Title: “Unshackled” (Challenge 13)
Warnings: This does have dark suggestive tones that some might find disturbing.
Summary: John struggles to find the answers. Rodney only wants to forget.
Notes: Written for: Artword Challenge 013: Dual
Major thanks to wildcat88
for an amazing and swift beta.
The wooden chair back is all hard edges, demanding, forcing his spine at attention. John's body does what it always has - slouches in an easy curve, going against the grain. The moment his back relaxes casually, he snaps it straighter. He grips the armrests, focusing restless energy into white knuckles. The second his bony wrists press into the oak support, he jerks his hands up.
“Would you like to sit in another chair, Colonel?”
John stops squirming. “No, this is fine.” He interlaces his fingers, laying them in his lap to prove it.
The psychiatrist rests his elbows on the large oak table. “I don't want you to be uncomfortable.”
It's hard not to smile at the absurdity of such a statement. John thinks the lights are too dim; they should be harsher. He's used to squinting, and his eyes don't know what to do.
“Dr. Keller says you're doing better. I'm glad we've found the right combination of sedatives to help you sleep.”
That would be nice; the last few nights someone's woken him up with their screaming. John nods then remembers he's supposed to always answer out loud. “Yes, sir.”
A strange sadness flickers across the psychiatrist's eyes before disappearing behind his glasses. “And are you feeling better?”
John fidgets—no, no slouching. And he goes ramrod straight, his heart sawing through his breast bone. “I... I... don't understand?”
The psychiatrist gives him a wan smile. “How do you feel today?”
“Fine. I feel fine.” But the answer seems all wrong. John adjusts his hips, fingernails digging into his palm.
“Do you remember how long you've been gone?”
John blinks. Laughs. Clenches his jaw. “I've been missing.” He phrases it like a statement even though he stills needs an answer.
Gone. Lost. Then gone again. Hidden away deep inside somewhere dark, unable to crawl out. He remembers looking at a mirror, wondering who the stranger was in the sleek polished surface. He stares at his hands, tiny scars crisscrossing his knuckles.
“I broke it.”
“My reflection,” John says, remembering the blood on the inside of his palms, droplets dripping down his arms, staining the fine hairs there.
The psychiatrist stares at his notepad. “Do you have any idea---”
John jerks his head up. “How long was I...”
“Two and a half months.”
Ten whole weeks. Most of the summer. “Why don't I remember?”
“Dr. Keller and I think it's the result of what you went through.”
“But I... I recall things... flashes,” John says, shaking his head. Fractured memories, like shards of glass scattered all over the floor.
John can't describe or articulate the feeling of having watched his reflection smile coldly back at him. The way his blood had boiled under skin that became a layer of ice and frost.
He reaches out to scratch at the back of his neck and freezes then he cautiously brushes over the skin. John shivers; his throat constricts; every pulse point beneath his fingertips quickens. There's heat, blue and bright. His back fuses with the chair; his breath doesn't pass through the suddenly swollen confines of his trachea.
“No!” John yells, yanking at his shirt collar. He rakes his nails down the sides of his neck, clawing across his collarbone. “Where is it?”
“Not again!” Because it
had been there.
The room gets very crowded suddenly.
“This is over,” Keller shouts.
“John, please calm down,” Teyla soothes.
Someone pulls his hands away - Ronon easily overpowering him. John's wrists are held tautly away from his throat. His eyes go flat and black. “Let. Go.” He growls low, chords tightening.
Ronon releases his grip, stepping back – suddenly giving space where there was none.
“We were making progress,” the psychiatrist says, standing. 'We are making progress,' the voice had said over and over again.
John's eyes dart to every face, checking, rechecking. “Where's McKay?”
He remembers the gun as an extension of his hand. He had felt nothing. No rush, no adrenaline, no hesitation. “What happened? What's going on?”
“We're trying to find out. We only have parts of the puzzle,” the psychiatrist says, voice smooth. Demeanor relaxed.
John searches his teammates for explanations. “Is Rodney alright?”
“He is... fine
.” Teyla's response is too forced and elusive.
“He's alive, Sheppard.” Ronon is direct but misleading.
John swallows, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down. He traces the muscles down to the imperfections around his neck, past tiny scarred punctures, towards the faint marks creating a perfect circular pattern.
