When Sheppard killed a man for the first time, his platoon sergeant found him heaving up his guts in the bathroom two days later and gave him a piece of advice. "Sheppard, there are two kinds of men in combat," he'd said. "There are the ones who fall apart right then, and the ones who fall apart later. And the less you feel it then, the more you'll feel it later."
Over the intervening years, Sheppard had learned a few more things. For one thing, he'd learned that there is also a third kind -- the ones who don't fall apart at all. Those men scared the hell out of him, because every single one he'd known had been batshit crazy; they'd been the ones who would order men to their deaths without a second thought, or stand and watch poor village girls trapped in a burning building without lifting a finger to help because they hadn't been given the order, or just snap and start mowing down civilians, watching it all with eyes as cold as the grave.
Kolya had been that kind of man.
He'd also learned that the sergeant had been wrong about one thing, or maybe was just a few steps farther down a road that Sheppard didn't want to set foot on. It wasn't necessarily what you felt at the time; it was how hard you bit back on it. Because you could feel one hell of a lot and still function. And if you tried hard enough to act normal, after a while, you started believing it. But it wasn't true. And the more you tried to make it true, the harder it was to deal with it later.
It got easier, and maybe that scared him more than anything else. The first time had been the worst. After that, depending on what had happened, he could compartmentalize it better, and longer ... until the acting normal wasn't just an act.
That was one of the reasons why he'd been happy to take the assignment in Antarctica. In the wide-open white places, there was no one to shoot at, no one to bleed and die. No more friends lost. No more blood on his hands. No more fear of losing himself and becoming the thing he hated most. Nothing but clean whiteness, as far as the eye could see. The nightmares had even stopped, mostly, after a while.
And then he'd come to the Pegasus Galaxy, and found, once again, something worth killing and dying for. The sleepless nights ... the times when he just had to stand out on one of the balconies taking deep breaths to hold himself together ... they were worth it, because they were the price he paid to keep his home and family safe -- and to keep himself as intact as possible while doing it. The price of not becoming a man like those he fought.
It hit him this time, hard, as he walked through the gate. He staggered into the nearest person -- who happened to be Ronon. Big hands caught him, steadied him, kept hold of him until he was standing on his own. And, as he swallowed it back and found a veneer of calm, he was glad it had been Ronon, because Ronon understood. No matter what other people saw when they looked at the big guy, Sheppard had seen enough to know that Ronon wasn't one of the ones who didn't feel. He was just a hell of a lot better than Sheppard at compartmentalizing things. When he broke down, it must be a sight to see, but Sheppard was pretty sure that nobody -- with the possible exception of Teyla -- had ever seen that side of him.
"What's the matter with him?" Rodney's voice was quick and sharp. As usual, he always got perceptive at the worst times.
"He tripped," Sheppard retorted, feeling the world stabilize around him.
Elizabeth was already coming down the stairs at a half-jog, and Sheppard realized that there was a lot more Marines than usual around the gate. "You're late for your check-in."
"I know. We've got ..." He swallowed; his mouth was dry, making speech difficult. "Got a lot to tell you." The cocky smile went on, like a mask, like fresh wet paint over rotten wood. From the look on Elizabeth's face, he could tell that she'd bought the mask. It didn't surprise him, but somehow it left him feeling strangely, distantly hurt. Elizabeth thought she knew masks, how to recognize and see past them ... but she also lived in a world where she didn't have to go around looking for masks on those close to her.
"I'm sure it'll be an interesting briefing." One of her eyebrows went up. "It usually is, with the bunch of you."
Sheppard could feel himself responding as normal -- a quick grin, some kind of throwaway joke. He wasn't even sure what Elizabeth said back to him. But in the always-restless part of his mind, the part that never stopped responding to the world around him, he was aware of the same brittleness in his team. Rodney's bark of laughter, to something Teyla had said, was too quick and sharp. Ronon hadn't really said much of anything.
They were all going to have to deal with this, in their own time, in their own way. He couldn't help them.
