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Title: The Secret Language of Grief, Book One
Characters: J. Sheppard, R. McKay, C. Beckett, E. Lorne, R. Woolsey, and various OCs
Pairings: None
Warnings: Violence, Mentions of Major Character Deaths
Disclaimer: Stargate: Atlantis and her characters are the property of MGM.  All I lay claim to is my passion for the show and the original characters within this work of fiction
Summary: 20 years after the Wraith decimated Earth in The Great Culling, the SGC is once again ready to resume the Atlantis Expedition. Top brass wants only one man for the job, unfortunately for them John Sheppard has been MIA since the end of the War. A slip-up reveals John's current location, but will he be able to forgive the ultimate betrayal and return?

Chapter 23 - Collateral Damage
Part One

"Okay."

The word was simple enough, yet it caught at the back of his throat, refusing to come out properly. He tripped and tumbled over it ungracefully until, clearing his throat, he tried again and the ageing scientist working the station near Atlantis' dialing device paused to look up at him sadly.

"I've heard enough," he tried again. "Shut it down."

There was an energy that filled the room every time the Stargate was engaged. It was a rumbling, pulsating thing you never realized was there until it wasn't and as Radek Zelenka cut the power to the activated gate Evan Lorne felt its absence more keenly than ever. It left behind an empty space inside of him this time and he apparently wasn't the only one who felt it. There were a dozen or so people up there on the platform with him and all of them had gone quiet. In the stillness that followed, even Atlantis seemed to be pausing to take in what had just happened.

Evan Lorne wasn't used to failure of such an epic nature. Sure, he'd had his moments (and big ones at that), but he'd dedicated his life to trying to be the best solider he could and hits like this... they were devastating. They went against every internal oath he'd ever made to himself (especially the ones he'd made regarding John Sheppard) and it sickened him. He'd failed that man before, and now he'd gone done it again and for a moment, Evan Lorne regretted his decision to come back to the SGC.

The feeling was fleeting, but it was there. Without Sheppard, it would just be more of the same: a desperate scramble to find someone else who could fly the city, and years and years of waiting in limbo when they couldn't. That was the life he'd just given to the scientists and techs in the room with him and the weight of that realization piled up on top of his already laden shoulders.

The computer screen before Evan had gone dark, but like the rest of the people up on the platform with him, shock still rooted him in place. He'd been expecting the transmission, had been waiting around all day for it in fact, but nothing could have prepared him for what he'd heard.

A galaxy full of allies, and no one was coming to help.

The bits and pieces of him that made up the solider half of his brain understood the reasoning behind it. Whether or not Earth was able to send a science expedition back to Pegasus was hardly a life or death situation in the eyes of their Milky Way allies and John Sheppard was merely one man in a galaxy of trillions to them. New threats emerged then receded all the time and Earth and her allies were always stretched thin, but that human part of Evan Lorne - that part that raged for what was happening to his friend - just couldn't understand why they all wouldn't just drop what they were doing to come and help.

It's what he would have done. Protecting Sheppard, it was just something they all did. It was this deep seeded loyalty born from the mistakes of the past, but Lorne figured it went back even further than that. John Sheppard was the kind of man, the kind of friend, that you held on to. He was the soldier who would cross enemy lines to bring you home safely. The brother who threw himself over your back to protect you from the worst of the blast. He was the kind of CO you'd follow anywhere... and now he was going to die.

Lorne felt his hands yearning to contract into angry fists but a soft touch on his forearm stopped the tension before it could go any further. Dr. Zelenka, eyes soft and just beginning to yellow with age, gripped his arm with a surprising strength and Lorne looked back and forth between the hand on his arm and those eyes.

Radek was telling him it wasn't his fault and for a moment, Evan Lorne wanted to believe it. He wanted to convince himself that leaving Sheppard alone in that hospital after the crash was not the cause of all this. He wanted to believe that those few seconds of delay before this team had reached the cottage hadn't cost John his life. He wanted to believe all of it, but in the end he just couldn't do it, and while the anger deflated from him just as suddenly as it had come, the sadness did not go with it.

He smiled weakly at Zelenka and the ageing scientist patted his arm before turning to address the platform.

"That's it for tonight, I think. Why don't you all go back to your quarters."