“Maybe you should sit back down,” the psychiatrist suggests.
John doesn't know the shrink's name, even though this is the third time they've met. He doesn't really give a damn. “I... I remember the collar.”
Not only the collar but the wooden chair, the restraints, the one-thousand watt bright spotlight shoved in his face. But not the seventy-one days held captive or what happened in between.
The room has a soft leather sofa and natural light from three large windows. A few potted plants in the corner add to the softer atmosphere. John stands awkwardly, unsure how to act in a place so informal. It's all open space, no long table separating doctor from patient.
“Please, take a seat, Colonel Sheppard.”
John sinks into the couch; the psychiatrist is perched on the edge of a green futon, one leg crossed casually over the other.
“Thought you might like a more laid back setting,” Dr. Graham says. John's pleased he knows the shrink's name this time. “I want to remind you that this isn't a real session.”
John’s eyes dart to the opposite wall, wondering which picture conceals the two-way glass. “This is to help me remember what happened.” The rest of his team is nearby in case they're needed.
“Because you have damage to your short term memory, and this helps you focus.”
He scans the bookshelves, artwork - mind wandering. He had known his teammates were out there, somewhere, searching back then too. It was one of the things that helped him fight, kept him going.
At least for the first few weeks.
“We talked yesterday about the collar. Do you remember?”
“Yes.” John drops the 'sir'.
“Could you tell me more about it?”
It had been all steel, clamped way too tightly, nodules burrowed into nerve centers.
“Why? It wasn't a fashion statement.”
“What was it used for?”
John thinks in human terms. He recalls walking home as a child and seeing a dog in a random neighbor's yard, chained to a tree, his matted fur unkempt and left ear torn. The creature cringed and whimpered when John got too close. Beaten and broken.
“To inflict pain,” he says in a monotone. This is Pegasus not Earth after all.
“Do you know why it was used?” the psychiatrist asks.
To split him apart piece by piece. John examines his hands again, turning them over, the long sleeves of his shirt slipping up to reveal more bare skin.
Keller won't let him wear T-shirts; she told him the reason, but he forgot the answer.
The shrink--what's his name--speaks to him, but he doesn't hear the words. There's a pink scar that runs under the tender flesh of his forearm from below the wrist to his elbow.
“How did I get home?” John asks.
“You were rescued.”
He doesn't think so, not in time.
His skin feels like a stranger's, wrapped around old bones and held together by exhaustion. John wants to tell the doc the drugs aren't strong enough to knock him out when it's time to sleep. The screaming had been worse last night; the guy next to him kept John up for hours. Maybe part of him is still lost in that room because he's never wanted to be doped to the gills so he could float away.
“Do you remember the person who imprisoned you?” the psychiatrist asks.
Over seventeen hundred hours with his captor and John still doesn't have a face memorized to hate. “He smelled like a hospital.”
“Was he a doctor?”
Fire licks and burns a jagged line down John's skin, flaying open the flesh. “He stitched it back up.”
“The cut on your arm?”
“Said it would be a reminder.”
“Of what I'd become.”
“Torture is a common practice use to manipulate people.”
“Is that what happened to me?” Because John can deal being hurt for information; that would be acceptable. “Did I crack?”
The psychiatrist doesn't answer.
“Did I give away vital intel?”
John's shoulders sag, but the shrink is holding something back. “What else?”
“Colonel Sheppard, do you know what the collar did to you?”
John thinks of what it did to the dog he wasn't supposed to pet. One day he saw it still tied down in the exact same spot in the yard. The poor thing was thinner, the coat mangier. The dog didn't yelp or back away in fear when he tried enticing it with leftovers from dinner. The animal never sniffed or lifted its head.
It didn't react at all.
He still has headaches, full blown migraines. They'd been worse in the room with the light that burned holes in his retinas. His ankles and wrists bound to the chair for days. The metal vice around his neck, microscopic leads sending neural impulses into his brain.
His temples are throbbing, and he rubs his left one to ease the building tension. “The guy... the one who always stood behind my chair. I never saw his face; he stayed in the shadows. They all did.”
“To keep you on edge,” the psychiatrist responds.
