaded, Teyla gave Rodney a look that bordered on frantic.
"Ronon says they're over there," Rodney said, pointing towards a squat grey building. Teyla nodded, and took his hand as they ran.
Inside, there was a wide spiral staircase going down into the darkness. When Teyla called, Ronon answered. They followed his voice until they saw light around a corner. Rodney didn't want to see. He had been able to successfully ward off the thought of John crushed and bleeding by reminding himself that John always came out of trouble fine.
This time, John wasn't fine. His head was settled on Ronon's lap, accommodating the twisted way he was trapped, not pressed to the floor but sandwiched above and below by dirt and rocks. John was only visible from the waist up, and he was bleeding, a slow steady drip onto Ronon's trousers. Teyla and Rodney both tried, causing John pain in the process, but they couldn't reach under the rubble to find where the blood was coming from. Rodney gave the chamber a quick eyeball assessment and noted its structural instabilities, as well as the poor quality of the hot dusty air, probably full of alien asbestos. Being there was dangerous, another cave-in almost inevitable, but they couldn't leave John.
With nothing he could do to miraculously save the day and John as well, Rodney held John's hand and wiped dirt off his face while they waited for the jumper from Atlantis with rescue engineers and Jennifer. Finally, John opened fever-bright eyes and said, "I don't want to die."
"Stay," Teyla said. "Please. We want you to." She was touching John as well, lightly, as afraid as Rodney was of causing John more pain.
John smiled very faintly and closed his eyes, and then he was surrounded by brilliant light.
Then he was gone.
Ronon rocked back with a wordless roar of grief, but Rodney was fiercely glad. He'd forgotten John had the option of Ascension; it was better than pointless death, he told himself. For John it might be better than flying, even. Rodney picked up the dogtags that had fallen to the floor, still warm. He handed Ronon John's sweatband and Teyla, his watch, and clenched his fists hard until the urge to cry was gone. Then he stood and offered a hand up to Teyla. When the three of them had stumbled to the surface, Rodney called the incoming jumper to let it know that bone saws and backboards would not be needed today, after all.
By the time they made it back through the gate, Atlantis was a city in mourning. Rodney wasn't surprised that the SGC actually had an appropriate classification for John: AIA, Ascended in Action, a subcategory of missing, even though everyone thought John was as good as dead. Of all the thousands of Ancients and others who'd Ascended, only a handful came back from the wonders of understanding the universe on a higher plane.
Ronon asked Rodney to help him write a letter to John's brother, explaining as much as they were allowed. Teyla added in a few words of her own, and some photographs of John holding Torren. Dave Sheppard's reply was polite, with grief bleeding through the lines. He'd only started to reconnect with his brother after Atlantis landed on Earth, and those few months weren't long enough to know John the way his team did. Dave invited them all to stay at his house ("big place, good food," Ronon commented) the next time they were in the area.
"Not this year," Teyla said, looking pained. "Maybe later." She lost control of her expression for a second before smoothing her features. "I named my son for him," she added, as if that was a reasonable explanation.
"He pushed me out of the way," Ronon said. He didn't take John's wristband off, even though it obscured part of his tattoo.
He loved us all, Rodney almost said, but the words were held back by an ache in his throat and the fear of sounding stupid. He pulled the laptop over to have something to do, and started typing out their reply to Dave's invitation. "We should tell him about John," he said, worried the awkward silence would fester. "The good things. Maybe not the turning-into-a-bug thing, or the put-on-trial-for-war-crimes thing."
"Why don't I write it?" Teyla asked, nudging Rodney to the side. Her touch-typing was slow but meticulous, probably because she was more involved with coding than word processing, but even on her worst days her phrasing was more elegantly diplomatic than Rodney at his best. Teyla patted his fingers gently as she dislodged him from the keyboard.
"He's not dead," Rodney blurted out, worried suddenly that he was being tricked into the stages of grief.
"Doesn't mean we can't talk about him," Ronon said with a shrug, and that settled that.
Life in Atlantis went on. John was replaced by Abe Ellis, who made a few arrogant newbie mistakes before Woolsey took him under his wing and taught him how things were actually done in Pegasus. Bill Lee finally made it out to Atlantis, bringing Nicholas Rush's notes and ravings on stargate physics to cross-reference with the database and Janus' research. Todd transferred his peculiar affections to Lorne, leading him on with promises and then stabbing him in the back the way he had with John. Lorne was less forgiving; Todd said that was because they weren't family, and no one seemed to think that was one of his Wraith jokes.
