Rodney didn’t start out working in the crop fields, but he ended up there. McKay had convinced the council he could contribute by developing a better water distribution system. But Rodney’s growing frustration with his inability to reason through even the simplest engineering designs most days had Teyla suggesting he work in the fields for a while, just to better understand the process the villagers used with their farming to help configure the most efficient irrigation system he could. The ruse worked, and just as Jaris had predicted, Rodney started looking forward to his time digging in the dirt. John honestly wasn’t sure if it was an inborn love of gardening McKay had never allowed himself to explore before now or if it was because most nights Rodney came home so bone tired he was too exhausted to linger on the fact he wasn’t doing science any longer.
Sheppard okayed a trip back to the crash site, while McKay was busy tilling the fields for the spring planting, for Teyla and some of the villagers to retrieve as much useful equipment and materials as they could recover. John and Ronon, both still stuck on the disabled list, spend several days going through the items that had been salvaged. There were emergency supplies, weapons, medical kits, radios, even some personal items from their packs. Two life signs detectors were recovered and neither would work. John figured they had been damaged as they flew around the cockpit and he came to regret the fact that he showed the devices to McKay, who set to spending most of his evenings trying to repair them.
Not only was McKay frustrated by his inability to make them operational again, but having them in his hot little hands evidently triggered another memory for him.
"There was an energy reading on the planet before we crashed," he insisted, throwing down one of the inoperable detectors on the kitchen table as if that was proof positive of his statement.
"So?" John had asked around a mouthful of vegetable stew Kara had dropped off earlier in the day. It was made from some of the last of the winter root vegetables that McKay himself had helped harvest and tasted a hell of a lot better than anything John or Ronon had been able to concoct over the fire in their hearth.
"So, have you seen anything in this settlement that would come close to producing an energy reading we would have detected from orbit?"
Ronon was able to join them at the dinner table for short amounts of time before the pain in his back became too severe, and he watched Rodney snatch up the detector once more. "You know, McKay, the Jumper was barely running when you saw that reading. Maybe it was a malfunction."
"I saw it, it was real, and if I could just get this piece of shit to work…"
John reached over and smoothly removed the broken device from McKay’s hand before he collapsed into a complete tirade. "You can work on it later. Right now it’s dinner time."
Rodney opened his mouth to argue the point some more, but faced with Sheppard’s unwavering expression, he clamped it shut and set to moving the vegetable pieces around in his soup. Mission accomplished, John thought to himself, knowing full well hunger would win out over annoyance within a few minutes with McKay.
That was until Teyla suggested quietly, "What if Rodney was correct about the reading?"
"I was," Rodney insisted.
Sheppard did his best to keep from sighing in frustration because the last thing he wanted was for McKay to get all worked up. "Even if he was, what difference would it make?"
"The Ancients would only put a stargate in orbit for one of two reasons," Teyla pointed out. "To keep others from coming here or to keep something from leaving. We have seen nothing to indicate these people are prisoners or that there is anything of danger here, which suggests there may be something the Ancestors wished to keep hidden. Perhaps a research facility."
"Yes!" McKay jammed an excited finger toward Teyla. "Exactly!"
"No one in the settlement has heard of an Ancient base," Ronon reminded them.
"Maybe they just don’t know what to look for," Rodney countered.
"Whereas I do," Teyla added as she took a drink of her tea.
Sheppard could see exactly where this conversation was going. "Now hold on here just a minute…"
"John, if we are to return to Atlantis, we must find a way to contact them. An Ancient outpost may be our only hope."
"And if it does exist, how do you plan to find it?" John challenged. "Because none of us can go hiking across the countryside with you. And you sure the hell aren’t going by yourself."
"I am not a child, John," Teyla argued. "I am more than capable of caring for myself."
Sheppard scrubbed at his face in frustration. "Teyla, I’m not saying there isn’t the possibility that an Ancient facility is somewhere on this planet, but if it does exist, it could be on an entirely different continent for all we know. We could be sitting on the equivalent of the Mainland with an entire city thousands of miles away."
"Perhaps you will allow me to rule out the possibility that it could be no more than a day’s walk from the village." Teyla pushed her bowl away and stood.
"I just…" John did his best to broach a subject he knew Teyla wouldn’t accept− there may not be a way off of this planet or at least not for a long, long time. He knew Atlantis would keep looking for them, but the only way they’d be able to search for them would be through their subcutaneous locators and that could take months, years even, for the Daedalus to find them. "I don’t want you to set yourself for disappointment if you don’t find anything."
"Are you content to simply sit here resigned to the fate of spending the rest of our lives on this world away from those we love?"
Teyla choked on the last words, turning her back to hide her emotions from the men on her team who sat looking awkwardly at one another. Finally, Ronon hitched his head, indicating Sheppard should say something. But what the hell could he say? The last thing he wanted to do was spend the rest of his life on this planet, but something had been bugging him since his conversation a few weeks earlier with the boy Jaris. He had been trying to deny it since it was nothing more than a gut feeling, but maybe now was the time to voice his concerns.
"Look, Teyla, I’m not sure it’s safe to go looking for something like an Ancient facility. I get the feeling the people here haven’t been completely honest with us. Remember what I told you about talking to that kid Jaris? About the illness that killed some of the villagers? No one else will talk about it. I thought maybe it was Michael infecting them, but now I’m not so sure. What if there is an Ancient facility and it was researching something like the nanite virus we saw the first year on Atlantis, or something worse? Maybe someone found something, became infected, and it spread through the settlement. Maybe that’s why they claim there’s nothing to find."
Teyla stood with her back to them for a moment longer before heading down the hall to her room. "That is a chance I am willing to take if it mean we can return home."
John watched her go, knowing this was a battle he wasn’t going to win.