“He'd place a hand on my shoulder and leave it there.” John's breathing heavily, still feeling phantom fingers that were neither hard nor soft. Just a constant presence, never moving, and always just there
The shrink's pen scribbles furiously.
“The guy... he made a point of letting me see the syringe before inserting it into the collar. He'd say the same thing over and over again.” Both of John's wrists flinch, resisting bonds that are no longer there.
“What did he say?”
John's body is rigid, shoulders popping, left eye twitching. “He spoke in this whisper. The kind that's hard to ignore.”
“It's a technique to force your ears to strain for the sound involuntarily. Do you remember what he would repeat?”
The pain in his temple flares, and John shakes his head. He tries to answer the questions—they're there, trapped inside his mind. Every time he searches for an answer, a large black wall slams down, creating a void.
John crams his eyes closed, searching for that mono-voice, and all he hears are cries of horror.
“Are you remembering something?”
Smoke. And explosions.
John opens his eyes, staring at his arm again. The skin along his wound is puckered, like the marks of a sewing machine. “It didn't hurt,” John recalls.
“No, the cut. The knife had a six inch blade. I could have used it to stab him
. But I didn't.” He laughs. “Never occurred to me when he placed in my hand.”
Dr. Graham sits up, bends forward. “What were you thinking when you were given the knife?”
John rubs at the scar across his arm; if he presses hard enough, the injured nerves ache. “I wasn't.”
“You weren't what?”
“You didn't know what to do with the knife?”
John remembers the sharp blade in his hand; it was light, perfectly balanced. “I knew where to cut, how to avoid any major arteries.”
“You injured yourself with the knife instead of using it on your captor?” Dr. What's His Name asks.
John swallows. “Yeah, I didn't feel a thing.” There'd been a lot of blood, spilling all over the floor, the bright spotlight reflecting in the glistening crimson.
“Why did you hurt yourself, Colonel?”
“Because he'd told me to,” John answers, eyes wide in horror.
His mind catches up to his words in shock.
He glares at the scar, the tendons underneath bunching from the clenching and unclenching of his fist.
The psychiatrist stands. “Colonel, it's okay.”
John's whole body simmers to a boil, muscles quivering in a slow-burning rage. He looks up at the other man, barely able to grit out anything between his gnashed teeth. “O-kay?” This revelation is not okay—in fact it’s as far from freaking okay as it can get.
“This is a breakthrough, Colonel. Allow yourself to adjust to this new fact.”
?” John's dizzy in outrage and shame. He recalls the copper smell of his own blood, the stickiness all over his BDUs.
His stomach revolts, the scent memory causing him to empty his last meal in one of the potted plants. The dry heaving comes next, and he chooses to stay on the floor.
A hand ghosts over his shoulder, and John comes up swinging. He connects with the doc's jaw, sending him flying. “Don't touch me!”
His world buzzes with the sounds of a jumper. Heavy weapon's fire all around. And screaming, so much screaming.
Dr. Graham is yelling at the empty room that everything's alright. For everyone to stay put. He's testing his jaw, grimacing, one hand slipping his glasses back on. “I think you loosened two crowns.”
The tone is casual, very much in the 'this is my fault' vein. It keeps John from coming completely unhinged. “I could have... could have escaped.”
“No, I don't think you could have, Colonel.”
“I had a weapon!” John yells, standing.
“And he had a more powerful one.”
John clamps his neck, fingering the vertebrae there, pulling out little tufts of hair at the nape. “What was done to me?”
“Please, sit back down. We'll discuss it.”
“I don't wanna discuss it!” John growls, pacing back and forth. He wants to fill in the missing blanks. Remember the seventy-one days where he sliced into his own body instead of driving the blade into his enemy's heart. “If... if... I did... did that. What else... I mean... what could I....”
The other day. What had Ronon said? “He's alive
The shrink doesn't answer.
John shudders and tries to guess where the two-way mirror is hidden in the room, wondering if his reflection is staring back at him with that same manic grin.
“What did I do?” he asks, feeling a sickness overwhelm him.
“Maybe we should wait until....”
“What. Did. I. Do!”
“Do you remember going to P3X-263?”
“No,” John says, dumbfounded. He's lost count of how many times he's been caught off guard lately. “I went off-world? When?”
“During your captivity.”
