Mer's inattention to his surroundings was a joke ... until it wasn't.
He was a Scholar. He was meant to study the fabric and the firmament. He was vaguely aware that the Shadows existed, but they weren't his concern. Safety and security were the responsibility of the Guardians, leaving him free to concentrate on more arcane subjects.
He had missed agreed appointments or gotten lost en route — for perfectly valid and defensible reasons! — so often, younger Scholars were often sent to remind or escort him. Mer was slightly embarrassed that such measures were considered necessary, but his contributions more than made up for that, and the others were fondly amused.
He never knew what lapse on his part, if any, led to his capture. One moment he was studying the birth of a star, and the next, he was surrounded by Shadows. Alarmed, he tried to flee, but they blocked him easily, jeering and mocking his increasingly panicked attempts to escape.
They bound him, somehow, cramming him into a solid-sided container barely large enough to contain his shape. He could wiggle his fingers, but any attempt to raise his hands knocked his elbows and knuckles into ungiving walls. His wings were mashed horribly into his back, and his knees banged painfully any time he tried to shift even slightly.
And then they left him.
They left him there for an immeasurable period, baking in the heat of a nearby sun. But at long last they returned ... and the real torments began.
They offered temptations. Pleasures beyond imagining, indulgences, joys ... if he would turn. Freedom and power if he would just turn. Release from this prison — but only if he turned.
He wanted. Oh, how he wanted! But he couldn't. No matter how the pain grew, he was still a creature of the Light.
His plane was a semi-material one, so his spirit was bound inextricably to his form. That form would eventually fail without replenishment, dissipating his soul as the form died, but a tiny stubborn spark deep within refused to fade into Shadow. He denied them and resigned himself — unwillingly, angrily, but firmly — to a slow and painful death.
But the Shadows weren't finished.
His wings had long since gone cramped and numb at their confinement. Suddenly the pressure against one of them was taken away and the wing sagged out. Mer hastily tried to move, but only that one small section of his prison had been removed, and the rest of his form was just as confined as before.
Dozens of greedy shapes grabbed at the wing, bending it viciously and setting off the painful tingling of renewing sensation. They stretched the wing almost to snapping and then —
Oh, no. No no no no no, please —
He screamed. His cries at his prior tortures were as whispers to his screams as the Shadows hacked and bit and tore at the joint connecting his wing to his back. He struggled and thrashed involuntarily, which did nothing but make the damage and the pain even worse. He screamed and screamed, his sole consolation the bleak certainty that this nightmare must eventually end.
That consolation turned to ash when the ending proved even worse.
The last few remaining tissues tore away. The wing was gone. He was swamped in nausea and disorientation, his racing mind suddenly unable to focus on anything but the pain and loss. The ragged, bleeding stump flexed fruitlessly, uncontrollable, as it tried to resume the weight it had always borne.
The panel was abruptly shoved back into place, and the shock of that much pressure against his wound briefly whited out all of his senses. He couldn't escape his prison for long, though, even in so paltry a manner.
The panel behind his remaining wing was pulled away.
Fetched by a frightened young Scholar, the Guardian squad swooped in and scattered the knot of Shadows easily. Only after the confrontation did they hear the screaming coming from the container. They fully expected the noise to diminish as the Shadows fled and as the Guardians announced their presence, but they grew rattled when their reassurances had no effect.
They were still unprepared for the sight of the victim within once they forced the container open. Several Guards flinched away, horrified, and a few were immediately and violently sick.
They tried, at first, to move the victim to safer territories, but that proved impossible. They were completely unable to calm him, and his tormented writhing left them equally unable to carry him safely. In the end they had no choice but to summon a Healer directly to the site of the attack.
Healer Bekh arrived quickly enough, all matters considered, but the delay felt interminable to those Guardians left to watch the suffering of one of their own kind. The Healer cursed once at the sight, aghast, but then leapt into action.
He tried every method and tool at his disposal, but in the end he could resort only to imposing sleep.
"That's much better," the Captain sighed, profoundly relieved by the relative quiet. "Thank you."
Healer Bekh stared at him. "Better? What of this is better?" He gestured to his patient, who even now was twitching and whimpering despite the treatment that should have left him still and silent. "He's dying!"