Todd was the one who alerted Atlantis when hive ships started falling into stars.
"That's not only impossible, it's stupid," Rodney said, even when he was staring at the data himself.
"Well," Bill said, stroking his chin. "It could happen if there was suddenly more gravity in a controlled burst between the ship and the star."
Rodney affixed his stare to Bill, who seemed oblivious to the nonsense coming out of his mouth. Radek dropped his head into his hands and muttered in Czech, something about how he might as well use his diplomas to make pretty origami flowers.
The mysterious "extra gravity," which Rodney refused to discuss without a comfort buffer of air quotes and scorn, stopped after a few days' whirlwind tour of the galaxy that destroyed a conservatively-estimated eighty-six percent of extant hive ships. The surviving Wraith abandoned their ships to seek shelter on nearby worlds, and contacted Todd -- whose followers' hives were untouched -- for the cure. Todd, of course, tried to use this information to dick Atlantis over yet again, but he hadn't counted on Lorne's slow-boil, tenacious sense of righteous anger. A few well-placed explosives resolved matters to everyone's satisfaction.
Life in Pegasus was very different when the threat from the Wraith was brought nearly to zero. Rodney finally got to devote most of his time to research. He immersed himself, and told himself that it was intellectual stimulation and not distraction.
Two months later, Lorne took the biannual agricultural research team to Proculus, ostensibly to observe the spring planting of the native grain. Woolsey hoped, as Elizabeth had, that quiet persistence might lead to a trade agreement. David Parrish, Rodney knew, hoped to end starvation and usher in a new agricultural Eden on Earth (as if the SGC would ever let him grow alien crops, Rodney always muttered).
This time, instead of just hoping the Atlanteans went away and never came back, the Proculans greeted them with tea and pledges of friendship and a plea to take away a group of mysterious strangers.
The Proculan's high priestess to Athar had disappeared, her abbots said. After the midwinter festival, she was found wandering a half-days' walk from any human settlement, naked and not responding when she was called by name. She had been accompanied by strangers -- men, women, and children -- who were equally unable to say who they were or where they had come from.
The abbots did remember that Chaya Sar had told the Atlanteans that Proculus could not harbor refugees, and they thought that this meant Athar would be pleased if the Atlanteans took all the strangers away. Promptly. Lorne didn't argue. One of them, he reported back to Atlantis, looked exactly like Colonel Sheppard.
The strangers were brought to the Alpha site, where Jennifer and Carson confirmed that they were human and not replicators, and all in good health, with no scars or other signs of past physical injury or illness. The big picture which seemed to be emerging was that all the Pegasans known to have Ascended had just, as Lorne put it, had their collective asses kicked out of enlightenment. Carson preferred a gentler turn of phrase when he asked, but none of them remembered being on a higher plane of existence. He took them all of them but John with him to a planet he knew that accepted refugees.
Rodney, following this drama as best he could while stuck on Atlantis by eavesdropping on encrypted radio conversations, didn't really care about any of the other post-Ascendees. He just wanted John home.
Lorne, with Ellis breathing down his neck, had to do everything by the book, which meant John was brought straight from the gateroom to one of the isolation rooms in the infirmary.
"He's a security risk," Lorne said when Rodney cornered him outside Ellis' office. Fortunately, Rodney had brought Ronon and Teyla as backup. Ronon glowered --he'd been furious when he'd heard -- and Teyla looked severe and disappointed. Lorne scrubbed a hand through his hair. "We need to know. It's as simple as that. If Sheppard was himself, he'd understand that we need to determine how much Atlantis is compromised."
"He destroyed the Wraith," Teyla said, confident and sure. "The Ascended punished him for interfering. I've read about this in the records of your world."
"Give us a little time," Lorne said. "Please." He looked over his shoulder, a quick nervous glance, and lowered his voice. "John needs me in charge. Even if he doesn't know me, I know him."
"Is he okay?" Ronon asked, crossing his arms and tossing his head to get the hair out of his face. He'd cut off the dreads as part of a Satedan coming-of-age ceremony he'd done for Torren, and had no idea how to get short hair under control. Somehow, he still looked dangerous. "He hurt? Because he was."
Lorne shook his head. "Physically, there's nothing wrong with him. Just his memory." He looked as uneasy about that as Rodney felt.
"Then he should be taken care of by the people who know him best," Teyla said. Rodney was fairly sure that she meant to be rude to Lorne, who winced but didn't defend himself. He also still refused to let them see John.