* * * *
Teyla’s treks into the surrounding countryside started out short, but as her strength returned and her determination grew with each failure to find anything, they lengthened. What began as a few hours to hike through the surrounding woods became all day trips that grew to into overnight excursions until eventually Teyla would be gone for days at a time. John grew increasingly worried as the trips lengthened and the batteries on the radios finally died cutting off any chance of communications if something happened, but Teyla always gave a return date and she always met it.
But with Teyla gone more and more of the time, it meant no one was out to keep an eye on McKay when he was working the fields. John was much slower to heal than Teyla with her shoulder, and after ten weeks, his leg was still unable to support his weight. Even though he was Ronon’s main caregiver and knew he needed to be in the house for his injured teammate, Sheppard felt the strain of not being able to be there for Teyla and Rodney more and more as the days passed. That had him enlisting the assistance of Jaris. The kid kept tabs on Rodney, reporting back several times a day and fetching John to come help when McKay had one of his fits and the others couldn’t calm him. Jaris also ran to tell Sheppard when he first caught sight of Teyla returning across the long meadow from her latest expedition.
Jaris also ended up being the thorn in Sheppard’s side that John needed.
"Do you not wish to improve?" the boy inquired once when Sheppard was having a particularly bad day with the pain in his leg.
"Of course I do," Sheppard grumbled.
"Then do it."
John rolled his eyes. "Gee, why didn’t I think of that?"
Jaris shook his head at the sarcasm. "My father always said that you must want something before you can achieve it. I do not think you want your leg to improve."
"Thank you, Master Yoda. I’ll keep that in mind."
"Who is Yoda?" Jaris asked in confusion
John spent the next hour retelling a large chunk of the Star Wars saga to the boy, and that was how Sheppard ended up with the unlikely job of town storyteller. Jaris told his friends of the tale, who gathered in the common house and begged John to tell them the story, and then to continue it the next night, and the next. It didn’t take long before the ritual grew and so did the crowds until most of the village would crowd in to hear the exploits of Han, Luke, Chewie, and the evil Darth Vader. When he had worked his way through those movies, John moved on to the Indiana Jones series and, at Ronon’s request, Jaws. And as Sheppard’s storytelling prowess improved and he became more and more revered throughout the settlement, so did his leg.
Ronon’s condition also improved steadily, so that three months after their crash landing, he was able to walk with just the aid of canes. Still, strenuous activity was more than he could handle, no matter how much he wanted to deny it, and of all the people who had been offered the teaching position, he was the least likely of any of them and the only one who eventually ended up in the classroom full of small children.
Ronon’s Satedan friends had teased him about the artistic streak he’d exhibited back on his home world, but here with his students, Ronon lost any inhibitions he may have had and let it shine. He fashioned canvases and easels and it became a common sight as the weather warmed for the children to gather around the town center with the large man and paint the scenes of the marketplace or trek out to the meadow to sketch the spring wildflowers and insects. Sheppard even found himself surrendering his storytelling a few nights for a class poetry recital with Ronon beaming in pride at the children as they read their creations and ending the evening with a recitation of his own verses. A month later he was showing the same pride in his protégés as they demonstrated the knife throwing techniques Ronon had taught them. Sheppard could only conclude that Ronon Dex was the Satedan equivalent of a true Renaissance man.
Sheppard and his team fell into an easy routine with the locals who had welcomed them so openly. As his leg mended, John would help out where needed in the village and there always seemed to be someone who could use his assistance. He would start out most mornings strolling through the streets, maybe greeting Reena the baker with a traditional, "Bountiful days, sister," when she offered him a sweet bun still sticky and warm from her ovens before assisting her in raising her awning on her shop, or offer a friendly, "Blessings on your home, brother," as he helped Jebish, the wizened old cobbler offload a wagonload of leathers. It was a peaceful existence he’d found for himself, and as foreign as that concept had become over the years, it surprised Sheppard how much he had grown to like it.
Some days he’d accompany McKay into the fields, blackening his hands in the rich earth as he pulled basket upon basket of this planet’s version of early spring onions and cutting armfuls of frilly leafy greens in a shade so pale they were almost white. He and Rodney would work side by side in a comfortable silence as they harvested the vegetables with a dozen other villagers. Even as they made their way home at sunset, John’s leg aching and Rodney bitching about the need for a chiropractor, Sheppard could tell the complaints were more out of habit from McKay than actual dissatisfaction with the day’s work.
But as John, Rodney, and Ronon settled into the life of the settlement, Teyla’s restlessness only grew until she finally missed returning from one of her recon missions when she had said she would. Sheppard sat up most of the night waiting for her, even going out to the edge of the meadow to see if he could see her coming back across the tall grasses in the silver-tinted light cast by the planet’s three moons. But he saw no one and returned to the house at sunrise to find Ronon and Rodney sitting with cups of the closest thing McKay had been able to find to coffee on the planet.
Both men looked up anxiously and Ronon confirmed what they could already see. "She hasn’t come back yet?"
John shook his head even as he started down the hall to gather the small amount of gear they’d recovered from the Jumper and returning with his sidearm and backpack. "I’m going to see if I can get some volunteers to help me go look for her."
Ronon stood and grabbed his cane. "I’m going with you."
Sheppard frowned at the thought. "You should stay here, in case she comes back."
That wasn’t the real reason Sheppard wanted Ronon to stay behind and Ronon knew it given the way he raised his walking stick in defiance. "I’m not useless because of these, Sheppard."
"I never said you were, big guy," John tried to justify in frustration and a touch of sympathy. "But the fact is, you’ll just slow us down, and you know it."
"What good is being fast if you don’t even know where to look?" Ronon argued. "I can still track better than anyone around here."
Sheppard was trying to come up with a way to keep Ronon from being pissed while still meeting his need to get the hell out of Dodge and find their missing teammate.