If people spoke as they packed up and moved off, Lorne didn't hear them. He stood facing the powered down monitor, arms wrapped around his middle as if they would keep him from rattling apart somehow. Part of him wanted to turn around and ask the departing scientists to please keep the news they'd heard to themselves, but he knew it would be useless. The Atlantis rumor mill was a force in and of itself and Lorne had no doubt that, come sunrise, the whole facility would know that their last ditch efforts at finding someone to save Sheppard's life had failed. It would happen even if he threatened every man and woman in that room with Court Marshal. So he ignored them all and let them go until it was just him and Radek left in the Gateroom.

"I know what it is your are thinking," the scientist started out carefully and Lorne nearly laughed.

"I doubt it."

He wasn't normally short with Dr. Zelenka. The man had long ago earned his respect and friendship, but the shock of the Tok'ra's refusal to help and knowing it had been his last line of defense, had Evan feeling raw and exposed. It was a feeling he'd never done well with, those around him bearing the brunt of that inability to cope. It had destroyed countless relationships and even a long ago marriage, but it was a part of him and one he felt like embracing at the moment.

"You heard the message," Radek continued, unfazed by the curtness of his reply. "No one is close enough to get here in time. You can hardly take the blame for that, Colonel."

But he could, and he would.

He was the one Landry had tasked with finding an off world ally who could possibly save Sheppard. It was his own empty promises that had kept Rodney away and in the infirmary close to John. Lorne had been given this one mission to complete, and he'd failed at it so spectacularly that it would cost one man his life.

And that realization was threatening to tear him apart.

He'd even gone so far as to try and tap Dr. Daniel Jackson, but even he was off on some off-world, clandestine mission for the SGC with his partner, Vala, and couldn't be reached. It was as if fate was thwarting his every attempt at saving his friend, and it didn't stop with the Tok'ra's latest transmission. Things had been going wrong from the start. Sabotage, murder, cyanide poisoning. Hell, even the Daedalus being sent out to scout Pegasus ahead of the expedition had backfired. Oh what Lorne would have given to have that ship around when Sean Fitzpatrick had taken everyone hostage. If it all had happened just a week sooner, then that psychopath would be in custody, Richard Woolsey's brains wouldn't be splattered all over a dilapidated cabin at the edge of the base and John Sheppard wouldn't be fighting for his life down in the Atlantis infirmary.

"Colonel," Zelenka said softly, the hand returning to his arm. "Evan, this is not your fault."

He could argue. Part of him wanted to, but he gave the scientist what he wanted and forced out a terse nod and a strained smile. Zelenka looked anything but convinced, yet let go of Evan's arm to reach for his cane propped up against one edge of the console. He stood up easily and Evan wondered for a moment why he bothered with the cane at all. Zelenka had recovered so well from the loss of the limb that sometimes Lorne forgot that the leg beneath the scientist's trousers was a prosthetic at all. But it was the short, truncated steps that looked almost painful that he took next which reminded Lorne of what that man had lost. Atlantis was a beautiful city, but she demanded payment from time to time. They'd all give it to her in kind, but some had been forced to give more than others.

Sheppard would pay the ultimate price, but sometimes it was the survivors who suffered the most.

"We all knew what we were signing up for here, Lorne," Zelenka spoke again in his slightly accented english, and Evan realized he'd just been caught staring at the doctor's leg.

Zelenka raised his cane and tapped it lightly against the artificial appendage. The sound it made was hollow.

"I was angry about this for a long time," the scientist began, glancing down forlornly at his leg. "I wallowed and wondered 'why me?', but then I had an epiphany of sorts one day, and I never worried about it again. It occurred to me that there was not a single day on Atlantis I would trade for even the slightest chance at getting this back." He tapped the leg again then looked over at Lorne, refusing to speak until Evan raised his eyes to meet the scientists'.

"This city is a choice, Colonel Lorne, and one we all make. We knew it would be dangerous - risky even - but we did it anyways, because the rewards were always going to outnumber the risks. General Sheppard understood that, and, somewhere in that messed up head of yours right now, you know it too.

The key, Even Lorne, is to get yourself out from under the things you can't control, and embrace the things you can."

"And what's that?" He asked, unsure of what to make of the impromptu lecture he'd just been given. "What do I possibly have control over now?"