Teyla set up a vigil outside the infirmary. Rodney and Ronon took turns with her, sitting and waiting and being bored. Lorne, looking shamed by guilt, kept them supplied with coffee and snacks; Jennifer gave them quirky updates on John's well-being.
Six days after John returned to Atlantis, Rodney was in the protest chair, pretending to work on his laptop but really composing an e-mail to Jeannie, when Jennifer appeared, John walking one pace behind her.
"This is Rodney," Jennifer said, taking one step to the side so she could wave her hand in introduction. "He was on your team."
"I know," John said. He didn't look at Rodney, but he seemed to be studying him very hard out of the corners of his eyes. Rodney shut the computer and got to his feet, not knowing what to say to John. "I've been over the mission reports."
"John." Rodney was glad his voice didn't crack, and he was glad his hands were occupied so he couldn't give in to the nearly overwhelming urge to hug. "You lookc" and there were no words he could say that didn't imply the opposite: alive, whole, healthy. "We missed you," he said instead.
John bit his bottom lip. "I have a meeting with Colonel Ellis," he said, looking away down the hallway. "I shouldn't be late."
Jennifer's face was a silent plea for Rodney to understand, to not get upset. "Let me show you to your quarters," she said to John.
John patted his pocket. "I have a map."
"You're really bad at directions," Jennifer said, at the same time as Rodney muttered the same thing.
John flicked his eyes over them, and then away again. "Maybe I'm different now," he said. He took a breath, set his jaw, and started off down the hall, shoulders tense under his uniform jacket.
Rodney didn't have the heart to tell him he was heading the wrong way, and he could tell Jennifer felt the same way. Once John was out of sight, she sighed and said, "He remembers almost everything, now, from Schoolhouse Rock to most of the missions over the past five years. But not people, he doesn't rememberc it's like he's never had any friends. He's," and she looked angrier than Rodney had ever seen her, "so lonely. It's mean."
Yes, Rodney thought. Yes, it is. And he stalked off to find his team and make plans to make sure John stayed until he remembered that he was home.
First, they needed to make sure that John wasn't sent back to Earth. This turned out to be as easy as making John do the job he didn't remember he hated: walking around touching Ancient things. He got most of them to work, or at least light up intriguingly. Taking John on a tour of the power room, Bill Lee asked, apparently in earnest, if John knew how to recharge a ZPM.
"Oh yeah," John said, sarcasm having survived intact. "Did I forget to mention that?" He slapped his palm down on the control hutch. "ZPM, heal thyself."
No one expected anything to happen, but all of a sudden database entries started popping open around the room as a holographic display glowed to life.
"Did I do that?" John asked, looking as freaked out as he had all those years ago in Antarctica.
"Yes," Rodney said, gleeful and smug; the gene therapy hadn't worked on Ellis.
Radek peered up over the rims of his reading glasses, and said deadpan that John must have been working out on the higher plane of existence.
Ellis was a good sport about returning John's command. He told John he preferred action; the SGC had a refurbished Lucian Alliance warship that they wanted him to take into the far reaches of the Milky Way. John wished him luck, and saluted as Ellis walked through the gate.
The next part was going to be harder, Rodney thought. John knew his job -- how to shoot a gun and intimidate Marines and navigate uneasy alliances with Todd and Larrin and other Pegasus neighbors. But he didn't remember how he had felt about people, and that made John uncertain in a way that broke Rodney's heart a little every day. The Ancients had turned everyone into strangers to John, and Rodney would never forgive them for that cruelty.
Together with Ronon and Teyla, Rodney designed intricate schedules to maximize John's exposure to the people he knew the best, in hopes of triggering memories. John always had companions at meals, or ate with Kanaan and Torren in their quarters. Movie nights were held, and video games were played, and the most horrible candid photos from Ronon's digital camera were downloaded into a file on the desktop of John's computer. John seemed to enjoy himself, especially when he was roped into babysitting for Torren or when Ronon pretended to be interested in golf.
When John accepted them as constant and persistent presences in his life, Teyla had the idea of just telling him how he'd felt -- before -- by putting all of John's random compliments into a spreadsheet. Rodney wasn't sure that he could remember that many of them. John had never been eloquent; the things he said were more along the lines of You do cool stuff with machines or You kick ass or It's hot when you translate Ancient. But between Teyla, Ronon, and Rodney, they filled in most of the cells, and even added in a column of compliments that they would have given to John except for the fear of causing spontaneous human combustion via embarrassment.