"But now we can bring him back —"
"Yes, to die. Do you not understand? We're shaped energy, all of us. Our forms are quite literally vital. With that much of his being ripped away, even now that I've stopped the drain, I'll be shocked if he survives much longer. Even if by some miracle he could, his mind would be quite gone, consumed with trying to reconnect to — they're his wings, do you not see that? They're more than just a method of moving about, they're a fundamental element of who and what we are. Without them, he can't survive. Not on this plane."
The Healer paused, and the Captain briefly thought he had suddenly remembered some treatment to counter his own prediction.
"Not on this plane," the Healer repeated softly, though, and the Captain had the sinking feeling he wasn't going to like what came next.
In that, he was correct.
The Healer collected his equipment and shoved it at a junior Guardian. "Take these back for me, will you? Someone else will have use for them." He snapped his own wings out at full extension and they started to glow.
"You're leaving?" the Captain asked numbly. "Healer, you can't. You're needed here!"
"This Scholar needs me now," the Healer countered. His wings brightened rapidly. "I can give him a life, even if it's not this one. I know my calling. Now heed your own."
The Healer concentrated a few more moments, bringing his wings to a blinding light. He gathered up the wounded Scholar gently, wrapping his wings around him so thoroughly that the battered form was almost completely hidden.
And then he plunged.
Guardian Shep studied the diorama with dull eyes. What was the use, really, of mapping out the locations of Shadow attacks? The Shadows scorned coherent plans, so no greater scheme would be revealed. All this work left them was a vivid image of their failures and losses.
"Ah, there you are," the dispatcher said irritably, as if Shep were the late one. Shep straightened anyway, automatically, only to wince at the pain in his knee. His wings snapped out slightly, helping him recover his balance.
"Still in recovery, then," the dispatcher noted. "No matter. I have a task for you."
Shep was surprised for a moment. He had fully expected to be dismissed from service. Then again, going by the dispatcher's expression, that option might be preferable.
The dispatcher gestured, and a young Captain hurried up. "You have someone to send, sir?"
"Potentially. Tell him what happened."
The Captain gave a brief report of a maimed Scholar and the Healer who had taken extreme measures to help him. He spoke clearly and professionally, but his shame at his failure to prevent what he described showed in his eyes, a pale reflection of Shep's own failure and shame.
"So they went to a material-primary plane? What do you want me to do about that?" Shep had stopped caring about being professional himself when the last of his squad died next to him. "I can't bring them back." Retrieving even one person from the more material planes required several people working in concert, and it sounded as if the Scholar in question wouldn't survive if they did that.
"No, but you can join them," the dispatcher said.
Both Shep and the Captain stared at him. "What?" Shep managed finally.
"You're a Guardian. In theory, anyway. They'll both need protection, wherever they are. We might eventually be able to get one or even both of them back, but not if they get themselves killed down there before we can manage it." He sneered. "Think you can handle that?"
Shep had no reason to agree. If he went, he was likely exiling himself permanently to the other plane. Retrieving a Healer would have far higher precedence than retrieving a disgraced Guardian, and even that might not succeed.
But he had no reason to refuse, either. Not anymore.
He smirked back. "When do I leave?"
Shep was half willing to dive immediately, but they sent him to the Scholars first. It was just as well. The two representatives, Miik and Zhiin, were obviously distressed by the loss of their colleague, and most of their advice started with we estimate or we cannot be sure ... but there were a few important pieces of advice in their lengthy discussion. Such as how to find the right plane.
Armed with the little knowledge they could impart, he wrapped his wings tightly around himself and plunged.
It wasn't actually falling. That was one of the things he had learned from them. There was no true up or down in terms of planes; there were only energy states. Even though matter bound up vast amounts of energy, cohering an energy form required much more. That meant that moving from their own plane to a more material one released energy. Since that was the far easier transition, most referred to that change as falling — but as a technical matter, his movement had no absolute directionality.
That energy release could be marshaled and used. Shep kept his wings tight as he "fell", trapping that energy close as he whipped through the planes. He was soon trembling with the effort to hold the ever-growing energy field close, but he held on fiercely, concentrating on his target.