McKay, however, spoke up even as he stared into his cup. "She shouldn’t have to be out there like this."
"It was her choice," Sheppard countered, wrapping some bread and a few of the hard fruit that grew in the orchards and stuffing it into his pack. "If anything, I should have put my foot down a long time ago and kept her from going."
"She shouldn’t have needed to go looking for an Ancient facility in the first place if I could have repaired the detectors."
"McKay, this is not your fault," John reasoned. "We all know why she’s out there and it has nothing to do with broken detectors. Even if you had fixed them and proven there was no outpost anywhere near us, Teyla would have found a way to leave."
She was grieving for Torren. John had known it from day one, but knowing it and knowing how to deal with it were two different things. Hell, he still had no idea how to deal with it, but he knew he wasn’t going to make the same mistake he’d been making for the past six months. He had sat by and let her just disappear into her heartache; there was no way he was going to sit by and let her disappear into the wilderness now.
As if Teyla being missing wasn’t enough, Rodney stood abruptly and headed out the door. "She didn’t need to be out there."
"McKay!" Sheppard called after him, moving as fast as his limp would allow him, but it wasn’t fast enough. McKay was already running down the street, taking a right around the corner. "Rodney!"
The hails didn’t stop Rodney and given the direction he was heading, John had a pretty good idea where McKay was going. He was heading for the crash site to try to restore power once again.
"Son of a bitch!" John swore, as he started out the door himself. He did not have time for this shit. "Ronon, see if you can get Dalen and Gregor to go with me to look for Teyla. I’m going after to McKay."
Rodney’s work in the fields had toned the man, so that he was easily able to outpace John and his still sore leg across the farmlands and through the trees north of the village to emerge in the open prairie where the remnants of the Jumper lay scattered through the tall grasses. Sheppard wove around one of the drive pods that was skirted by wisps of fogs that flowed slow and ghostly across the clearing. The part had been sheared off the ship during the crash and buried itself several feet in the ground and he nearly tripped in the muddy ruts as he made his way to the front of the craft that lay upside down. The back hatch hadn’t opened, which meant whoever had dragged them out as part of the rescue had busted out the windshield, or maybe it had been smashed on impact… exactly what had happened during the crash and subsequent recovery efforts were still hazy in John’s mind. But the sound of Teyla crying was crystal clear in the early morning quiet.
Sheppard grimaced as he pushed himself up to the opening so that he could see Teyla curled on the floor with her face pressed into Rodney’s chest as she wept. McKay had his arms wrapped around her as he seemed to be recalling Torren’s birth.
"I had to requisition a new jacket, you know. Baby goop doesn’t come out of fabric no matter how weather proof it’s supposed to be." Teyla snorted wetly against McKay and Rodney gave a small laugh in return. "I’d never seen a baby that little before, at least not in person. They show them in movies and stuff and you see how tiny they are, but you don’t realize how… strong they are until you actually hold one and feel him moving and hear him crying and you see that he’s real. You know? He’s real and helpless and tiny but alive and filled with so much potential."
"Do you truly believe he is strong?" Teyla asked in a timid voice that John had rarely heard from her.
"With you as a mom?" McKay asked in disbelief of her doubt. "How can he not be? He’ll be kicking ass and taking names in no time."
"And I will not be there to see it," Teyla lamented. "I will not be there to see him grow up. I will not be there to help him through the trials before him. I will miss all the birth celebrations to come just as I am missing this one."
Sheppard groaned internally, quickly doing the math in his head and coming up with Torren’s birthday. He should have seen this coming. He should have kept better tabs on this sorts of things so that he could intervene before they ended up here with Teyla weeping in their crashed Jumper being comforted by Rodney of all people.
"Just because you’re not there in person doesn’t mean he won’t still do all those things," Rodney told her. "You’re there in other ways and he knows it."
"How will he know it?" she demanded.
"Because I know it," McKay reasoned, with a little squeeze to her shoulders.
"I know it, too," John offered quietly, climbing into the overturned craft less than gracefully, but he managed not to fall, which given his bum leg, was saying something.
Both Teyla and Rodney looked up from where they sat on the overturned ceiling of the Jumper and John moved to squat beside them with a wince as much from the pain as in apology to Teyla. "You’re the best mother in the world and I’ve been pretty much useless when you needed me to see that and let you know."
Teyla kept one hand tightly fisted in McKay’s shirt and used the other to reach out and yank John forward. The act had John losing his tenuous balance and tottering over and roughly into the embrace she and Rodney were sharing. McKay gave Sheppard an expression that was half, ‘what the fuck?’ and half, ‘oh, what the hell?’ and he wrapped his arms around both John and Teyla, which only left Sheppard the option of awkwardly hugging his two teammates back.
"I do not want to miss another birth celebration for Torren," Teyla confessed hoarsely between the two men.
"You won’t," Rodney promised with fervent intent. "I’ll make sure of that."
Sheppard had no idea how McKay planned to deliver on that promise, but he knew it didn’t bode well for either Teyla or Rodney if it didn’t work out as they hoped, which had John subconsciously tightening his hold on the two as protectively as he could.
* * * *
John was no stranger to watching over his team. He’d done it for over five years and would continue to do it for as long as he was able to draw breath. But he would be the first to admit he was more adept at doing it with a gun than the whole emotional touchy feely crap. Still, he did what he could, which as the weeks passed, started feeling like less and less.
Once they had brought Teyla back to their shared quarters, she had admitted that she’d stopped looking for any outpost weeks before. That is was easier just to go camp in the downed Jumper than face the heart break of finding absolutely nothing in the surrounding countryside. She had walked for days in all directions and the landscape had been monotonously the same as it was on the outskirts of the settlement− vast expanses of grasslands broken up by large stands of trees with nothing but more of the same on the horizon. The locals had never felt the need to travel very far beyond the confines of the village so they had been no help either.