If he'd been quicker with the trigger, he could have spared them this. If he hadn't listened to Teyla, if he'd just taken a shot on Kolya out the window. If he hadn't let the man get away in the first place, back on Dagan.
If. If. If.
The post-mission briefing was the haze that he'd expected it to be. He must have given all the right responses in the right places, even if he didn't really remember what he'd said. Smiled when he should, laughed when he was supposed to. It was a strange feeling, like they should look at him and see pieces of him falling off onto the conference room table, but instead of shock and horror on their faces, he just saw exhaustion in his team's faces and a combination of sympathy and curiosity in Elizabeth's sharp eyes.
Insanely, he kept thinking of the lyrics to a Don Henley song that'd topped the charts in the '80s, the one about the couple trying to maintain the trappings of their jet-set lifestyle while their lives fell apart around them. He couldn't remember the title, but he could remember the thumping base and ear-shredding guitars of the song, playing at well-past-painful volume in a nightclub somewhere in a part of the world where half the dancing teenagers couldn't even understand the language of the lyrics. They knew all the right people, they took all the right pills ... And that was how he felt -- a man doing all the right things without feeling them or even understanding the reasons why.
Then the others had left and he was getting up from the table, not sure how long Elizabeth had kept him after his team, aware only that the briefing was done. He didn't feel relief, still didn't feel anything.
"John," Elizabeth said, and he turned back, his focus momentarily sharpening, aware of the world again.
Elizabeth wasn't a small woman, but sitting behind the conference table, she looked tiny to him -- dwarfed by the space around her, not just the room but the city, the world, the galaxy. Her hands were folded in front of her, on a laptop neatly closed and perfectly squared up with the edge of the table. And for a moment, all he could think of was her all-too-human fragility, and he couldn't breathe for the weight of the many dangers in the galaxy that hovered waiting for their chance to turn her bright eyes dull on a bullet's point. He was the human shield between her and the universe.
"I'm glad he's dead, John."
It took him a moment to understand her words as something more than meaningless sounds, and when he did, he wasn't sure how to feel. Part of his job as human shield was to insulate her from that, too ... the ability to see victory in another man's death.
"It was him or you," she continued, her words quiet, her eyes on him. "It's always been him or us. And frankly, I'm not going to waste a single minute crying for the fact that you're standing in front of me, alive."
The right reactions were hard to grasp in a situation like this. He'd never felt so alienated, so isolated, as he did at that moment, confronted with her honest attempt to fix the thousand things that had gone wrong that day with a handful of words. "Okay," he said, because it was a good all-purpose word that covered just about any situation, and then, "Guess I'd better get down to the infirmary before Carson throws a fit."
Her eyes followed him as he left.
There was no sign of Carson in the infirmary, and the only other member of his team who hadn't been cleared yet was Teyla, sitting on a bed as a nurse went through the last of the standard post-mission checks. She gave him a smile -- but a very cautious smile, as if something in him or her might break if she gave too much of herself away. When Sheppard looked up again, he was halfway through his physical and she was gone.
The walk to his quarters faded into the same haze. He locked the door and then shed clothing in a trail to the bathroom, where he palmed on the shower and made it as hot as the failsafes would allow. Then he stepped into it and stood with his face upturned, and let go.
Showers in Atlantis never went cold; the city had enough hot water to literally supply an army. Sheppard didn't know how long it had been when he blinked the water off his eyelashes and slowly, painfully stood up. He'd been sitting with his back against the wall of the shower. He wasn't sure when that had happened. His body hurt with exhaustion. When he looked down at his hands, the fingertips were white and wrinkled; it made him smile, a little, feeling like a kid who'd gotten too engrossed in playing in the bath. But he felt a little more centered now, a little more aware. He was thinking again. Feeling again.
He toweled himself off and changed into loose civvies. As usual after a mission, the whole team was off duty until morning, so there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. Depending on what sort of mission it had been, sometimes Sheppard would round up his people for a team movie night, or they'd just all go down to the mess together.
The thought of food made him gag. Not so over it, then, after all.