When he finally detected the flicker of presence that he was searching for, he snapped out his wings, releasing the pent-up energy as he halted his progress across the planes. With his focus remaining on his target, he used that energy to remold the reality around him, creating a space for his new existence.
The recoil slammed harder than he had expected. He blinked up at the new blue sky, dazed. He had to —
He was ....
Name, rank, serial number. The words stole into his consciousness, strange and yet intimately familiar. Basic as they were, they grounded him.
John shook his head, trying to clear the fog. The heat must be getting to him. He turned, suddenly urgent, but — no. (Holle) Holland was dead. Killed by the (Shadows) Taliban. He was alone. He had failed to (protect his squad) rescue his men.
And he would probably be next. He didn't even ... he didn't ... no.
He wasn't giving these bastards the satisfaction. He was getting out of here alive.
Move it, Sheppard. One foot in front of the other. And if his own name seemed a little strange for a moment, well, that was just a sign that he needed to get out of the damn sun.
Reassignment to Antarctica was a calculated slap. John knew full well that he could resign his commission, just as he knew they half expected him to.
He seriously considered it, but something held him back. What exactly would he do with his life? And if he was going to mark time figuring that out, it might as well be on Uncle Sam's dime.
Antarctica wasn't so bad. The edginess Afghanistan left him with faded. The clear white expanses were peaceful. He felt close to something important — the edge of the world, maybe. He didn't know exactly what it was, and he didn't really need to know. He just knew that he felt grounded here in a way he hadn't for longer than he could remember.
Then a glowing squid of a missile very nearly shot him down and peace was a thing of the past.
The general dragged him down into the secret base and then just left him to wander around. John did just that until he found the guy who had almost shot him down. They got to talking, in a manner of speaking, and then John sat down, and —
— and he remembered.
He remembered he wasn't John Sheppard, at least not originally. He remembered his true nature. He remembered he had come to this plane on a mission.
The nervous guy stood before him, but now John — Shep — could see something different about him. A faint impression outlined him, the ghostly afterimage of wings. He turned his head slightly and caught the edge of that same impression around himself.
Several more people raced into the room. The general had that same afterimage, while the bookish guy with him had something else going on that John couldn't begin to make out. There was a woman, too, who seemed to be naturally of this plane, and another guy —
He felt sick. The last guy had an impression as well, but it wasn't an afterimage of wings. It was a specific absence of wings — or, no, more than that. A yawning void where wings should by all rights be, dizzying and nauseating.
So this was his target, his mission. This was the damaged Scholar. And that probably made Beckett the Healer he was looking for.
How had he forgotten?
But ... was he sure he wanted to remember?
It turned out the general recognized him, too. On one level he was haranguing John into going with this expedition — to another galaxy! — but underneath, he was talking to Shep as well.
So you finally figured out what you're doing here, huh? About time.
You knew, sir? How? I mean, why did I —
Forget? It happens. Or do you mean remember? It's something to do with all this Ancient crap.
So it's real, then? You and I both are ... transfers? And Beckett, and ... McKay? And Jackson —
Yeah, don't break your brain trying to figure him out. He's practically a cross-plane commuter. So you gonna do it or not?
Shep frowned. Do what? Sir.
O'Neill snorted. This mission you're on. Something to do with McKay and Beckett, right? At Shep's questioning look, he added, Energy lines. You can see 'em if you cross your eyes and squint. You set 'em when you landed here. I don't know, one of the scientists can explain it. Japanese. You'll know her when you see her.
Shep hid his fidgeting in the preflight checks. So you're here to make sure I —
What? No. We're talking about your mission, kid, not mine. A Guardian would never ignore a mission, but — well, look where we are. A Guardian doesn't end up on this plane without being broken in one way or another.
Shep shot him a questioning look at that. He would bet his socks that O'Neill was a Guardian, or at least had been one before. But the expression in O'Neill's eyes was flat, flat, and Shep had to look away.
O'Neill then continued, So you need to figure out what you're doing. Are you sticking with those two? Or are you giving up and just enjoying the material world?
Do I have a choice?
There's always a choice, Sheppard. But you've gotta decide soon. You're not going to remember for much longer, as long as you're away from all that tech. You'll probably forget most of this by the time we get to McMurdo. "Now if you can't give me a yes by the time we reach McMurdo, I don't even want you."