But the relief of having Teyla staying there instead of traipsing about the countryside was replaced by a growing worry over McKay’s obsession with finding a way back to Atlantis. They all took turns coaxing Rodney to bed when he would stay up late trying to fix the detectors. After McKay vanished on them one night, Ronon installed some strange Satedan lock on the doors to keep the obsessed man from running off in the middle of the night back to the crash site, which is where Rodney wanted to spend most of his time. Normally McKay probably would have deciphered the lock in about ten seconds flat, but in his current state, he grew frustrated with it before he solved it, enough so that he would start cursing and banging on the mechanism and wake the rest of his housemates. The thing was, Sheppard wasn’t sure if he was grateful or disheartened by that fact.
John was usually the one who spent most of his time at the Jumper with McKay. He would obediently do as Rodney instructed, swapping crystals, disconnecting wiring, reconnecting it, trying to start various systems that just wouldn’t respond. In his heart, John knew it was just a big waste of time, but Rodney refused to give up, and it was honestly easier to wrangle him one on one in the Jumper where McKay felt like he was at least trying to do something to help them get home.
That was until the day Sheppard noticed him rubbing at his head.
"Ready to take a break?" John asked, trying to forestall any exhaustion that might lead to a meltdown.
"This isn’t right," was Rodney’s response.
"You’ll figure it out, McKay." Sheppard did his best to make it sound like it wasn’t a big deal one way or another.
"No," McKay insisted with a sharp shake of his head and wave of his arm to encompass the panel he was working in. "This isn’t right. The layout is off. Its basic premise is correct but it’s like… I don’t know, someone who had seen it but never really worked in it had recreated it."
"You’re not making any sense, Rodney."
"Okay, I know that’s been the norm since you crashed this damn ship, but I’m telling you, there is something off about this whole panel. I was thinking the same thing about the detectors but convinced myself it couldn’t be the case, but now…" Rodney sighed in frustration.
"Maybe it’s a result of the crash," John reasoned.
"It’s not broken," McKay insisted. "It’s wrong."
"Look," John started, "you’ve been at this for a while…"
"Don’t patronize me and don’t try to tell me I’m just confused," McKay snapped. "I’ve probably spent more time working on this Jumper than anyone else since the Ancients left Atlantis and I know when something isn’t right."
"What are you suggesting? Jumper gnomes came in and changed the layout when we weren’t looking? Because things don’t just go from being right to being wrong."
"Jumper gnomes," the scientist scoffed. "Good one. I should be so lucky as to have something like that tweaking with the system. At least that would mean there was another creature on this entire goddamn planet that understood the intricacies of what I’m doing with… oh, crap."
Rodney’s rant was cut short when he tilted his head back to stem the flow of blood that suddenly started from his nose.
John snatched up a towel from the remnants of their lunch and closed the distance between them to press the cloth to Rodney’s face. "Christ, McKay. Do you see what happens when you get all worked up like this?" Although Rodney had never had a nose bleed since he’d moved in to Sheppard’s room all those months ago.
McKay winced as John pinched his nose before repeating nasally, "It’s not right, John. Something’s wrong… with all of it."
Sheppard was just about to argue the point some more, but his words died on his tongue as he looked at Rodney’s face and saw the bruising slowly blooming across the skin. "Shit," he murmured at the phenomenon taking place before him, feeling an unnatural panic warm his skin.
The look in Rodney’s eyes said he was experiencing the same thing. "Sheppard?"
Grabbing McKay by the arm, John started toward the exit. "Come on, we’re getting out…"
But Rodney doubled over, clenching his hands to either side of his head. "John…"
Sheppard found himself dropping to the floor along with McKay, doing his best to keep his friend from falling all the way to the ground by letting him slump boneless against him. "Fuck, McKay, don’t do this." He gave a shake to try to rouse Rodney only to find that his arms were empty. In fact the entire Jumper was empty except for him. "Rodney?" He cleared his throat against the constriction he felt there and called louder. "Rodney!"
Nothing. Nowhere. Rodney had been there and now he was just gone.
Just fucking… gone.
John darted for the open windshield, using the pilot’s chair dangling from above to pull himself up and out of the Jumper. "McKay!" he yelled, his voice echoing across the open field as he scanned the area desperately and saw nothing but grass and trees.
He was gone. Rodney was gone. And people just didn’t vanish into thin air like that. Not unless Rodney was right about things being wrong.
Scrambling down from the Jumper, Sheppard broke into a full out run. He hadn’t done that since he’d broken his leg, and he could feel it, sharp pain coursing from his ankle to his hip. But he didn’t give a shit. He had to get back to the village, to the house, to make sure Teyla and Ronon hadn’t up and vanished, too. And, Jesus Christ, what the fuck had happened to McKay?
By the time John reached the settlement, his entire right side felt like it was on fire. The villagers stopped to stare and murmur to themselves as he pushed through them without his normally friendly greetings, but Sheppard ignored them just as he ignored the pain and the way his heart pounded in his chest.
He practically threw himself through the front door of their small house. "Teyla! Ronon!"
There was no answer and he forced his leg to hold his weight as he stumbled down the hallway to their respective rooms. "Teyla!" She wasn’t there and the panic swelled higher as he pushed open the door across the way. "Ronon!"
John did his best to remain calm, to rationalize that they were probably at the dairy or the school, but somehow he knew…knew… that wasn’t the case. They were gone, just like Rodney, and he was here all alone with no way to get home.
Swiping at the sweat that was running into his eyes, Sheppard frowned to see the stain of red on his hand. He was bleeding, a gash on his forehead and he no idea where it had come from. He also had no idea why every breath he drew suddenly felt like liquid fire. Taking a step, his right leg finally gave up when sharp pain seared through his side and he felt himself falling, teetering forward with no way to stop himself.