He'd been released from one leash but not the true one. “Why isn't McKay here?” John's chest tightens. He stalks over, feeling himself unravel. “Did I... did I hurt him?”
“No, Colonel Sheppard. You did not injure Dr. McKay.”
The air whooshes from his lungs; both legs buckle, dropping him to his knees. A great weight lifts from his shoulders, but his heart squeezes harder. It's still bad--he knows it. “I punched out the mirror afterwards,” John whispers. “To see if I could still feel.”
“No.” Anything at all. The answer is there, behind the black wall, whispering the truth in his dreams. Until he wakes up screaming in the night. “What-” John's breath hitches. “What happened on P3X-263?”
Rodney's heels bounce up and down, toes vibrating, legs joining in the repetitive motion. Both palms sweat, left finger tapping a rapid staccato beat on his snapping knee. This whole thing is pointless; it's not going to unwind the clock, erase events from the timeline or magically make everything hunky dory again. If a pill existed to wipe away all of last week - the last two months - from his mind, he'd gladly swallow those instead of refusing the ones that everyone wants to force down his throat.
Sleep's overrated, and yes, he is normally this irritable. And no, he hasn't had a nervous breakdown. One has to be whole first to crack in some way.
“I would like to discuss the weeks leading up to the rescue mission,” Dr. Graham says.
“That's nice. I'm glad I'm here to please you,” Rodney barks.
Stupid quacks. Stupid questions. Since when did talking ever do anything useful? Like pull anyone out of the fire or crunch the equations required to pull off a scientific miracle?
Could talking repair what's been torn apart?
“When you work closely with someone for a number of years, under constant threat, and stress... the bond between teammates can be almost as strong as a familial one.”
“Save the lecture for someone who cares.”
“But you do care, Dr. McKay. Or we wouldn't be having this conversation.”
“Life would be easier if I didn't. Less messy. Doesn't cause you to -”
To temporarily lose your mind.
Maybe if he had an off switch so he could shut down, become a robot and... Rodney's heart ratchets to triple digits, bile burning up his esophagus. Wishing for such a thing is--well it's--it's hypocritical.
That blank expression will be forever ingrained in his memory. Forget the lack of recognition - forget dead, lifeless eyes, rather than tense vibrant green.
He doesn't want to think about it anymore. His Ambien-induced nightmares of those last three seconds are guaranteed to repeat over and over again. Over what he could have and couldn't have changed. “Can I go now?”
“You're on medical leave; there's no work to go and get lost in.”
“I have plenty to catch up on in my quarters.”
“Because you have another ulcer. Dr. Keller found a new one this morning.”
So what if he's being eaten alive inside—acid devouring his stomach little by little? “I had a lot on my mind,” Rodney snips.
Still does. No past tense about it. His hands still shake out of the blue, making handling anything vitally important pointless. Him useless.
All because of three lousy seconds. On top of those last two agonizing months.
“Yes, you devoted a lot of time searching for Colonel Sheppard.”
All of June, July, and half of August, buried behind computers, going off-world at every lead. Rodney wipes the perspiration from his brow, ridding it down BDUs that are looser and baggier than a few months ago, fingers playing with the hem of a shirt a couple sizes too large.
“Searching half the galaxy takes time; there's a lot of paperwork to catch up on. Labs to reorganize, screw-ups to fix.”
“You haven't visited Colonel Sheppard since the rescue. Seems odd considering what you went through to find him.”
“You do understand the trauma that he underwent. I think seeing you might help reconstruct the gaps in his short term memory and--”
Rodney is up, across the room, and out the door before the idiot finishes his sentence.
There is no way in hell he's going to take part in something that will---no. God, no. He won't take part in torturing him again—in tearing apart the tattered remains of Sheppard's soul.
It's bad enough Rodney remembers the exact moment he lost his.
Three seconds that he can't take back---and knowing deep down inside he'd do again.
The halls whisper about meltdowns, screw-ups, marbles spilling out his head. If he wants to hole up in his quarters, that's his business. Maybe he prefers being by himself. Ronon and Teyla stop by with food, conversations that he won't listen to. They badger him with the same list of items the head voodoo witchdoctor does.
He doesn't want to discuss it – any of it! Why can't people get that through their thick skulls?
This time both arms and legs are crossed, and he won't reply to any questions. Childish, maybe, but so is laying psychobabble crap on him. Hello, two PhDs in real, provable science.