In the end, John flipped a coin. He felt a duty to go, but he felt unexpected ties to Earth, too. Even if he left the Air Force, even if he wasn't really talking to his family, there was a lot to like about the place.
But the coin said go, so he shrugged and agreed.
O'Neill was right — John did know the scientist when he saw her, when she got a turn at making him play light switch. Or, rather, Shep recognized Scholar Miik. What are you doing here?
She beamed. When we told you all we knew of coming to this plane, I realized how little that was. What kind of Scholar would I be if I did not seize the opportunity to learn more?
So did the other Scholar come with you?
Her smile faded. No. Scholar Zhiin and Scholar Mer are kin. She did not want to make their clan suffer another loss so soon. Instead she contacts me to collate what I've learned. "It is good you will be joining us, Major Sheppard," she added on top.
"I live to serve," he drawled. "Doctor ...?"
"Kusanagi," she supplied. "Now if you will turn the device off, please."
The expedition was mere days from leaving before Shep got a chance to talk with Healer Bekh.
You know they want you back, right?
The Healer shrugged. Most likely. But I've a patient here.
Yeah, but he'll be okay here, right? You could go back now.
Have you no eyes? He's still being drained. I'm working on a treatment to try to stabilize him in this form, but I need time yet. More than that, we're getting to be friends. He's few enough of those here, and he doesn't even remember himself. That much is a blessing, at least. But you're here to protect him, yes?
Both of you, yeah.
Well, he needs me here, so leave me be. But he patted Shep's shoulder as he conveyed that. No hard feelings, lad. I'd like to go home, but I'll stay here as long as I'm needed.
The wormhole to Pegasus was a trip, in multiple senses of that word. Atlantis, though — it was so big, so present, that Shep knew himself entirely. On Earth his grasp on clarity had been tenuous, and he kept falling into the nearly dreamlike state of forgetting, but here he knew himself and his nature without effort.
He could see that same clarity in Beckett's eyes, and Kusanagi, and the few others of their kind who had joined the expedition.
But not McKay. His eyes were still fogged with the dreams of his material state. Beckett shook his head slightly at Shep's questioning look.
They didn't discuss it.
Disaster soon struck, as Shep probably should have expected. What he really didn't expect, though, was to recognize his enemy.
Teyla Emmagan called them Wraith, but Shep knew Shadows when he saw them. Even in different forms, on a different plane, he knew them. With the clarity lent him by Atlantis, he could see their true natures plainly.
That recognition filled him with purpose. He was damn well going to fight them, no matter what their form.
Beckett's treatment worked, after a fashion. Shep was soon able to look at McKay without flinching — at least, not as much. He still saw the aching absence of the man's wings, but that yawning void at least was gone.
McKay still didn't know himself, though. Beckett said he couldn't fix that, but Shep wondered. McKay could manipulate the Ancient gadgets himself now, just like any of the others of their kind, and Shep would have thought clarity would come hand-in-hand with that.
It was entirely possible that the persistent amnesia was deliberate, either on Beckett's part or even, somehow, on McKay's. Shep couldn't begin to imagine the trauma the man had been through, and forgetting might be the only way he could go on.
And yet ....
And yet, every now and then, McKay showed signs that he knew himself on some level, if not the conscious one. He could be profoundly bitter at odd moments, as if he sensed what he had lost. He was a coward physically, which Shep was willing to make slight allowances for, but he still showed alignment with the Light. He did step forward to protect everyone else, risking his own safety, when all other attempts to stop the energy creature failed. He never once questioned the fight against the Shadows — the "Wraith" — or gave anything less than his best effort against them.
And if protecting him meant staying close, if it meant even starting to become friends with him ... that wasn't such a hardship.
O'Neill had told him there's always a choice. Shep had thought he'd had to choose several times — to transfer planes or to stay to fight the Shadows, to keep his wings or to become more fully material, to go to Antarctica or to leave the service, to accept his mission and go to Pegasus or to embrace materiality.
But he didn't really have to choose at all.
He could know himself and enjoy his material form. He didn't need his literal wings to fly. He could accept his mission to protect his fellows while still fighting the Shadows.
He could build a life on this plane. He could do this.
He could even enjoy it.