Fortunately, two sets of strong hands caught him before he hit the ground.
"Easy, Colonel, we’ve got you."
Sheppard found himself blinking dazedly up into a familiar face he had come to believe he’d never see again. "Lorne?"
"Yes, Sir," the major confirmed as John found himself being eased down onto a stretcher. "Take it easy, Dr. Keller will be here in just a minute."
"Keller?" John couldn’t seem to process what he was hearing, hell, what he was seeing. And he shivered from the sudden contrast between the warm summer day he’d left to the cold overcast sky he was staring up into.
"She’s seeing to Dr. McKay right now," Lorne explained draping a blanket across Sheppard.
"Rodney’s here?" John tried to lift his head to see, but the world swam sickeningly when he moved.
Lorne’s hand landed on Sheppard’s shoulder and pushed him back down. "Just take it easy. We got you all out."
"Out of… what?" John asked, closing his eyes against the spinning and fighting to hang on to consciousness. He hadn’t felt this bad since they’d first crashed the Jumper.
"The stasis pods," Lorne told him. "The local population pulled you out of the crashed Jumper and realized they couldn’t handle your injuries, so they put you in the pods."
Pods? Local population? Kara and the others never mentioned anything about stasis pods and surely Teyla would have come across something like that if they were anywhere around the village. None of it was making any sense, but supposedly his team was here and that was something he was willing to cling to.
"How long?" Sheppard managed to slur out.
"A little over a day."
The news had Sheppard opening his eyes in disbelief. They had been living among the villagers for close to seven months. There was no way in hell they had crashed the Jumper a day ago. But when he took the time to look at Lorne, really look at him, he could see the small bandage covering the stitches from Lorne’s sparring match with Ronon. John didn’t know if he wanted to weep for joy or call the man on the bullshit he was obviously feeding his CO.
He didn’t get a chance to do either because Rodney’s voice cut through the confusion, and unfortunately, it was a tone he’d become more than familiar with over the past seven months.
"Where’s Sheppard?" McKay was demanding frenetically. "Where is he? He was right here a few minutes ago."
"Rodney," Jennifer was speaking soothingly. "Colonel Sheppard is right here. See? I told you we were getting him out of the pods next. I’m going to check on him now, but you need to calm down. Okay?"
John managed to twist his neck around to see McKay staggering back away from Keller and the marines around her. There was still a smear of red on his face from his bloody nose but a crisp white bandage was in place over his temple. Jennifer took a step toward him and Rodney darted back as if she were a threat instead of someone he knew and trusted and he yelled desperately, "John!"
"Rodney, I’m all right." Sheppard made eye contact with his panicked teammate. "Everything’s going to be fine."
McKay’s eyes darted wildly from Keller and John and the myriad of others milling around between them. In the crowd of people, John saw a man he recognized, the man who had dragged him from the crash site. He could only surmise the large man must have been the one to put him and his team in the stasis pods to begin with. And if Lorne was telling the truth, he had done it a day ago. A goddamn day. But he’d deal with that bombshell later. Right now he had other priorities.
"McKay, did you hear me? We’re going to be fine."
Rodney nodded with an expression that said he was hanging on to his sanity by his fingernails. And John could tell he was debating the risk of pushing through all the people he didn’t recognize to reach Sheppard or staying right the hell where he was.
"Doc, why don’t you two come over here?" John suggested, licking his lips and tasting blood. He was suddenly thirsty and wondered absently if it was a remnant of being in stasis.
With the promise of being nearer to someone he knew, Rodney allowed Keller to lead him over to where John lay on the ground. As soon as he was next to John, McKay dropped to his knees.
"Sheppard, what’s…" Dropping his head into his hands and shivering under the blanket that was wrapped around his shoulders, Rodney confessed weakly, "I don’t know..."
"Neither do I," Sheppard assured him. "But I think we’re going to be okay."
John hissed as Keller checked his leg, his vision clouded and he blinked several times to try to clear it.
"How are you doing, Colonel?" the physician asked as she moved to press on his abdomen.
"Been better," John confessed with a groan, swallowing to keep from puking up his lunch. Although, he hadn’t really eaten that lunch, had he?
Jennifer grimaced in sympathy. "I can imagine. At least they set your leg. I’ll double check it when we’re back in Atlantis among other things. I’m a little concerned you may have some internal injuries." Turning to the medic beside her, Keller ordered an I.V. and antibiotics and painkillers.
"My team?" Sheppard inquired as she shined a small light in his eyes.
"Well, everyone’s going to be black and blue for a while. Rodney has a severe concussion, which would explain his disorientation and excitability, but otherwise his injuries seem fairly minor. Teyla had a dislocated shoulder that your rescuers set just like your leg. Ronon’s back injury has worried, but he has movement in his extremities, so that’s good news. I’ve already sent them back in the first Jumper." With her synopsis complete and the I.V. in place, Keller told the marines, "Let’s load him up and get him back to Atlantis."
John still wasn’t sure if he actually believed what was happening, but he was so goddamn tired and he hurt despite the painkillers Jennifer had slipped into this I.V. and if it wasn’t real, he’d deal with that when the time came. But just in case it was real, he snagged Lorne’s jacket sleeve as his stretcher was hefted off the ground.
"How’d you find us?"
"Honestly, I’m not really sure," the major admitted with a chuckle. "We went to look for you when you missed your check in from P4M-745, spent several hours scouring the planet for any sign of you, and when we found nothing we started to head back to Atlantis. Only when we dialed, the gate spit us out in a gate in orbit here. We came down to investigate an energy reading and that’s when we found the Ancient outpost and the village a few klicks away. The villagers told us what had happened and what they had done. That’s when we called back to Atlantis for medical support. They could only come here the same way we did; through the gate on the other planet."