Dr. Graham decides after half an hour to pull out the big guns and opens a box, revealing something that makes Rodney's hands pull their Parkinson's impersonation.
“What are you doing with that!” he snarls, face twisted in rage.
“I was hoping you could explain in more detail how this worked. You're the foremost expert on alien technology, and I thought it would aid in my sessions with Colonel Sheppard.”
Rodney's flushed with outrage, wanting to jerk the collar away and smash it with the heel of his boot. “I knew shrinks were bottom feeders, but you've stooped to a new low. Congratulations, lawyers and used car salesmen have a new idol to worship.”
His words are daggers, but the steel contraption is whole drawer of knifes in his gut.
“We only have your report to go by concerning the device. And Colonel Sheppard's short-term memories have been repressed due to the trauma caused by this.”
“Why don't you put it on and see what happens if you'd like more insight,” Rodney taunts, hands shoved under his armpits to conceal them.
He stares at the steel menace, the inner surface constructed with sensors and wires too small to see. Rodney imagines John's throat muscles bulging underneath it, how the cold metal dug and restricted air as he fought its control all alone for days on end... waiting... waiting for help that never came.
But somewhere in those ten weeks John Sheppard had been reduced to an animal—stripped of dignity and freedom of thought.
And it hadn't stopped there.
“The leads attach themselves to nerves in the column of the neck to stimulate pain,” Graham says in a detached clinical fashion. “It would also cause involuntarily muscle reactions like excessive saliva and twitching of the face.”
“Sheppard would have been lucky if all it did was turn him into some drooling pet,” Rodney growls.
That might have been preferable, a small mercy.
“No, it stripped away all trace of his humanity.”
Why had Rodney gone off by himself without telling the others? Roaming down the hall to that...to that room? To find a hard, desolated shell of a man sitting quietly in a chair, waiting on his master's next command.
Sheppard and his damn vacant eyes! That bastard with his cruel, satisfied ones. Knowing exactly who had the power. “I can tell him to open his mouth and eat his gun.
“Between a combination of pain, electrical pulses, and chemicals, the colonel's brain chemistry was altered. Neural pathways were modified, synapses manipulated. It took a bit of time of course to actually remove each type of emotion.”
Of course. Because the—who were they again? Which enemy of the week? The Nehplains? Neplions? Had plenty of time to screw with Sheppard's mind. Cut out his heart, stomp out his compassion. His loyalty, his entire being.
Replaced the 'leave no man behind' leader with a monster.
“According to Dr. Zelenka we think the colonel was deprived of his empathy first.”
“You can't just remove emotions with drugs,” Rodney grits out.
Maybe all those abandonment issues had finally caught up to Sheppard.
“Of course not. The collar is much more advanced than that. We're still studying it.”
“Sheppard's fine now. Or he will be,” Rodney says, locking eyes with the doctor. “He's not being manipulated anymore. He's not... not....”
Rodney's internal circuit breaker trips. “Don't say that! He was tortured! His mind was raped and purged week after week while the rest of us threw darts at gate addresses in our glorious plan to find him!”
“Just because he's military doesn't mean he's a born killer! He does what he has to save people. He just hides things well!” Spittle is flying; his eyes are ping-ponging, hand pointing and stabbing the air. “Do you think he wanted to become some glorified zombie! To have his emotions ripped out of him?”
“I didn't say--”
“No! But you thought it. Think it… Whatever you head shrinks do! I bet you can't wait to figure out how to use that collar. Turn people into killing machines. Have a whole army of terminators.”
“Dr. McKay, please calm down. We're only trying to understand how this device works in order to help Colonel Sheppard and deal with P3X-263.”
The blood pools had soaked the ground, the splintered remains of homes and obliterated buildings the only things left of the town. The stench of death filled the air, and the Marines dug mass graves for the bodies that hadn't burned in the fires.
Rodney knows all about P3X-263. “He's my puppet. He'll do whatever I say.”
“Of course the investigation into the incident will need to be concluded,” Graham reminds him.
Rodney burns holes through the quack's head.
Graham shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “The evidence is very strong that Colonel Sheppard was unaware of his actions on the planet.”