He was already out the door before he realized that he'd strapped on his sidearm without really thinking about it. Well, there was no particular reason not to wear it off duty. Often he did, with or without being aware of it. This was the Pegasus Galaxy, after all. Nothing was safe here.
Since he had the gun anyway, he went down to the firing range, and nodded in a friendly kind of way to the handful of enlisted men doing target practice. He cleaned his gun, and then cleaned some other guns, and then cleaned a whole bunch of guns while he waited for them to leave. When the coast was clear, he stepped up to the shooting gallery and waited through the inevitable round of shakes when he pointed the gun at the human-shaped target and saw it through his sights. This was the part he didn't want anyone to see. After he'd gone through several clips, the shakes were gone and his hand was perfectly steady again.
Ready for the next time.
This brought on a new round of shakes and it took more ammo and more perforated targets to get rid of them. By the time he was perfectly steady, dinnertime was mostly over and servicemen and women were starting to trickle onto the range, singly or in small groups. Sheppard made polite noises of greeting, cleaned his weapon meticulously and then slipped quietly away.
Evening was a bad time for avoiding people. Between dinner and shift changes, everyone was out in the halls. Once he got beyond the populated sections, Sheppard went for a run -- a long one. The city was big, and there were parts of it where he was pretty sure no one had ever been. He ran until his lungs ached and his heart pounded and his tired, glucose-starved muscles shook. Then he stopped, leaning against a wall, until he was pretty sure he could move, and set off again.
He finally came to a halt, for good, far out on one of the piers. It was about as distant as you could get from the city center without taking a jumper. A jumper ... that would have been a good idea. He could have let himself down on a deserted beach, and just watched the waves for a while. Maybe even taken a surfboard with him. But, no, there would have been questions, and flight plans, and Elizabeth would have wanted to know where he'd gone, and then there'd be appointments with Heightmeyer, and ... no. Just, no. He'd been dealing with this sort of thing on his own for twenty years. Letting shrinks into it, letting anyone into it, just made it take longer to go away.
He sat down against the rail, long legs sprawling in exhaustion, and let his head fall back against the railing. He felt like a man who had leaned into a strong wind for so long that, when the wind died, he simply stayed bent over with no knowledge of how to straighten back up. He didn't define himself by Kolya; he knew who he was, and it had nothing to do with Kolya. But after two years of always sensing his enemy a step behind him, he couldn't quite get his mind around the idea that he no longer had to keep an ear cocked for the fall of Kolya's footsteps. His hands still itched for revenge. Somehow he couldn't comprehend that revenge had already been taken, and it had been neither sweet nor bitter. It had just happened, and was over, and he couldn't come to terms with that.
His shirt, sodden with sweat, cooled slowly in the evening breeze and left him shivering. But it was a clean kind of shiver. Antarctica clean. The white noise of the surf swept through his brain and washed out the smell of blood and gunsmoke.
And like Antarctica, eventually it was no longer enough.
Sheppard pushed himself to his feet, slowly and stiffly, feeling every ache in his body. He was hungry, and incredibly tired, and had a long walk ahead of him, back to the city.
And he wondered how his team was handling it. He remembered them now, at the debriefing, caught by memory like flies in amber, even when his mind had been much farther than a million miles away.
As he began walking, he thought of them, as he had last seen them, a handful of hours ago ...
Rodney -- running one hand up and down his right forearm, in an absent kind of way as if not even realizing that he was doing it ... The knife cut had been very clean and shallow, not even enough to leave a noticeable scar ... on the surface.
Ronon -- slouched in that peculiarly tense way that Sheppard had learned, by long experience, was his characteristic pose of emotional exhaustion ... when the former Runner had run himself to the edge on fear or anger, and didn't have anywhere left to go except the cliffs in his own head.
Carson -- looking straight ahead with a strange, penetrating light of hunger and triumph in his eyes as Sheppard described Kolya's death.
Elizabeth -- a small woman in a terribly large universe, trying to heal a wound that only time could mend.
Teyla -- her smile in the infirmary a brittle, tentative crescent where it met his.