"This is for you," Teyla said, opening the file on John's laptop and turning it so he could see the screen. "These are memories you had of us. You told us these things because you loved us." She watched John skim the sheet, and then scroll down, looking a little stunned at how long the list was. "This is meant to comfort you. We don't expect you toc feel the same way as the John Sheppard we knew did."
"I want to," John said. His voice came out overloud with anger or frustration. "I wantc what he had, you have no idea how much."
Teyla put her hands on John's shoulders and bowed her head. After a moment, John rested his forehead against hers.
"Be well," Teyla said, and lifted her face to rub her check against his the way she did with Torren. "Be loved, John."
"What she said," Ronon added, and threw an arm around John's shoulders to compress John in a bone-cracking hug. "Sucked when you were dead." Teyla elbowed him, and Ronon sheepishly mumbled something about love before Teyla strongarmed him out the door.
"Whoa," John said. His cheeks were flushed, and he looked torn between amusement and mortification.
"You never were good with displays of affection," Rodney said helpfully. "Trust me, I've heard your last words on three totally different occasions now. The first was an eloquent so long, the next was tell them I said goodbye, both of those times when you were sitting on nukes, and then this last timec" Rodney sighed. "You said I don't want to die. Try getting any kind of emotional closure out of that. I dare you."
John looked even more wracked with embarrassment. "Well," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I suck."
"Stop talking like Ronon," Rodney said. It was a joke -- before, he'd yelled at Ronon for talking like John -- but John didn't seem to get it. "Do you want some time alone with the spreadsheet?" he asked hopefully.
John grimaced. "If you have the time, maybe you could -- " he gestured vaguely, his left hand flipping as if describing uncertainty -- "walk me through it? There must be reasons behind all thesec things that I said."
"You didn't want anyone dying and not knowing how you felt," Rodney said sharply. "Imagine our surprise that you're the one who died and now don't know how you felt." He bit the inside of his cheek to hold in any words that might be unforgivable, and sat down on John's bed with his back to the wall. He snapped his fingers and held out his hand for the computer. After a moment, John passed it to him and sat down next to him.
"Strangely enough, that's the part I get," John said. He sounded dryly amused, not angry. Rodney was glad of that.
"Okay," Rodney said. "So let's start with the mission where you got mauled by a mutated Wraith and turned into a bug, that was a good one."
"I think you're lying to me about that," John said, but his posture relaxed. He leaned back to watch Rodney, and Rodney, given license to talk, began at the beginning and went straight on to the end.
Hours later, after a few breaks for beer, Rodney found himself saying, "When we went to Hereth." He had to stop for a moment, breathing in to keep his mind from getting stuck in those memories. "You told Teyla she was a great singer, mainly because you were in the doghouse for waking Torren out of a nap and lullabies were involved. You told Ronon that the plan he had for improving some kind of training was awesome, and you told me you appreciated my generosity with my Tim Tams." Rodney shut the laptop with a click and deposited it on the bedside table. He stretched his arms up over his head. "I know the words don't seem like much, but they might give you some kind of outline, some sense of how big all of it was. Is. Because we still, you know, even if you -- " and Rodney probably needed another beer. His throat was dry.
John eyed him from where he was now sprawled, head on one arm, one knee up and one leg dangling off the bed, looking a lot more drunk than he ought to be on a couple of beers. Rodney blinked, telling himself that John did not look at all the way he had when he'd been sprawled under rubble, bleeding to death. Something of his memories must have shown in his face, though, because John grabbed for Rodney's arm and pulled him down into his personal lethargy zone. With John scooting over to make room but still warm at Rodney's side, it was surprisingly comfortable and comforting.
"Tomorrow I'm going to tell Teyla I love her," John said with sleepy decisiveness. "And Ronon, too. They're my team. I figure maybe they can cut me some slack."
"I've created a monster," Rodney said.
"Grr," John said, and yawned, leaning his head against Rodney's. Just before he drifted off to sleep he said, as if he'd nearly forgotten, "Rodney? You're a good friend."
Rodney snorted. "John," he returned, and reached for the Ancient lightswitch on the nightstand. He wasn't going to make any sleepover jokes; he wanted to fall asleep to the sound of John breathing. "I'm really glad you gave up ultimate knowledge and power and the secrets of the universe for the people you love."
"Anytime," John said, close and warm in the dark. "Anytime."
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