“Of course. Because Colonel Sheppard kills innocent civilians and blows up cities on a regular basis. No coercion at all.”
“And how do you feel about that?”
“Don't even go there,” Rodney seethes.“He's at my mercy, under my whim. He'll obey my every word.”
“The colonel was under an alien influence. Used to commit crimes against his will. You must come to terms with what happened.” Dr. Graham fiddles with the collar. “Don't give this device anymore power. You should discuss how that the revelation has affected you. How it's impacted your friendship with the colonel.”
“Dr. McKay. You're afraid of him now. It's okay to admit it.”
Rodney laughs, a gut busting rip-roaring sound. The witchdoctor's brow furrows; his eyebrows become a single row of hair. Dr. Graham has proven once again why the realm of psychotherapy hangs out with the land of unicorns and little fairies.
“I'm not afraid of Sheppard,” he snorts, eyes brimming with moisture from laughing—and something more.
“Then why don't you want to visit him?”
His moods switch at the speed of channel surfing. “I have my reasons.”
“No one likes the idea of losing control, Dr. McKay.”
No, they don't. Rodney balls up his fists; another bout of trembling hits, shaking him to his core.
It wasn't like he wanted to be the one to find Sheppard in that little room, face a chiseled mask of stone. The pilot's Beretta lying innocently in his lap. He wanted to think that Sheppard had nothing to do with the disaster on that planet despite reports to the contrary. But the man sat calmly, dried blood stains over his shirt, breathing evenly without a care in the world. The bastard standing over the colonel with his little remote control, hand casually resting on Sheppard's shoulder.
“We didn't know the guy's name,” Rodney's mumbles.
This piques some interest. Graham leans over. “Who's?”
“Dr. Mengele. We never got his name.”
“Is that important? Does it make it easier to know the name of the man who did all this?”
It does in some small way but for different reasons. “I know you're here to rescue him. But I can't let you take my perfect weapon away.”
“Dr. McKay, what are you thinking about right now?”
“That Sheppard doesn't need to regain his memories. Let them die away,” Rodney blurts.
“Would that make you sleep easier at night? To know he'd never find out the truth?”
Rodney buries his face in his hands. That won't work either. Help, but not fix things.“See, this little button. It controls my pet. All the drugs, all fifty wires and transmitters. A single press of it will release his memories.”
“Without the collar he's making progress. We were able to remove it safely; it's taken a week for the effects to wear off.” Graham shakes his head. “I just don't know if it’s a good idea to conceal what happened.”“He'll remember every death, every scream.”
A scary type of serene composure stops the trembling. Rodney's eyes go hooded; jaw muscles clench until they pop. His spine stiffens; biceps and shoulders coil like ropes.
Something clicks, snaps back in the complete opposite direction of what took place between him and Dr. Mengele... what happened back there... will stay there.
Graham squirms under Rodney's intensity... he senses it... feels the temperature drop in the room. “Um… Dr. McKay?”
Maybe it's the madness Rodney's been battling back, hiding under all the cracks and fissures. Washed away like the crimson all over his face, splatter in his hair. He steps forward, each step calculated, precise.
Ten weeks of failure.
“Is there something wrong?”
And it had been too late.
Sometimes, a man could be pushed so far, never knowing how close to the brink he'd been the whole time.“It'll break him. Knowing what happened...how that blood got on his hands... I'll win. And there's nothing you can do.” Mengele smiles.
It’s frightening how easy it is to slip into this mode – ice replacing the fire in his belly, detaching until the images in his head don't bother him so much.
Rodney peers over, voice sweet as honey. “Sheppard's not going to remember what he did. I made sure of it. I paid the piper. And some guy who sits in a chair all day asking moronic questions is not going to mess that up.”
No one had said a thing after the rescue, after he'd dragged a silent, apathetic colonel through the halls. Rodney did what he had to do.
Graham clears his throat. “Is there something you want to talk about?”
Rodney snaps the collar out of the psychiatrist's hands, the physician flinching. “Yeah, I'm destroying this thing so it’s never used again.”
Rodney doesn't wait and stalks out the door, no intention of returning for any more sessions.
He'll go see Sheppard. He's the only one who can truly understand what Rodney's going through. There will be no talking – not about what each of them has done.
One of them haunted by what he can't remember. One of them by what he can.