One loose-limbed stride at a time, he walked off the pain, until there was only a deep and abiding exhaustion. The corridors that had been full of life a few hours ago were now dark and quiet, and Sheppard paused for a moment at a crossroads, so tired that he had to lean briefly on the wall as he looked down the hall to his quarters. He hesitated for only a moment before walking the other way, towards the rec lounge.
He found them there, as he knew he would. The sound of Rodney's voice carried down the hallway from the darkened room. "-- algorithms they used for the fire effects are already outdated, I can write better code than that in my sleep, and besides, don't get me started on the Hollywoodification of the Balrog --"
Sheppard poked his head in. The lounge was deserted except for a small group of movie-watchers and a couple of off-duty Marines drowsing on a couch in the corner. The Fellowship of the Ring was playing on the geek-built wall projector, currently displaying a Balrog that was at least ten feet high but eerily silent -- the sound had been turned so low that all Sheppard could hear over Rodney's haranguing of the special effects was a squeaky murmur of hobbit voices.
Sheppard slipped catlike into the darkened room. As his eyes adjusted, he saw Ronon's big shape completely covering one of the couches, one arm sprawled over the back and one leg trailing down onto the floor. Teyla sat on the floor, with her back against the couch and an Athosian blanket draped over her shoulders. Beside her, also on the floor, Carson slept stretched out with his arms wrapped around a pillow from one of the couches. The couch adjacent to Ronon's was occupied by Rodney -- sitting cross-legged with his face bathed in the glow of his ever-present laptop -- and Elizabeth with a large bowl of popcorn in her lap.
None of them reacted to Sheppard suddenly appearing in their midst. Elizabeth and Rodney matter-of-factly moved over to make room for him. Rodney's fingers didn't even pause on the laptop keys, at least not until he broke rhythm to grab something off the end table next to his elbow and toss it into Sheppard's lap: a napkin-wrapped bundle that contained a sandwich from the cafeteria and a muffin. Sheppard sniffed at the muffin. Chocolate. Those always went fast ... heck, you had to be first in line to grab a couple, and then fend off Marines all the way to your table. And the sandwich -- if his nose didn't lie, it was the last of the ham from the Daedalus's most recent supply run.
He broke the muffin in half and balanced the slightly larger half on Rodney's knee. Then he stole a handful of Elizabeth's popcorn and leaned back against the cushions, slowly melting down until his tired body conformed, puddle-like, to the shape of the couch. On the screen, Gandalf took the final fall and Rodney whined about the "dreadful green-screening, looks like he's stapled to a matte painting, and now we get to watch hobbits sniveling for approximately the next hour, so would someone please wake me when Boromir dies?"
Teyla's head snapped around accusingly. "He dies?"
Rodney stared at her in equal surprise. "You haven't seen this? How can you not have seen this? Every laptop in the science department has a bootleg --"
Sheppard managed to raise an arm long enough to smack him in the back of the head. "Rodney, quit ruining the movie for Teyla," he mumbled.
His fingers were batted away with a swatting-at-flies motion. "Oh please, next you'll tell me that she doesn't know Anakin Skywalker is Darth Vader."
This time Teyla's mouth actually opened in shock. "That nice little boy?"
Sheppard could feel himself grinning as his head slid sideways and eventually fetched up against Elizabeth, who gave him a gentle push off her leg. A moment later, he felt the popcorn bowl move so that a pillow could be tucked under his head, and a moment after that, one of his legs was kicked away from the soft thing it had found to rest against.
"Personal space, Sheppard, remember it?" muttered Rodney's disgruntled voice from that general vicinity.
"Quiet," Sheppard mumbled into the pillow. "Man sleeping."
He fell asleep to the sound of hobbits, and Teyla and Rodney arguing about the debatable genius of George Lucas, and Elizabeth's exasperated voice telling them both that neither Lucas nor Peter Jackson could hold a candle to the mad genius of Stanley Kubrick. And, somewhat to his own surprise, he realized that he couldn't hear the sound of a gunshot anymore, or even the clean winds of Antarctica. The voices around him drowned it out.