The Wraith approached him with its hand outstretched. No! Sheppard thought, and, "No!" he screamed silently into the gag. He knew what was going to happen. He had been here a hundred times before, but each time he felt the same, fierce horror. This couldn't be happening! You stayed positive. Things never went all the way to the brink. You were plucked free in the nick of time. This couldn't be happening. This couldn't be happening. This couldn't…
The hand slammed onto his chest, and as the agony struck him, he threw back his head and screamed again, screaming for a life cut short, for all the planes he would never fly, for the things he would never do, for the home he would never return to, and the friends he would never see again. He screamed for dying, but most of all, he screamed for living like this, trapped in a shrivelled shell, robbed of his youth and his career; robbed of Atlantis.
The Wraith fed excruciatingly slowly; Sheppard felt each month, each week, each day as it was taken from him. Sheppard brought his head down, too spent even to scream.
As he did so, he saw them.
They stood in a circle all around him, watching him without a sound. There was Elizabeth and Rodney, Teyla and Ronon, Ford and Woolsey, Carson and Keller. There was his father and brother. There was Nancy, Sumner, Holland, Mitch, Dex. There was Carter and Zelenka and Lorne, and everyone he had ever commanded, and everyone who had ever commanded him.
Please! he begged them silently, trapped behind the gag. As his life was torn from him one agonising week at a time, he looked at them, one after the other after the other. Please, Elizabeth. Rodney, please. Do something, buddy. Teyla, it hurts.
None of them responded. None of them looked away. As his bound hands turned grey and withered, their faces were as impassive as stone.
He was slow to realise that he was awake. Sheets were tangled in his legs, pinning them, and he kicked at them with increasing frenzy, and he swung at the empty air, trying to push away something that wasn't there, that hadn't been there for two years.
Dream, he repeated to himself. "Just a dream, John." His voice was husky, fractured by his rapid breathing. He scraped his hand across his face, feeling slick sweat. His exposed flesh crawled with cooling moisture, and his heart was pounding, but when he pressed his hand there to try to force it to slow down again, all he could feel was a Wraith's hand against his chest. And then, when he rolled onto his back, sharp pain shot across his shoulders, as if the Wraith's hand had burrowed all the way through his body, nails raking across his back.
"God!" He pressed his hand to his face, digging in thumb and fingers on either side of his brow. "Pull yourself together, John."
He switched the light on, driving away shadows. Just a dream. Of course it was just a dream. Dreams were okay. You were allowed to have bad dreams as long as they didn't spill over into real life. You made a deal with Todd by day, then you went to your quarters to dream about him feeding on you, then you got up and did what you needed to do. It was old history and it couldn't be allowed to have a hold on you. You moved on. Bad things happened, but there was no time to look back. Sometimes they leaked out in dreams, and that was okay; it was only to be expected. As long as you didn't… As long as you didn't…
He swung his legs over the side of the bed. You certainly didn't try to go to sleep again, that much was certain. No, you went for a run. You ran because you weren't bound to a chair, because you weren't trapped in a shrivelled ruin of a body, because you were free. You ran because you were back on Atlantis, and because you could go everywhere you wanted to go. You ran because you were alive, and dreams were just dreams. You ran because you could. Perhaps you ran because you were running away, too, but so what if you were? It was better than lingering on things.
John Sheppard ran.
He stopped far away, and watched the moons fading into early dawn. He was more out of breath than he should have been, and his back was on fire from reopened cuts. As he leant panting on the railing, a drop of sweat fell onto his hands. His heart was hammering in his chest, and he remembered the pressure of a hand there, feeding on his life.
"That's enough," he told himself. There was a lot to be done, and he had to stay focused. Thanks to Rodney and his team, they were due to be getting Gate access back by the end of the day, and they still had no idea what they were going to find when they ventured through it. It was too much to hope that the Traveller settlement was the only one who had used their Stargate while the device was operational. Millions of people could be dead already, or cut off and stranded and doomed to a slow death. The city's trading partners and food sources could be gone. It could be that, by the end of the day, they would have tried a hundred known addresses, and found that each one led only to the silence of a vanished Gate. They wouldn't even be able to undertake relief missions, because without the Daedalus, they were unable to travel to other worlds without the Stargates.
They could already be alone in the Pegasus Galaxy, able only to travel to deserted, ruined worlds. Only the living worlds would have been affected. The dead ones, devoid of people, would be untouched.
He let out a breath, chiding himself for morbid thoughts. Realistic thoughts, yes, but it wasn't a good thing to dwell on the bad stuff. The only thing that mattered was what you were going to do about it.
Wind stirred his hair. He was cooling down rapidly, he realised, as the cold air evaporated sweat. He needed to start running again. No, he'd give it a few more minutes while his breathing slowed. A few more minutes…
He wrapped his arms around his body, feeling the cuts crack and sting on his back, and shivered.
It had been cold in the cell, too.
He had little memory of reaching the mess hall. He grabbed something random without really looking at it, and sat at a table in the window, failing to find any appetite to eat it.
The sun was fully up now, and he was on duty in less than an hour. The dream should have been completely pushed away by now. He certainly shouldn't be seeing the Wraith's face when he closed his eyes. He certainly shouldn't be imagining everyone else in the mess hall getting up, standing around him in a circle, staring at him with cold, impassive eyes.