The thought of how it had happened made Sheppard’s head spin, but it didn’t stop him from telling Lorne sincerely, "Thanks."
Lorne smiled with a shrug. "Put it in my annual review, Colonel."
"You better believe I will," John promised as the marines walked him into the Jumper.
Rodney allowed a medic to lead him into the back of the ship, the confusion on his bruised and battered face easing slightly when he saw Sheppard again.
"We’re going home, McKay," John announced with a small hazy grin.
Rodney nodded in a way that said he wasn’t completely convinced that was the truth, but if Sheppard said it was going to happen then he’d believe it.
Keller climbed in the Jumper and took a seat across from Rodney and rechecked John’s I.V. as the back hatch started to close. Outside, several of the local villagers craned their necks in wonder to see what was happening. John kept expecting to see Jebish or Kara or Gregor or any of the dozens of others he’d come to know over the past months, but all of them were strangers, completely unfamiliar… except for one. Jaris stood at the edge of the small crowd and raised a hand in farewell.
The boy took John completely by surprise and Sheppard tried to sit up, the act causing the room to go gray around the edged.
"Colonel!" Jennifer warned. "You need to lie still."
John gave a sharp shake of his head to clear his vision enough to see outside once more, but the boy was gone. Sheppard lay back exhaustedly, glancing up one last time at Rodney. Through his fading vision, John could just make out the way McKay’s forehead was crinkled in worry.
"S’okay, Rodney," John promised before finally letting himself believe it might be true and slipping effortlessly into unconsciousness.
* * * *
If possible, recovering in real life was even more difficult than recovering in a virtual reality, mainly because they all knew the exact nature of their injuries. In the VR, John hadn’t had surgery for internal bleeding, hadn’t even known that was a problem, so a splint on his damaged leg was all it had taken. Rodney, however, recovered quicker and more completely than anyone. Other than some lingering headaches, he was back to normal within a few days. Radek had theorized that Rodney’s prolonged disorientation in the VR was a result of the system requiring a mental component to interact with it. Since McKay was still suffering from the early effects of his head injury while in the stasis pods, he was never able to ‘heal’ in the VR. For once, McKay didn’t disagree with Zelenka. John figured it had less to do with the chance that Radek was correct and more to do with the fact that it proved Rodney wasn’t the village idiot he had appeared to be in the VR… McKay’s words, not Sheppard’s. Bruises and broken bones, however, could be overcome fairly easily once the inhabitant decided they were mending. Apparently Jaris had known that and coaxed John to work on healing himself. This also probably explained why Teyla had recovered so quickly in the VR since she was determined to find a way back to Atlantis and that meant she needed to be back in peak physical condition.
The irony was that although Teyla had healed physically in the VR, she had suffered emotionally, and returning to Atlantis and Torren had been the only way she had any chance of recovering from the trauma she’d experienced. Keller had let her leave the infirmary and return home to her own quarters earlier than anyone else. It was either that or have Kanaan and Torren move into the medical facility since Teyla refused to let either out of her sight. Hell, she wouldn’t even let Torren out of her reach, which wasn’t exactly something the toddler was interested in after about twenty minutes of cuddling with his mother. In his mind, it had only been a couple of days since he’d last seen his mom, but Teyla was coming to terms with the fact that seven months hadn’t passed after all and she hadn’t missed any part of his growth aside from her son learning a new Athosian swear word from his uncle on his recent trip to New Athos. Even that only made her smile and tear up from sheer joy to see him practically unchanged from when she had last kissed him goodbye.
Ronon’s lingering injuries in the VR were a mystery to Sheppard. If anyone would have wanted to heal up and return to the top of his game, John would have placed Ronon at the top of the list. At first he figured that it was that even a warrior’s pride couldn’t compete with a mother’s love and desire to return her son. But John came to decide there was another reason Ronon hadn’t willed himself better when he’d had the chance. They were talking about the people in the village one evening when just the two of them were still in the infirmary.
Ronon was reminiscing about the kids in his class, and at one point, Ronon had admitted in a low rumble of a voice, "That’s the first place I’ve ever been where I didn’t feel like I needed to fight."
That’s when Sheppard came to realize that while Teyla had regained her child, Ronon had, in a sense, lost his. And maybe John felt like he’d lost a little bit of that peace and simplicity their life in the VR had offered, too.
Once McKay was released from the infirmary, he set to work researching the planet they had stumbled across in the Ancient database. He found reference to a research facility that was perfecting the virtual reality pods that were installed on the Aurora class battleships. The R and D had been taking place at the height of the Wraith wars and the outpost was one of the Ancient’s biggest secrets, which was why they set up a hidden door policy for accessing the base. The research facility could only be reached by dialing from an Ancient ship. The gate on P4M-745 would realign to access the hidden world’s gate when a Jumper dialed into it with the Atlantean address, thus giving an added layer of security since only the Ancients knew the address of their city.
Rodney hadn’t yet been released for full duty, so he couldn’t return to the planet himself, but he checked the data that was coming in daily from the newly discovered Ancient facility and he kept Sheppard and the others up to speed on the findings.
"It appears the facility was overseen primarily by an Ancient named Heshan," he explained in one of his impromptu briefing he had started holding in the infirmary. "Apparently, Heshan became quite close to the human population residing nearby and actually married a local woman, Leval, and took up residence among them with their two children. At some point, a large portion of the villagers succumbed to an unknown virus that spread quickly and the Ancients couldn’t find a cure. In order to buy some more time, Heshan and Leval placed the sick villagers in the stasis pods along with their youngest son, who had also come down with the disease. They then returned to Atlantis with their other son to work on a cure. So far we haven’t been able to find anything else in the Atlantis database as to what happened to them."
"It didn’t look like they found a cure since they’re still in the pods," Ronon observed from his bed. The Satedan had been lucky in that as his back continued to heal, the swelling was decreasing the pressure on the nerves that were causing his limited mobility. Keller expected him to make a full recovery over time.