Zelenka smiled. "You are a good man, Colonel Lorne. You have compassion and strength, and there is an infirmary full of people right now barely holding on. Perhaps your efforts would be better spent on them, then wallowing up here alone."

Without further comment, Lorne watched Zelenka disappear down a ramp that had been installed in the Gateroom to help some of Atlantis' less mobile staff members get around and tried to decide how to feel about what had just happened.

Atlantis was a choice, and one he'd made knowing it would never be a cakewalk. Hell, in the beginning there had been a very real chance that they would never even see Earth again, and he'd gone anyway. But that was also back before he had an entire Expedition to worry about. It was back before betrayal and before over half the earth's population had been decimated. They had been both more complicated times and less complicated times and Lorne couldn't help feeling like he'd just managed to exchange one set of problems for another.

Maybe he just needed a rest. For years it had been "just until after the next Armageddon" and now here he was, pushing 50, and still leading men into battle, feeling no more equipped than he had 20 years ago.

Sighing slightly, Lorne looked down at his hands and tried to decide what to do next. Zelenka had given him one option. He needed to go to the infirmary anyway and give Rodney and Carson news that their last attempt at getting someone in to help John had failed. But when it came right down to it, he just couldn't make his boots go in that direction. What he really wanted to do was loose himself in mindless paperwork for a few hours just to see if it would be enough to make him forget what was really going on, if only for a moment. He even glanced over to Weir's old office where he'd taken up temporary residency, but found he couldn't go that way either.

When he'd taken over that empty space a few months ago, it had been just that: an empty space. Now being in there felt like a betrayal of some kind and he couldn't bring himself to go back in there now. So he stood in the silence of the Gateroom for a while, lost in a teeter-tottering world of limbo.

Night had fallen over the San Francisco bay. Even though every light in Atlantis burned with the awesome power of three fully charged ZPMs at her core, San Francisco slept on, ignorant of the massive ship that was resting in the waters of her bay.

The funny thing was, Atlantis would go on running, too - even if John Sheppard passed - and that thought hit Evan Lorne hard.

Dying was a part of life. As a solider he'd seen his fair share of death, but there was something different when it came to someone close to you. He'd attended funerals before, handed flags to grieving widows, and he'd always felt like he understood the pain they were going through. But he had no clue, not really. His first taste of that true grief had been the day he'd lost his parents and now that feeling was gaining momentum inside of him again. It was colossal and he remembered why he'd found it so fitting that some cultures stopped all the clocks in a home shortly after somebody died. The idea that time could go on after such a devastating loss was unfathomable. Everything should come crashing to a complete standstill. The universe should stop and acknowledge that it had lost a very important and vital thing... but it never happened that way, did it? They could try and preserve the illusion, and sometimes it worked - but in the end that's all it really was: an illusion.

Atlantis would go on running.

The SGC would continue its search for a new ATA gene candidate.

And Evan Lorne would keep on working until the day it killed him, too.

Knowing what he needed to do next, Lorne made his weary way down the main staircase and paused just as he reached the bottom. Something - a twinge near the center of his gut maybe - made him look up, and for one brief moment he thought he could make out the blurred silhouette of John Sheppard, standing before an activated Stargate and bathed in the blue hue of an event horizon.

The apparition was dressed from head to toe in battle gear, P90 grasped firmly in its hands and tucked securely against one side. Without sound the vision turned, smiling at Lorne with one of those cocky half-grins and a slight inclination of the head as if offering Lorne the chance to come with him. It was a moment they'd lived through countless times before and one that should have been lived through countless times after, but one that was never to be lived through again. Lorne suddenly wanted to reach out and stop his friend, yell at John not to go, but the vision disintegrated quickly and he was left standing alone at the base of the Gateroom stairs, wondering if he'd seen the thing at all. Atlantis had shown him some incredible things over the years. It was possible what he'd just witnessed had been some projection conjured up by the grieving city, and he tried to decide what it meant. The things he came up with... they were too hard to examine, so he pushed them back down and headed out the door, not even allowing himself a glance backwards to see if the apparition had reappeared.

He made his way back to the Atlantis infirmary slowly and tried to ignore the grief that clutched at him with no mercy.


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