What's wrong with you, John? he berated himself. He needed to pull himself together. It was time to end this now.
A chair scraped, and he barely managed to hide the fact that it had startled him. Woolsey sat down opposite him, clothed in badly-concealed awkwardness. "Colonel Sheppard." He cleared his throat, covering his mouth with a loosely-clenched hand. "I think a thank you is in order. That is to say: I want to thank you, for, uh, for saving the Daedalus. It was an excellent idea and saved many lives."
Sheppard picked up his fork. "You're welcome."
Woolsey said nothing for a while. Someone walked past the table, nodding to both of them as they passed.
"I wanted to thank you…" Woolsey closed his eyes for a moment. Like Sheppard, he wasn't touching his food. "I really thought that Todd was going to feed on me. Thank you for reopening the transmission. Thank you for stopping him." The last word disappeared into another clearing of the throat.
Sheppard knew he should say something; he always did, didn't he? Woolsey pushed his glasses up his nose, clearly uncomfortable, and Sheppard remembered how he had looked held tight in Todd's tauntingly-intimate embrace. He remembered Todd's hand on Woolsey's chest. He remembered Woolsey looking at the screen, silently begging Sheppard not to let it end like this.
"I've read about it," Woolsey said. "It's so easy to sit there back on Earth and think you understand it all. It's different when you're there on the receiving end. I thought…" He faltered only a moment, but carried on. "I thought I was going to die. I thought of all the things I'd never get to do. I thought--"
"You didn't," Sheppard broke in. His hand was tight on the handle of the fork, and he felt as if all the eyes in the mess hall were on him. "He didn't. It's over."
"I know that." Woolsey let out a breath. "I can't stop thinking about it. I can't stop remembering. I couldn't sleep last night."
Why're you telling me this? Sheppard wanted to demand. He felt the sweat burning inside his clenched fist. "It gets better," he said.
Woolsey looked him full in the face. "I remember you shouting at him to wait. You saved my life, Colonel Sheppard."
And nobody saved mine! He sat as still as possible; tried to control the pounding of his heart. Of course they hadn't saved him, because he'd ordered them not to. The situations were entirely different. They'd given Todd what he wanted, not just to save Woolsey, but to save millions, whereas the price of saving Sheppard's life had been another man's death.
"Are you all right?" he heard Woolsey say.
Sheppard blinked. "Yeah. I'm good." He tried to uncurl his fist; tried to keep himself from shivering. No, the situations were nothing at all the same, he told himself. The Wraith was the same, and the threats – do this, or he is fed upon – and it was all done before a camera, watched by an audience. But Woolsey had been saved. With Sheppard, they had just watched. Of course he'd told them not to give in to the threats, but when the Wraith had started feeding… God, how he had hoped. The small, pathetic, selfish part of him had been desperate for them to disobey, to say 'to hell with the rest of the universe' and to save him from this horror. He'd wanted a miracle, and they'd just stood and watched.
"I don't think you are." Woolsey was flustering to his feet.
And perhaps he wasn't, Sheppard thought, as he realised quite how badly his back was throbbing, and how cold he felt, even as he was dripping with sweat. He ached in a way that was not just an echo of his dream. He'd been in an explosion, and had carried on without waiting for anything but the most urgent medical attention. Perhaps he just needed to lie down for a bit. Perhaps the dream came from being sick, and nothing more. Yeah, that was it. The nightmares came from being sick. It was okay to feel like this.
"I guess I'll go to the infirmary," he said, meaning it to come out strongly, but hearing it as no more than a confused mumble.
Woolsey was at his side, fluttering awkwardly, and his hand brushed Sheppard's shoulder, and they both recoiled sharply, perhaps both remembering the touch of a Wraith.
They'd watched because he had told them to, he told himself. They'd watched because it was the only right thing to do. They'd watched, and if they hadn't – if they'd saved him by handing another man over to die – he would never have forgiven them. The John Sheppard that emerged in dreams wanted to be saved, but that was not the John Sheppard who lived and breathed through each day. That was not the John Sheppard who was strong enough to survive whatever the Pegasus Galaxy threw at him, who was strong enough to get his people through.
"I'll go with you," Woolsey said, "just in case you, uh… fall."
Everyone in the room really was watching him now, Sheppard realised, but their faces were not cold and impassive. They were concerned, anxious, afraid. Rodney, Ronon and Teyla would rush to the infirmary as soon as they heard, and he would never be alone, not unless he chose to be.
"I know something now." He hadn't meant to speak out loud. Perhaps he was worse than he thought.
"What?" Woolsey asked, but Sheppard wasn't quite ready to say it. Woolsey had his own dreams now, but he only knew the horror from one side of the screen. Sheppard now have lived both, and for the first time it occurred to him to wonder if his team-mates also had nightmares about his time with Kolya and the Wraith. Watching a thing could be just as bad as living it. Watching a thing happen to someone else could bring back the memories, and that was quite okay. As long as it stayed inside you, it couldn't do any harm. Dreams were a way of coping with things, so you could move on.
He started to walk, and when Woolsey took his arm to steady him, this time neither of them flinched. For some reason, having Woolsey there beside him, whole and alive and unfed on, helped.
But all he said was, "I won't fall," and Woolsey cleared his throat, and said, "I know."