"So it would seem," Rodney pondered. "Well, it was close to the time the Ancients evacuated the city for Earth. Maybe they were forced to abandon any chance of saving their friends when they abandoned the city."
"They were forced to abandon more than their friends if that was the case," Teyla noted quietly as she looked down on a sleeping Torren in her arms. "They were forced to abandon their son."
John was thinking the exact same thing. "What was the son’s name?"
McKay scrolled through some information on his electronic tablet. "Uhm, it says here it was Jaris." Rodney spoke the name as if he had never heard it before in his life.
Sheppard shook his head in disbelief. "I knew there was something odd about that kid."
"What kid?" Ronon asked curiously.
Sheppard looked at him like the answer was obvious. "Jaris." But the expressions on his teammates’ faces suggested John was the one who was nuts. "Kid about eleven or twelve… hung around, helped me out from time to time… ring any bells?"
"Noooo," Rodney told him slowly.
"I do not recall a child named Jaris in the village," Teyla agreed.
When John looked to Ronon, the big guy just shrugged. "Me either."
"But I take it you did see him," McKay observed.
"Yeah, I even saw him in the crowd of people when Lorne pulled us out of stasis."
John’s confession had Rodney furrowing his brow. "You saw him outside of the VR? That’s… not possible." But it was possible and McKay finally quickly realized how. "Unless…"
"He was ascended," John finished for him.
"Then why was he still in the village?" Teyla wondered aloud.
"Because he was waiting for his parents to come back for him like they promised they would." John frowned at the thought of the boy waiting ten thousand years for his parents to return, because eventually, even the villagers in the stasis pods would die of old age and Jaris would still stay there waiting. Only then Jaris would be all on his own.
"Keep looking for any information about the boy’s family," Sheppard ordered.
"What are you planning?" Ronon asked, recognizing that look of intent on Sheppard’s face.
"I think I may be taking a trip back to the village in the near future." Because there was no way John could leave the kid hanging like that by himself.
* * * *
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
Rodney was checking over his readings yet again as Sheppard sat aside his crutches and situated himself once more into the stasis pod.
"I’m here aren’t I?" John pointed out for what had to be the hundredth time. "Besides, there’s no reason why I can’t come out again is there?"
"No, at least not as far as the tech is concerned," McKay admitted before adding, "Lonely ascended children of the damned are another issue all together."
"He won’t do anything, Rodney," John assured as he settled back into the pod.
"How do you know?"
Sheppard could only shift his shoulders. "I just know. Okay?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Oh, well, who can argue with that sort of empirical evidence?"
"Just give me an hour. If I’m not out by then, you can pull me out."
"Sure. No problem," McKay patronized as he made the final connection to monitor the pod the entire time. "That’s only about a week or so in there."
Honestly, they didn’t completely understand how time passed in the VR. A day had seemed like seven months inside and yet the villagers had been in there ten thousand years and hardly any time had passed at all, which probably explained why the inhabitants of the VR had no concept of time in the first place.
"Then I’ll have a nice vacation away from you," Sheppard drawled as he closed his eyes and got comfortable.
"If you see Kara and the others, tell them thanks… and goodbye."
John cracked an eye open and could see that McKay was serious in his request and a little disappointed that he wasn’t going, too. Sure, the villagers were just projections in a virtual reality, but they were the mental impressions of real people who were living out what felt to them like real lives and that made the experiences Sheppard’s team had shared with those people real enough. But it had been hard enough convincing Woolsey to let Sheppard go back in and talk to the boy, much less anyone else. However, the information Rodney had found in the database had been enough for the expedition leader to grant Sheppard permission to return.
"I will," John promised, then with a nod to McKay, he was back in the village and in Kara’s home.
Making his way down the hall, it took John a second to remember he didn’t have to limp if he didn’t want to and he finished his short trip to the room he and Rodney had shared with ease. As he expected, Jaris was waiting for him.
The boy was sitting on the bed McKay had used during their stay and he looked up with a melancholy smile when John walked in. "You know who am I, don’t you?"
John sat on the edge of the bed next to the kid. "This was your room, wasn’t it? Yours and your brother’s?"
Jaris stared at the empty bed on the opposite side of the room. "Reeves used to pick on me all the time. Sometimes at night, he would lie in bed and shoot small pebbles at my head with a reed straw."
"Yeah, brothers can be jerks," Sheppard agreed with a sigh.
"Then why do I miss him?" Jaris asked.
John placed a hand on the boy’s back. "Because sometimes they aren’t jerks."
"I was glad when you arrived, John. Even though you were hurt. Is that wrong?"
"It depends," John considered. "Why were you glad?"
Jaris answered in a mumble. "You felt like my father." John sat silently and let the boy explain. "When your ship first came to this world, I could feel you. I could feel McKay, too, but somehow he felt different. I thought, maybe, you were my father coming back. That is why I left here to go out and find you."
Sheppard realized Jaris had sensed his ATA gene, his natural gene that was similar to the one the boy and his father shared and acted like a homing beacon for the child.
"But when I saw you were not my parents, I thought, maybe you had been sent by them, so I… nudged one of the outsiders to bring you to the village."
The database from the facility here on the planet had said that the healthy portion of the population was left in their settlement when Jaris’s family had left to return to Atlantis. Over the years, they had taken on a self appointed role of caretakers for their ancestors who remained in stasis.
"Was that the first time you had left the village since your parents left you here?"
Jaris nodded his answer. "They told me to wait here with Kara. She was our housekeeper when my family lived here. But then she got sick and so did I and they put us in the pods to sleep, just for a little while, just until they could find a cure. They are still sick, are they not? We all are."
"Yeah, they’re still sick. But I don’t think you are, Jaris. Not really." Sheppard shifted to look at the boy a little closer. "Did your parents ever talk to you about something called ascension?"
"Yes," Jaris confirmed. "We meditated daily. I still do, just like they taught me."
"Well, we think it worked," Sheppard informed him. "At least partially, and you can leave here any time you want. It’s how you were able to go to the crash site when you did."
Jaris shook his head. "My parents told me to wait here for them."
"Jaris, when we went back to Atlantis, Rodney was able to find some information on your parents. It ends up that most of the people on Atlantis left when the Wraith attacked and went back to my home planet, Earth. But some refused to leave and stayed here in the Pegasus galaxy and your family was among those who stayed."
The boy seemed torn between hopefulness and disappointment. "Then why did they not return for me?"
"I don’t know," John told him honestly. "Maybe something happened and they couldn’t. Or maybe they ascended, too, and are waiting for you to join them."
"How would I do that?"
John gave a small shrug. "I think you just have to… leave."
"And what about all the people here with me?"
Sheppard shifted uncomfortably. "They’ll stay here, and eventually when their bodies die in the stasis pods your father built, they’ll die in here."
"They cannot leave with me?" Jaris seemed genuinely troubled by the news.
"No," John confirmed, but then he reconsidered. "Unless someone teaches them how."
"Me?" Jaris’s eyes opened wide in surprise. "You believe I could teach them how?"
Sheppard thought back to his months in the time dilation field. If Teer and her people could ascend, it stood to reason the people here in the village could ascend as well.
With a small encouraging smile, John nodded his head. "Yeah, I really think you could."
The smile Jaris gave him in return faded slightly. "But you cannot remain, can you?"
"No. I have other people who need me." And, yeah, who he needed in return.
Jaris nodded in a way that made him look older than he was. Of course, the kid was, technically, ten thousand years old, so maybe he looked younger than he was. Either way, John couldn’t help but grin at the determined demeanor he saw on the boys face and bump his shoulder.
"But have fun with it, kid. Like you said, this is a great place to live and grow old. Thanks for showing it to me."
With a smile, Jaris pleaded, "Can you stay for a while? Kara is making pies."
John stood and hooked his arm around the boy’s neck. "Well, in that case, how can I say no?"
* * * *
Sheppard emerged from the stasis pod within the hour just as he had promised with the lingering taste of sweet cream and berries on his tongue. Rodney looked up from where he was chewing on a powerbar and crossed over to the pod to hand John his crutches.
John took in the snack in McKay’s hand and smirked, "Kara’s pies are better than that."
"Oh, you didn’t," Rodney bemoaned. When Sheppard grinned wider, Rodney demanded, "The ones with the little green berries?"
"Yep," John verified smugly.
"You suck. But I’m sure you know that." Rodney set to gathering up his gear.
"Yep." John waited patiently for McKay to finish up. "Everyone says bountiful days and blessings on your house, by the way."
With a shake of his head as he twined up his computer cables, Rodney asked, "Is it weird that I’m going to actually miss virtual people? Well, not really virtual people but people who can only exist in a virtual world?"
"Considering how weird it should be, no, it’s not weird at all." Because John felt the exact same way. When Rodney released a melancholy sigh as he slung his pack on his shoulder, John inquired, "You okay?"
"Yeah. It’s nothing." Rodney waved a dismissive hand. "It’s just been a long day."
"Not nearly as long as the last time we were on this planet," John reminded.
"No kidding," McKay snorted.
Twenty-seven weeks had passed in the VR in only twenty-seven hours in the real world. The problem was, to this day, it was still a little hard to remember that this really was the real world. Sheppard would never admit it, but he kind of missed having McKay as a roommate, and Jaris’s revelation that the room they had shared had been originally shared by brothers seemed somehow… right.
Which probably went a long way in explaining why he decided to taunt McKay some more.
"Good thing I had a nice home-cooked meal to get me through."
McKay studied the last bite of his powerbar then finished off with a meaningful glare at Sheppard. "And I repeat; you suck."
Yeah, sometimes brothers were jerks. And other times they weren’t.
Rodney fell into step beside John and they started back toward the Jumper. "So, what’s Jaris going to do?"
"Actually, he’s going to try to help the villagers ascend with him."
"Really?" Rodney actually stopped walking in his shock. "Can he do that?"
"I don’t see why not."
With a shrug, McKay started walking again. "I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, if you can help people ascend, anyone should be able to do it."
Now it was Sheppard’s turn to stop. "Hey!"
Rodney looked back at him in genius innocence. "What? Am I wrong?"
"No," John grumbled as he caught back up.
"Not that you needed to answer seeing as I rarely am wrong. Even with a head injury I could tell that something was wrong with the Jumper, which makes me think the designs of the ship came out of your head and not mine. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was close, but it just lacked the subtleties of a true master in the field… Sheppard?"
John hadn’t realized he was just staring at McKay as he rambled on. The thing was, as much as he would miss their time in the VR, he was so goddamned relieved to have Rodney… the whole, real, arrogant, genius piece of shit Rodney… back that it sometimes caught him off guard when he saw it.
With a shake of his head to clear it, Sheppard started forward again. "Sorry. Let’s go home."
"Anything wrong?" Rodney asked with a bit of worry.
"No. Just…" John quirked his lips. "Bountiful days, brother."
The edge of McKay’s mouth angled up crookedly in return. "Bountiful days, brother."
And if they were lucky, John decided, that’s exactly what they would have.
Prompt from wildcat88 used for this fic: Jumper crash leaves the team stranded on an unknown world. The gate is in space, and Atlantis has no idea where they are. With no way to contact Atlantis, they have to make a life with the natives. Whump Shep (and any of the others) as many times and in as many ways as you want as long as he lives - no permanent damage - and they get rescued in the end. Gen only please.